The Truths of Katrina

It’s been five years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, and the average American knows almost nothing about the atrocities that occurred in New Orleans: political corruption and abuse; disaster profiteering; overt racism; and murder. I am focusing solely on New Orleans here, the site of numerous unnatural disasters, as opposed to the larger Gulf Coast that did experience significant natural destruction from the Hurricane.

We have not collectively learned the lessons of Katrina because most of us believe three widespread Katrina myths:

1. This was a “natural disaster” that was unpredictable and unavoidable;
2. The criminals who stayed behind in New Orleans deserved their fate; and
3. For the most part, New Orleans is back on its feet.

This (necessarily long) blog has five parts: a brief overview of the storm; a description of events before, during, and since the storm; and analysis of why the truths of Katrina haven’t penetrated public consciousness.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Mississippi coastline on August 29, 2005, killing 1,836 people, primarily from drowning (40%), injury and trauma (25%), and heart conditions (11%) (GNOCDC, 2010). Over 700 people are still missing (Watson, 2008), and an additional estimated 2,358 people died from mental disorders, physical stress, contamination, deeper impoverishment, and the collapse of the health care system in the first six months following the storm (Stephens et al., 2007). The estimated (direct and indirect) Katrina death toll thus stands at 4,081.

The vast majority of deaths occurred in New Orleans, a city that was on the periphery of the Hurricane’s path and experienced only Category 2 storm gusts. Had the levees not breached in what the American Society of Civil Engineers has called “the worst engineering catastrophe in history” (emphasis added), New Orleans would have suffered only heavy wind and rain damage (Roth, 2010). Shortly after the storm passed, 53 levee breaches flooded 80% of New Orleans. This was an engineering disaster and a political disaster, but it was not a “natural” disaster.

The hurricane and flooding caused $110 billion in direct damage, and severely damaged or destroyed 850,000 homes (Espinoza, 2009). Over a million people evacuated the Gulf Coast. One-in-five residents (roughly 100,000 New Orleanians) have not returned home, including 68,000 residents who lived below the poverty line pre-Katrina (GNOCDC, 2010).

Before the Storm
Many Americans think about New Orleans under water as a natural disaster that was unforeseeable and unavoidable, but history tells a quite different story of decades of officials putting profits over people, criminally negligent levee creation and maintenance, and a simulation in 2004 that predicted the destruction. Each of these is addressed in turn.

Profits Over People
The political and engineering failures that caused the devastation in New Orleans were multiple and decades in the making. First, the storm surge was amplified by years of oil and natural gas companies degrading the integrity of the wetlands with pipelines, causing the land to sink at an alarming rate (Morton et al, 2002). The Mississippi river levee system was created in response to the sinking wetlands, but this system actually compounds the problem by preventing much of the river’s silt from being deposited in the ocean where it creates a natural buffer (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1987). Combined, these factors have eroded one million square acres of Bayou since 1930, bringing the coastline 30 miles closer to New Orleans and leaving only a 20 mile buffer from hurricanes (Perin, 2003). Every 2.7 miles of wetlands reduces storm surge by 1 foot, so Katrina surges of 10 – 20 feet in New Orleans would have been 0 – 9 feet with better oversight of corporations carving up the wetlands – not big enough to breach the levees (Masters, 2008).

What’s Left of the Cypress Swamp

Secondly, in 1968, The Army Corps of Engineers built the 76-mile Mississippi River Gulf Canal Outlet (MRGO), a canal that brings ships straight from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans Industrial Canal that borders the Lower Ninth Ward(Warren, 2009). The canal salinated and decimated Bayou Bienvenue, a freshwater swamp and natural storm buffer along the north end of the Ninth Ward. The MRGO was nicknamed “Hurricane Highway” post-Katrina because it brought the storm surge directly to the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. To add insult to injury, the MRGO has been an economic boondoggle; used by an average of one ship per day since it was built (Brinkley: 2006). The Army Corps started filling in the canal in 2009 after a federal court decision showing that officials knew that creating the MRGO would doom the residents of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward (Schleifstein, 2009). The judge chided the Army Corps, noting that they “not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO threatened human life… and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.”

The creation of MRGO was only the most recent political decision that put poor New Orleanians in danger. In 1927, federal officials dynamited a levee thirteen miles South of New Orleans in a poor, rural area to prevent the water surge from reaching the French Quarter (U.S. News and World Report, 2005). The houses and lives of the impoverished were sacrificed for the “greater good” when this breach flooded the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines Parish (RMS Special Report, 2007). No death toll from this event is available, likely because many of the victims were people of color whose deaths were routinely overlooked (Lal, 2007). Many residents I interviewed post-Katrina believed that the government had also dynamited a levee in 1965 with Hurricane Betsey, a storm that killed 81 poor, mostly black, people in the Lower Ninth Ward (GNOCDC, 2000). Whether or not this is accurate, this belief compelled some residents to stay behind during Katrina to patrol the levees and protect their property.

