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BILL RADKE:When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the first focus was on the immediate victims. Then the question was — what is this catastrophe going to do, long term, to New Orleans?
We’re now five years from the storm and we’re looking in on the city. It turns out tens of thousands of people chose not to go back to damaged neighborhoods.
But a lot of people have restarted their lives nearby. As near as the other side of the lake that flooded their homes.
Marketplace’s Eve Troeh reports on a booming economy next door to New Orleans.
EVE TROEH: On the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, across from New Orleans, sits Saint Tammany Parish. Thousands of people came here from the south shore to ride out Hurricane Katrina. They’d figured they’d stay with relatives in Covington, or get a hotel room in Mandeville. Thinking they’d be gone a few days, at most. But, after the levees broke, many of them didn’t have homes to go back to.
SUSAN AMEEN: The scramble for housing was frantic. Enter, a woman for the times. Susan Ameen the real estate queen.
Ameen says in the days after Katrina, the north shore real estate market was surreal.
AMEEN: People were actually going and knocking on people’s doors with paper bags full of money, saying “I want to buy your house, will you sell me your house?”
Ameen remembers hugging sobbing south shore clients who’d lost everything. But she became a task master when showing them homes to buy. She’d say:
AMEEN: Look at this house carefully now. You’ll have to decide before you walk out the door whether you want to buy this house. The decision to buy or sell a home is one of the more major decisions you have to make in life. These people were having to decide in five or 10 minutes.
In many cases clients weren’t looking for just one house. Whole families relocated together.
DAN JOHNSON: Hi, how you doing…
Dan Johnson evacuated from St. Bernard Parish, just down river from New Orleans. His neighborhood flooded 15 feet. Then a storage tank tipped and spilled a million gallons of oil into the flood water. Homes sat in that for days. Twenty-two members of the Johnson family lost their houses. The group relocated en masse to the piney forests and subdivisions across the lake.
JOHNSON: All the family is pretty much together, pretty much within 10 minutes of each other.
He says about half of St. Bernard Parish – up to 30,000 people – did the same. Dan’s wife Gloria and his mom Dee say they got a new name.
JOHNSON: St. Tammanards. St. Tammany and St. Bernard combined. So many transplants they called it St. Tammanard when we first came over.
The Johnsons say St. Bernard has come back to life, with new families. But those who transplanted elsewhere aren’t compelled to go back.
JOHNSON: Flooding, rising waters, they never want to see that ever again. It’s too emotional, to go through that again.
DEE: And it’s close enough to New Orleans that they can cross over without any problem.
To cross between New Orleans and St. Tammany Parish, you take one of the longest bridges in the world: the 24-mile causeway over Lake Pontchartrain.
It can be a beautiful drive – all sky and water – when there’s not a traffic jam. And increasingly, there’s not. Because people can now get the New Orleans experience on the north shore. There are dozens of stores and restaurants I recognized from the city. They’re set in landscaped strip malls instead of sidewalk storefronts.
CASHIER: Morning, how can I help you?
Including a branch of the New Orleans coffee and beignets stand, Cafe du Monde.
TROEH: An order of beignets and an iced cafe au lait, to go.
With a drive-through.
CASHIER: $1.49 is your change, pull up to the next window.
St. Tammany had the fastest growing economy in the state when Katrina hit. You could say the storm accelerated a process already in place.
BRENDA REINE BERTUS: Call it ten years in one day.
Brenda Reine Bertus heads the St. Tammany Economic Development Foundation. She says business and residents have been trickling out of New Orleans and across the lake for years. They came for better schools, less crime, and new houses. Bertus says after Katrina, Chevron pulled its office – with 500 employees – out of New Orleans.
BERTUS: When they polled their employees they found fifty percent of them were already living over here.
Chevron built a new office in St. Tammany. Two other oil and gas companies relocated, too. And there’s new business in addition to New Orleans’ corporate refugees. A tech company just moved in, from Silicon Valley. Bertus says the area could be on track to become a bigger economic center than New Orleans.
BERTUS: You’re gonna see more people driving from the south shore to the north shore, for work.
She says you could look at that as a loss for New Orleans. Or you could see it as a victory for the state of Louisiana. All those contracts might have landed in Houston or Atlanta.
I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.
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