In the wrinkled edifices of the French Quarter and the worn-out storefront walls along Canal Street, a legacy of decay in New Orleans intrudes on the mossy city. It is a sense of things that have nearly fallen apart and stayed nearly-fallen-apart for decades.
For much of the last 20 years, the city was wilting in plain sight. In the 1990s, a period during which the U.S. added 21 million jobs, New Orleans didn't just lose jobs; it also lost people. With tourism filling the void left by manufacturing, wages fell way behind the national average. It was a place to bring a bachelor party, but not a bachelor's degree, and certainly not a business.
And then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit.
Days later, 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater. More than 1,200 people were dead. In a year, the city lost more than 90,000 jobs -- more than the number employed by the local education, transportation, and manufacturing sectors, combined -- and $3 billion in wages disappeared. A city already in decline had suffered perhaps the worst natural disaster in American history.
There are three ways things could have gone.
In the first story, New Orleans slides into its own wet grave, another urban tragedy of geography and economics. In the second story, New Orleans rebuilds itself as it was before -- a sleepy southern belle of a town serving up wet weekends of intemperance. In the third story, Hurricane Katrina somehow kickstarts an age of innovation and an economic renaissance in a city written off for dead.