New York Law School

New Orleans: 10 Years after Hurricane Katrina

 

Silence filled each and every one of the 72,000 seats, seats in which fans once sat. The turf, once home to gridiron titans competing for glory and excellence, was covered by cots, tables and sleeping bags.   Players replaced by evacuees. Football helmets and shoulder pads replaced by damp clothes and bags filled with priceless memories. The blood, sweat and tears of athletic gods supplanted by the blood of the now homeless, the sweat of the living, and tears for the dead. When stillness finally rested upon the city, more than 1800 lay dead, scattered around the city. Eighty percent of the city was submerged beneath water. Ten years ago, New Orleans was the city of all cities. The best jazz, the best seafood, and the best southern style cooking one could find east of the Mississippi.   It was the place where the native New Orleanians made you feel as though New Orleans was your home too with their warm southern hospitality. Ten years ago the warm smiles and sweet sounds of jazz faded away and were replaced by the sound of howling winds, cries of hunger, and weeps of desperation. Ten years ago, we saw, and I say “we” meaning the people of this country, what the United States government and the State of Louisiana really thought about its people, specifically, its Black residents.

 

Ten years later; the Big Easy has grown, in some ways unrecognizable. As the city’s once darken image has grown lighter due to Whites and Latinos pouring into the city building town­houses where hous­ing pro­jects once stood, New Orleans has watched for the past ten years as the combination of rising housing costs and government policies push the poor, Black res­id­ents that returned and remained to the outskirts of the city in search of cheap­er rent—or to home­less camps un­der the city’s high­ways. Blacks, who once accounted for two-thirds of the city’s pop­u­la­tion be­fore Hurricane Kat­rina, now make up slightly more than half of the city’s pop­u­la­tion. The thousands of Latino im­mig­rants re­cruited to clean up and re­build the city remained in New Orleans increasing the size of their population. Ac­cord­ing to a study by pro­fess­ors at Tu­lane Uni­versity and Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia, Berke­ley, an es­tim­ated 10,000-14,000 Latino work­ers moved to New Or­leans with­in a year of Kat­rina.

One reason the Black population in New Orleans has decreased is which neighborhoods were hit hardest by the storm. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, an analysis of block-by-block census data and flood maps suggests that about half of the city’s White residents experienced serious flooding, compared with three-quarters of the Blacks residents. It was no coincidence that so many of the people at the Superdome were Black. However, Katrina was not alone in driving Blacks from the city. The aftermath of Katrina and the destruction the storm left in its wake caused a number of issues for the people of New Orleans, namely the Black community. From rising housing costs and deflating household earnings, Katrina affected the community in unforeseeable ways.   This is a story of New Orleans, 10 years later.

 

On August 29, 2005, the levees and walls that protected New Orleans failed. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, approximately 400,000 people were displaced. Of that 400,000, 44 percent or 175,000, were Black. Many of the 175,000 never returned to their homes. According to a government report, just 54 percent of Black evacuees returned compared to 82 percent of white evacuees. In fact, not only did the number of White evacuees return to New Orleans almost immediately after the storm, but in the years since, the White population has seen relative growth, from 54 percent pre-Katrina, to 68 percent post-Katrina.   In addition, the Hispanic population, though still small compared with other Southern cities, has also seen growth, by more than 30 percent. Together, these trends coupled with the decline of the Black population to 59 percent in 2013, from 66 percent in 2005 paint a picture of the way the city looks today.

 

As you read, you may wonder why New Orleans’ racial makeup has changed so significantly. Why have so many Black residents chosen to stay away from New Orleans instead of returning to their homes. Well for one, you do not have to look much further than a 2015 report released by the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO). This year, HANO reported having 1,925 total public housing apartments available for low income people, over 3,000 less than what existed prior to the storm, so thousands of former public housing residents in New Orleans were not provided a home to come back to. In addition, New Orleans is currently home to a greater concentration of neglected properties than any city in the United States, including Detroit. One in every four residential properties across the city, more than 50,000 addresses, has been categorized as blighted or vacant.

