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Disappearing acts: reflecting on New Orleans 10 years after Katrina

An abandoned street in the Lower Ninth Ward in August 2006. . REUTERS/Lee Celano

Disappearing acts: reflecting on New Orleans 10 years after Katrina

An abandoned street in the Lower Ninth Ward in August 2006. . REUTERS/Lee Celano

In this season of anniversaries, no two are more stark in their parallels than Ferguson a year after the shooting of Michael Brown and New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina killed 1,800 and displaced thousands.

Both involve the senseless loss of black lives and the public horror at revelations long known in many isolated communities. Each said a lot about race relations in a country where the “postracial” election of the first black president suggested that we were too far beyond Katrina to produce Ferguson. Each also speaks of structural inequality and the idea of disappearance.

But for the moment, let’s focus on Katrina and New Orleans’ slow journey through grief and devastation.

Disappearance was both symbolic and very real when that category 3 hurricane failed to veer away from the magical city, crashed the levees and inundated the low-lying areas populated overwhelmingly by the city’s African Americans.

The disappearance of whole neighborhoods

From its impoverished but historic Lower Ninth Ward to its middle-class but geographically vulnerable New Orleans East, whole neighborhoods disappeared. Some people died and floated adrift down the rivers of streets. Some waited on rooftops or at the Superdome for rescuers that would not come. And some left town and waited to return. Many are still waiting. New Orleans has lost 100,000 black residents since the storm.

Academics like me were fascinated and horrified by the public reaction to so many instantaneous deaths; we knew that slow deaths of similarly situated Americans across the nation receive little attention. I edited a collection of essays on the disaster’s meaning called After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meanings of Hurricane Katrina and wondered what recovery would look like in New Orleans.

The consensus worry among the authors was that a Democratic city in a Republican state, with such a large number of blacks living in dangerous conditions, would, with the cooperation of surrounding parishes and federal disaster policy, jettison the survivors, ignoring their needs in the rebuild and remake itself as a thriving “Disney on the Mississippi.”

When I visited the empty city 100 days after the storm, I could see that it was already clear that real estate on dry ground was being bought up in a feverish investment market. Certain areas were prepared to profit from the billions in federal aid that was pledged, while others saw sparse activity.

The larger question was whether the singular spectacle of black suffering the nation had witnessed in 2005 would give rise to a set of 21st-century solutions to the spatial problems of segregation, predatory policing, concentrated poverty, awful schools and wide income inequality.

Did the burst of national attention produce real results?

The results of New Orleans’ 10-year recovery appear mixed, in a racially familiar way. The city is no doubt a different place. A survey by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University found that four out of five whites believe the city has mostly recovered, while three out of five blacks do not. The results seem an accurate reflection of segregated realities in a gentrified city. The New Orleans is whiter and wealthier now.

The federal money helped it withstand the Great Recession better than most, and it has become a hotbed of social entrepreneurism; many new companies grew out of the immense outpouring of public sympathy after Katrina. The suffering clearly stirred consciousness and drew many to the Gulf to help. High start-up rates have attracted college grads under 40. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the first white mayor in many years, is cautiously giddy about his city on the rise.

A combo picture shows thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors outside the Superdome sports stadium during their evacuation in New Orleans, Louisiana, September 2 2005 (TOP) and the same scene almost two years later on August 23 2007. REUTERS/Jason Reed (TOP), Lee Celano (BOTTOM)

Black survey responses reflect black realities in New Orleans. According to figures provided by the Data Center (formerly the Greater New Orleans Data Center), median income for black households in 2013 was 20% below that for whites. The difference between them – a measure of income inequality – is 54%, higher than the national average. Black male employment is 57%, compared to 77% for whites. Incarceration rates have dropped, but are still sky-high. Poverty rates are returning to pre-Katrina levels. The schools are a laboratory in the charter school revolution, with mixed academic results and a labor legacy of many teacher firings. (See the report here.)

These trends reflect deeper fissures for many black New Orleanians, already disproportionately displaced by the storm.

The hard-hit Ninth Ward remains blighted

In the hard-hit Ninth Ward, only 36% of residents have returned, and the area remains deeply blighted. These homeowners suffered from the fate of having only informal property documents or they lost them altogether, with many parcels passing deedless through generations of family members.

