Oh, Katrina

This week marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and while it’s clear that progress has been made in New Orleans, it’s also abundantly clear that there is work to be done.

Here are some of the words people spoke and wrote on the topic:

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the city of New Orleans on the morning of August 29, 2005, swept in by winds traveling at 127 mph. But the true damage came after the levees broke, when about 80 percent of the city flooded. At least 400,000 residents, nearly the entire city, were displaced—some for a few days, some forever.

Ten years later, there is still no single, comprehensive source of information on what happened to displaced New Orleans residents—on where they went, or why. Beyond FEMA and U.S. Census data collected a year or less after the disaster, neither the local nor federal government had systems in place to systematically track Katrina’s castaways.

What we do have are a handful of individual studies, lists, and mapping efforts, that, taken all together, paint a portrait of a decade of dramatic upheaval.

I remember the greatest crime that ever happened, I think, was 10 years ago, when none of the large insurance companies honored the homeowner policies. My parents paid Allstate for 50 years, when they moved into Pontchartrain Park in 1955 up to the day we evacuated, and we’re still paying after the flood, because my mother said it can burn down at any time. And for those 50 years of premiums, they received $400. – Wendell Pierce

If we continue to send this message of recovery and rebuilding to the world and to the rest of the nation, we’re dooming people to live with this kind of scenario after a disaster. And so, there’s a need for corrective action in terms of ensuring that people are able to recover. As we move forward and out of this 10-year cycle and into the years ahead, that needs to be the focus, that recovery hasn’t happened, that the right to recovery needs to happen. And we should not be spending billions of dollars and giving it to people who want to make a city that’s majority-African-American to be a city that’s less—would have fewer African Americans and fewer poor people. – Monique Harden

MATT LAUER: You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your presidency.


MATT LAUER: I wonder if some people are going to read that, and they might give you some heat for that. And the reason is this.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I don’t care.

MATT LAUER: Well, here’s the reason. You’re not saying that the worst moment in your presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You’re saying it was when someone insulted you because of that.

GEORGE W. BUSH: No. And I also make it clear that the misery in Louisiana affected me deeply, as well. There’s a lot of tough moments in the book, and it is a disgusting moment, pure and simple.

I mean, when you look at the federal law, all of the decisions come from the president. Once something is declared as a national disaster, this law says all decisions, and the decision to act or not to act, are entirely discretionary and immune from lawsuit. And this is how he chose to exercise that power—to let people wait and suffer in flooded cities on rooftops and convention centers and the Superdome without adequate support and services; to evacuate families without—parents without children in a really inhumane and harsh condition; and to set about this conservative recovery agenda [inaudible] caused displacement of so many people, African Americans, in particular, from New Orleans and the Gulf region, and put money in the hands of folks who are not in need of any recovery but are just profiting from the disaster. He did all of that.- Monique Harden

And to say that it wasn’t about race, I’m sure that—I kept saying to people who finally got in touch with me in the middle of the night, and I would tell them, “We are in great need down here.” And they kept telling me, “Wendell, we’re watching it on television.” And I said, “You can’t be telling me that you’re watching it on television, because there would be some response.” And to find out later, once I got out of Louisiana, to see that it was something that was broadcast around the world live—and those same people we saw at the Convention Center tried to walk out of the city, met on the other side of the bridge by racist cops who shot into the crowd, over their heads, saying, “Go back. We don’t want you to come into our community of Gretna,” which is a white suburban neighborhood and city just across the bridge—I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget how people responded to people of color. If those had been white American citizens, you would have seen a more immediate response. I doubt that if in the Marina section of San Francisco after the earthquake in the late ’80s, that people would have sat back and done nothing. They knew that was one of the most cherished neighborhoods in America and one of the most cherished and profitable cities in America, and so they responded. It was all about race—the lack of attention, the fact that you saw these images of people in need. – Wendell Pierce

So, it was not an equal opportunity storm. If you were a black homeowner in New Orleans, you were more than three times more likely to have a flooded home than if you were a white homeowner. And it has not been an equal opportunity recovery. You could look at Lakeview, a prosperous white community that was completely flooded. Ten years later, it’s 100 percent back. It’s arguably better than ever. You look at New Orleans East, a black professional-class, middle-class neighborhood, 10 years after the storm, it’s maybe 80 percent back. You look at Seventh Ward, a black working-class neighborhood, 50 percent, 60 percent back.

