Community in Action

The Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina hit the southern states in 2005. The storm started in the Bahamas and at first seemed innocuous but soon gathered momentum and virulence and ended up being the sixth strongest Atlantic storm to hit the USA. Not since 1928 and Hurricane Okeechobee had people in America experienced such a devastating storm. It might partly be for this reason that many people initially regarded the storm warnings with complacency. By the end of the storm and the widespread flooding the death toll was 1,836. The cost to property was estimated at $81 billion. Although much of the storm damage has been repaired, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is still with us. One consequence of the storm has been to change the demographics of New Orleans.

The New Orleans levee system was built in 1965 by the US Army Corps Engineers. This levee was breached in over 50 places by the sea because of Hurricane Katrina. This is regarded as the worst engineering disaster in American history. Despite this, the US Army Corps Engineers were protected from litigation by the Flood Control Act of 1928. Because of the levee breaches 80% of the city of New Orleans was submerged stranding many people on their rooftops for several days.

The Meteorological Office was praised for its early warnings of severe floods. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency were strongly criticized for not responding to the emergency situation quickly enough.

While many escaped the storm by heeding the early warnings, many did not either because they had no car or they thought they could sit out the storm. At one point all but one of the roads leading out of New Orleans were out of use. The airport was immediately closed but later reopened to bring in emergency supplies.

Most of the police after New Orleans was flooded were deployed on search and rescue operations. This left many parts of the city unpoliced. The largely unaffected French Quarter experienced a mass of looters many of whom who had guns. The ensuing confusion hampered many relief operations. While it is true that looting occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it is pertinent to note that many rumors about sniper fire and rape turned out to be merely rumors. The media focus on the looters had a strong racial bias suggesting the black community of New Orleans were all criminals of the worst type. The media has never apologized for this racist stereotyping.

The truth is that in any natural or man-made disaster it is always the poorest sections in society that are the worst affected. The poor have not the means to escape. The poor do not have the means to re-build. The jobs that the poor rely upon are often the often scarcest after the disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of black people were evacuated from New Orleans because of the storm. They received on average $2,000 to relocate. As a result many have not returned to New Orleans. This has lead to a serious change in the demographics of the city. The black population of New Orleans fell from 67.3% to 60.2%. That represents 100,000 black people who have been evicted from the city. Less than 25% of the city’s public housing units have been rebuilt. (http://blackgirlgreenworld.com/2011/09/the-gentrification-of-post-katrina-new-orleans/)

At the same time white Americans have been buying up land in New Orleans for a song and starting the inevitable process of gentrification. As more neighborhoods change from urban black to middle-class white areas house prices have been going up.

There is an inherent racist dynamic at work here. The system fails those at the bottom of society and this failure is exploited by the middle and upper classes for their long term gain. This is the real tragedy of Hurricane Katrina not the 1,000 odd deaths. People stood by and watched the historic city of New Orleans be white washed. The voting in of the first African-American President seems like a distraction to the real issues thrown up by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The purpose of this website is to take a wider look at society and disasters: how the two interact and what this says about human nature. Only by studying the dynamics of change (especially violent and sudden change) can we prepare for the next disaster. By being aware of the issues it is hoped that that those most vulnerable to the effects of change can do more to protect their property, their reputation, their culture and their way of life the next time something terrible happens.

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