OPINION | Houston's recovery likely less daunting than New Orleans' was
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Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast last Friday, devastating the Houston area with extraordinary flooding. Almost exactly 12 years ago (Aug. 29, 20005) Hurricane Katrina made landfall in and around New Orleans, and then proceeded to damage Mississippi and parts of Alabama severely.  

Unfortunately, after Katrina battered New Orleans, the levee system and floodwalls failed, causing flooding in more than 80 percent of the city. The first priority of everyone is to take care of the people directly affected by the hurricane and flooding. The second priority is to initiate the recovery. The damage and the suffering endured by the populations of Texas and Louisiana are the same; the recoveries may be different. 

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In 2005, New Orleans was a city with a population of just over 450,000 people with around 190,000 housing units, while Harris County, the county in which Houston is located, has just over 4.5 million people and around 1.8 million housing units.

 

New Orleans had major or severe damage to almost three-quarters of its housing, meaning people could not immediately return to their homes even if the water had receded. We are not sure exactly how many houses, both owner-occupied and rental, have been damaged in Houston, but it is clearly an overwhelming number.

In New Orleans after Katrina, the city was essentially closed down for almost six months. Public services, like schools, universities and medical care, were not available. Employers in the New Orleans area that were trying to get up and running had to find housing for their employees, but the families had to stay away because the schools and other public facilities were shut down.

Universities both private and public had to cancel the 2005 fall semester. The Louisiana Charity Hospital was flooded. All conventions scheduled in New Orleans for the fall of 2005 had to be canceled. New Orleans did not really begin its recovery until the fall of 2006, and it was announced by having the New Orleans Saints play in the Superdome on the night of Sep. 24, 2006.

But that was just the beginning of a long recovery period.   

In 2006, New Orleans’ population was less than 200,000, and even in 2017, its population has not surpassed 400,000. The city is today is not solely about Katrina, but it was in 2006, 2007 and 2008. People could not get back to their homes and communities.

Families have to take care of themselves first and foremost. Parents need jobs, children need schools and more-fragile members of the family need healthcare. New Orleans could not offer any of those at first. Once a family gets settled in another community, the family has to decide if they should leave the new job, the new schools or the new community. 

It appears that Houston’s recovery hopefully will not be delayed by such an overwhelming loss of public services and overall economic environment. This is a key to a quick recovery: Get the families back to their communities as quickly as possible. 

The major refineries and petrochemical facilities in the Houston-Beaumont area will resume operations just as quickly as they can fix any damage that was done to their plants and as soon as it is safe to do so. Port Houston will get back up and running as quickly as possible. These facilities are too important to the companies that own them to be idle for long. 

Schools will reopen as quickly as possible. The universities in the Houston area will have a 2017 fall semester. The healthcare community in Houston, which is quite substantial, will be back to a normal schedule fairly quickly, and the hopeful sign is that the major medical centers did not have to evacuate their patients. People will return to their homes if the homes have not been severely damaged and will resume their normal activities.

The small businesses that service local communities, ranging from restaurants to laundries to retail stores, will get back to business fairly swiftly. And, yes, in Houston it will be a big day when the Houston Texans can play a game in NRG Stadium.

The community will get back fairly quickly, but this is not the same as saying every family will recover as quickly.  Many families, due to the magnitude of their personal losses, will take much longer than the community as a whole.

James A. Richardson is John Rhea Alumni professor of economics and director of the Public Administration Institute in the E. J. Ourso College of Business Administration at Louisiana State University. As part of his research, Richardson studied Katrina’s effect on New Orleans.


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