Almost 12 years after the costliest disaster in U.S. history, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke at the Business Law Section 2017 Spring Meeting luncheon in New Orleans on the efforts of his office to rebuild “one of the greatest cities in the world” after Hurricane Katrina. Expounding upon the guiding principles of not just the city of New Orleans, but of the country as a whole, Mayor Landrieu reminded lawyers in the audience of their duty to serve as protectors of those principles during the country’s trying times.
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Mayor Landrieu, former legislator and lieutenant governor of Louisiana, spoke to the audience of more than 500 Section members with a sense of kinship, addressing them as “fellow brother and sister lawyers.” As a practicing attorney for 16 years, Mayor Landrieu said he understands the important role that lawyers play in upholding justice and feels strongly that our institutions are guided by this principle.
“I was asked to lead during a moment of greatest despair in New Orleans,” said Landrieu. “Hurricane Katrina was the worst man-made disaster in American history.” Landrieu emphasized man-made because “it began as a natural disaster, but when the levies broke, it became man-made.”
According to Landrieu, the city was 17 feet under water, and everything in New Orleans was lost, including schools, hospitals, and businesses. “We had to get my daughters to school the next day,” said Landrieu, “but many New Orleans institutions were destroyed. It was a moment of standstill: New Orleanians were forced to continue with everyday routine in the face of tragedy.”
Landrieu noted that the three to four years of recovery post-Katrina did not go well at first. However, recovery for the New Orleanians went deeper than rebuilding the city.
For Landrieu, it was the “most miraculous thing—we all realized that we were in the same boat. People that never talked to each other were joined together.” For outsiders, who thought the New Orleanians were “crazy” for not leaving in the hurricane’s wake, Landrieu summed it up: “We couldn’t leave even if we wanted to. The New Orleanians refusal to abandon the city, their way of life, their authenticity comes from our DNA, from the beginning of time.”
The authenticity of New Orleans—its citizen’s “heart and soul,” as Landrieu put it—was exactly what could not be lost during the rebuild. Since the hurricane and during his time as mayor, Landrieu proudly boasted that the city is growing faster than any city in the United States. There has been $1.8 billion invested into schools, 55 primary care clinics, two new university hospitals, and a new veteran’s hospital.
Although institutions in New Orleans have found their footing, Landrieu warned that the strength of American institutions will be tested in the coming years under the current political environment. “It will be a stress test on the Constitution,” said Landrieu. “The institutions and principles behind them have to stay strong, and lawyers will be the ones to protect them.”