Hurricane Katrina Revisited
In August of 2005, the city of New Orleans in Louisiana not only faced one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history, it also encountered social destruction that has changed New Orleans forever. Hurricane Katrina caused billions of dollars in damages and killed nearly two-thousand people. Many residents of New Orleans, particularly in the poorest and most vulnerable areas of the city, have been displaced from their homes and continue to live in utter despair to this very day. Many residents feel that they have been disregarded by their government in regards to funding for new housing, particularly in the Lower 9th Ward. This is just one example of how the New Orleans local government, along with federal and state governments, has disregarded the most vulnerable communities in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. As we move forward, we will examine several examples and testimony on the failed recovery of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The first example of the many damaged lives that have been officially ignored in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, is the demolition of public housing units despite the multitude of homeless people.
In June of 2006, a web article published by Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman reports that,
Federal housing officials announced last week that more than 5,000 public housing units for the poor were to be demolished even though tens of thousands of low-income residents remain displaced. On Saturday, public housing residents and advocates protested the decision by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and vowed to use any means necessary to stop the bulldozing of their apartments. The HUD decision means that at least 3,000 families who lived in the units before the storm will have to find someplace else to go. If the federal government’s plan goes forward, New Orleans will have lost 85 percent of its public housing over the past decade. (Goodman 1)
What HUD proposed to do was nothing short of gentrification. As history has indicated, the housing that was demolished will more than likely be replaced by middle and upper income housing, leaving the lower-income and poverty level residents displaced and destitute. This type of social injustice reflects a lack of compassion and a ruthless thirst for monetary gain in our society and culture. Phenomenons such as this support Karl Marx‘s perspective that “the capitalist (bourgeoisie) maintains its position at the top of the class structure by control of the society’s superstructure.” (Kendall 220) This structure consists of social institutions such as government, schools, and churches, (Kendall 220) therefore it is reasonable to infer that HUD is a co-culprit in this inevitable gentrification process.
The likelihood is that many of these residents will remain homeless, be criminalized, and eventually die on the streets.
A second manifestation of the federal, state, and local government’s indifference toward the lives of the underprivileged that were destroyed in the city of New Orleans, is Tim Padgett’s Time magazine article titled “New Orleans’ Lower Ninth: Katrina’s Forgotten Victim?” This article discusses how the Lower 9th Ward has been disregarded by the government, on the federal and local level. Padgett states that Katrina is “possibly the worst natural disaster in U.S. history” (Padgett 2) and that “government officials strongly hinted that the Lower 9th Ward should not be rebuilt.” (Padgett 2)
Five years after Katrina, the Lower 9th Ward remains in terrible condition. The Lower 9th Ward is predominately African-American and working class and is the district that received the most damage in all of New Orleans. It almost seems that the neglect of the levees by the Army Corps of Engineers was an aggregated, cultural conspiracy. While only a fifth of the Lower 9th Ward’s 20,000 residents have returned since 2005 (Padgett 2), special interests projects are being contemplated and the social upheaval of the “less fortunate” continues.
76-year-old resident Henry Holmes, who owns a popular local restaurant called Holmes One Stop claims, “You get the feeling they’re just waiting for all us so-called poor people to leave so they can turn the place into a resort area or something.” (Padgett 2) Along with the betrayal of local government as well as federal in regards to getting the sufficient funding to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward, many will continue to suffer in hopes that their lives will change for the better and their community will return to them one day at a time.
The third example of federal, state, and local governments forsaking the most vulnerable victims of post-Hurricane Katrina, is through the testimony of a former history school teacher by the name of Nat Turner. Nat Turner is 39 years old and is the founder of Our School at Blair Grocery, “a fledging educational venture and commercial urban farm in the heart of the Lower Ninth Ward.” (Wilson 1)
Turner discusses the plight of many young people, particularly young blacks, who have had many of the schools in their district destroyed due to Hurricane Katrina and the government has not moved aggressively to rebuild the public schools in the impoverished districts. Turner said, “It has roughly a 60 percent literacy rate. We know that wealthy white people Uptown can read, right? But no one really cares if the public school system works because rich people’s kids are going to private schools.” (Wilson 1)
Nat Turner’s school has six students, all of them young men who dropped out of the public high schools in their districts. (Wilson 2) His school’s work has received support from various organizations, private and federal, and Turner hopes he will be able to reopen a local grocery store in order to employ residents and build relationships with local area farmers to secure more fresh food to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward. (Wilson 2)
With the humanitarian efforts of people like Nat Turner, there is still much that needs to be done to bring the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans back to where it was but in the mind of those like Turner, they want the community to be better than before Hurricane Katrina. Until that time comes, many are still homeless, helpless, and losing hope for a better tomorrow.
