It is sometimes hard to believe that it has been a full 10 years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the levees broke.
Ten years since the water rose—overwhelming, inundating, submerging our city.
Ten years since harrowing rescues from rooftops.
Ten years since more than 1,570 Louisianans—New Orleanians mostly—died.
Ten years since the slow and muddling response from our government that only seemed to get slower and more muddled as the waters subsided.
Ten years since national news captured scenes of the city’s residents—mostly Black and poor—and labeled them refugees, chronicling their rescue as they were loaded on to buses and airplanes, and dispersed across this country, some unsure of their destination until they arrived in a strange place.
It is hard to believe it has been that long ago. But it has been 10 years; and it is a time for reflection, indeed. Many New Orleanians have returned and rebuilt. Of course, there are still quite a few scattered in the Katrina Diaspora. Who among us doesn’t still have a close friend, acquaintance or family member living in Houston or Atlanta, or maybe even Illinois, California or Utah, as a result of evacuating New Orleans in 2005.
Here, however, neighborhoods have come back—albeit some slower than others. In fact, in parts of the city, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, there are still homes abandoned since the storm and others that appear stalled in the midst of abruptly halted renovation perhaps because a Road Home calculation only offered assessed value instead of the full amount of money it would take to actually rebuild or maybe because the owner decided to abandon the city all together—too exhausted for the fight. Whatever the reason, where houses, sidewalks and schools once dotted the landscape, overgrown brush, concrete slabs and boarded buildings have replaced them—still, a full 10 years later.
And those are images we contemplate as our city commemorates Katrina 10. Despite the lopsided recovery where neighborhoods in New Orleans East, the Ninth Ward and other sections of the city have obviously lagged, the notion that New Orleans has bounced back is widely heralded. We have, for the most part, fallen back in to our trouble-free ways of life filled with jobs and careers, school and work—punctuated, of course, by the customary and recurrent good time—second lines, Super Sundays, Mardi Gras and a myriad of just-because celebrations. Yes, we have seen signs of recovery. Buildings once deluged have been reconstructed. Businesses shuttered have reopened. Roughly $71 billion in federal money has poured into region to rebuild and reinvent it after Katrina. The revelry has returned. And that would be just fine if it were okay to measure our city’s healing by dollar amounts and ribbon cuttings. But that is not how we measure things at The New Orleans Tribune. What matters most, as we see it, is the number of lives improved and whether those improvements impact the people that called New Orleans home before August 29, 2005—especially Black New Orleanians. As we look at the 10 years that have passed since the levees broke it is with a critical examination of how our city has left behind its own people in the name of some distorted brand of progress.
Numbers Don’t Lie
We watched as the decision to not re-open Charity Hospital was made at a time when adequate healthcare for the poorest New Orleanians was more important than ever. And now, 10 years after the storm, we are hard-pressed to celebrate the opening of University Hospital and New Orleans East Hospital when we consider the number New Orleanians—especially the poorest among us—who did not return to the city because they did not have a reliable health care system.
There is another Katrina 10 story. It’s the straight, no chaser version of what has happened in New Orleans in the last 10 years. Despite the many successes being touted as the 10th anniversary of the hurricane that changed our lives forever, it seems difficult, maybe even misleading to argue that post-Katrina New Orleans is actually better or that there has been any real recovery at all if you are Black and poor. In the 10 years since Katrina, those who needed the most seemed to have received the least.
To be sure, if the so-called shadow government set out to recreate a richer, Whiter New Orleans from the clean slate left by Katrina, they have succeeded.
That’s one reason it puzzles us that Chicago Tribune op-ed writer Kristen McQueary has taken such a beating over her editorial wherein she wished for a Katrina-like storm to take place in the windy city and provide a clean slate for policy makers, business leaders, planners, and elite citizens there to reinvent the troubled Chi-Town. Sorry, we aren’t mad at Ms. McQueary for pining for her city’s chance to get a Mother Nature makeover. We will save our ire for the local political, civic, and business leaders that gave her the idea in the first place. Come on, she didn’t pull this idea out of thin air. She didn’t make this scenario up. She saw it happen right here in New Orleans, She saw y’all refuse to open a major public hospital and make it hard for scattered New Orleanians to vote in the first post-Katrina election. She watched y’all takeover public schools, refuse to reopen public housing, create a difficult to navigate Road Home Program with a disparate formula for paying homeowners, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. She saw it all done right here in NOLA, and she saw it work.
