A Hurricane, an Oil Spill, and the Struggles of a Great American City

Jun 06, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf of Mexico and devastated the coast, particularly the city of New Orleans, there were many signs of hope for the colorful, lively city known as The Big Easy.

But that hope may have been washed away in a tide of oil. In the weeks since the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon, tens of millions of gallons of oil have contaminated the waters of the Gulf and the beaches and wetlands along the coast. This largest oil spill in American history is an environmental and economic catastrophe, and because of it, New Orleans' chances of recovery grow longer by the day.

The waters and wetlands being decimated by the oil spill are not only essential to a healthy environment; they're just as essential to a healthy economy. That is why, as the Obama administration plans a recovery strategy, it is absolutely necessary that investments be made to restore the coastal wetlands, which protect and provide for the New Orleans economy and, by extension, to our nation.

New Orleans' livelihood and economic survival are tied directly to the vitality of the water and the coastal area. The metro area's three largest economic drivers are tourism, oil and gas, and port and transportation, and the fishing industry, while smaller, is still crucial, especially in parishes outside the city.

These industries, employing tens of thousands of people, rely on a healthy coastal ecosystem, open and navigable waters, and a strong system of wetlands and barrier islands to protect them. The wetlands are a breeding ground for hundreds of aquatic species that bring critical environmental and economic value. These wetlands have been eroding at an alarming rate for many years, and the oil spill may do them irreparable harm.

Fisheries--This industry may be the most obvious victim of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. There are approximately 4,800 registered commercial licenses for small, independent, and self-employed businesses in the greater New Orleans metro area. The people who work in these businesses fish for crabs, oysters, shrimp, and flounder, and they produces between 20 and 25 percent of all seafood for the lower 48 states. Because of contamination from the oil spill, there is an indefinite ban on fishing for nearly 40 percent of federal Gulf waters. Meanwhile, we are still trying to assess the biological impact of the oil-slicked wetlands.

This, of course, means lost jobs and income for fisheries, seafood processors, and manufacturers. They worry that health and safety concerns about seafood from the region will result in a severe drop in demand. People wonder whether the seafood industry, already struggling with global competition, will be able to recover, especially if it takes generations for the sea life to return to normal.

Tourism--The famous spirit of New Orleans, popularly expressed by the joyous cry of laissez les bons temps rouler , infuses a culture of arts, food, music, and festivals, that make the city unique and draw domestic and international visitors year-round. This is the metro area's largest economic sector. Specific data are currently difficult to acquire, but there is no shortage of stories about the impact of closed beaches, canceled hotel reservations, and abandoned vacations. There may be some support coming as workers arrive to help deal with the spill, but it is unlikely the crowds will be as large.

Oil and gas/shipping--These industries, the second and third largest sectors of New Orleans' economy, generate some of the highest-wage jobs in the community. The region produces 30 percent of all of America's crude oil and 12 percent of all its natural gas. The port is still one of the busiest in the country.

The Obama administration has asserted that drilling will be part of the U.S. energy portfolio in the short-term, the future remains in limbo as a moratorium on new leases and likely new regulations on the industry are put into place. The Port of New Orleans remains open, but we don't know whether freight and cruise ships will continue to arrive and depart as before as the clean-up and mitigation proceed.

We have worked with the people of New Orleans as they have rebuilt their city. There are promising efforts to reform the public school system, improve health care to the most needy, and clean up a the criminal justice system. All this effort seemed to be rewarded this past January, when the Saints won the Super Bowl.

Now, as oil chokes the Gulf waters and the vulnerable coastal areas, people wonder if all that hard work will count for nothing. That's why we must not forget that environmental recovery and economic recovery are one in the same in New Orleans.

Amy Liu is the Deputy Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. Allison Plyer is the Deputy Director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.