The third preventable human aspect of Katrina was a network of levees suffering from poor design and disrepair from bureaucratic bickering; an 80% cut to levee repair funds under the Bush Administration and misspent money (Myers, 2005). After Katrina, the Corps admitted that “the hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana was a system in name only” (Schwatrz, 2006), “an inconsistent patchwork of protection, containing flaws in design and construction, and not built to handle a hurricane anywhere near the size of Katrina.” With a weak storm buffer, the storm surge pipeline of the MRGO, and a fatally flawed levee system, it’s no surprise that the greatest number of fatalities occurred in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish (Landphair, 2007).

Predictable Disaster
The catastrophic effects of Katrina were predicted in a 2004 FEMA simulation known as Hurricane Pam (Longley, 2005). This five-day exercise predicted a possible 61,000 deaths with a direct hurricane hit to the city (USA Today, 2005), and proposed many emergency measures that were not implemented. Solid evidence of prior knowledge begs the question of how things might have been handled differently if the Hurricane Pam exercise had been run in other cities that are partially under sea level – Boston, New York, Charleston, Miami, San Jose, Long Beach? The possibility that Boston might be submerged would surely have made front headlines on national newspapers, but Hurricane Pam predictions only made local headlines.

During the Storm
The events that occurred in the days leading up to and following the storm are what most Americans know best from extensive television coverage: evacuation procedures that left many behind, slow response from the local and federal level, and terrible conditions at the Superdome and the Convention Center. Lesser-known stories include the brutality of the evacuation experience, the inhumane treatment of prisoners, delayed relief due to racist stereotypes, and militia and police massacres of (mostly) black residents who stayed behind. Each of these topics is explored below.

The Demographics of Death
During disasters, poor people, people of color, and the elderly die in disproportionate numbers (Klinenberg, 2002), and Katrina was no exception. Many decisions were made in the days leading up to and shortly after Katrina that amplified loss of life for these groups. New Orleans is both a poor (23% poverty rate pre-Katrina – twice the national average) and segregated city, and these factors led to loss of life (Dreier, 2006). First, an effective evacuation plan was not in place that accounted for the 112,000 poor, mostly black New Orleanians without cars (Dyson, 2006). Additionally, the timing of the storm at the end of the month meant that those receiving public assistance were unusually cash-strapped. To make matters worse for poor people with children, school had just started so expenses for the month were higher than usual.

The immobile poor were disproportionately left behind and lost their lives. A comprehensive study of Houston evacuees (who had stayed behind during the storm) found that 22% were physically unable to evacuate, 14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease (Quigley, 2006). Also,
• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane

Age was also a factor in fatalities. Nearly 40% of those who died in Katrina were elderly (NPR, 2006), and many more elderly individuals died from the stress of evacuation and home loss. I first started gutting (stripping down) homes in the 7th Ward with “Mamma D” (Diane Frenchman). We slept in a home we were gutting for an elderly woman across the street from Mamma D’s “camp.” This resident died in Houston, Texas, before we could finish repairing her house, and I spent the better part of some days grieving in the sewing room of a person I had never met.

Government Response
Mayor Nagin received nearly $20 million to establish a workable evacuation plan in plenty of time for Katrina, but it’s questionable whether it was ever developed, and it was never disseminated (Palast, 2006). Two months before Katrina, Nagin spent money to produce and distribute DVDS in poorer neighborhoods to inform residents that they would be on their own if a storm hit because the city could not afford to evacuate them (Reed, 2006). In the days before the storm, Nagin sent empty Amtrak trains out of the city, failed to mobilized available school and other buses, and waited an entire day to call for a mandatory evacuation so he could determine whether the City would face lawsuits from local businesses (Brinkley, 2006). All of these decisions were deadly.

The federal response was no better. The city was quiet after the storm whipped through late Sunday night/early Monday morning when President Bush announced that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” Within hours, three major levees breaches and over fifty minor breaches flooded the city. Despite Governor Blanco’s request for federal assistance on Saturday (two days before the storm made landfall) (Katrina Timeline, 2005) and concern from local media on Sunday (one day before the storm) that the levees wouldn’t hold, they breached on Monday morning with only two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers on the ground. It would take two days for 1,000 additional officials to arrive (O’Brien and Bender, 2005).

Once on the ground, FEMA slowed the evacuation with unworkable paperwork and certification requirements (Tierney, 2005). Marc Cresswell, a medic from a private ambulance company, reported that “At one point I had 10 helicopters on the ground waiting to go, but FEMA kept stonewalling us with paperwork. Meanwhile, every 30 or 40 minutes someone was dying.” FEMA was also criticized for turning away personnel, vehicles, medical equipment, food and other supplies, and diesel fuel.

The 30,000 people who evacuated to the Superdome (per Nagin’s instructions) were stranded for a week. Those who evacuated to the Superdome experienced deplorable conditions – unbearable heat, darkness, the stench of sewage, and a lack of food and water. They were not allowed to leave, and, according to several evacuees I interviewed in Texas shortly after the storm, this led one man to take his life by jumping from a balcony (Thevenot & Russell, 2005). This death was one of only six deaths at the Superdome: one person overdosed and four others died of natural causes. Another 20,000 people gathered at the Convention Center for assistance, an evacuation site the federal government was unaware of until three days after the storm.