Don’t take our word for it. The statistics are revealing. About 71,000 New Orleanians did not return after Katrina; and with the city’s White population has decreased by only 11,000 residents since 2000—five years before the storm. As such, it is safe to say that the vast majority of those who couldn’t or didn’t come back after Katrina were Black. Refugees, indeed.
The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES) will host a conference Aug. 20-21 to examine the issues of untreated stress, post-traumatic stress disorder and the socio-economic conditions that point to worsened disparate conditions in what could have been a truly new New Orleans.
Among the data the IWES points to in its report is a widening disparity in median incomes between Black and White families. In 2005, the median income for Black households was $23,394, compared to $49,262 for White households. In 2013, the median income for Black households increased slightly to $25,102 compared to an increase to $60,553 for White households. In other words, while the median income for Black families grew by only 7 percent, Whites New Orleans enjoyed a full 22 percent jump in income.
There is one figure in which post-Katrina numbers have remained nearly identical to their pre-Katrina tallies, however. It is poverty. Today, 39 percent of children in New Orleans live in poverty. That number was 38 percent in 2005; and both reflect a rate 17 points higher than the national average then and now. More telling is that more than 50 percent of Black children in New Orleans live in poverty despite the fact that 82 percent of families below the poverty line include an adult who is working. Meanwhile, in a city where 55 percent of the residents are renters, the surge in post-Katrina rental housing hardly reflects the brand of recovery we hoped for. As Bill Quigley tells in his 2015 Katrina Index, many renters are now spending 50 percent of their income on housing. And as he further states, the disparate conditions between Blacks and Whites in New Orleans provide some indication of how the billions in federal aid were spent and who they enriched.
We could go on and on quoting dismal stats, but many of them are easily found in Quigley’s annual Index, which we have reprinted on page 7 of this issue or by visiting The Data Center at www.thedatacenterresearch.org.
Still In Search of Refuge
We recall that many were outraged by the use of that word “refugees” by the national media to refer to the weary, worn and wet New Orleanians forced to flee the city after the levee breach. “These are American citizens in an American city, not immigrants in a foreign land,” they lamented. And while that was true, at The New Orleans Tribune we were actually okay with its usage, not because we thought it an agreeable term, but because it was appropriate. That’s exactly how Black men, women and children from New Orleans were being treated—like refugees. In many ways, that is how they have always been treated—as if they were strangers in their own city—a city they built, a city that bustles because of the sweat of their brow and brawn of their backs. That’s one reason we could hardly believe what we were reading in a September 2005 issue of The Wall Street Journal, when then-chairman of the Regional Transit Authority Jimmy Reiss was quoted as saying they the city needed to be rebuilt “different with better services and fewer poor people. Those who want to see this city rebuilt want it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again or we’re out.”
We would have been delighted back then if we thought for a second that what Reiss meant was that in rebuilding the city leaders must ensure that there would be fewer poor residents by attacking poverty instead of attacking and shutting out the poor. But we knew his foreboding statement hinged on the latter and not the former. That why we embraced the use of the word “refugees”. It was dead-on. Let’s call it like it is. Maybe now we can move forward, face our dirty little secret—that the city, with all of its culture and flare, overflows with racism, problems and twisted ironies—was unmasked for the world to see.
It seems to us here at The New Orleans Tribune that we have spent the past 10 years wearied by all of the times we have called foul over this post-Katrina re-imagining of New Orleans. In our very first post-storm issue—about six months after Katrina we wrote about how imperative it was for this city’s Black community to return, warning that we could not just throw up our hands and leave New Orleans despite the obstacles that would block the path. To be sure, there were individuals and entities making herculean efforts to keep the election set for February 2006–a sure way to make certain poor Black refugees didn’t vote. We will never forget that it was suggested that New Orleans would look like a third world country if elections were postponed so that a plan to ensure maximum voter participation could be developed. The notion was ridiculous, of course. We already looked like a third world nation back on August 29, 2005 and in the days that followed. A postponed election would hardly tarnish our image. Not making every allowance possible to ensure that New Orleanians, no matter where they were exiled, had a the opportunity to vote was the act that threatened our reputation.
