Last week, I traveled to New Orleans for the first time in my life. I had such a powerful experience that I wanted to share it with you all. Like the rest of the country, I watched in horror as the terrible power of Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the region, and as our federal government delivered a hopelessly inadequate response to the catastrophe. Even years later, I expected to face justified skepticism and even anger from the people of New Orleans as we traveled to the region on behalf of that same government.
But what a difference an administration makes.
Instead of skepticism, my colleagues and I were greeted with open arms as we staffed Secretary Donovan’s seventh trip to the city as HUD Secretary.
Instead of anger, we found gratitude and hope among those residents who—up until last week— had been displaced by the storm, but were finally able to move back into their homes and return to normalcy.
The reason for the change in attitude is simple: President Obama and Secretary Donovan are delivering on promises made to the region, and residents are starting to see the progress for themselves. Beautiful, mixed-income housing developments are being finished in traditional New Orleans style, but with a new, sustainable vision. As one of our tireless partners in the region, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu put it: “We’re not just building buildings, we’re building communities, we’re building soul.”
Last Friday, Leslie Johnson and her three sons were among the first families to become a part of such a community when they received the keys to their new home in the Fauburg Lafitte housing development. Ms. Johnson and her family lived in Lafitte before the storm but had been on the move after her home was destroyed, most recently living in a nearby housing project. Following their long-awaited return, Ms. Johnson told WDSU: “It felt like home. I was home again. I was so happy and excited, my children were ready to leave out the projects and into something new, so for them to be happy makes me happy.” In the coming months and years, we are committed to helping thousands more families experience what Leslie Johnson and her family felt on Friday.
Despite the encouraging progress, our team here at HUD is not taking anything for granted. In fact, the message Secretary Donovan wanted to convey to the people of New Orleans during this most recent trip was to thank them for their extraordinary patience while the Obama Administration and HUD work to right the wrongs that occurred in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy. There remains a long road ahead as we work to rebuild New Orleans stronger than it was before, and there will certainly be more setbacks and frustrations along the way.
Regardless, after experiencing the resilience, energy and hope of the people of New Orleans firsthand, I am certain that a stronger, more vibrant city will reemerge. In the words of President Obama: “New Orleans [is] a place that stands for what we can do in America—not just for what we can’t do. Ultimately, that must be the legacy of Katrina: not one of neglect, but of action; not one of indifference, but of empathy; not of abandonment, but of a community working together to meet shared challenges.”