It is often said that in the darkest of times heroes emerge. Through wars, economic downturns and natural disasters, Americans have learned this harsh lesson well. No city knows more about dark times and the heroes that are spawned than New Orleans. Every person who came home after the Hurricane Katrina diaspora and rolled up his or her sleeves and rebuilt this city is a hero. Every family member who cared for evacuees is a hero.
But it took the innovation and courage of some local residents to take charge of our citizen-led recovery. These New Orleanians are some of the heroes who saw a need and filled it with energy, vision, selflessness and unsinkable spirit. Today, New Orleans is more galvanized and nimble than ever in its history. If the adage “out of bad comes good” is correct, these are some of the extraordinary local heroes who represented all that was good in this city’s darkest moment.
Founder and Chair Emeritus, Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans
Ask anyone to describe Ruthie Frierson, and words such as “fearless, unselfish, focused” come to mind. So in the days after Katrina and the levee breaches, Frierson felt called to action. Then only three months after New Orleans flooded, the Louisiana State Legislature rejected a bill to consolidate and reform the inefficient Levee Boards in south Louisiana. “It made no sense. How could we get New Orleanians home if they didn’t feel safe?” she says. It then became clear: With laser focus Frierson assembled a coalition of concerned citizens to demand the state reform this broken system.
Frierson, a long-time community leader and businesswoman, harnessed the anger and frustration of the local community, and with the support of The Business Council of New Orleans assembled 120 women who formed Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, a grass roots, non-partisan, non-sectarian organization that now counts 20,000 supporters in the region. Within days of the group’s first meeting, Citizens for 1 created an interactive website to educate the public and elected officials about the need to create a unified levee authority comprised of experts who would operate professionally and transparently. Citizens’ petition demanding that Governor Kathleen Blanco call a special session of the state legislature with the focus on flood protection garnered 53,000 signatures. More than 1,200 men and women dressed in trademark red jackets rallied on opening day in front of the capital in support of levee board reform. The measure passed, and in September 2006, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment to reform the levee board system.
“It was democracy at its best,” says Frierson. “New Orleanians went from mourning the loss of our city to rage about what really happened to hope for the future and taking action. It worked.”
Armed with experience and support, Citizens for 1 immediately took on another deeply flawed system: Property tax collection and the seven separate assessor offices. Members of Citizens for 1 again spent weeks at the state capital working with legislators and attending and testifying at every legislative committee session while the bill was considered. Following an intense statewide education campaign, the amendment passed with an 80 percent approval of voters statewide, 70 percent in New Orleans in November 2006.
Today, Citizens for 1 continues to serve as a powerful force for change and has formed collaborations with 85 leadership organizations across the region. Through careful research, tireless lobbying, education and monitoring legislation, the group has successfully advocated for reform in criminal justice, governmental ethics and education. Members of Citizens for 1 have attended every legislative session for the past 10 years. They are present at all Louisiana Board of Elementary and Seconday Education and School Board meetings and many City Council meetings as well. When advocating, members of the organization arrive in Baton Rouge armed with knowledge, commitment and passion for a cause.
“There is power in the collective voice,” says Frierson, who no longer chairs Citizens for 1 but often advises other cities on how to lead such efforts. “It really is a new New Orleans.”
Lt. General Russel Honoré (Ret.)
Commabder, Joint Task Force Katrina, U.S. Army
Even with 35 years of military experience, Lt. General Russel Honoré, commander of the Katrina Joint Task Force, knew that he and his troops had the challenges of a lifetime as they surveyed the flooding of New Orleans. “Katrina didn’t do too much damage to the city. When Katrina’s surged caused the levees and floodwalls to break, that’s what did it. That was the game-changer,” he says.
Honoré and his team arrived in the city on Wednesday, before the world knew the extent of the devastation. Early, and unverified, media reports suggested that 10,000 New Orleanians perished in the flood and murders and rapes were taking place in the Superdome. By circulating throughout the city, Honoré and his team saw a different story. “My investigations didn’t match the news reports. We knew we had an enormous search and rescue and logistics operation and got to work.”
