New Orleans: 1 Year After Katrina

by Carl Sack / August 2006 issue of Socialist Action

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the U.S. Gulf Coast, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes in a swath stretching from central Louisiana to Mobile, Ala. With sustained winds of 125 miles per hour, the initial blow dealt by Katrina wiped many coastal communities off the map and severely damaged others.

But the real disaster came after the storm, when government ineptitude and blatant racism and classism doomed thousands of residents to drown in the storm surge. With no assistance for up to 10 days, those lucky enough to be “rescued” were corralled in inhuman conditions with no food or water while they waited for transportation out of the flooded areas.

Nearly a year later, what was one of the greatest human disasters in U.S. history has largely faded from the public consciousness. But in the city of New Orleans, the situation could still hardly be worse. Far from receiving help from the government to rebuild, most New Orleanians have again been left stranded by FEMA, and many must fight bureaucratic obstruction and racism to simply return to their homes.

Levees in poor condition

Almost a year after the storm, levees that keep the below-sea-level city dry have yet to be rebuilt to a level that would protect against another, similar storm. Before Katrina, the levees were neglected for years, as they sunk lower and lower due to subsidence caused by oil being pumped out from underneath the land.

From 2001 to 2005, the Bush administration cut roughly 50 percent of funds requested by the Army Corps of Engineers for levee improvements. Assuming emergency funding holds out, the levees won’t be fully repaired until 2008, and upgrading them will take much longer. Meanwhile, the number of workers manning the giant pumps that keep the city dry has been cut in half since the storm, with no immediate plans to replace those workers who left or were laid off.

Even when the man-made levees are improved, the city will be in ever-increasing peril due to the loss of its natural defenses, the freshwater marshes that once were synonymous with the Mississippi delta.

These “horizontal levees” have been steadily eroding for over 100 years, and during Katrina alone the state of Louisiana lost over 50 square miles of marshland. Government bureaucrats would rather continue to carelessly cut canals for commerce than free the waterways to naturally meander and deposit sediments that could rebuild the delta.

The worst levee failures were the low-lying neighborhoods, almost uniformly Black and working-class. In the Lower 9th Ward, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, hundreds of gallons of water per second poured through a breach in the Industrial Canal, enough water to move dozens of homes off their foundations, into the streets, and even on top of other homes.

Today, a roughly 20-block area of what once were homes has been cleared and stands utterly empty. A much wider area in the Lower 9th is still littered with debris and filled with a mix of salvageable and structurally unsound buildings, waiting to be either gutted and repaired or bulldozed. Many residents speculate that the wholesale demolition of the neighborhood via violent flooding was premeditated.

Homes unlivable

Those residents who want to return to what’s left of their homes face a myriad of challenges. Almost invariably, those homes are initially unlivable, and must be completely gutted and treated for mold contamination. This in itself takes at least a week of hot, grueling work, for which the government provides no assistance.

Residents must get help from neighbors, get on a long waiting list for help from one of the non-government disaster relief organizations, or shell out $1600 for a private contractor. Many residents opt to do the work themselves, using minimal protective equipment in an environment filled with dangerous sharp objects, tetanus bacteria, and toxic black mold. Once gutted, the house must be rebuilt from the inside out, a process that may take months before it can be reinhabited.

In the meantime, many residents are housed by FEMA in very small (240 square foot) trailers, which are parked on the sidewalk or yard of the their houses. Those who rent are relegated to fenced, graveled trailer parks.

Many residents in dire need of housing had to wait months for the trailers to be released from storage, where they sat empty. The trailers themselves have been treated with formaldehyde, and there have been widespread complaints of respiratory ailments and headaches from the trailers. The trailers can only withstand sustained winds of 40 miles per hour, and their occupants will be forcibly evacuated if so much as a tropical storm nears the city.

Unlike those lucky enough to live in private housing, residents of the city’s public housing projects have had to fight to be allowed back into their homes to begin the cleaning process. The housing projects are currently some of the safest buildings in the city.

Yet, in June the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans to demolish 5000 public housing units, using the excuse of hurricane damage to justify what amounts to a massive gentrification project. About $1 billion of federal money has been allocated toward privately-constructed “mixed-income housing,” which will mean market-rate housing for middle-class families with a few token low-income units.

Residents of the projects have vowed to resist their demolition. In the St. Bernard housing project in the Gentilly neighborhood, residents have set up a tent city, “Survivor’s Village” to demand re-entry. In Algiers, a non-government relief organization has gained control of a housing project, which volunteers and residents are cleaning and re-opening.

Gentrification appears to be the ultimate goal of the government’s sluggish “rebuilding” efforts. The view of many in the ruling class was put succinctly by Congressman Richard Baker (R-La.), who said in Katrina’s aftermath, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Even privately owned homes, however, appear to be on the government and real estate chopping block. Whole neighborhoods were slated by the city for bulldozing; only the organized resistance of community members demanding the right of return for residents has held off the wholesale theft of people’s homes. Today, destitute residents are still fighting bank foreclosures. Some homeowners have been foreclosed on even though they have no mortgage and fully own their homes.

Services and health-care crisis

In a number of neighborhoods, including the Lower 9th Ward, basic services such as electricity and water have yet to be restored. At the end of June, only 13 percent of homes and businesses in the heavily flooded eastern part of the city had been reconnected to electricity.

The city’s water system remains severely damaged. With water being pumped at full capacity, less water makes it to users than leaks out of broken pipes and water mains. The water that does make it through is heavily chlorinated to compensate for marginal treatment.