President Bush was otherwise occupied during this time. The day Katrina hit, he traveled to Arizona and California to promote his prescription drug plan, had birthday cake with John McCain, and attended a Padres game (Thomas, 2005).

Birthday Cake with John McCain

Panicked at the slow federal response, Governor Blanco sent an urgent request: “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.” The president retired to bed that night without responding to Blanco. The next day, he sang songs with country singer Mark Willis and returned to Texas for the final night of his vacation. The President was so oblivious to the suffering in New Orleans that his staff made a video of news coverage four days after the storm to sensitize him (Thomas, 2005). And, in response, President Bush’s team assembled a carefully crafted PR plan to blame local officials seven days into the ordeal while thousands of people were still stranded (Nagourney & Kornblut, 2005). Later that same day, President Bush made the infamous statement, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

Evacuation Concerns
I investigated the evacuation process as it was on-going with a research team through interviews with residents who were evacuated by plane and bus, and common themes emerged. The typical plane evacuation experience involved families being split up, loaded onto planes by armed forces with machine guns, and not told what city they were going to until a few minutes before touchdown. It was a nightmare ordeal for some evacuees who were piled onto busses headed for Texas as well. A number of bus drivers were pulled over in Texas for improper paperwork, and their passengers were made to wait for nearly a day without food or water, sitting in their own urine. One grandmother told me that she wept for much of the time because she was unable to feed her four grandchildren (whose parents were missing), even though the bus was parked across from a convenience store, because she didn’t have any money with her.

Once evacuated, the conditions at the Astrodome and Reliant Center were egregious – fluorescent lights on and loudspeaker announcements 24 hours a day, smells emanating from the bathrooms, guards with M-16s walking patrols. I was able to walk freely through both evacuation shelters while my black colleague was harassed by military personnel several times, despite the fact that we both have prominently displayed press badges. This scene stood in stark contrast to the environment I observed at the Qualcomm Center in San Diego set up for wildfire evacuees a few years later: sleeping rooms, counselors provided for support, back massages, fresh food and water.

Once relocated, evacuees faced discrimination. Many states ran background checks on the evacuees they “welcomed,” an unprecedented move that may deter future disaster victims from evacuating (Fox News, 2005). Many evacuees were housed in heavily guarded, military-like facilities, and for many, this was their first time out of Louisiana, and 80% did not have a friend or family member they could move in with in order to get back on their feet (Barnshaw & Trainor, 2007). Evacuees were routinely referred to as “refugees” in the press, a term that suggests that they are second-class citizens: un-American (AP, 2005).

Prisoner Treatment
The treatment of the prison population during Katrina was also cause for concern. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) gathered testimony from 400 of the 7,000 people locked up in New Orleans Prison at the time of Katrina, including approximately 100 juveniles.

Prisoners on the I-10 Bridge

Many reported being left in their cells while the water rose above their heads; being beaten and sprayed with mace once evacuated (to state maximum security prisons); and left on Interstate-10 in the hot sun for days without food or water. An entire building with about 600 prisoners was left behind in the evacuation process and weren’t rescued for days (Quigley, 2006). Most of the 7,000 prisoners had been charged with misdemeanor offenses and would have been released within a few weeks, even if convicted. But Governor Blanco effectively suspended habeas corpus (due process; right to a speedy trial) for six months, so some were incarcerated for over a year – doing “Katrina time” (Flaherty, 2006). “The court system shut its doors, the police department fell into disarray, few prosecutors remained, and a handful of public defenders could not meet with, much less represent, the thousands detained” (Garrett & Tetlow, 2006). Prison officials deny that anyone died in the crisis, despite several reports of deaths from both police officers and prisoners (Onesto, 2006).

The Orleans Parish Prison continues to have civil rights concerns. In 2009, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department found that conditions at OPP violate inmates’ constitutional rights (Maggi, 2009). The report found that prisoners experience violence from other prisoners, excessive force from guards, are not provided adequate medical services, and live in unsanitary conditions with pests.

Widespread Crime?
Another casualty of Katrina was the truth. Myths of widespread violence in the Superdome and Convention Center and tales of violent, roving looters delayed assistance and caused untold deaths (Thevenot & Russell, 2005). Government officials were complicit in both conveying and improperly responding to looter myths. Mayor Nagin pulled 1,500 law enforcement officers off of search and rescue duty to protect property (over people) Governor Blanco issued a “shoot to kill” order after referring to looters as “hoodlums,” a racially-charged term suggesting the targets are black, and announced that hundreds of National Guard troops “Have M-16s and they’re locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will” (ABCNews, 2005).

Media coverage also fed the racial fear-mongering. Gilliam and Iyengar (2000) find that crime coverage disproportionately portrays blacks as perpetrators of violent crime, and that “this script has become an ingrained heuristic for understanding crime and race.” In other words, criminality and Blackness are entwined in the American consciousness, and Katrina coverage reflected this. The Associated Press, the source of many inaccurate stories, admitted reporting claims of crime without proper corroboration, and sometimes without attribution.

