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On Tuesday, August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans, causing inadequate levees to collapse and flood the city in what came to be widely seen as a man-made disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) calculated that 105,000 of the city's 188,000 housing units were severely damaged or destroyed. It was the worst urban disaster in national memory. However, city leaders were not prepared to accept New Orleans's demise. On September 29, 2005, Mayor C. Ray Nagin appointed a blue-ribbon panel known as the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) commission to produce a reconstruction plan by the end of the year. Its volunteer members were leaders in the business and nonprofit worlds. BNOB turned for advice to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a Washington, DC-based research and educational organization that sought to promote responsible development. ULI's panel of experts urged what it saw as a pragmatic approach. The city lacked the resources to restore services quickly to all of New Orleans. It would have to pick and choose the most promising areas to rebuild first. The hope was that vibrant rebirth in the center would catalyze growth elsewhere. Meanwhile, reconstruction of the lower-lying, poorer sections of town hardest hit by Katrina would have to wait. In fact, it might not make sense to rebuild neighborhoods likely to experience serious flooding in a future hurricane. Two-thirds of the city's pre-Katrina residents were African Americans, disproportionately residents of the poorer, lower-lying, worst damaged areas. Some saw the ULI plan as a conspiracy to get rid of them and make New Orleans whiter. Even many middle-class whites and blacks who did not share the conspiracy theory vehemently opposed the ULI proposal because it seemed to relegate their homes and neighborhoods to oblivion. Meanwhile, city councilors representing lower-lying districts feared that ULI would plan their political base out of existence.

Learning Objective:
This case can be used to illustrate the difficulty facing political leaders in making decisions that would adequately satisfy the interests of different groups within their constituents. It can also be used in classes to foster discussion on appropriate emergency or strategic management after a natural disaster.

Other Details

Case Author:
Jonathan Schlefer
Faculty Lead:
Jose Gomez-Ibanez
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States
Funding Source:
Robert G. Wilmers Local and State Government Case Studies Fund