It’s Saturday, August 29th, 2015, exactly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans is packed to the brim with local residents, volunteers, workers, and even a few celebrities. The occasion is both celebratory and solemn, a delicate balance between resilience and remembrance.
Killing nearly 2,000 people and causing approximately $108 billion worth of damage, Katrina remains one of the costliest natural disasters to ever hit American shores. These facts, while certainly impossible to forget, have been temporarily placed on the backburner by most attendees.
The day begins on a somber note at the Old Hammond Highway with a brief honoring of Katrina’s victims. Following the ceremony, participants in the Lakeview Hurricane Anniversary Parade proudly sport the national colors as they march from Harrison Avenue to Orleans Avenue, the sites marking the starting and ending points of the breached levees from Katrina.
Several blocks away, the Jefferson Medical Center hands out free barbecue to residents, while nearly one hundred volunteers on St. Claude Avenue work laboriously to clear a lot for a brand new produce stand.
And, in the Lower 9th Ward, protesters storm the streets.
They huddle inside a small hand-made house as they make their way through the largely desolate neighborhood. These protestors, mostly African-American residents of the Ward, are participating in the 10th annual Lower 9th Ward March.
Before Katrina, the Ward, which was and still remains predominately African-American, peaked with a population of nearly 14,000. After Katrina (c.2010) the population sank to a dismal 2,800 individuals, with only a slight increase in the population up to the present.
In effect, New Orleans lost a hefty portion of its African-American residents.
Since the year Katrina hit only 37% of the homes in the Ward have been recovered, as compared to the nearly 90% recovery in the rest of the city. Boarded-up homes, overgrown lawns, and a prevailing sense of loss and hopelessness now permeate large chunks of this once vibrant community.
While it’s easy to point fingers for the Ward’s slow recovery, it’s necessary that we go back to the origin of its decay. We need to go back ten years.
Lower Ninth gets its name because it sits directly at the mouth, or the lower end, of the Mississippi River, where water normally flows down into the Gulf of Mexico. When Katrina hit, the Ward, because of its proximity to the ocean, received the brunt of the storm’s force.
Adding salt to the Ward’s wound is the fact that a significantly high percentage of its residents are impoverished. The night former Mayor Nagin announced the evacuation of the city, many residents did not have access to transportation and remained trapped in their homes. The high level of death and destruction can be contributed partly to these facts.
It seems logical that the recovery process in such an affected area should be a bit slower, but there are many factors that have made recovery for the Ward even slower than expected.
Beginning a long list of grievances are the phony contractors who offered displaced residents of the Ward extremely low prices to rebuild their damaged homes after the storm.
What followed were huge investments from the residents and the construction of dangerous and unlivable piles of garbage, not the homes they were promised. The contractors then fled, leaving the residents in even further debt than before.
The large income disparity between blacks and whites in New Orleans, as well as the higher rate of dependents (children and the elderly) living in the Ward further exacerbated the neighborhood’s comparatively slow recovery to the rest of the city.
This disparity in recovery and the resulting differences in the quality of life for the residents of New Orleans, while garnering unique attention from the press, reflects a very common and often ignored trend in America.
As the world’s poster child for equality, the United States is grossly unequal. 1% of our population holds approximately 20% of the country’s total wealth, while the bottom 40% holds only 10% of that wealth.
Geographically, the South has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, with African-Americans being affected by poverty at an extremely high rate. The current state of New Orleans, and more precisely the current state of the Lower 9th Ward, merely represent a small part of a larger trend. Even locally, the difference in income between the predominantly White residents of South Tulsa and the predominately African-American and Latino residents of North Tulsa further reflects this economic trend.
It’s inexcusable to deny help to someone on the basis of race under any circumstance, catastrophic or minute. Unfortunately, it tends to be more difficult to help those who desperately need it, and easier to help those who only need a little aid. The level of destruction in the Lower 9th Ward in conjunction with the already high level of poverty existing there, made the recovery process of the region only more difficult.
The recovery that eventually came to New Orleans simply went where the money went. And despite the efforts from residents and nonprofits, the money did not make it to Lower 9th Ward.
As resident Irvin Brown puts it, the reason for the Ward’s slow recovery is simple: “Money. Money. Money. Money.”
With all of that said, I lost nothing from Katrina. I did not lose my house. I did not lose my family members. I did not lose my friends.
So I cannot empathize with the heartbreak and devastation the residents, and the protestors, of the Lower 9th Ward must have felt and are feeling today. I can only watch them rightfully celebrate their accomplishments of the past, and cry out their needs for the future.