And the great shame of it is, it’s based on many factors—a lack of wealth, perhaps, in the black community versus the white—but it’s also based on policy. There were policies put in place that got in the way of the recovery, that made for an unequal recovery. New Orleans today has the second-highest rate of—the second-highest gap between rich and poor of any city in the country but one. And it’s not accidental. The website FiveThirtyEight pointed out that in the year 2000 the average black middle-class family was making $30,000. Thirteen years later, 2013, that same family was making $25,000—making less money today. – Gary Rivlin

I’ll start in the words that Dickens gave us centuries ago: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It’s a tale of two cities. New Orleans, 10 years after Katrina, is definitely coming back. It is definitely thriving. It is definitely bringing in a new generation of entrepreneurial spirit. We’ve got new businesses, new restaurants, reformation of the schools, reformation of the levees and the water protection system and all. So there is a lot to celebrate. But we should never start a discussion about Katrina without remembering the 1,800-plus souls who lost their lives 10 years ago in that great flood of that great city. So we should always remember them. – Wendell Pierce

All one had to do was look out a window in New Orleans in 2009 to see what the housing needs were. And yet the bond commission’s red light was far from the only force at play threatening to undermine the construction of affordable housing. Consider that:

It was bad enough that the city wasn’t bringing back all of the public housing it demolished after Katrina. But now it was in danger of losing funding for whatever affordable housing was stuck in the pipeline.


Over the 10 years, you know, New Orleans is still a story of two cities. You know, if you’re white or if you’re part of that privileged black class or free people of color class, then, you know, I mean, it’s recovered. But if you’re poor and part of that African or Maroon class, then it’s like the hurricane just happened last year.

Right now we’re in the midst of some of the most violent times in the history of this city. And it’s only because of the fact that that 10-, that eight-year-old, that six-year-old child, that 12-year-old child, that was in the Convention Center and abandoned in that Superdome, now they are 22, 16, full of rage, because we did not deem—have any trauma counselors there with them through this.

We have unemployment is over 50 percent. And the ones who are blessed with a job, the disparity of wages is that they make three times less than their white counterpart. Public housing is no more. They displaced everyone. The only equal opportunity employer is the drug dealer. So now we’ve been in the midst of a drug war. And the tails of it is just in the last two days there has been maybe six shootings. So, again, you know, by the fact that our administrations—and I’m talking about on all levels—refused to address the real, pertinent issues of the aftermath of Katrina is the reason why we are in this way, in this dilemma now. – Malik Rahim

AMY GOODMAN: What would you say to President Obama today? Will you actually see him?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: I’m supposed to be there, along with a whole lot of other people in the city of New Orleans. And I hope to see him.

I would say to him, number one, “No mission accomplished. You were right five years ago. Don’t come here today and say, ‘Mission accomplished,’ because while you’re at a beautifully rebuilt Sanchez Center, if you go three blocks in from Claiborne Avenue, you’ll see that our mission is far from accomplished.” The lots aren’t overgrown in many instances; they’re just bulldozed over, right? And so, we still need the rebuild. We still need the equitable recovery.

And again, it’s about accountability. It’s about accountability. And 15 years from now, when we do this on the 25th anniversary, we need to be able to go back and say, “President Bush, you know, President Obama, you failed us.” And they need to—and who’s ever in government at that time needs to be able to accept that. I’m still here. I am still hopeful that we won’t be in that situation. But, Amy, I don’t want him to come here and say to that community in the Lower Ninth Ward, “Hercules is all done. Great.”

One thing that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants everybody to remember is that the death and destruction that accompanied Hurricane Katrina wasn’t an act of God or nature.

“This was not a natural disaster—it was an infrastructure failure”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu agreed. “It was the musicians who right away understood that they were the soul of New Orleans,” he told me. “Even though, on average, most of the musicians don’t have any money in their pocket, they did everything they could to make sure that not only did the music live, because they knew the music represented the city, and really nobody was more of an ambassador for us than Terence.” Landrieu, who was serving as the lieutenant governor of Louisiana at the time of the storm, had been in charge of culture, recreation, and tourism. He recalled the first Essence Jazz Fest after Katrina. “Just by showing up and doing what he does, [Blanchard] represents the best that New Orleans has to offer, and has been from our perspective not only a dear friend, but a great ambassador as well.” And what are griots if not the spirit of the city itself? 

“After Katrina, in a unique weird way, everyone became an entrepreneur. The city was closed, so everyone had to start over with tons of uncertainty and limited resources.”

Williamson says the return of small business has come in three waves: Right after the storm, retailers who had existing businesses headed back first. They were followed by former New Orleanians who were drawn back to the city, and opened up new stores or took over family businesses. Finally, there were the outsiders, who saw the opportunity for entrepreneurship as the city healed.

