Everyone has that one city they’re hopelessly seduced by. For me, it’s always been New Orleans. A city of jazz, blues, and sweet southern drawls; where streets named Desire and Dauphine smell like jasmine and jambalaya, where the air’s heavy and sultry like sin, and where good food, good music, and good living converge to create something magical and manic. Something you fall in love with.
When Hurricane Katrina struck on August 29, 2005, I worried that the city would never recover. Although the storm didn’t directly affect its French Quarter and Garden District, and most buildings withstood the force of the winds, it was the subsequent levee breaches that were responsible for the damage and deaths that took place soon afterwards.
By August 31, 80 per cent of the entire city was flooded, with parts of the Lower Ninth Ward under close to 15 feet of water. When it was all said and done, 1,464 people were dead and many parts of the city were unrecognizable. Experts would later agree that the levee breaches were the worst engineering disaster in the history of the United States.
This coming August 29 marks 11 years from that fateful day, and the state of Louisiana is, once again, back in the news.
As of this week, 13 people have died and more than 60,600 homes have been reported damaged or destroyed in flooding that swept through 20 parishes in Louisiana after torrential rains earlier this month. The Red Cross is describing the flooding as “the worst natural disaster to strike the United States” since Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012. “About 6.9 trillion gallons of rain pummeled Louisiana between August 8 and 14,” according to meteorologist Ryan Maue. Enough water to fill more than 10.4 million Olympic-size swimming pools.
As meteorologists emphasize that flooding like this will soon become the new normal, lessons learned in the post-Katrina recovery process ought to serve as warnings for the recovery process about to begin.
New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, where 91.8 per cent of residents were African American and 40 per cent were living under the poverty line, served — and continues to serve — as a reminder that marginalized communities are always hit the hardest by natural disasters.
Disaster doesn’t discriminate, but recovery does
“There’s a saying we have in disaster relief,” Laura Paul tells me. “‘Disaster doesn’t discriminate, it can happen to anyone, but recovery absolutely does.’ Institutionalized racism is alive and well in this country, and the incredibly slow recovery process in the Lower Ninth Ward proves that.”
A former Montreal resident and Concordia University graduate, Paul arrived in New Orleans in January, 2006, a mere five months after Hurricane Katrina struck, intending to work as a first-response volunteer for a couple of days. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, and more than a decade later she’s still there.
She’s now the executive director of lowernine.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to the long-term recovery of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, an area where 100 per cent of the homes were rendered uninhabitable and the recovery and rebuilding rate has been frustratingly slow.
In 2010, Amnesty International released a report on human rights violations that found that recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast region often excluded people whose families had generations-deep roots in their local communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of colour.
One blatant example was Road Home, a government-sponsored program that aimed to help people return to their hurricane-ravaged residences.
Government support or discriminatory policy?
In 2010, a federal judge ruled that Road Home had distributed money based on a formula that discriminated against African American recipients by allocating grants based on pre-storm market values rather than the often-higher cost of reconstruction. Since many African American residents lived in areas where property values were low, people living in a predominantly white, middle-class neighbourhood received more financial help than Lower Ninth Ward residents thanks to their higher property values, even if the two homes pretty much cost the same money to rebuild.
“The Lower Ninth Ward has one of the highest rates of Black home ownership because it was one of the first places where free people of colour could own property,” Paul explains. In fact, according to a study conducted by Peter Wagner and Susan Edwards, approximately 54 per cent of the homes were homeowner occupied, above both city-wide averages and national averages for African Americans.
But it’s been difficult for many homeowners in this area to get the money they need to come home. Meanwhile, rents in post-Katrina New Orleans have doubled, due to the scarcity of rental properties.
“I sometimes worry that people will no longer be interested in what’s going on here because so many years have gone by,” Paul confesses, “but recovery is a long haul. It took us four years alone to gut all the homes in this area.”
Paul particularly worries that weather-related catastrophes, like the current one affecting Louisiana, will leave people suffering from donor and volunteer fatigue.
“What’s going on in Louisiana right now is catastrophic, but very different from what happened in New Orleans in 2005,” she says. “The current situation is basically infrastructure not being able to support heavy rainfall, which, in turn, is the direct result of global warming.”
That has many environment experts worried and many emergency management experts coaxing governments to better prepare for extreme weather events.
More than a decade later, New Orleans is on a slow, but steady, road to recovery, but the lessons learned in the Lower Ninth Ward about how marginalized communities suffer the most in the aftermath of natural disasters should not be lost on any of us.
lowernine.org continues to gratefully accept volunteers and donations.