A congressional study commissioned in 2006 found that most cases of rape, murder, and other acts of violence reported after Katrina were simply untrue (U.S. House of Representatives, 2006). But widespread, underlying racial prejudice in the U.S. (Kinder & Sears, 1981) allowed reporters to pass along false information without adequately confirming the details, and readers to digest this information without questioning it. Times-Picayune Editor, Jim Amoss, attributed the unusual reporting of false information about looting during Katrina to race. “If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of middle class white people, it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering” (Rosenblatt and Rainey, 2005).

The “looting” frame was also a racial component of media coverage. Looting comes in two forms: “bad” looting or taking merchandise that is not related to survival post-disaster (although it’s hard to determine what is related to survival when commodities can be traded for survival items), and “good” looting or taking items that facilitate survival. A team of researchers from the Disaster Research Center made their way to the Gulf Coast just after Hurricane Katrina to study this, and found that 75% of “looting” was for necessities, while the remainder was for non-necessity items (Barsky, Trainor, and Torres, 2006).

Some residents of New Orleans did walk out of stores with items that were not useful post-Hurricane, but many of the looted items were meaningful to those “on the ground” in ways that are not readily apparent. For example, one of the dominant images of “bad” looting, shown on several cable news channels, is an image of a woman carrying a bin full of sneakers, being apprehended by officials. News coverage clearly encouraged viewers to shame this woman who appeared to so obviously be taking advantage of the post-hurricane situation in New Orleans. I shook my head in disgust at this image prior to making my way to New Orleans during the week Hurricane Katrina hit, and before I realized that clean, dry shoes were a necessity in that environment. I do not know this woman’s circumstances – whether she was “looting” this bin of shoes for only herself or for her family –but after spending a few days trudging trough fetid “water” in New Orleans, a bin of shoes seemed like a perfectly reasonable “looting” excursion.

The “looting” frame was racially charged as evidenced with the now infamous AP photos of a black man described as “looting a grocery store” and a white couple described as “finding bread and soda from a local grocery story.”

All of this racial rumor-mongering and criminalization of desperate survivors affected government response. “The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit and grounded helicopters” (Dwyer & Drew, 2005).

Gretna Bridge Incident
Many events transpired in post-Katrina New Orleans that are only now getting the attention they deserve. The first is the Gretna Bridge incident. When those stranded at the Convention Center marched a long, hot three miles across the Gretna Bridge to get out of the City to a neighboring town, they were stopped by police officers with dogs who shot guns over their heads (Riccardi, 2005), called them racial slurs (Witt, 2008), and told them “we don’t want another Superdome.” Police Chief Arthur Lawson ordered the blockade, and the Gretna City Council later passed a resolution in support of the decision. The racist overtones of this decision are obvious given the slurs and references to supposed violence by blacks at the Superdome. Four lawsuits have been brought against Gretna for civil rights violations stemming from the bridge incident (Purpura, 2009), and two have already been settled out of court.

I marched across the Gretna bridge with 3,000 other protestors on the two-year anniversary of the Gretna Bridge incident, and, as we approached the Gretna line, police officers sat on cruisers, glaring at the marchers and filming the crowd in a menacing, “big brother” way. I made sure to wave at the camera. Also, the manager of the convenience store at the end of the bridge saw a crowd of mostly black faces, and instead of seizing on the opportunity to sell to hungry, thirsty marchers, he locked his doors. I pounded on the door, but to no avail. Not much seems to have changed since Katrina.

Algiers Massacre
A disturbing picture of racial slaughter emerges in the days following Katrina, at the hands of private residents and police officers. Racially-motivated murders were carried out in Algiers Point, a predominately white enclave nestled in mostly black Algiers, not far from Gretna. This part of the city is connected to the rest of New Orleans by bridge and ferry only, and it did not experience flooding. After the storm, a band of 15 to 30 white men formed a loose militia targeting anyone whom they deemed “didn’t belong” in their predominately white neighborhood (Thompson, 2008). They blocked off streets with downed trees, stockpiled weapons, and ran patrols.

At least eleven black men were shot, although some locals expect that the actual number is much higher. On July 16, 2010, Roland Bourgeois was charged with shooting three black men in Algiers in the days following Katrina (McCarthy, 2010). He allegedly came back to the militia home base with a bloody baseball cap from Ronald Herrington, a man he shot, and told a witness that “Anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag is getting shot.”

To date, this is the only arrest of militia members, but the FBI is investigating the situation and will likely make more arrests given that two Danish filmmakers interviewed multiple residents who admitted shooting black people. In “Welcome to New Orleans,” militia member Wayne Janak smiles at the camera: “It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.” A woman nearby adds “He understands the N-word now…In this neighborhood, we take care of our own.” Many of the victims reported that militia members called them racial epithets during attacks, and a family member of militia members reports that her uncle and cousins considered it a “free-for-all—white against black,” and her cousin was happy they were “shooting niggers.”

