Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. As the Gulf Coast struggled to keep its head above water, the rest of us were glued to the news — astounded at first by the awful destruction, and then by the inadequate response to so much human suffering. 

In those days, our TV sets became microscopes, magnifying in shockingly clarity the divide in our nation between those who could afford to escape and those who could not. The Gulf Coast continues to be a microcosm for a nation in search of economic recovery. 

What can New Orleans tell us about how to rebuild, revitalize, and recover?

Root economic recovery in clean energy

In the quest to rebuild, New Orleans has become a leader in energy saving and clean energy, from solar-powered streetlights and hybrid city buses to energy-efficient homes for residents who were made homeless by Katrina.

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Why choose clean energy?  For one thing, clean energy means jobs for a devastated region. A $615 million investment in clean energy is projected to create over 6,000 jobs in New Orleans, according to a recent report from Green For All and the Natural Resources Defense Council. In fact, clean-energy investment creates roughly three times as many jobs as the same level of investment in fossil-fuel technologies, and the jobs generated are more accessible to workers with relatively low levels of formal education.

With the challenge of rebuilding much of the city’s infrastructure, New Orleans is finding that clean-energy projects make the most sense in the long term — by benefiting the environment, and the local economy.

Jobs must be good and accessible to local residents

The Gulf Coast recovery, however, has seen its share of challenges, particularly in ensuring that recovery plans create quality jobs for the community.

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Many of the rebuilding jobs in the Gulf region are going to two groups: professionals from out-of-state and undocumented workers, mostly from Latin America. The first group is made up of mostly highly-educated, highly-paid professionals in fields like urban planning. The undocumented workers, meanwhile, face temporary, dangerous jobs with dismal pay and no benefits, and have no way to address these issues for fear of being turned over to the authorities.

This lack of standards is leading to low-road jobs that don’t benefit workers or the local economy. Similarly, the professional jobs are drawing new people to the region, but doing little for the folks who lived in New Orleans before the storm hit.

The Louisiana Green Corps, in contrast to this trend, provides real opportunity and access to the job market for local residents, many of whom have few other options. The Corps teaches practical job skills in green construction, weatherization, and energy-saving techniques to local youth who have had trouble with the law. Another successful project, Make it Right, is building energy-efficient homes in the Lower 9th Ward, a working-class New Orleans neighborhood. Make it Right is not only providing homes for families that have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It is also providing jobs and much needed entrepreneurial opportunities.

The Louisiana Green Corps and Make it Right are now partnering with the City of New Orleans to create more jobs, homes, and local opportunity – using President Obama’s Recovery Act. The partnership is jointly applying for Recovery funds to expand the number of workers it trains and energy-efficient homes it builds.
Lessons for Washington, DC

The challenges and successes Louisiana has faced offer important lessons to the nation, and particularly to our leaders in Washington.

The Senate is now crafting a crucial clean-energy bill that could create hundreds of thousands of American jobs. It is absolutely essential that the Senate legislation include investment in green-collar job training so that programs like the Louisiana Green Corps can prepare America’s workforce for new jobs across the country. 

Equally important are standards to prevent a low-road economy that excludes local workers. The Green Construction Careers Demonstration Project is a key provision in the clean-energy bill that ensures that green construction jobs have quality standards and are accessible to local workers.

Both of these provisions were included in the clean-energy bill the House passed this summer. They must also be included in the Senate version. America’s workers and middle-class depend on it.

The rebuilding in New Orleans is far from done.  There are thousands of people who still need homes, jobs, and health care — thousands who need their communities back. But in the past four years we’ve learned a lot about the right and wrong ways to help the region rebuild and thrive.

It is time as a nation to put these lessons to use.