As many of you may or may not know, my business was and still is based in New Orleans. Those of you who know me also know that I am extremely proud to call this place my home. I was far away from the city when Hurricane Katrina hit, but its impact has and will continue to affect both me and the city I call home. Being an optimist I feel confident that many of the changes the hurricane’s aftermath will bring will be good ones. Being a realist I also feel pretty sure that some of these changes will be bad ones.
The most frustrating part of it is that we New Orleaneans are currently sitting in limbo, waiting for an understanding of the good stuff and the bad stuff to play out. Don’t worry though, we locals tend to be a pretty patient lot, and we can usually manage to entertain ourselves no matter what the situation. The first piece of good news is that I have found that I am certainly not alone in my diehard affection for my city. There are many others like me who have chosen to put up with what seems like an endless slate of challenges just to have the pride that goes along with saying “I’m from New Orleans.”
We die-hards are viewing this tragedy as an opportunity to undo some of the things that had been holding us back for years. Many of us are here working hard to make sure we have a voice in the rebuilding that will unfold over the next several years. Speaking for all of us, I feel that we are all looking to take things to the next level by doing what it takes to make sure that this city goes beyond just a great place to visit, and instead offers families and individuals of all shapes, colors, and sizes both economic and spiritual opportunities. To this end, I have been staying as active as I can in trying to gather real information about the events that have and are occurring here, and I feel at least minimally qualified to paint a pretty good picture of the current reality here on the streets of New Orleans.
While this reality has many different facets to it, the ERE community is about jobs and work — so I want to take some time to share my thoughts on these issues, as opposed to the 8 million other issues that we are dealing with here. In preparing to write this article, the more I stopped to think about the role of work in shaping the future of our city, the more I realized that it is the single most important factor in both our recovery and our eventual rebirth. This is unfortunate because we are currently living a very difficult catch-22 type situation down here when it comes to our workforce and jobs. Let me provide some background information that will help provide an understanding of the nature of this difficult situation:
In terms of long-haul economic prosperity, the above factors combine to create a potentially lethal cocktail. For instance, the current mixture of the above factors has created an odd situation in which we have 21 times the regular unemployment rate but there are help wanted signs everywhere. This may not seem to speak of a situation in which much can actually be accomplished. However, I don’t take such a doom and gloom perspective because I view this as a time for all of us to practice patience, perseverance, and activism. It also takes an understanding of where we are in the lifecycle of rebuilding.
Unfortunately, for most of us here, we are at the bottom of our own personal (and collective) mountains, many of which are composed of rotting trash. We are currently at the very start of a phase that requires cleaning and rebuilding. Being a psychologist by trade, I can’t help but make the analogy that we are currently living somewhere towards the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. That is to say we are working hard to remove acre upon acre of rotting trash and toxic debris while rebuilding the infrastructure that our city needs to offer even the most basic of services. Much of the inhabitable area within and around the city still does not have power. In terms of jobs and the world of work, our current state is one in which we need hands, and lots of them. The majority of the work and related jobs available here now fall into two categories, neither of which are glamorous, but both of which are essential. The first of these is trade workers. The city is now riding on the backs of demolition and construction crews who have come mostly from out of state to help us rebuild.
Many of us locals have been adamant about making sure that these hands come from within our area. However, the sad reality is that, even with political backing for this sentiment, there simply aren’t enough locals here to get the job done (see reasons 1-4 above). Hopefully this will slowly change as more persons come back. The second need for work is in the service industry. All of the folks on the ground here need to eat, drink, and be merry. Less than half of the restaurants and bars in the city are currently open, and every last one of them has a “help wanted” sign on it. Most of those serving the public are relatively new at it, as the wages are much higher than usual due to the immutable laws of supply and demand. I know several proprietors who simply cannot open their doors because they don’t have anyone to staff their establishments.
