New Orleans Mayor on the Lessons Learned from Hurricanes Isaac, Katrina

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Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu speaks to the media during a press conference on Hurricane Isaac at the New Orleans City Hall on August 27, 2012.

Less than two weeks ago New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was nervously eyeing the Gulf of Mexico, worried that Tropical Storm Isaac might balloon into a Category 3 hurricane and barrel straight for New Orleans on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a storm whose effects will forever be felt in the city. But Isaac, which topped out at Category 1, has come and gone, and Landrieu says New Orleans is “dry and back in business.” TIME chatted with the mayor about the economic impact of the storm and how the government’s response effort has changed since Katrina.

How much damage did Hurricane Isaac cause in New Orleans specifically?
Each one of our different public entities are doing [damage assessment] for purposes of determining cost-share with FEMA. We don’t yet have that cost estimate complete for the city. We think that it’s going be somewhere around $600 million just on public assets.

What was the biggest logistical challenge in preparing for the hurricane?
It’s uncertainty. Every storm is different. The nature of them is different, their course is different, and what happens when they hit the ground is different. [Hurricane Isaac] stalled in the gulf, and all the experts thought it was going to blow up into a Category 3. It did not do that, it stayed at a Category 1 and then it slowed down. Normally when a  storm hits the land and it’s going that slow, it dissipates almost immediately. This storm fooled everybody and it didn’t do that. It sat over us for 50 hours—Katrina only sat over us for 20. The biggest logistical problem was determining whether mandatory evacuation should be called and staging assets in the appropriate place to get them around quickly when the storm left. We were able to respond fairly quickly to the amount of water Isaac put on the ground and to the wind damage that occurred.

(MORE: Hurricane Isaac Causes Billions in Damage, But Far Less Than Katrina)

Is it a challenge to get people to take a Category 1 storm seriously compared to bigger storms?
Before Katrina hit, because we had not had a storm in a very long time, people were unbelieving or they had forgotten. Post-Katrina, people got a lot smarter. Many citizens did a great job preparing their homes and themselves for storms like this. 1’s can sometimes be as powerful and damaging as 3’s depending on how long they hang out and which way they go.

What was the biggest difference between the city’s response to this storm compared to Katrina?
The city can’t operate in isolation to anything. The best thing about this storm that’s different from then is the relationship between the federal, state, and local authorities. Before the storm hit, the White House was on the phone to this office. I spoke to a representative from the White House every day throughout the storm. Vice President Biden called. I had three phone calls with President Obama. The Department of Homeland Secretary [Janet] Napolitano called numerous times. There was complete interaction in real time with real bodies between federal, state, and local authorities so we did not lose any time.

What have been the biggest post-storm challenges?
One of the hiccups that we’re having right now that did not work out so well is getting power back on. The power went out, and [area power company] Entergy had a hard time getting the electricity back up. We’re on 100% today, but the bubble burst a couple of days ago when people’s patience wore thin. That continues to be a problem with all of these storms. [Going forward] I want to know, as it relates to energy, how the energy is created, how it’s transmitted, how it’s delivered. I also want to talk to private businesses about how they can be more resilient. I want to think about what other cities are doing to take their reliance off of centralized energy companies when major storms hit. All those things could serve as a great template for cities all across the Gulf Coast.

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What sectors of the economy have the toughest time recovering after a storm like this?
Really all of them. Storms don’t hit you by sectors. During Katrina, it closed the port, and all of a sudden imports and exports—really international commerce—got shut down. We didn’t have that here. If electricity goes out, it affects all of the sectors of the economy because they can’t function. That’s what happened down here for six or seven days. It rarely hits one sector. The one it always helps is folks who do debris removal. Contractors always do better. Retail stores that sell housing supplies do better. We’re seeing that again.

New Orleans is a much smaller city than it was before Hurricane Katrina. What efforts is the city making to get people and businesses to return in bigger numbers?
A couple of weeks ago, Forbes gave us a mention for being the fastest growing city in America. We’re doing everything—from reorganizing the government to making the levee system resilient to growing a lot of small businesses in a big big way and diversifying the economy. Our unemployment rate is lower than the national average. A lot of folks have applauded us for completely re-engineering our school system and our healthcare delivery system. New Orleans has completely turned the corner and is beginning to get a lot of national recognition for the work that we’ve done post-Katrina. I think this storm and how we responded to it, and the fact that we came out of it safe, is only going to give folks more confidence to invest in the city.