A fourth example of evidence that indicates the lack of support by federal, state and local government agencies in New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is displayed by an article printed in the Southern Economic Journal (SEJ) in April of 2011. In a study that was conducted on the protective measures in planning documents, the research article states that, “There are a number of reasons why federal, state, and local governments failed to adequately fund levees and other flood protection measures.” (Landry 993)
The U.S. Army Corps and Engineers is again referenced in connection with the failed levees. The SEJ reports, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faced cost increases and design changes stemming from technical issues that limited their ability to fund new construction projects.” (Landry 993) This makes it extremely clear where the blame and lack of commitment starts: The federal government itself.
As in many cases in the U.S., special interest politics tends to impede a government’s ability to function on the basis of the “public good.” It is apparent that the federal government “opened the door” that washed away much of the Lower 9th Ward. The SEJ supports this claim where it states, “The contentious environment surrounding levee maintenance and augmentation combined with the high price tag limited initiative to address flood hazard in New Orleans, not only for President Bush but also previous administrations.” (Landry 993)
The fact is this: Billions of dollars in property damage could have been avoided had there not been this “not in my term of office” (Landry 993) culture in the political environment. Many lives were lost because the price tag was apparently too high to save them or their lives were not profitable enough to be of political or financial inconvenience.
In summary, political, monetary, and ideological positions thwarted the government’s ability to help the city recover effectively in a time of disaster.
For the final example of the three governments (federal, state, local) and their indifference towards helping the poorest in the city of New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina, it is explained further in the Public Administration Review of ProQuest Central. This review reports that,
The first official attempt at local recovery plan for New Orleans was offered by a national think tank, the Urban Land Institute, under the auspices of Mayor Ray Naglin’s ‘Bring New Orleans Back’ Commission, just three months after the flood. (Comfort 670)
The Urban Land Institute’s plan reeked of gentrification despite the efforts to hide the true agenda of the plan. The plan wanted to engage in selective rebuilding where no building permits would be issued for the most damaged areas, but areas with the least damage would be able to gain immediate assistance and investment such as loans or grants. (Comfort 670) This is similar to giving a food to the nourished, while watching the hungry starve. The irony of this is the fact that the areas with the most damage housed the poor and working-class minorities (non-whites) (Comfort 670) and according to Comfort, “These areas would be bought out and the lands would be turned into green space. This plan was met with public outrage and rejected.” (Comfort 670)
Once again, political and business interests have made the lives of many of the most vulnerable people in New Orleans irrelevant and targets for exploitation. Power struggles within the government have put many of the suffering and homeless into social limbo.
In conclusion, I believe that conflict theory best explains the neglect upon areas in New Orleans such as the Lower 9th Ward. “According to conflict perspectives, groups in society are engaged in a continuous power struggle for control of scarce resources” (Kendall 20).
Citizens such as Nat Turner recognize this perspective with his understanding that the public school system is short on funding, especially in low-income areas like the Lower 9th Ward, and there is little concern to reform the school system. Mr. Turner is aware that there are racial-ethnic inequalities. As indicated earlier, Turner acknowledges that “Wealthy white people Uptown can read” (Wilson 1) and one branch of conflict theory “focuses on racial-ethnic groups” (Kendall 20).
Due to my understanding that the government runs more on a business standard (since the Reagan era), I believe that “the public good” has been compromised and of much less importance to our overall government. In other words, Karl Marx’s “capitalist class” (Kendall 221) vs. the working class theory may actually be a “two-headed monster” vs. the working class, meaning the government may directly merge many of the interest of the capitalists. This struggle between the capitalist class and working class is what Marx’s calls “class conflict” (Kendall 220).
I believe that the conflict perspective can be used to explain many of the economic problems we have in this country, in relation to class warfare although not necessarily in the exact context of Marx’s definition. There is definitely a major class struggle in this country, where the middle class is quickly diminishing and it has been said that 80% of all new income has gone to the top 1% richest Americans over the last 20 years. The power of big business and political figures has brought about gentrification in areas such as Harlem in New York City, where people who have lived in the community get pushed out for higher-income residents, but unlike New Orleans, gentrification is at a slower rate because Hurricane Katrina caused the immediate displacement of tens of thousands of people. Karl Marx defines power as “the ability of people or groups to achieve goals despite opposition from others” (Kendall 223). Power such as this has shown little to no regard for the wants and desires of the residing community, only to make profit at the expense of the lives of the true residents of that particular area.
Unfortunately, many of the chips have been stacked against the working class due to indirect bribes to politicians by the capitalist class which in turn influences our elected officials to ignore the people’s desires and appease their corporate donors. Until we can find solidarity among the working class, the capitalist or corporate class will continue to win. Until we can at least all see others as equals and focus our anger on the real issues instead of scapegoating other groups, not only will we lose our dignity but also our freedom.