Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is neither fully healed nor truly at ease with the legacy of the storm that for many people in the United States became the first undeniable example of the critical intersection between climate change, economic inequality, and racial injustice on a grand scale.
Community members in some of the neighborhoods hardest hit when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the low-lying city on August 29, 2005 commemorated Saturday's anniversary with colorful marches and joyous "second line parades" while also speaking out loudly against injustices--many of them along the lines of race and poverty--the destruction of the storm both exposed and exacerbated.
As Rae Breaux, a native of south Louisiana and a climate campaigner for 350.org, wrote on Saturday:
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall and the levees protecting New Orleans failed, about eighty percent of the city was flooded. Along with the rest of the country, we watched as the overwhelmingly Black and working class residents of the neighborhoods in and around the Lower Ninth Ward climbed onto their roofs and crammed into the Superdome. We watched as they waved signs calling out for urgent medical and emergency support -- and we watched as that support took criminally long to arrive.
Ten years later, this country is still grappling with that image and what it reveals: Climate change means Black and brown folks, like my family, are all too often caught between a dangerously unbalanced climate system and a social system willing to abandon entire communities when disaster strikes.
While city and state officials joined national figures like President Obama in championing the "resilience" of the city, community activists and their supporters from across the country gathered under the banner of 'Gulf South Rising' to make it clear that while the storm waters long-ago receded, there remains much work to be done for the city and the region to be considered whole again. Bringing various organizations from across the region, the GSR initiative takes direct aim at the interwoven crises of racial discrimination, entrenched poverty, and climate change by demanding a "just transition away from extractive industries, discriminatory policies, and unjust practices that hinder equitable disaster recovery" while fighting in favor of progressive economic solutions and sustainable communities.
In an op-ed written just ahead of this weekend's anniversary, journalist Jordan Flaherty, who has covered the story of Katrina in-depth over the last decade, describes how even as many people have come to equate New Orleans as a city that was "destroyed by" but then "recovered from" the storm, the real story contains many layers that are often overlooked.
"As the national media has descended on New Orleans," Jordan writes, "the stories of those who continue to struggle to survive have been left out." The deeper story, he continues, is one of:
systemic racism that begins long before the storm, with decades of white reporters ignoring the systemic issues that plagued the city: underfunded public schools, housing and healthcare, a lack of economic opportunity, and a corrupt police department. With some notable exceptions, the media even ignored federal responsibility for the post-storm flooding, saying the city faced a natural, not man-made, disaster.
Although Hurricane Katrina reached Category Five in the warm waters of the Gulf, the winds that hit New Orleans had descended to Category Two. But despite only needing to protect against a much weaker storm than predicted, and despite the levees having been built by the US Army Corps of Engineers to withstand a Category Three storm, the federal protection system failed and 80 percent of the city flooded.
However, despite the ongoing struggles, journalists, community organizers, and ordinary residents throughout New Orleans know there are victories of specific nature that deserve to be reported and celebrated. As Jordan concludes in his piece:
Ten years after the devastation of New Orleans, there is good news to report on here, but it's not the deceptive reports pushed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu about charter schools and reduced crime and bike paths. It's the success of community organizing, which has led real resistance to the neoliberal "reforms" pushed on the city, and won real victories, such as legal protections for immigrant workers, federal oversight of the corrupt police department, and more job opportunities in the reconstruction of the city set-aside for local workers.
During the commemorations of this Katrina anniversary, thousands of residents will be taking the streets. They will be participating in artistic responses to the displacement, a mass march, a tent city, and much more. This is the change, from the grassroots, that will transform this city, and it's a story you won't find in the corporate media.
And as 350's Breaux championed those who took to the streets, she also celebrated the collective determination throughout the region where people are willing to stare down their struggles and have adopted the mantra: "The seas may be rising, but so are we."