New Orleans Suburbs Rise in Wake of Flood As the city of New Orleans struggles to recover from Katrina, suburban parishes north and west of the city experience a financial windfall. A re-ordering of the regional economy appears to be under way.

New Orleans Suburbs Rise in Wake of Flood

New Orleans Suburbs Rise in Wake of Flood

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As the city of New Orleans struggles to recover from Katrina, suburban parishes north and west of the city experience a financial windfall. A re-ordering of the regional economy appears to be under way.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

One fact about hurricanes that's not often mentioned amid the devastation and upheaval is that they can be good for business. That's certainly the case in parishes north and west of New Orleans. And as NPR's Greg Allen reports, in New Orleans' suburbs post-Katrina rebuilding has created an economic boom.

GREG ALLEN: The Lowe's home-improvement store in Jefferson Parish is right at the New Orleans city line. On a typical weekday afternoon, the parking lot is nearly three quarters full of cars and pickups. Since Hurricane Katrina, this store and other Lowe's, Home Depots and Wal-Marts have doubled and tripled their pre-Katrina sales; that's because of people like David Jeffrey(ph).

How often do you find yourself coming to someplace like this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID JEFFREY (Contractor, Jefferson Parish): Two or three times a day.

ALLEN: Jeffrey runs one of the many new businesses that have relocated to Jefferson Parish since the storm. He's a contractor who moved here from Atlanta, first to help out family members, then to run his own business. And he's busy, booked up until the end of June. He says he's seen big changes in Metairie, Kenner and other New Orleans suburbs since arriving a year and a half ago.

Mr. JEFFREY: Everybody was working off what little resources were here. But now that things are up and running, there's more than one grocery store available. There's more than a few gas stations available now. It's seems like, you know, it's a thriving city again.

ALLEN: At least that's the case in Jefferson Parish just west of New Orleans and also in St. Tammany Parish, north of the city, across Lake Pontchartrain. Katrina hammered both parishes but neither saw devastation like New Orleans. St. Tammany mostly had wind damage, though some of it severe. And while neighborhoods in Jefferson Parish flooded, the water quickly receded and residents, for the most part, have returned.

Ms. WINN BOLLAT(PH) (Finance Director, Jefferson Parish): Basically our population is almost back up to what we had pre-Katrina.

ALLEN: Winn Bollat is the finance director for Jefferson Parish. The most recent estimate puts the parish's population at 440,000, double that of New Orleans. After Katrina, Jefferson Parish also became a prime staging area for contractors, emergency personnel and relief workers. With most businesses closed in New Orleans, for months the suburban parish was just about the only place to buy groceries, gas, building supplies or a new car.

As a result, sales tax revenue in the parish soared. At its peak last year, tax revenue was more than 60 percent higher than pre-Katrina. Paging through the most recent receipts, Bollat says the parish is still doing very well.

Ms. BOLLAT: In fact, just comparing it - what I've tried to do now is compare my latest sales tax - even though we're down 12 percent as compared to January of last year, we're still - we're up about 45 percent over 2005 right now. So that increase is still there.

ALLEN: Across the lake in St. Tammany Parish, there's also been a boom. There's a lot of new construction, both residential and commercial. The population is already above pre-Katrina level and growing.

Ivan Miestchovich, who heads an economic development center at the University of New Orleans, says new residents have come from flooded homes in the city and also from outside the area, and it's not just the Home Depots that benefit.

Mr. IVAN MIESTCHOVICH (University of New Orleans): They're buying groceries, clothing. You know, they go to get their nails done, you know, go in to get their hair done. You know, eating out and restaurants are pretty busy and so on and so forth. So the retail sales figures are up. Those increases are going to moderate a bit. But there'll still be some fairly steady growth in - on the north shore.

ALLEN: There are new challenges with the increased population. St. Tammany Parish is using the sales tax windfall to upgrade roads, sewage and drainage systems. Officials in Jefferson, though, while happy at the unexpected tax boom, say they're not sure how long it will last. But Miestchovich says it's clear that with a shift in population and business activity, suburban parishes once mostly bedroom communities are now becoming important economic centers.

Mr. MIESTCHOVICH: I don't think we'll see New Orleans - will in my lifetime get back to much over 300,000 people. The downtown is going to be convention-oriented, tourist and visitor oriented. It will still have a role to play in financial services and banking. But that said, most of those also will have some kind of a satellite arrangement somewhere else.

ALLEN: The lesson many companies took from Hurricane Katrina, Miestchovich says, is that while New Orleans might be a good place to do business, it's only prudent to move some operations out to the suburbs.

Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.

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