White New Orleans Has Recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Black New Orleans Has Not.
That’s how many fewer African-Americans are living in New Orleans now than prior to Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall 11 years ago today. Nearly 1 in 3 black residents have not returned to the city after the storm.
It was the worst urban disaster in modern U.S. history. Eighty percent of New Orleans lay under water after the epic collapse of the area’s flood-protection system—more than 110,000 homes and another 20,000 plus businesses, along with most of the city’s schools, police and fire stations, electrical plans, and its public transportation system.
Unlike last year, when the 10th anniversary meant satellite trucks clogging the streets, this anniversary is unlikely to draw much media attention—which would be a shame if I thought the coverage last year was any good.
Large stretches of New Orleans were still reeling from the disaster last summer, as those satellite trucks sat parked in the French Quarter. There, the on-air talent did their stand-ups against the backdrop of Jackson Square and the media rarely ventured to the eastern half of the city, where most of the city’s black residents lived prior to Katrina.
On the east side they might have shot footage of the Seventh Ward, a black working-class community that was still only around 60 percent rebuilt a decade after Katrina. They could have gone to Pontchartrain Park, a black middle class community that the actor Wendell Pierce, who had grown up there, dubbed a “black Mayberry.” Pontchartrain Park was doing no better than the Seventh Ward. Or they might have reported from New Orleans East, a black professional class neighborhood still pocked by boarded-up strip malls and abandoned businesses. It is maybe 80 to 85 percent rebuilt eleven years after Katrina.
Most shocking is the Lower Ninth Ward, where the average resident was living on $16,000 a year before the hurricane. You can still drive blocks there and not see a single home. The neighborhood is still missing more than half its pre-Katrina population.
The great need in parts of the city where the tourists rarely venture was not what the media—or the city’s white civic leaders—were focused on.
Yet the great need in parts of the city where the tourists rarely venture was not what the media—or the city’s white civic leaders—were focused on. Instead, the story line was what city officials dubbed the “New Orleans miracle.” In his state of the city address a few months before the 10th anniversary, Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared victory over Katrina: New Orleans was “no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding,” he said. According to the mayor the city was “America’s greatest comeback story,” and he oversaw a three-month celebration dubbed “Katrina 10: Resilient New Orleans.” For white communities, it was true: Lakeview, a prosperous white neighborhood on the east side that also suffered catastrophic flooding, looks better than it did before the storm because of all the new homes and businesses.
Just a year earlier, Landrieu had protested when a writer for The Atlantic referred to him as the city’s first white mayor in 36 years. “I don’t see myself as a white mayor or the city as a black city,” he said.
But it’s hard to imagine a black mayor, in a style reminiscent of George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech, triumphantly describing the recovery as a thing of the past when there was still so much suffering in the eastern half of the city.
Katrina was not an equal opportunity storm. A black homeowner in New Orleans was more than three times as likely to have been flooded as a white homeowner. That wasn’t due to bad luck; because of racially discriminatory housing practices, the high-ground was taken by the time banks started loaning money to African Americans who wanted to buy a home.
Nor has New Orleans experienced an equal opportunity recovery—in no small part because of the white civic leaders who openly advocated for a whiter, wealthier city. While water still covered most of New Orleans, Jimmy Reiss, a prominent local businessman and then-head of the Business Council, told the Wall Street Journal that the city would come back in “a completely different way: demographically, geographically, and politically,” or he and other white civic leaders would not return. That sentiment was paired with a policy approach then-Congressman Barney Frank described as “ethnic cleansing through inaction.”
Now, New Orleans no longer has a public hospital, though prior to Katrina, it was home to the nation’s oldest one. Before the storm, the city was home to thousands of units of affordable housing in a quartet of housing projects locals called the “Big Four.” Large portions of the Big Four had escaped with little or no water damage. Yet elected officials chose to bulldoze all four anyway. The largest housing recovery program in U.S. history, “Road Home,” was created in the months after Katrina. But money was disbursed based on the appraised value of a home rather than the cost of rebuilding, even though a home in a white community was typically appraised at a far higher price than the same house in a black community. Five years after the storm, a federal judge sided with black homeowners in a racial discrimination suit against the program. But by then officials had already spent more than 98 percent of the $10.5 billion that the federal government had committed to Road Home.
Katrina was not an equal opportunity storm.
The irony—the tragedy—is that despite the efforts of people like Jimmy Reiss to make New Orleans a less poor city, something like the opposite has happened. The child poverty rate in New Orleans is now 4 percent—that’s higher than it was before the storm, and more than double the national average. The income disparity between rich and poor is so great that last year Bloomberg declared New Orleans the country’s most “unequal” city. And it’s hardly just the poor who are suffering. The median black household in New Orleans in 2013 was $30,000—$5,000 less than it was in 2000, adjusted for inflation. By contrast, median household income in the white community increased by 40 percent over that same period and now stands at more than $60,000. The same young energy that is helping rejuvenate urban communities across the country is part of the New Orleans story. But that just calls into greater relief those who have been left behind during recent prosperity.
These days, little recovery money is still coming to New Orleans. It might be a flood that explains the sorry state of so many of the city’s working and middle class communities, but New Orleans today is in the same boat as any city that has suffered blight and other ills due to the subprime meltdown and the disappearance of blue-collar jobs. The answer to this widespread suffering is a comprehensive urban plan—one that helps any metropolis with struggling neighborhoods that haven’t benefited from a general uptick in the fortune of the nation’s cities. But, of course, few in power are talking about anything so ambitious.