Drawing on his military background and his experience in Florida, 2004, which was hit by four major hurricanes that year, Honoré describes his role as “defender of the people. In Katrina, the New Orleans citizens were the victims and survivors. Our No. 1 job was to keep the people alive and safe.”
Logistics were especially hard. Eighty percent of the city was under water, making travel impossible at times. The airport was shut down. The city was filled with debris, and utilities were non-existent. Traffic along the interstate between New Orleans and Baton Rouge was at a standstill. At each dip in the interstate, there was flooding. Many New Orleanians were trapped on rooftops waiting to be rescued.
“Initially, volunteers from the ‘Cajun Navy’ (New Orleanians in boats, wildlife and fishery staff and south Louisiana fishermen in I.B.B’s: Itty Bitty Boats) rescued locals from rooftops. Then the troops from the First Army and the National Guard, along with more than 200 helicopters and 20 ships, arrived,” he says. “These were people who saved life after life.”
In the weeks following the storm, First Army worked in tandem with the Louisiana National Guard in keeping the city secure. General Honoré held morning press conferences to keep citizens and the media informed. His blunt manner earned him the nickname “A Category 5 General” by the media and phrases he coined such as “Stuck on Stupid” are now part of the Katrina lore.
Today, General Honoré is retired from military life and lectures throughout the country on preparedness, something he finds lacking in most cities, and he’s written two books on leadership and preparedness. “We are getting better,” he says, “but we need well thought out plans to care for the most vulnerable populations in times of disasters.”
Memories of Katrina stay with him. He often remembers rescuing two single mothers and their three infants on the corner of Poydras Street and Convention Boulevard after the storm. He and his troops took them get medical care and hydration and then placed them on a helicopter to find safety. “I still wonder what happened to those young mothers and their babies,” he says. “ I’d like to find them one day, just to know they are alright.”
Founder and President, Beacon of Hope
Sometimes the best ideas come in a blink, as Denise Thornton learned while cleaning her destroyed Lakewood South home after Katrina. “Here I was going through all that my husband and I accumulated in our 27 years and I realized: It’s just stuff. What I missed most was my community of friends. I needed to get us all back together.”
Many of Thornton’s neighbors had not decided whether they would rebuild their flooded homes or move elsewhere. Some were overwhelmed and had no idea where to start the process or how to handle the mountains of insurance and Road Home paperwork. Cracking the code of rebuilding after a disaster seemed all too much.
Then one day while scraping mud from her foyer, Thornton had an idea: She would make her home, which was in the process of being gutted and restored, a resource center for her neighbors. As the daughter and niece of master contractors, she knew how to deal with workmen and would figure out the rest as she went along. “I felt as if I were building a plane while flying it,” she says. And thus, Beacon of Hope, a grassroots nonprofit organization, was born.
Denise Thornton and her husband, Doug, opened their home to their entire neighborhood on Valentine’s Day 2006. Officials from Entergy, the Sewerage and Water Board, the police, communications systems all showed up to tell the Thorntons’ neighbors how to get things done. As word spread about Beacon of Hope, other neighborhoods began seeking advice from the organization, and satellite Beacons began to form throughout the city. Within six years, Beacon of Hope had served 31,000 households in 25 New Orleans neighborhoods.
More than 30,000 volunteers from around the world took part in Beacon of Hope activities, from gutting homes to rebuilding eight parks in the Lakefront area to sodding more than 25 miles of green space. The 501c3 organization, begun on the Thorntons’ front yard, was funded by private donations, the United Way and corporate gifts of nearly $1 million.
While Beacon of Hope no longer operates in New Orleans, Denise Thornton now helps other communities that experience disasters. She has taken the Beacon’s work to New York after Hurricane Sandy; to Cedar Rapids, Iowa after flooding; to Bridge City, Texas after Hurricane Ike; to LaPlace after Hurricane Isaac; and to Minot, North Dakota after its floods. She gives towns the roadmap to restoration, the M.O.D.E.L. program, which stands for Mapping, Outreach, Development, Engagement and Leadership. While acknowledging that no two disasters are alike, the M.O.D.E.L program works in devastated communities. Most of all, Beacon’s message remains the same: There’s power in unity.