In the spring of 2006, we urged New Orleanians through our April cover to use the only weapon at their disposal—their votes in the city’s first election post-Katrina—to make their voices heard. By the fall of 2006, just a few months after the first anniversary of Katrina, our cover highlighted the inherent problems and obstacles of the Road Home program and questioned why so much money was being spent in a contract just to manage it—at the time more than $750 million for three years. By January 2007, we devoted our issue to decrying the refusal of local and federal government entities to reopen public housing. It was the New Orleans City Council who had the final vote on the matter; and we will not forget that former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonse Jackson was among those who publicly questioned whether the Ninth Ward should be rebuilt. He even predicted in an interview with The Houston Chronicle that New Orleans’ post-Katrina Black population would only peak at around 35 to 40 percent. Of course, always resilient Black New Orleanians have proven him wrong.
And we can hardly count the issues in which we raised our voices at the takeover of the public school system that occurred in Katrina’s wake.
We Warned About Housing
In our very first post-Katrina issue we predicted the plans to tear down public housing and replace it with mixed-income dwellings; and we knew those plans would ultimately drive out former public housing residents most in need of affordable, safe homes. To be sure, we were livid when in September 2005 state Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge had this to say about the impact of the storm on poverty and housing and New Orleans: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Mr. Baker was wrong, of course. God didn’t tear down public housing in New Orleans and neither did Katrina. We have politicians, insatiable developers and business leaders to thank for that. We’re talking about the sort of elitist who matter-of-factly admits to knowing that their plans for “revitalization” will chase out the city’s poor, but quips that not much can be done about it “if you really want to improve neighborhoods,” as if one can’t revitalize neighborhoods in a way that includes the poor people that live in them.
Make no mistake, we knew in the first dark days after the storm that the plan was afoot for the rest of public housing in New Orleans to go the way the St. Thomas had just a few years before—Hope VI redevelopment with a mix of market-rate and subsidized housing, and that it would be challenging for former public housing residents to return.
And once again numbers bear that out. There are 3,221 fewer low income public housing units in New Orleans than there were in before Katrina. As of 2011, only 50 percent of families who occupied these units returned to New Orleans and only seven percent of those families were living in the redeveloped units where the St. Bernard, Lafitte, B.W. Cooper and C.J. Peete once sat. Now, even the subsidized rental rates in these new communities have escalated. In June 2014, HANO residents that relied on subsidy programs saw their rents increase by nearly 241 percent up to as much 344 percent (amounts that reflect 80 percent of the fair market value based on a federal formula). This has surely diminished the hope of many that they could afford to live in Columbia Parc, Faubourg Lafitte or the like. One bedroom apartments that could be rented for about $250 a month now cost some public housing residents more than $600. Residents already living in one of the Hope VI redevelopments before June 2014 could still see their rents jump by 35 percent each year, the maximum allowed by federal law.
At the 10th anniversary of Katrina, the last of the traditional public housing developments, the Iberville, no longer exists. One of the few original Iberville buildings that remain along Rampart bears a “Now Leasing” sign for the new Bienville Basin Apartments. According to the Housing Authority of New Orleans website, 390 of the units (there will be 706 in all) in the redeveloped Iberville are set aside for public housing. But it seems that now the focus of the property’s private developer HRI Properties, Inc., is attracting market-rate tenants for the one-and two-bedroom units that will rent for $1250 and $1500, according to www.bienvillebasinapartments.com. It’s unclear how those exorbitant market rates rentals will affect former public housing tenants and what they will have to pay to live in the renovated Iberville; but already many New Orleanians have lamented that with its new name and plans for retail shopping, a business center, a fitness center and veterinary house call service available—the Bienville Basin Apartments will not easily open its arms to poor renters. And they are probably right considering that HRI Properties website and brochure use the downtown/French Quarter area for the apartment’s market analysis, which puts the average area income at $55,183—no doubt far more than public housing residents earn.
All of this is made even more absurd when one considers that now, leaders and lawmakers want to hypocritically discuss the rising rents and housing costs that have pushed and priced working class New Orleanians out as if there have not been any red flags in the 10 years since Hurricane Katrina that this was the direction in which the new New Orleans was headed.
We Warned About Education
The takeover of control of public schools was on the horizon long before Hurricane Katrina with Act 193 and the contract with Alvarez & Marsal. So when opportunists seized Hurricane Katrina as the perfect chance to go beyond a financial management contract and take over and subsequently charter nearly every public school in New Orleans, we were only surprised by the depravity and wantonness in which they undertook their deed, such as the firing of 7,500 certified teachers and school employees—an act which helped to decimate the city’s Black middle class.