Malik Rahim, a long-time Algiers resident and activist who co-founded Common Ground Relief after the storm, took me on a tour of bodies in his neighborhood a week or so after the storm. I only made it through one viewing – a bloated body of a man under a piece of cardboard with a gunshot wound to his back. I assumed that this death was being investigated, but should have known otherwise given that the state had essentially sanctioned these actions with a “shoot to kill” order that allowed civilians to make their own assessments of who should live or die.

One of Many New Orleans Vigilante T-Shirts Slogans

New Orleans Police Department Shootings
The New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has been implicated in perpetrating and covering up at least ten murders in the days following Hurricane Katrina (Times-Picayune, 2010).

“NOPD Beat Me Down” Refrigerator Message

Frightened by false accounts of violence, some NOPD commanders gave officers the green light to shoot “looters,” an illegal suspension of civil liberties (Shankman et al., 2010). Of the 11 civilians shot by the NOPD, only one is suspected of looting.  One of the most troubling events is the Danziger Bridge massacre of September 4, 2005, one week after the storm. Six NOPD officers open-fired on a group of six unarmed civilians crossing the Danziger Bridge to get to a grocery store on the other side, fatally shooting two men: James Brissette, 19, and Ronald Madison, 40, a mentally disabled man. According to signed testimony from Michael Hunter, a police officer involved in the massacre, after all of the victims were on the ground, some with multiple gunshot wounds, an NOPD sergeant “leaned over the concrete barrier, held out his assault rifle, and, in a sweeping motion, fired repeatedly at the civilians lying wounded on the ground.”

After the massacre, the NOPD actively covered up the shootings (Maggi & McCarthy, 2010), including falsifying reports, planting a gun, and recruiting phony witnesses (FBI, 2010). The officers involved could face the death penalty.

Rally in Support of Officers who Perpetrated the Danziger Massacre

Then there’s the case of Henry Glover (, 2009), a resident who approached a shopping mall with his brother in Algiers, a part of New Orleans that did not flood. He was shot by an NOPD officer who assumed the two men were looting. A Good Samaritan, William Tanner, drove Glover to the nearest make-shift police station to seek medical assistance (Thompson, 2010). When they arrived, police refused medical help, assaulted Tanner and Glover’s brother, Edward King, and drove away with Glover bleeding profusely in the backseat of Tanner’s Chevy Malibu. Glover’s body was later found behind a nearby police station, torched with an additional bullet wound. In 2010, the FBI issued an 11-count indictment of five officers for shooting Glover and destroying the evidence by torching his corpse.

The Car Where Henry Glover Died

Malik Rahim drove me to the site of the burnt Chevy Malibu in the summer of 2007 – two years after the incident occurred, and I naively assumed that this situation was already being investigated.

Danny Brumfield, 45, is another casualty of the NOPD’s brutality against black residents in post-Katrina New Orleans. Stranded at the Convention Center, Brumfield flagged down a police cruiser to get help for a dehydrated child. According to many eye witnesses, Brumfield was deliberately run over and shot in the back by NOPD officers (Thompson, McCarthy & Maggi, 2009). The officers quickly left the scene as an angry group of onlookers gathered around. The official police report stated the Brumfield inexplicably jumped in front of the car and made a “stabbing motion” through the passenger window with a pair of scissors and was fired upon because an officer feared for his life. The officer investigating the case deemed NOPD actions justified given the threat, despite the fact that Brumfield was shot in the back, not the shoulder as the shooter reported. Also, no scissors were recovered from the crime scene. The NOPD settled out of court with the Brumfield family in 2008.

Walking Past Danny Brumfield’s Body

Since the Storm
The same injustices that magnified the devastation of Katrina and marked the efforts surrounding the storm have continued in the form of the cutting social service budgets; slow rebuilding in certain neighborhoods; toxic FEMA trailers; and disaster profiteering involving the privatization of public education and mass closure of public housing. Each of these is addressed in turn.

Social Service Cuts
The Bush Administration immediately cut $71 million in federal social service funding to New Orleans after Katrina with the rationale was that the city had lost population. This reasoning did not account for new needs with steep job losses, widespread depression and other mental illnesses, and a steep increase in domestic violence (Dyson, 2006). The collapse of social services post-Katrina has been linked to skyrocketing homelessness, with 1-in-25 New Orleanians now homeless – four times the average rate and double the pre-storm rate (Dewan, 2008). While it’s true that average income in the city actually rose post-Katrina (because nearly 70,000 poor people were unable to return), New Orleans still has a poverty rate (23%) that is twice the national average, and it’s neediest have acute social service needs from their storm experiences (Quigley, 2010).

Slashes to social services led to a collapse of mental health services post-Katrina as the number of mental health professionals dwindled from about 350 to 25 (Thomas, 2006). Adequate funding to rebuild the system has yet to be provided, and the region still faces a major shortage of facilities and mental health professionals (Lamberg, 2008). Five years after Katrina, the emotional suffering has intensified. Rates of suicidal ideation, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression usually dissipate within two years following a disaster, but this has not happened with Katrina survivors (Hirshon, 2010). Rates of serious mental health disorders have significantly increased since the storm, and suicidal thoughts have quadrupled.

