Referring to New Orleans as anything like a “laboratory” during the first weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters receded would have been a bad move. As displaced residents trickled back into the city, they were first and foremost seeking help with piecing their old lives back together: How were they going to pay for a new roof? Where could they find their displaced aunts and nephews? How would they soothe their traumatized children back to sleep during rainstorms? Any conversation about “experimentation” wasn’t going to fly with already-rattled residents.
And yet, public hypothesizing about a “new” New Orleans began nearly immediately. James Reiss, an avatar of Uptown wealth and chairman of the Regional Transit Authority, helicoptered back into New Orleans after the floods to declare, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.”
If there was any ambiguity about what that meant, Louisiana state representative Richard Baker was more plainspoken: Katrina had “finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Baker was referring to the city’s shuttering of the “Big Four” federally subsidized housing complexes—even though most endured minimal flood damage. Meanwhile, most of the city’s schools were beyond ruin, leading economist Milton Friedman to call the disaster “an opportunity to radically reform the education system.”