When did we begin to lose faith in our ability to effect change?” Wynton Marsalis said a few hours after Nagin’s comment in a speech at Tulane. “As we have seen our money squandered and stolen, our civil rights trampled, and the politics of polarity become the order of the day, we have held no one accountable.”

“New Orleans is on a path to a better place,” the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, said Saturday. 

“This is a story about resurrection and redemption,” added Landrieu, who also noted that the city would not cease working on behalf of many who are still struggling.

McDonald picked up a black marker and drew a line down its middle. He pointed to the western half. ‘‘That’s the New Orleans you know,’’ he told me: the French Quarter, the Superdome, the Warehouse District, the Garden District, St. Charles Avenue. Those areas had largely remained dry. Then he pointed to the eastern half of the map. ‘‘Where you saw water up to the rooftops?’’ he said. ‘‘That’s where most of the city’s black people lived. That’s where my customer base lived. My employees lived out there.’’ McDonald, who was only a couple of weeks from turning 62, shook his head and gave a rueful laugh. ‘‘Hell, that’s where I lived.’’

When we look at the first 15 years of the 21st century, the most defining moment in black America’s relationship to its country isn’t Election Day 2008; it’s Hurricane Katrina. The events of the storm and its aftermath sparked a profound shift among black Americans toward racial pessimism that persists to today, even with Barack Obama in the White House. Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, “Black Lives Matter.”

Repeatedly, reporters refer to white victims clinging to life as “survivors” and “residents,” while African-American victims doing the same things are called “looters” and “criminals.” Disproportionately, the humanizing, “heart-breaker” stories feature white victims and families. Meanwhile, images of African-American crowds are almost invariably in the background during discussions of “criminal activity.”

“It is a mis-education to say that New Orleans is a place of wonderful racial harmony. There’s people that like to perpetuate that idea, so they don’t have to deal with the hard truths.
But I like the fact that you define what happened in Charleston as domestic terrorism. It needs to be defined like that. Not just for the symbolic nature of it, but for the policy that goes with it. The policy in place with federal government, is that when something is declared a terrorist organization, that means all resources go to destroying, dismantling that organization, because they see it as a threat to the security of the United States. When are we gonna make that same threat on the White Citizens’ Council and on the Ku Klux Klan?

I want people to have the right to wave the confederate flag. Wave it. You have every right. I want you to. Now I know where you stand [chuckling]. That’s what America’s all about, freedom, of expression. But no government that I pay tax dollars to should ever fly that flag.” –  Wendell Pierce

CREIGHTON BERNETTE: [played by John Goodman] What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster, a hurricane, pure and simple. The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal [bleep]-up of epic proportions and decades in the making.

SOFIA BERNETTE: [played by India Ennenga] Daddy.

REPORTER: We can edit that out. No worries.

CREIGHTON BERNETTE: The levees were not blown, not in ’65 and not three months ago. The flood protection system built by the Army Corps of Engineers, aka the federal government, failed. And we’ve been saying for the last 40 years, since Betsy, that it was going to fail again unless something was done. And guess what. It was not.

SOFIA BERNETTE: Seriously, Daddy, you’re going to stroke out.

CREIGHTON BERNETTE: No worries, sweetheart. Cool as a cucumber up an archbishop’s [bleep]. The levees weren’t blown. The floodgates failed, the canal walls failed, the pumps failed, all of which were supposedly built to withstand a much greater storm.

REPORTER: Are you suggesting criminal liability.

CREIGHTON BERNETTE: Absolutely. Find the responsible parties, and put them on trial—Corps of Engineers, federal, state, local government, the contractors who used substandard materials, and the goddamn sleazebag politicians that they have in their pocket.

“It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that’s seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.” —Associated Press, Sept. 1, 2005

But when Katrina struck, it exposed a kind of institutional rot that went far beyond our warnings. The immediate aftermath is the nightmare everybody remembers, with the White House paralyzed and out of the loop while federal, state, and local agencies tripped over one another. Then, in the days afterward, I remember my growing horror at the emerging evidence that — contrary to the tales spun by Corps officials — floodwalls had simply collapsed long before their maximum tolerances had been reached. The Corps of Engineers (which dates back to George Washington’s army) had made engineering errors that caused the city’s almost-demise. The nation, in the form of the federal government, had a contract to protect New Orleans, and to provide assistance in case of disaster. Sure as any levee, that contract had been breached.

What does that say about a) American technical know-how, which once got us to the moon, built the Interstate Highway System, and destroyed and then rebuilt much of Japan and Europe? Or b) the technocratic systems that we all rely on to protect us, serve our needs, provide a buffer against nature or human capriciousness? – John McQuaid

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