I have witnessed the broken mental health system firsthand as the Director of the New Orleans Women’s Shelter while trying to acquire mental health services for some of our residents. Appointments are delayed for months, and once obtained, overworked case workers and counselors cannot provide the time and attention needed to provide adequate diagnoses and care. We have twice had social workers come to volunteer in the shelter from Canada who have left within a month because the dire state of social services is too much to handle.

The disintegration of mental health services is also affecting children in New Orleans. One-in-five children who lived through Katrina have a serious emotional disturbance as a result of the event (ScienceDaily, 2010). I witnessed this firsthand when I filled in for a group of fifth-graders at a summer program in 2006. Many of the students were living in FEMA trailers, and every one was clearly hurting. Many were on the verge of tears or an angry outburst, and prescribed learning tasks were simply too daunting. Instead, we spent our time watching movies, singing, talking about our families, and playing – trying to heal.

Rates of Rebuilding and Race
Another injustice since the storm is the slow rate of rebuilding in certain neighborhoods, namely, the Ninth Ward (upper and lower), parts of the Seventh Ward, and New Orleans East. In 2007, my students attended the Southern Political Science conference and witnessed a few asinine academics banter about how the city had been restored to its pre-Katrina state, based on their “informed” experience of walking around the French Quarter and the Central Business District. Certain parts of the city sustained little damage and bounced right back, while others that were damaged has been effectively restored. And in other neighborhoods, progress is hard to detect. The Lower Ninth Ward has now turned into a vast field with varying heights of grass and brambles, for the most part. Brad Pitt’s controversial “Make It Right”

Make it Right Founder, Brad Pitt

houses are a notable exception: a colorful addition to the neighborhood directly in front of the main levee breach.

Rebuilding rates in different neighborhoods also reflect a racial and economic divide. The two neighborhoods that were hit the hardest – Lakeview, and the Lower Ninth ward — provide an excellent example of disparities. In Lakeview, a predominately white, upper-middle class neighborhood, 59% of residents have returned. In the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that was 99% black before the storm, only 24% of residents have returned (GNOCDC, 2010). This richly historical neighborhood, a part of the city that is commonly missing from tourist maps, has one of the highest rates of black home ownership in the nation (60%) (Wagner & Edwards, 2009). Several studies find that neighborhoods with predominately white residents experienced less damage, are being rebuilt at a quicker pace, and are receiving more federal funds as a percentage of damage incurred (Bullard & Wright, 2009). The slow pace of recovery in poorer neighborhoods is the result of Road Home money falling an average of $35,000 short of building costs because these monies were calculated using pre-Katrina construction costs (Quigley, 2010). The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed a suit against the state and federal agencies, claiming that blacks were receiving less Road Home money on average than their white counterparts. The judge in the case concluded that “on average, African-American homeowners received awards that fell farther short of the cost of repairing their homes than did white recipients.” Nearly 20,000 Road Home Program grant claims that qualify for funding have yet to receive it, and these applicants are disproportionately black.

FEMA Formaldehyde Trailers
Flooding survivors faced another injustice when FEMA purchased 120,000 trailers at the cost of over $2 billion that were found to have high levels of Formaldehyde causing respiratory problems, nausea, and headaches (Brunker, 2006). A study three years after the storm found that 42 percent of children who had lived in Formaldehyde trailers suffered from respiratory infections (Dewan, 2008). In 2006, I worked with my students to deliver ferns to residents in these toxic trailers to dissipate the Formaldehyde. Many people reported that they were feeling the physical effects, and also complained at sleeping discomfort from the thin sleeping pads provided in lieu of real mattresses. This was primarily a problem for elderly residents. Although these trailers have been banned by FEMA for long-term housing, the Obama Administration sold these trailers to their occupants for $1 and $5 in 2009. These same toxic trailers reappeared in 2010 to house the families of those working to clean up the Gulf Oil spill (Urbina, 2010).

Disaster Capitalism
The practice of private companies taking advantage of a crisis to gain no-bid (overpriced) contracts, soared in the post-Katrina clean-up and reconstruction efforts. Author Naomi Klein uses the term “shock doctrine” to refer to private companies working with government officials to take advantage of crises to line their pockets (Klein, 2008). For example, Blackwater received a no-bid contract for $70 million to provide protective services for FEMA employees (Scahill, 2010). Bechtel, Fluor Corporation, Kellog Brown & Root (a Halliburton subsidiary), and CH2M also received hefty no-bid contracts in New Orleans, the same companies who received no-bid contracts in Iraq (Broder, 2005).

Disaster capitalism after Katrina was compounded by waste and fraud (Park, 2007). For example, Florida-based company, Ashbritt, was awarded a $500 million contract to remove debris at $23 a cubic yard. They then hired a sub-contactor for $9 a cubic yard, which hired Chris Hessler, Inc., at $7, which hired a local resident, Les Nirdlinger, for $3 a cubic yard. Additionally, services were routinely over-priced – up to ten times the typical costs — such as the blue roof tarps that the government paid $2,500 to have installed (David, Root & Borenstein, 2005).