Thornton admits that until Katrina she’d never been a community leader and had no idea how big the Beacon of Hope would be. “I once read that ‘adversity builds character,’ but I think adversity reveals character,” she says. “Katrina revealed something beautiful in all of us who were left to pick up the pieces and rebuild our city. The character of New Orleanians can’t be matched.”
Founder, Women of the Storm
By January 2006, New Orleanians were painfully aware of the systemic failure of government after the storm. Nowhere was it more apparent than in the halls of Congress in Washington, where five months after Katrina and the levee failure, only a handful of leaders – 12 out of 100 senators and 25 out of 435 congressmen – visited the city. “It was shameful,” says Anne Milling, a longtime civic activist. “Here we had the worst disaster in American history, and no one came to see what happened.”
Milling set about to change things. One afternoon she invited eight committed volunteers to her home and told them of her idea, one that haunted her for months. She wanted to organize a diverse group of women to visit Washington power brokers and demand they come to New Orleans.
Within 20 days of that meeting, 140 women, representing every ethnicity, socio-economic background and neighborhood, descended on Capitol Hill and individually met with Senators and Congressmen. Each volunteer was educated about the specifics of the storm and what the city needed. Carrying bright blue umbrellas, Women of the Storm knocked on doors, sat down with lawmakers and told them the truth about the storm. They asked for three things from Washington: Road Home money so homes could be repaired or rebuilt; levees to be rebuilt safer and stronger; and the coastline to be restored as it is the state’s first line of defense against hurricanes.
Many officials listened and some pledged support, and within a year of the group’s inception, 57 Senators and 142 Congressmen came to the city to tour Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods in Uptown, Lakeview, Gentilly and the 9th Ward. “It was hard for them to envision what it was like to have 80 percent of the city under water, 200,000 homes damaged or destroyed, nearly 2000 killed or lost,” says Milling. “They had to see it themselves and hear our story.”
Convincing the lawmakers to visit the destroyed city and to commit the funding wasn’t easy. “We had some say, ‘Why would you rebuild a city that is below sea level?’ or apologize for their absence with, ‘I haven’t been to New Orleans because I didn’t want to interfere with the rebuilding.’ We just wouldn’t take no,” says Milling.
What made the message of Women of the Storm so compelling was that the organization was a grassroots, non-partisan diverse group of women. “Katrina knew no bounds. Everyone was affected,” she says. “Our organization reflected that.”
Most recently, Women of the Storm formed a coalition of women from Florida to Texas to monitor the BP Deep Water settlement. “There was a lot of money committed for coastal restoration, one of Women of the Storm’s key elements, and we want to make sure that money is used correctly,” she says.
“Katrina was a wake-up call for New Orleans. Today, we have the most engaged citizenry we’ve ever had. But it took a lot of women to fight for this city. Women are by nature nesters,” says Milling. “Something destroyed our nest. The Women of the Storm wanted our nest put back together. We passionately believed this city was worth saving, and it was.”
Former President, Broadmoor Improvement Association
Friends and residents in LaToya Cantrell’s Palmdale neighborhood in Los Angeles recognized her ability to lead others when they elected her secretary of the local Chamber of Commerce when she was 14 years old. Undaunted by her youth, Cantrell found that a seminal time in her development. “From then on, I knew I’d be involved in public service,” she says.
Years later, Cantrell drew on that early experience when she took the helm of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, an organization charged with revitalizing a community that had fallen behind. “Broadmoor had low performing schools, a mediocre library, poverty and a poor commercial area. It had all the social ills, “she says.
Then Katrina hit, slamming six to 10 feet of water in most of the homes. The Broadmoor area, which was named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2003, was now seen by some as hopeless. In early ’06, Broadmoor received one of the infamous “green dots,” and the 150-block neighborhood was recommended to be leveled and turned into green space. Cantrell and the BIA never bought into that scenario and organized residents into what became the “Broadmoor Lives” movement. Working with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Broadmoor residents designed a plan for what the area could look like in the coming years. And the group thought big.
“We asked what it would take to make the neighborhood viable: walkability, open green space, public assets like a great school, an amazing library and a vibrant commercial district. We had homes of architectural significance, a central location and a group of people who loved the area. Everything added up to making Broadmoor great again,” she says.