 

With few existing homes to return to, many families looked at the possibility of renting or in some cases purchasing a new home, however the rise in the cost of housing has thwarted many of those families’ attempts. Prior to the 2005 storm, renting a two-bedroom apartment in the city cost an average of $676 a month. In the years following the storm, the price for that same two-bedroom rental apartment rose 40 percent from $676/mo. to an average of $950/month.

 

With regards to purchasing a new home, the average home sold for $339,000 in New Orleans in the first half of this year, a 46 percent increase from 2005 when the average home sold for around $183,000. The Big Easy’s rising housing costs now rivals cities like that of New York and Boston. With prices so high, it comes as to no surprise that many residents, specifically Black residents, cannot afford to rent yet alone buy a home after losing everything, therefore, Black people in New Orleans were effectively priced out.

In the years since Katrina, household earnings have done little to erode the barriers to buying a new home in New Orleans that many families face. The median Black household earned just more than $25,000 a year in 2013, $5,000 less than in 2000 (after adjusting for inflation), while the median white household makes more than $60,000 today, nearly two and a half times as much. With no home to return to and no money to purchase a new home, for may Black families, the only other option was to leave or stay in the cities in which they were temporarily relocated. That is exactly what 46 percent of the Pre-Katrina Black population did.

 

As many Black families continued to migrate throughout the country, the rest of the country sat and watch as both the federal government and Louisiana State government failed their people.   Policy decisions are also to blame for why so many Black families felt ostracized and deprived. In the aftermath of Katrina, the federal government created the Road Home rebuilding program, the largest housing-recovery program in the country’s history, with a budget of $10 billion, and the promise to pay out as much as $150,000 to homeowners who had flood damage. As author Gary Rivlin explained in detail in a recent New York Times Magazine article, the federal Road Home rebuilding program effectively discriminated against Black families by basing payments on the appraised value of damaged properties (which was often far lower in Black neighborhoods), not on the cost of repairing them. That left thousands of Black families without enough money to rebuild properly. A federal judge reached the same conclusion, nearly five years later, however it was a little too late. All but $148 million of the original $10 billion had already been spent, thus paving the way for unfinished homes to be labeled as unlivable and forcing Black residents to find other living arrangements, often times to no avail.

 

On a state level, Louisiana officials made a number of decisions in the aftermath of Katrina that greatly impacted New Orleans and its residents. The Louisiana State Legislature made one such policy decision after the storm that affected all of New Orleans’ educational system. The State Legislature voted to take over the New Orleans school district and fire all 7,000 teachers, along with hundreds of other staffers. The effect of that decision on the schools has been the subject of an intense and still unresolved debate. But one effect is clear: thousands of mostly Black school employees lost their jobs, and although some were rehired, many more were not. It was white teachers, from outside of New Orleans that largely replaced the 7,000 teachers, many of who are Black.

 

But hold on now! Although some 7,000 teachers and school officials were terminated, the news for schools in New Orleans has not been all bad. Ten years after the levees broke; the citizens of New Orleans have seen a rise in graduation rates. In 2015, the state saw 73 percent of students graduating on time compared to 54 percent in 2004. In addition, according to a report issued by Tulane University’s Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public School Initiatives, the growth of charter schools has yielded positive results, with the ACT scores of New Orleans students improving at a faster rate than state and national averages. In 2012, the average ACT composite score for all public schools in New Orleans was 18.2, a 0.2-point increase from 2011. Comparatively, the state average ACT composite score, which includes public and private schools, increased 0.1 points to 20.3 while the national average remained the same at 21.1. Ten years later, New Orleans appears to be finally catching up.

 

And while New Orleans has seen growth in student’s scores and school graduation rates, not everyone believes that the changes that have occurred has been for the better. Some New Orleanians would argue that the success of students, albeit an impressive feat within itself, has come at a greater cost to the citizens of New Orleans than what some realize. In the immediate wake of one of the greatest natural disasters to occur in U.S. history, hundreds of thousands of native New Orleanians were displaced, including many of the poorest, many of whom did not return thus making it difficult to untangle how much of the test-score increase can be attributed to real educational improvements and how much is due to population change.