We have written and editorialized incessantly about the failures and offenses of the post-Katrina seizure and so-called reform of public education in New Orleans, which has been orchestrated by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. We have talked about the money squandered, missing, stolen—including the more than $440 million federal grant money that should have been spent to pay teachers and restart public schools as opposed to a $29 million consulting contract with New York based firm to develop recovery plans or a $20 million contract with a Texas firm to secure school facilities or $17,300 new-hire packages (housing allowances, sign-on bonuses and relocation costs) for each out-of-state teachers and Teach for American recruits lured New Orleans to work for the RSD. We have talked about the injustices and insanities of it all—the loss of neighborhood schools, the proliferation of charter schools, the rise of charter boards (unelected individuals that do not answer to tax payers and voters although they control public dollars), and the awful reality of children bussed to schools all over town having to wait for buses before the sunrise.
We can’t help but wonder where all of the good government watchdogs have been as this hostile takeover and outright misappropriation of money has taken place.
We often remind that the primary obscenity of this reform was that it was launched when the city was empty. Scattered across the nation as a result of Katrina, there were no parents, students, teachers, taxpayers or voters in New Orleans to share their vision for what schools in New Orleans should look like after the storm. More than that, the takeover was rigged. Let’s not forget that the law had to be amended, rewritten to takeover of the Orleans Parish School System, which just before the storm had only five schools considered failing.
And we remain confounded that supporters of this reform continue to tout grand success. These claims of school improvement often rely on the misleading practice of grouping every public school operating in New Orleans, including those pre-Katrina high-performing schools never taken over by the RSD. The reality is that data can be interpreted in many ways. It often depends what data are being examined and who is doing the examining.
That is why we share a simple set of facts as we examine these post-Katrina reforms and the entity whose task it was to improve educational outcomes for students in so-called failing schools. The RSD took over more than 100 schools in 2005. Some were never reopened. Others were chartered, reorganized. A few were run directly by the RSD until the 2014-2015 school year, which marked the first year of the RSD as an all charter school district. Now, for the 2013-2014 (the most recent year for which performance scores are available) school year, 57 RSD-New Orleans schools received school performance scores and letter grades. There are six Ts or schools in transition, meaning they have been assumed by a new charter operator and are being given a grace period before their academic performance is measured. This state of transition is nothing more than a perpetual cycle that can go on and on as one failing charter school is shut down and then turned over to a new charter operator.
There are 20 Cs. There are combined 24 Ds and Fs. There are a seven (7) Bs. And not a single school in the RSD-New Orleans has earned an A. In other words, 20 schools are mediocre and another 24 schools are failing to meet the state standard.
Even some of those “B” schools have SPS scores that must be examined critically.
Remember that in 2005, the state legislator raised the minimum SPS score to 87.4 in order to take over local schools. The minimum SPS has since been lowered to accommodate the reform’s failure. But based on the same standard used to take over more than 100 schools in New Orleans nearly 10 years ago, three (3) of the schools with B letter grades have SPS scores lower than 87.4. They would have been deemed failing in 2005 after Katrina. In fact, if the RSD were judged by the same standards used to take control of schools in New Orleans almost 10 years ago, it would be left with only four schools to operate.
If 87.3 was deemed failing by a law written after Katrina to hasten the takeover and supposed turnaround of public schools, how can we consider that same score as passing 10 years later. That doesn’t sound much like recovery or progress to us.
They Got It Wrong
The commission convened to help guide the city’s recovery was called Bring Back New Orleans. Boy, did they get that wrong. The focus should have never been on bringing back a city. It should have focused on the people—especially those plucked from rooftops, corralled at the Superdome and the Convention Center, the people who waded in repugnant flood waters, especially those people—and bringing them home to opportunities and possibilities that would make their lives better than they were the 24 hours before Katrina.
At The New Orleans Tribune, we too, are focused on Katrina 10 . . . just not the Katrina 10 with which everyone else appears consumed. We are not in the mood for commemorations or celebrating the city’s rise while two-bedroom apartments in what used to be the Iberville Housing Development are leased for $1,500 month.
The question for New Orleans—its people and its leaders—as we reflect on the 10 years behind us is this: What we will do with the 10 years in front us? Katrina provided New Orleans with a unique chance that was misused and exploited. Yes, they got it wrong; but we can get this thing right.
We must come together, raise our voices, hold our elected officials accountable, use our resources wisely and in a way that makes us powerful. We have to resist.
It will not be easy work, and some times we wonder if it’s too late. But then we are reminded that we are a resilient people—and not just because we survived Katrina. Truth is, we have endured far worse . . . for far longer.