By Sidney Cruze
More than a year after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, the region is struggling to repair and rebuild. This fall, 11 Duke MPP students piled into a van and drove 13 hours to New Orleans, where they spent their fall break meeting with local leaders and listening to their concerns. The students believed that their education provided them with analytical skills that could help make a difference. They wanted to seek policy solutions that could contribute to the city’s recovery.
Their trip laid the foundation for the Duke-New Orleans Post-Katrina Partnership, a Sanford Institute-based group that will encourage client work, internships and master’s projects focused on New Orleans.
“We see this visit as only the start of a sustainable partnership between Duke and the Gulf Coast,” said Rob Lalka, MPP ’08. “It’s an opportunity to make a difference unlike any other.”
The idea for the trip took shape when first-year MPP students Amanda Sheldon, a Tulane graduate, and Lalka, a former New Orleans Americorps volunteer, met and discovered they shared a love for the Crescent City.
“We talked about the realities facing New Orleans a year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and how many people have forgotten the city,” Sheldon says. “We all focus on 9/11, but Katrina is just as important from a policy perspective. This is the first time in America we have the chance to totally rebuild a city. The question is, how do we rebuild it right?”
Twenty-four hours later they had prepared a proposal outlining a New Orleans public policy trip for MPP students. Their goals were to give Sanford Institute students a chance to see the disaster-stricken region, to highlight the many unresolved policy issues facing the city and to find ways Sanford students could contribute to the rebuilding process. The graduate program and the Sanford Institute both provided funding for the trip.
“It was clear from the outset that the students planned to follow up with policy work, so we could easily envision the trip’s benefits,” said Frederick Mayer, director of graduate studies, and associate professor of PPS. “Plus we want to create an atmosphere where students can create new initiatives and play leadership roles in them.”
While in New Orleans, the students met with leaders from the city council, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the Neighborhood Housing Service of New Orleans and the Audubon Institute. They looked at breached levees and heard Tulane geology professor Stephen Nelson explain that the flooding could have been avoided if the levees had been built as originally designed.
“As we heard about all the governance failures the city faced, we began to realize how places like the Terry Sanford Institute can affect real positive change for the region,” Lalka said.
The trip deepened students’ understanding of the how devastating the displacement has been for area residents and highlighted the complex policy issues involved in rebuilding. Already students are planning to spend more time in the region. One is considering a move to New Orleans after she graduates next spring, and others hope to do their MPP internships there next summer.
“Before going on this trip, I wanted to go overseas, but now I’m 99 percent sure I’ll do my internship in New Orleans,” Sheldon says. “I’ll see many of the same the development needs I would see in Africa or Latin America, and New Orleans is a place I know and love.”
Back at Duke, the group’s goals include an online forum where policy-minded students from across the country can exchange ideas about ways to help rebuild The Big Easy. They also plan to reach out to the Duke community with messages about opportunities to help the Gulf Coast and to take on New Orleans clients for their spring MPP consulting projects.
One group of students will work with New Orleans city council President Oliver Thomas to help attract skilled professionals to the city as it attempts to rebuild industry; another will help Louisiana’s Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu’s office rebuild the 1,300-acre City Park.
Students remember the trip as the experience of a lifetime; one that gave them a chance to get involved in what Thomas called “the Civil Rights issue” for their generation.
“I learned that I’m in the right program,” Sheldon says. “I’m glad to be at the Sanford Institute, but I’m also asking myself ‘Why am I studying economics and statistics? What am I going to do with it?’ The trip showed how my classes are preparing me for this field. I know this is what I want to do to make a difference.”