 

Remember, the damage the city incurred did not only stem from the destruction the storm itself caused, but damaged also stemmed from the flooding that occurred as a result of the breached levees. The most heavily flooded neighborhoods were areas where family incomes were among the lowest, and in these neighborhoods the people that returned, returned at a much lower rate than people who lived in little to non flooded areas of the city.  And given that there is a strong correlation between poverty and student outcomes, this could mean that higher test scores have been driven not by the reforms, e.g. charter schools, but by schools serving more-advantaged students.

 

Think about the above-mentioned statistics for a minute; earlier I mentioned that in the years following the storm there were increase prices of rental apartments and purchase prices for houses which in turn caused a number of families to be unable to afford to return to the city, essentially these families were priced out. In addition, I stated that there was a strong link between poverty and student outcomes. I said all that to say this; although student achievement has increased, it should be asked at what price? Yes, students have been successful, but for a city that has been overwhelmingly Black for decades, it seems ironic that as fewer and fewer Black Students have returned to New Orleans, the students remaining in the city have started to achieve more academic success and, have seen better academic results than ever before.

 

In one study, research showed that children on welfare were twice as likely to fail in school. That was just one study; U.S. Department of Education, through multiple studies found evidence that poverty “clearly demonstrated that student and school poverty adversely affected student achievement.”   Before Katrina, approximately half of the city’s residents survived on incomes of less than $25,000 a year while around a quarter of the city’s residents lived at or below the poverty line. Moreover, New Orleans ranked second among the nation’s 50 largest cities in terms of the number of neighborhoods it had in extreme poverty, with 40 percent of residents living below the poverty line and ranked second in the United States in terms of the gap between rich and poor.

 

In the years following Katrina, New Orleans saw its share of the city’s poor residents living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty drop from 39 percent in Pre Katrina to 30 percent in 2013. As a result, New Orleans went from the number two city in the country in terms of the gap between rich and poor to the fortieth rank.

 

Like a problem one would see on the SAT or ACT; poverty is to low academic achievements like affluence is to high academic achievement. Back when New Orleans was home to a large poor population, academic scores were abysmal. In the years following Katrina, many of the poor residents have, for one reason or another, not returned to the city they used to call home, and now, the city has been left with domestic foreigners, for many of whom money is not a concern. Naturally, with the out flow of poor residents and the influx of affluent residents, New Orleans saw greater academic success among students. For some people, there is a correlation between the absence of black people and greater academic success, as if once the demographics of the city changed and became “lighter”, the city started to care more about students’ academic success in comparison to before and the results are proof of that.

 

I disagree. At first glance it can appear that there may be a correlation, but in doing all this research what I have realized and discovered was that; New Orleans was flawed from the beginning. All over the city; schools, school officials students, families, everyone was set up to fail. What Katrina did sadly, was provide the city and equally as important the State of Louisiana with a wake up call. What happened to everyone in the city was utter tragedy. It is a moment in time in which you and I will forever remember where we were when the hurricane hit.

The levees were not the only thing that failed. The city of New Orleans and the State of Louisiana failed too. However, since Katrina the city and the State are improving things and trying to make amends for their wrongdoings. Although the city still has a long way to go in terms of improving its infrastructure, erecting more schools, building up transportation, etc. these graduation rates have provided the city with hope.

 

            Ten years ago, New Orleans was a city filled with life. The atmosphere bursting with sweet sounds of jazz and revelry, the air rich with scents of native New Orleans dishes, streets crowded with colorful processions. Ten years ago, New Orleans was bliss not only to those native to New Orleans but also to foreigners alike, be they domestic or international. Ten years ago, the levees broke, and a city known for its grandiose celebrations forever changed. Ten years later, New Orleans appears to be in some regards still suffering from the wound that Katrina gave the city. Ten years later, it also appears that New Orleans is finally start

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