Like many black homeowners, Ninth Ward residents were discriminated against by the rules of the federal Road Home project, which compensated for the prestorm market value of the property rather than the cost of repair. A successful lawsuit by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and others reversed those rules in 2011, but for many the changes came too late.

And New Orleans East, the sprawling middle-class black community that grew up in the 1980s despite white flight, still lacks 20% of its residents. The mass firing of so many mostly black teachers by the state legislature had a devastating effect on the area’s black middle class.

Still, some factors indicate a trend toward gentrification of New Orleans since Katrina. But gentrification is a funny and complicated thing.

Displacement and disappointment

In my essay, “Many Thousands Gone, Again,” the best scenario I could predict was that federally financed rebuilding would produce lots of construction employment and a land grab. I proposed a jobs trust on behalf of displaced, underskilled New Orleanians and a land trust to ensure affordable places to return.

I had also hoped that survivors would find at least temporary housing in the surrounding parishes of the New Orleans metropolitan area, so that they could participate in the planning processes that were forecast.

Not much of any of that happened. Instead the public housing that had been such a killing field for poor black New Orleanians was shuttered – not because it was uninhabitable. Projects like B W Cooper, which sits within sight of the Central Business District on higher ground, were razed or transformed to become mixed-income housing. A good idea? In theory, but only as long as there is provision for all residents who once lived there. There was not, and many remain displaced.

The role of the suburbs

Did the suburbs welcome the survivors? Not particularly. Three surrounding parishes became home to a growing Latino population, mostly from Honduras, whose labor was instrumental in the rebuilding. By 2012, eight of the surrounding 13 parishes saw no increase in the number of poor households at all, a sign that desperate survivors did not move there. In fact, these areas saw improved growth, according to the Data Center.

The metro suburbs did see an increase in overall poverty relative to the city – a trend that mirrors the nation – but that may be because the city is pricing poor people out, and many elderly either stayed in suburbs on fixed incomes or left the city when it became unaffordable.

It’s hard to gauge from any distance the complexity of a city’s 10-year recovery from a disaster that multiplied across families, neighborhoods and institutions. Statistics miss the continuing effects of trauma suffered by thousands of New Orleanians who saw horror, survived despite unimaginable fear and struggled through long periods of homelessness, neglect, anger and longing. Sudden death leaves even the most resource rich among us forever changed.

A few conclusions seem warranted. First, the city’s recovery was not transformative for the very citizens whose spectacular suffering occasioned the wave of resources pledged to match the storm. The pre-Katrina normalcy of low black wealth and incomes, high unemployment, housing instability and economic vulnerability has resettled in southern Louisiana. The output per capita trends reported by the Brookings Institute, for instance, indicate that the economy was hottest for new residents and cooled to familiar low wages for more recent returning natives.

For all the federal government’s prodigious activity in New Orleans, we cannot tell a story of economic revitalization for the city’s majority black population.

The gentrification of multiple New Orleans neighborhoods and the suburbanization of poverty present yet another argument for the regionalization of certain public services, such as affordable housing, education and social services. Urban gentrification pushed some of the poor to surrounding parishes, where more affordable suburbs had to shoulder social service costs the city would have had to bear.

President Barack Obama sits for lunch at Willie Mae’s restaurant near downtown during a presidential visit to New Orleans, Louisiana, August 27 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Those parishes that could resist an influx of poor households did, if through discriminatory real estate practices, unconstitutional ordinances (eg, “blood-only” deed restrictions) or just the higher housing costs associated with their own prosperity. Those that couldn’t probably suffered in tax base and market attractiveness.

This burden-shifting dynamic occurred more quickly in the New Orleans metro area because of the storm and federal money; it has happened more slowly in other areas of the country. The unfairness of winner and loser municipalities across the region is manifest. Democratic participation – a hallmark of sovereignty – demands that all citizens across a relevant region have some say in the public institutions paid for with their tax dollars. The regionalization of institutional obligations therefore requires greater regional voice in their governance.

Re-disappearance is a formidable cruelty made possible by something too systemic to ignore. The idea that people whose poverty we didn’t know would appear before us in shocking desperation, engage our sympathy and billions later disappear again into the same cycle of marginalization is unthinkable.

Of course, we should be proud of the affluence and ingenuity that brought back so many parts of New Orleans. But we should be worried that the same people once marginalized are still being left out of our best efforts.

We are not yet finished, and we have much still to learn.