Cantrell, who served as the unpaid head of the BIA until 2010, and her volunteer team leveraged more than $48 million in grants from the Clinton Global Initiative, Shell Oil, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation and others to rebuild the area. They succeeded in having each resident assessed $100 per year to continue investments in community improvements. Along with volunteers from Bard College, BIA organized the area block-by-block and assisted residents in rebuilding their homes. In all, more than 13,000 volunteers committed nearly 400,000 hours of work to rebuilding Broadmoor.
Today, Broadmoor is a testimony to the power of neighbors working with neighbors. An education corridor serves as a hub of newly created institutions including the Andrew H. Wilson Charter School, the city’s first LEED-certified school; the Rosa F. Keller Library, a state-of-the art library and community center; and the South Broad Community Health Center. In June the Arts and Wellness Center opened in the former site of the St. Matthias School. Currently, only 200 of the 2,400 homes in Broadmoor still need rebuilding.
In her Broadmoor work, Cantrell found a new commitment to public service when she was elected Councilwoman from the area. “I never, ever saw myself as an elected official,” she says. “But seeing what we did in Broadmoor taught me that if we stay focused and worked hard we could achieve anything. Broadmoor is a microcosm of New Orleans – it’s diverse, beautiful, forward thinking. Now we just have to keep the momentum going.”
Norman C. Francis, Ph.D.
Former President, Xavier University; Chair, Louisiana Recovery Authority
When Governor Kathleen Blanco first called Dr. Norman Francis to ask him to chair the Louisiana Recovery Authority, he thanked her for the offer, but respectfully declined the position. The governor persisted, and eventually Dr. Francis accepted the chairmanship, albeit reluctantly.
As president of Xavier University, he felt he had his hands full. After all, every building in his school suffered major damage – totaling more than $100 million – and his 4,100 students and faculty were displaced across the country. In addition, his Lakefront home of more than 40 years was destroyed.
“I didn’t know how I could do it all,” he says. “I just did it.”
Francis and LRA vice chairman Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, along with a blue-ribbon committee of Louisiana businessmen, scientists and leaders, were charged with leading a governmental body created in the aftermath to plan for the recovery and rebuilding of the state following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The group’s mission was to plan for Louisiana’s future, to coordinate across jurisdictions, and to support community recovery and resurgence. Most of all, it had to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of the plan in a state not known for its business ethics.
The LRA also combined public and private interests, made recommendations directly to the Governor and bypassed the state legislature. “The state legislature could take our recommendations and vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but they couldn’t make any changes to our recommendations,” says Francis. “By working with some of the best urban planning consultants in the world, we required each city to have a written plan for its rebuilding and its view for what it wanted to be.”
Each day the LRA members listened to fisherman, businessmen and small town leaders discuss their needs and visions for the future. “We were empathetic, totally independent and most of all, united in the mission that we would treat every person and every town equitably,” he says. “There was no ‘one size fits all.’”
Francis makes it clear that the LRA had nothing to do with the controversial Road Home program. “I had to call Road Home every day and tell them the complaints I heard,” he says. “I tried to embarrass them.”
Francis is proud of the two years he spent with the LRA. “We were all unpaid citizens who were charged with leading one of the most extensive rebuilding efforts in the world,” he says. “We were all working for a cause close to our hearts and wanted to see Louisiana come back.” He’s also proud that Xavier University opened in January 2006 with 75 percent of the pre-Katrina student body, a feat many doubted was possible.
In June of this year, Dr. Francis retired from Xavier, having served as president for 47 years, the longest sitting president of a major university in American history. He isn’t sure what his next chapter will be, but knows he will stay active in the community and will care for his wife of 60 years, Blanche, who has Alzheimer’s. Of his time rebuilding Xavier and working with the LRA he says modestly, “I guess there really is something to adrenaline.”
Founder and Executive Director, Levees.org
A chance meeting in Lafayette when her family was evacuating from Katrina gave Sandy Rosenthal something she never expected: A new mission in life. “I got into a heated discussion with a man from north Louisiana who truly believed that the catastrophic flooding in New Orleans was caused by a massive storm, political corruption and the topography of the city. He also believed that New Orleans deserved what it got,” she says. “I told him that the city could have survived the storm, but what really caused the flooding and destroyed 200,000 homes was the failure of the levee system and the collapsing of the flood walls.”