While our current problems in the above areas of work are challenging, I believe they will correct themselves as time slowly marches forward. As more of the city comes back online and the word of good paying work in a wonderful city continues to spread, more locals will return and we will probably even gain some new locals who have decided to call this place their new home. Once we are stabilized our primary industry, tourism will be the first industry to help get us back on our feet. Its no accident that the mayor had the French Quarter cleaned up first and that the powers that be here (whomever they are; I am still not sure myself) are working hard to make sure that our hotels and casinos have what they need to get back online. In my mind, the more critical issues in terms of our working population and the long haul is where the real uncertainty lies. Of course it is too early to tell until time and effort allow us to climb a few more rungs on Maslow’s ladder to self-actualization, but I feel that the writing is certainly on the wall, and it may not say what many of us would like it to. The good news is that we locals can have a strong hand in shaping what this writing will say. In doing so, I feel the real lynchpin for the future success of our city is the re-establishment and growth of three types of industries and their related products, services, and jobs. The first of these is heavy industry, manufacturing, and shipping. We actually have one of the busiest ports in America right here, three blocks from where I am currently sitting. A huge percentage of the goods that are imported from and exported to the Midwest enter through our doors. Coffee, iron, petroleum, and other things you use everyday enter the U.S. through our extensive port facilities. We do have some local industry as well as a NASA assembly facility and several large shipyards. The rebuilding of our city is going to require the facilitation of green field manufacturing sites and new industry that can take advantage of our port status. It is my hope that the local, state, and federal governments recognize this need and respond with the proper incentives. I do believe this will happen as time progresses. The second and perhaps most critical area of work that will be required to get us stabilized is the cultivation of a white collar professional community. In my opinion this is the area in which we have been hardest hit. Before the storm, we were really on the move in this area. I belong to several local organizations that were working hard to try and build an IT industry here. The University of New Orleans (most of which currently does not physically exist) had recently built a technology center which served to help incubate local technology businesses. As a result of this and other similar actions, we were on the verge of really building a solid base of small local businesses offering high quality professional services. For the most part our white collar base consisted of small companies founded by local people who hired local workers. These businesses include things such as media companies, law firms, ad agencies, IT companies, and consulting firms. The diaspora created by Katrina has effectively scattered these individuals all over the country. Many of them have found the hospitality extended to them in clean, safe, family-friendly places so good that they are choosing to stay put and start new lives. When the founder of a small company makes such a decision, it often forces all of the local people working for the company to make a choice between relocating or finding a new job. So, many of those who may want to move back here cannot because they have no jobs to go to. Again, I think this is a good news/bad news issue that requires a long-term perspective. Those of us who have returned to grind it out are finding this to be a land of new opportunity. If everyone is true to their word, local, state, and federal governments should be offering unprecedented incentives for those people interested in contributing to the new economic base of our city. The hard part of this is that even with these incentives, it is going to take time.
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Finally, many of you may not know it, but at the time of the storm New Orleans was well on its way to earning a new nickname: “Hollywood South.” Initially lured by huge tax incentives and non-union work conditions, the movie industry fell in love with our city, its hospitality, and unique charm. Down here we are about as un-Hollywood as it gets and that seemed to resonate well with an increasingly large number of production companies. My local friends who keep one foot in Hollywood and one here in New Orleans have all assured me that they want to return. We are eagerly awaiting their return as they bring money to spend and will undoubtedly represent one of the quickest short term economic solutions for us.
Even though I look at life through the lens of a hard-core optimist, I tend to cry daily as I try to look around me at my reality and to remember what my city used to be like. In these moments I try really hard to focus my thoughts on what we will need to ensure that we can come back and rebuild what we have lost. It’s hard for me to imagine, but I do know that, whatever our new reality will look like, it is going to be different. Thinking about how it will differ is very stressful to me because I recognize that we are in a very precarious place right now. The line between success and failure is thin, and ending up on the right side of it is going to require large numbers of jobs of all types. Obtaining these jobs is going to require, at a minimum, the following things all of which have a track record of horrible mismanagement and disgrace here in New Orleans:
- Education. The number one factor in bringing us back will be the ability for our city to offer a world-class education to anyone who wants it. Before the storm, our school system was a joke. It was as political as it can get down here, which translates into almost total greed and corruption. I literally cried the other day when my neighbor relayed to me that his grandson is in school in California now and actually wants to get out of bed to go learn. He is actually getting a real education, and it has changed him in just two months’ time. This kind of thing is something our local schools were unable to provide. No one, especially those who have tasted real education in other places as a result of this storm, is going to come back until we get this thing right.
- Social services. We are going to need good medical care and plenty of other services to our citizens. The old model of centralized medical services located in a decaying and under-funded public hospital simply won’t work here now. We need to focus on providing services at the community level as a central part of the rebuilding of the city. Offering these things will go a long way towards enticing those who have left to reform the many small communities that gave us our collective identity.
- Cooperation. I hate to say this, but I have first-hand knowledge that much of the death and suffering that occurred here could have been avoided. In the initial and critical moments after the storm, federal, state, and local agencies clashed with one another in a manner that yielded total paralysis and lack of action. We simply cannot make it in the long haul with this type of interaction. Everyone needs to check their egos at the door, and we need to make sure that grassroots activists here on the ground who want to help are supported on all levels and that our personal interests and the future of this city are put before the interests of big business. This will require a level of coordination that won’t be easy to obtain. Without it, though, we will find ourselves literally thrown to the wolves (or maybe the alligators in our case).
At the end of the day, this is a fascinating time in a fascinating place, and an opportunity that I would not miss for all the gumbo in the world. This is no place for the faint of heart right now, but for many of us with small businesses, there is no other choice but to keep our feet on the ground here and do all we can to help shape the future of our unique and wonderful city. It’s up to us to face the short and long term challenges head on with optimism and to believe in our own abilities to build something new that will demonstrate the strength of love, commitment, and resolve. I’m in, and I invite anyone else who wants to join me. One final note, I want to extend a sincere thanks to all the members of the ERE community who have provided positive thoughts, time, donations, and more to help us out. Right now we have no shame and need all the help we can possibly get.