The Bush Administration also suspended minimum wage laws right after Katrina, effectively shutting out union workers and further padding already lucrative private contracts, until it was overturned by Congress a few months later (Edsall, 2005). The Administration also suspended minority-owned business requirements in the region, effectively preventing local residents from rebuilding their own community (Dreazen & Opdyke, 2005). Over 90% of the initial clean-up contacts went to companies outside of the three states most affected by Katrina (Witte, Merle & Willis, 2005). The privatization of education and closure of public housing are additional examples of disaster profiteering post-Katrina, as discussed in the following sections.

Privatizing Education
Katrina was also used to nearly eliminate public education in the city. One of Mayor Nagin’s first official acts was to close the school system for two years and fire 4,900 teachers, effectively disbanding the majority black teacher’s union (Parks, 2007). The (arguably failing) public school system has been largely replaced with a private charter system. Nearly nine-in-ten white students in New Orleans attend private schools — one of the highest percentages in a major city in the US – and the city has more charter schools than any other city in the U.S. Six-in-ten students now attend a publicly-funded, private manager school (Quigley, 2010).

Contrary to conventional wisdom, public school children perform as well or better in math and reading than privately schooled children, so privatization isn’t a necessary component of improving educational quality (Schemo, 2006). Privatizing education does, however, take advantage of a crisis to move a public good to the private sector. It also allows private institutions to be more selective in choosing students, a serious problem we faced in trying to find schools nearby for the children who lived in the New Orleans Women’s Shelter. Also, the charter school system in New Orleans has maintained pre-existing racial segregation (Swiminathan, 2010). According to a report from researchers at the University of Minnesota, “the reorganization of the city’s schools has created a separate but unequal tiered system of schools that steers a minority of students, including virtually all of the city’s white students, into a set of selective, higher-performing schools and another group, including most of the city’s students of color, into a group of lower-performing schools. The extremely rapid growth of charter schools has not improved this pattern.” This data didn’t stop Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, from recently saying that “Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

Closure of Public Housing
Another example of disaster profiteering was mass closure of public housing in New Orleans. The trend of replacing public housing with multi-use complexes started before Katrina, but accelerated in the wake of the storm. On average, only 12% of residents can afford to live in new multi-use complexes, and, over time, developers typically get rid of low-rent units altogether (Nguyen, 2010). Despite sustaining minimal damage from Katrina flooding, local officials quickly voted to demolish the “big four” public housing complexes after the storm. This decision eliminated 75% of public housing in the city (Quigley, 2010). Representative Richard Baker’s (R-Baton Rouge) statement exposes the politics of this decision: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Public Housing Demonstration

I witnessed residents being removed from housing projects just days after the storm at the end of M-16s, their homes sealed with metal shutters with most of their belongings locked inside. Two years later, I witnessed residents rushing through the fence around the St. Bernard project to recover their personal belongings. Two years after that, I then witnessed the demolition of the St. Bernard project that laced the air with building materials containing asbestos and other contaminants that poisoned the surrounding neighborhood.

To add insult to injury, housing project “redevelopment” in New Orleans is rife with corruption and inefficiency. Housing and Urban Development head, Alphonso Jackson, was found to have close ties with contractors, including Colombia Residential, the St. Bernard Project developer (Nguyen, 2010). He has since resigned. Beyond unethical ties, tax payers spent $27 million in community development block grants and $7.4 million in Go Zone tax credits on this project alone, so the demolition and construction costs are funded by the government. And the developer is leasing the land from the city for $1. Redevelopment of the “big four” housing projects is estimated to cost $762 million — $400,000 per new apartment. Lack of low-income housing couldn’t have come at a worse time for poor New Orleanians as average rent has increased 40% citywide. In some neighborhoods, the rent has doubled post-Katrina (Nguyen, 2010).

The closure of public housing, coupled with a rebuilding strategy of making home ownership a requirement for receiving assistance, has effectively prevented tens of thousands of poorer, mostly black residents from returning to the city (Reed, 2006). And many poor residents who managed to ride the storm out were (illegally) kicked out of their residences to make room for higher paying construction workers.

Policy decisions of surrounding areas have compounded the housing problem in the New Orleans area. St. Bernard, a parish that abuts the Lower Ninth Ward, passed a law decreeing that renters had to be “blood relatives” in this predominately white town (Jung, 2008), a law that was struck down in 2006. St. Bernard was held in contempt of court in 2009 for delaying construction of four apartment complexes that, according to Judge Ginger Berrigan, “pander[ed] to the exaggerated fears and race- and class-based prejudice of some of its citizens (Kirkham, 2009).

Across the board, predominately white communities surrounding New Orleans – St. Bernard, Kenner, Gretna, Westwego — have tried to keep blacks out of their communities. “Couched in the banal language of zoning and tax credits, density and permissive-use permits, these efforts often pass for legal and rarely raise eyebrows outside the small community of fair-housing monitors. But taken together–and accompanied, as they so often are, by individual acts of flagrant racism–they represent one of the most brazen and sweeping cases of housing discrimination in recent history” (Ratner, 2008). Overt acts of racial terrorism are also being employed: the letters “KKK” burned into the lawn of a young, black couple who moved to Gretna; the torching of a home in St. Bernard Parish that was to be rented to a black family.