Rosenthal went home and vowed to do something to educate the public about the levee failures. After all, countless cities and towns across America depend on the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect them. What happened in New Orleans, she felt, could happen anywhere.
Rosenthal and her son Stanford, then a 15-year-old student at Isidore Newman School, created the website Levees.org. On it they separated fact from fiction about the losses New Orleans had and how they were caused. They wrote a petition to President George W. Bush demanding that he keep the promise he made in Jackson Square: That he would build a bigger and stronger city. Overnight, their fledgling endeavor had 200 signatures, and they knew that there was no turning back.
When she returned to New Orleans, she organized a Levees.org rally yards from the headquarters of the Army Corps of Engineers. More than 300 persons attended, a huge number in a city that had few residents. Representatives from Levees.org frequently met with the media, scientists, the Corps and government officials and demanded better and stronger levees and floodwalls. The group conducted bike tours along breached levees to educate others about what really happened. They lobbied for a better levee system in Baton Rouge and Washington, D.C. They carefully monitored every story written about the flooding, corrected any misinformation published and issued “seals of approval” to reporters who properly characterized the flooding. The “seals of approval” program became a gold standard among reporters was featured in the New York Times and other media. Using state-of-the-art social media campaigns, Levees.org reached a worldwide audience through its website, Facebook and Twitter, and its YouTube campaigns consistently ranked in the top 20 viewed videos of the week.
By 2008, an investigation by federally appointed experts, “Hurricane Protection Decision Chronology,” was released, validating everything Levees.org fought for. By ’10, Rosenthal had left her full-time job in marketing and teaching to devote her time to Levees.org.
Today, she points to the new Levees.org park and exhibition at the site of the London Avenue breach, opened last month. Here exhibits tell the story of the Katrina flooding. She also takes pride in the new $14.5 billion levee system that won’t collapse, even if they are overtopped. Drainage canals now have safer water levels of seven feet, and the Lake Borgne surge barrier now prevents the funnel effect and entry into the Industrial Canal.
“The new levees are better and stronger than before,” she says. “The levee failure was a pivotal moment in American history. It forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue new guidelines in levee building. It’s made all of America safer.”
Robert W. Becker, Ph.D.
CEO, City Park of New Orleans
As Chief Executive Officer of New Orleans City Park, Bob Becker is accustomed to dealing with the unpredictable. But nothing could have prepared him for the sheer devastation City Park endured following Hurricane Katrina. Category 3 winds downed more than 1,000 trees, including centuries-old live oaks. Another 1,000 were killed after standing in water for weeks. Every one of the 120 buildings was destroyed or damaged, and many of the treasured rides in the Amusement Park were in shambles. Every piece of large equipment was demolished, and smaller pieces were swept away or buried under the mud and debris. Because the park had no cash reserves, 90 percent of the staff was laid off, leaving Becker with 23 employees to rebuild the 1,300-acre park.
“It was pure devastation, something no one could imagine or plan for,” Becker says. “I went through the park that first day back and thought it would take decades before the park could recover. Everything was gone. We had no staff and no money. It was very, very sobering.”
Undeterred, Becker and his bare-bones team knew they had to rebuild City Park. “We couldn’t have a destroyed park in the middle of the city. This park and all it represents mean too much to so many. I always felt one of the keys to New Orleans’ recovery was rebuilding the park.”
The small team developed a four-point plan to clean up the park, re-open revenue producing facilities using the just-approved master plan as a guide to rebuilding and to do aggressive fundraising. They knew that insurance and FEMA would eventually help, but they needed a quick infusion of cash to meet expenses. City Park hosted its annual Christmas light display that December on a much-reduced footprint, giving New Orleanians a holiday venue, lifting spirits and providing much-needed income. Two months later, the driving range opened.
