(This post was written by BLB 2015 intern Caroline Peterson.) As we remember Hurricane Katrina on its tenth anniversary, also remembering that it was the most destructive and costly natural disaster in United States history, and one that particularly devastated the city of New Orleans, we must never forget that certain vulnerable portions of the population were unfairly affected by the storm, mainly low-income, predominantly black citizens.
It is true that many suffered as a result of the storm, but it is also important to realize that it wasn’t simply a particularly bad storm that caused so much destruction of the Gulf Coast—the inadequacy of the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers led to 53 levee breaches during Katrina, which caused mass flooding in New Orleans. And such flooding disproportionately affected poorer neighborhoods and predominantly black communities built on lower land. Many people had no vehicle or means of evacuating and were left stranded for days with inadequate resources and very little help from the Federal government.
The intergovernmental response to Hurricane Katrina (between the local, state, and federal governments) was a jumbled mess. Michael Brown infamously displayed incompetent leadership as director of the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) with a delayed response to the disaster (for fear of overstepping boundaries as a federal agency) and chaotic management of victims after the storm (including separating families across the country and inadequate provisions for government housing). Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans did not execute an emergency evacuation plan in a timely manner, waiting until less than a day before landfall to order mandatory evacuation, leading to hundreds of preventable deaths. Many residents could not evacuate in that short amount of time, since public transportation resources were limited and Federal government aid was lacking. Many citizens were crowded into the New Orleans Superdome as a “shelter of last resort” and were stranded without inadequate amounts of food, water, and supplies, and no manner of transportation to leave the destroyed city.
Something very similar happened in 1927 with the Great Mississippi Flood, the most destructive river flooding in United States history, which, like Katrina, disproportionately affected the poor black communities in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Interracial tensions led to a Great Migration of African-Americans to northern cities to escape the devastation in the South. However, many who thought they would fare better in the North were met with poor treatment in refugee camps established by President Herbert Hoover.
In 2005, history seemed to repeat itself, with abysmal government response to mostly poor, black citizens’ suffering in New Orleans as their homes were flooded and their lives destroyed. When the Ffederal government finally came to their aid, many families were separated andshipped to various cities across the country. FEMA’s handling of government housing and efforts to rebuild New Orleans were incompetent, and many who applied for FEMA trailers in New Orleans had to wait up to six months before their requests were heeded.
However, despite federal incompetency in the wake of Katrina, the people who stayed or came back to New Orleans would not let the city die. The rebuilding efforts after Katrina attracted the largest influx of volunteer help and charity organizations in U.S. history. Ten years later, much of the city has been restored, but many communities (especially black communities) still struggle to rebuild what was lost in the flood;, most notably the famous New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, a predominantly low-income, black neighborhood that suffered immensely when the levees were breached. Volunteers came to help, and the people who love the city would never let it die, even if the government would.
But, ten years later, after much of the city has recovered and many Americans have forgotten it was ever destroyed, we must remember that it was the incompetency of federal engineers and government disaster management that led to so many needlessly lost lives—lives of people who were already some of the most vulnerable in our society.