Officials in New Orleans proper made clear that only certain residents should return to the Crescent City. Oliver Thomas, the New Orleans City Council president, discouraged “pampered” poor people from returning home: “We don’t need soap opera watchers right now.” The plan for post-Katrina social engineering through rebuilding policy has been no secret. The city has shifted from 67% black pre-Katrina to 58% black now (Jung, 2008), and, for the first time in two decades, the City Council is now majority white (Chappell, 2007). The federal government and relief agencies relocated black residents further away from the Gulf Coast than wealthier white evacuees, one of many reasons that fewer blacks have been able to moved back to the area (Tizon & Smith, 2005).

Discouraging any displaced resident from returning home violates international law, according to the guiding principles of the United Nation’s (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which the U.S. has never adopted. Katrina evacuees fit the UN’s criteria for “internally displaced persons” (IDPs): “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of… natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border”(Stephens & Reide, 2006). If Katrina evacuees were classified as IDPs, they would be provided the means to “return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country,” renters included.

The true tale of Katrina is one of a human-made disaster that was predictable, preventable, and reflected decades of public officials working with private industry to place profits over people. It is a tale of public officials leaving the most vulnerable residents behind, branding them “criminals” after days of inexcusable delay, gunning them down in the streets, treating them like rubbish in evacuation facilities; and shipping them all over the country with no way to return home. The days after the storm saw racially-motivated crimes akin to the violence during the Civil Rights Movement that went uninvestigated for years, regardless of numerous eye-witnesses and bodies with bullet holes. The tale of post-Katrina New Orleans is one of dismal social services, skyrocketing housing costs and rates of homelessness, mass closure of public housing, racist housing policies, disaster profiteering, and privatization of the educational system in ways that promote racial segregation.

Why is our “common knowledge” about Katrina so inaccurate? And why don’t more of us care more about Katrina? Only 62% of the American public rated the federal government’s response to Katrina “not so good” or “poor” after the event compared to nearly 70% for the 2010 Gulf oil spill (Pickert, 2010).

One explanation may be that Katrina is perceived as a “black problem.” We are a majority white (66%) nation that places a higher value on whites than any other “race,” and the average white person in the U.S. considers of stories that primarily involve blacks as less newsworthy and salient (Lind, 2004). White people clearly understand Katrina as a racial issue. If we didn’t, whites would have experienced elevated anxiety about the possibility of it happening to us (as happened after 9/11). There would have been a national outcry for government investigation and reform. But there wasn’t. Many of us were sympathetic at the time, but we weren’t afraid that it could happen to us.

Another explanation for lack of interest is Katrina fatigue. Three months after the storm, members of Congress were weary of thinking about how to best respond to the disaster (Brazile, 2005), and the country was soon to follow (Kurtz, 2006). Perhaps the steady flow of horrific images and stories caused many of us to tune out Katrina stories after a while. Of course the Katrina Diaspora and residents trying to rebuild their lives in the city did not have the luxury of tuning out from fatigue. By 2008, Katrina fatigue had translated into a steep drop in congressional and private support for the region (Scott, 2008).

Another potential explanation for our lack of interest/knowledge is that, at some level, we don’t want to know about Katrina because we would have to do something beyond the week we watched television and (unfortunately) sent a check to the American Red Cross. I suspect that many of us think of New Orleans as “third world” – an aberration and, thus, not our responsibility because “third world” equal un-American. The ease with which pundits compared the earthquake in Haiti with Katrina in New Orleans illustrates this point. Drawing parallels between a natural disaster in an impoverish country and a human-made disaster in the world’s wealthiest country (through the “blackness” of the victims) absolves us of our collective responsibility for the injustices that happened and continue to happen every day in New Orleans. “Mentally equating poor people with non-white people and both with “the Third World” quietly allows viewers to slip easily into familiar forms of perception of the U.S., even when they appear new and surprising. One of its greatest dangers is that it mentally allows people to think that poverty and non-whiteness are non-American things, even when they are present in the U.S. in significant numbers” (Dominguez, 2006).

The residents of New Orleans, including the displaced, deserve better from their fellow Americans than selective ignorance and mythical beliefs. At the very least, they deserve a nation that knows the truths about Katrina.

14 thoughts on “The Truths of Katrina

  1. You are extremely racist! Please read “A tale of two disasters, Red River flood and Hurricane Katrina”. If you are truly open minded, that article can find some truths for you!!! God Bless, and have a wonderful day….

    • You’re incredible, Bill. You troll the internet at one o’clock in the morning looking for people opposed to your ideology, and then post about how racist they are and tell them to read an article from a white supremacist web site. The irony is so perfect. I don’t want you to get angry and come up with reasons as to why the Occidental Observer is not supremacist. I just want you to recognize the irony in calling someone a racist and recommending to that same person an article from a web site which, by the author’s own admission, most people would consider to be an outlet for white supremacy.

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