What Becker and his team didn’t count on was the massive volunteer effort that would descend on the park. Local volunteers, faith-based organizations, college students, tourists – tens of thousands arrived to help rebuild the park and continue to do so. Donations from corporations, foundations and individuals poured in. Armed with the master plan that was approved only months before the storm, Becker showed donors specific ways money could be used. “From the beginning, we knew we wouldn’t rebuild City Park the way it was. We would make it better than ever, and we have done just that,” he says.
Today, New Orleans City Park is consistently showcased in the Top 10 lists of public parks in the United States. More than $122 million in improvements have been made or will be shortly. Nearly 5,000 volunteers from all over the country worked in the park last year.
Becker, justifiably, takes pride in all that has been accomplished in the last 10 years. “The rebuilding of this park has been the most rewarding work of my career. The staff, board and volunteers have proven to be good stewards of this park,” he says. “We can pass this park onto our children and grandchildren knowing we did our very best.”
Founder and Former CEO, New Schools for New Orleans
After graduating from Colgate and spending a year in Germany as a Fulbright scholar, Sarah Usdin became a Teach for America teacher in Baton Rouge and eventually was named the organization’s executive director. From that perch she knew she could make a difference. “I saw education as a social justice issue,” says Usdin, herself the daughter of a teacher. “I wanted everyone to have the same educational advantages that I had. I wanted to level the playing field.”
Usdin then took a job with the New Teacher Project, a national program to recruit, train and support young educators. Her last stop was New Orleans in 1996. Nine years later, Katrina hit.
Tens of thousands of New Orleans schoolchildren were forced to leave the city, and most school buildings were flooded. Teachers and administrators worked feverishly to reopen their damaged schools. Many felt the already failing system was now broken beyond repair.
“At that time, no one knew what to do but lots of people wanted to help, and they just needed a conduit for their help. Governor Kathleen Blanco, perhaps because she was a former schoolteacher herself, stepped in. She took a huge political risk and expanded the Recovery School District’s mission,” says Usdin. Working with the State Superintendent, Blanco and the state legislature gave the RSD the authority to take over all New Orleans schools that were average or below and to create a wholly new charter system. To guide these schools, Usdin and a handful of committed educators formed New Schools for New Orleans, whose raison d’être was to deliver excellent public schools to every child in New Orleans.
Since the storm, New Orleans has eliminated most unacceptable schools. NSNO collaborates between schools, parents, students and community members. The organization has mobilized more than $100 million for public education, much of it from the federal government, local and national foundations and concerned citizens. “Early on, we got our first big grant – $500,000 – from the Greater New Orleans Foundation when we didn’t even have a fully-baked business plan. That’s when we knew we could do this,” she says.
Today there are 75 charter schools in New Orleans, and school systems from throughout the world come to study how this city turned around one of the worst public schools in the U.S. into one of the most improved. Ninety-two percent of the city’s school children are enrolled in charter schools. In 10 years school graduation rates have climbed from 54 to 73 percent. College enrollment has increased from 45 to 58 percent. This fall, 2,500 New Orleans public school students will attend 300 different colleges and receive $75 million in scholarships.
But despite the improvements, Usdin, who has since left NSNO to serve on the Orleans Parish School Board, doesn’t feel satisfied. “We have made great progress in turning around a failed school system. But we cannot claim success until every child in this city is attending an excellent public school,” she insists. “Having a good public school system is fundamental to the economy, education and democracy. It’s a moral responsibility we have to one another.”
Scott Cowen, D.B.A.
Former President, Tulane University; Public Education Chair, Bring New Orleans Back
It wasn’t until five days after Katrina hit and the levees broke that Dr. Scott Cowen, then president of Tulane University, understood how bad the situation in New Orleans was. During the days after the storm, he stayed on campus and surveyed the university. There he found what eventually became $650 million in damage. Trees were downed along with electrical wires, rooftops were ripped off of buildings and the Howard-Tilton Library was inundated. Eighty percent of the Uptown campus was flooded, and every Tulane building downtown was damaged as well. Then he evacuated to Houston.
“While in Houston I watched television for the first time and saw the images of the city. I’d been so focused on Tulane. Would it ever come back? Would it ever regain its stature in the academic world? Then my focus shifted to New Orleans. Would our city come back? Tulane and New Orleans are inextricably linked to each other. One couldn’t survive without the other,” he says.
Three months after the storm – all Tulane students evacuated to colleges and universities across the country – Cowen was immersed in rebuilding the school. Then Mayor Ray Nagin asked Cowen to chair the public education subcommittee of Bring New Orleans Back, a blue ribbon organization of community leaders. Cowen jumped at the chance.
“I moved to Cleveland in the 1970s when it was near bankruptcy and called ‘The Mistake by the Lake,’” he says. “I saw that city’s renaissance and knew how important the private sector was. I knew this was New Orleans’ time to create a new city, a new university culture and a new public education system.”
With characteristic determination and gusto, Cowen made difficult but necessary changes at Tulane. He eliminated long-standing studies – like some engineering programs and Newcomb College – which proved controversial. He instituted a campus-wide program of public service required of all undergraduates. At meetings he told students, “If it’s not in your DNA to rebuild Tulane and New Orleans, don’t come back.” That year, 80 percent of students returned to Tulane. For the next four years applications dipped, but today Tulane receives an average of 30,000 applications for 1,600 first-year students, making it among the most selective universities in the country.
And the public school initiatives Cowen’s committee recommended? Many have been implemented and the results are stunning. Before Katrina, 65 percent of students in New Orleans were in failing public schools; in 2015 it was 5.7 percent. “We’ve exceeded many expectations,” he says. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Cowen has since retired as president of Tulane but continues his public service in the city he loves. He is chairing the advisory board of the Cowen Institute, an organization to advance public education and youth success in New Orleans and beyond. He is working to improve the lives of disconnected youth ages 16 to 24. He is concerned about affordable housing and finds that the city’s next challenge. He knows his work isn’t finished.
“I’m proud that the city has recovered from Katrina and that we’ve created a culture of social innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity,” he says. “The trajectory is going in the right direction. The silver linings are everywhere.”
And the List Continues
Ten years from now, 20, 30, for as long as there are memories and people to do the remembering there will be recollections of heroes of the recovery, many who performed good works that will never be known. Some were not even in town, including a couple of sports commissioners who were insistent that their New Orleans franchises did the right thing and weathered the recovery just like the fans in the stands had to do.
We are amazed at how far the area has come in a decade.
Most amazing though, will be the recovery stories that lie ahead.
Chefs John Besh, Tommy Cvitanovich, John Folse, Paul Prudhomme and many others: For feeding first responders and volunteers
Actress Sandra Bullock: For becoming a benefactor of Warren Easton High School
Musicians Harry Connick Jr., Branford Marsalis and many more: For the Musician’s Village and for helping to keep the music playing in New Orleans
Habitat for Humanity: For building homes throughout the city
Former Chair of Teach for American and Vice-Chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority Walter Isaacson: For leadership in pulling together the complex organization of the LRA
Former LA/SPCA Director Laura Maloney: For, along with her staff and volunteers, fearlessly rescuing 15,000 pets left behind
New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau: For organizing conventioneers into volunteers
New Orleans Saints: For making us believe
Rex Organization: For establishing a fund to support charter schools and for providing leadership so that there were parades during Carnival 2006
CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute Ron Forman: For rebuilding the zoo and the aquarium, both of which were devastated
Actor Brad Pitt: For the Make it Right Foundation in the Lower 9th Ward
St. Bernard Project: For rebuilding 600 homes in the area
Former NBA Commissioner David Stern: For his commitment to keeping the Hornets (now Pelicans) in the city, for operating the club as a league-owned franchise and for orchestrating the sale to Tom Benson
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue: For helping to keep the Saints in New Orleans and helping rebuild the Superdome
Doug Thornton: For rebuilding the Superdome
Sidney Torres IV: For cleaning the French Quarter
U.S. Coast Guard: For rescue efforts and making our waterways safe
Becky Zaheri and the Katrina Krewe: For cleaning up neighborhoods and after our celebrations
Members of the local media: For continuous coverage of the storm, despite hardships
Members of the National Guard from all over the U.S.: For bringing order to the city
Countless first responders, volunteers and donors from throughout the world: For your tireless work in rebuilding our city and your generosity of spirit