A myriad of other city services are still in shambles. Only 49 percent of public transportation routes are now receiving any service, with 17 percent of the city’s bus fleet operational.

Despite public protests and the dire need for health-care services, the large public hospital used by poor and working-class residents remains closed. According to the Brookings Institution, “the availability and use of public services in the city and region has essentially stayed flat over the last few months.”

New Orleans’ air and soil remain poisoned by toxic flood residues and mold, while returning to the devastated city is an emotional shock to residents. Yet in the face of massive physical and mental health problems, the city remains devoid of basic public health-care infrastructure.

The most immediate health problem in the city is exposure to black mold, which still coats the walls of every flooded building. Simply breathing the air is hazardous, as mold counts in some parts of the city are well above normal levels.

The incidence of respiratory distress in the city is staggering. Inside flooded buildings, spore counts can reach 500 times safe levels; inhaling the material can lead to permanent respiratory damage. Yet little public information has been made available on the dangers of mold, and most residents use inadequate safety equipment while working on gutting and house restoration.

Situated in the heart of “cancer alley,” the entire city was contaminated with heavy metals and petrochemicals. More oil was spilled in the city during Katrina than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez ship disaster, while pesticides and other dangerous chemicals were simply lifted from the 66 plants and refineries in coastal Louisiana and spread everywhere.

These will undoubtedly cause chronic health problems for decades to come, but no effort is being made by the government to even assess the environmental cleanup needed.

The city’s mental health is in even worse shape. For some survivors, the shock of losing everything is too much; the suicide rate in the city has tripled in the past year. Support services are virtually nonexistent, with fewer than half of the city’s mental health professionals remaining to help people deal with post-traumatic stress.

No legal system, schools privatized

The trauma and desperation felt by residents, lack of public support services, and pre-existing slum conditions in the city have led to skyrocketing levels of violent crime. But the situation has only been worsened by the actions of the New Orleans Police Department, notorious as one of the most racist and brutal departments in the country.

Black residents are routinely handcuffed and searched at random by police. Six thousand people sit in some of the country’s worst jails awaiting trial, many on relatively minor offenses committed months ago.

Only four public defenders exist in the city, and the last jury trial took place in August 2005. Meanwhile, 300 National Guard troops have been deployed—not to help rebuild the city but to assist in further policing it.

In the aftermath of Katrina, the state of Louisiana used the impoverished conditions of the New Orleans public school system to take over control of all but four of the city’s 116 public schools and summarily fire 7500 teachers and other employees. The state-run recovery school district will open around 100 schools in the fall, 25 of which will be privately run charter schools.

The federal Department of Education has created a special $24 million fund available exclusively to charter schools in New Orleans, with not an extra cent to help public schools recover. The teacher’s union has been officially excluded from collectively bargaining with the recovery school district or charter schools, because, according to one school board member, “I think we all realize the world has changed around us.”

Insurance fraud

Another hurdle to residents’ return has been the economic abandonment of the working class by insurance companies and the government. New Orleans was the most insured city in the country, with 67% of homeowners in Orleans Parish, 68% in St. Bernard Parish and 84% in Jefferson Parish covered by flood insurance.

In the aftermath of Katrina, however, insurance companies are refusing to cough up money owed to residents who were fully covered, and the government is doing virtually nothing to force them to pay.

In many cases, residents have been offered lump sums of a small fraction of their home’s pre-storm value. The insurance companies are trying to weasel their way out of payments by claiming that policies only covered “wind damage” or “water damage,” and not “combined wind and water damage.”

In response to this wholesale rip-off, lawsuits have been filed against Nationwide Mutual, State Farm, Allstate, Metropolitan Life, and United Services Automobile Association insurance companies. These suits could take a decade or more to wind their way through the courts, while residents need immediate financial assistance.

FEMA’s assistance to families struggling to rebuild has been little better. Immediately following the storms, FEMA offered lump sum payments of several thousand dollars to residents who pledged not to return to New Orleans.

The state of Louisiana has now implemented the “Road Home” program, which doles out pittances to private homeowners, with a 30 percent penalty for those who were uninsured prior to the storm. No funds have been invested in the sort of massive public works projects that could help all residents rebuild.

Poor people, Blacks disadvantaged

While perhaps one house in 10 has been repaired in the Black, working-class neighborhoods of New Orleans, the tourist-serving businesses in the French Quarter and upscale homes of the wealthy were given top priority by the city government and have been totally restored.

Visitors driving from the New Orleans International Airport to the French Quarter pass through higher ground occupied by middle and upper-income residents, and can scarcely conceive of the devastation that still exists less than a mile away. The human catastrophe facing the poor is hidden even from those who pass nearby, unless they opt to take a $40 “disaster tour” offered by private bus companies looking to make a buck off other people’s misery.

Returning working-class residents who can’t immediately get a FEMA trailer to live in or don’t want to live in one have few other options. Due to the shortage of safe housing, rents have skyrocketed 39 percent in the past year. Despite an apparent plethora of available jobs, unemployment increased between May and June, to 6.4 percent.

The hardships faced by poorer residents have meant a change in the demographics of the “chocolate city.” Though reliable data on race and class is difficult to find, estimates indicate that the post-Katrina population is whiter, older and has a higher median income. Seen in person, it is obvious that higher-income, whiter areas have been rebuilt to a much greater degree than lower-income, Black neighborhoods.

Politics and community organizing

In the face of massive problems, capitalism is unable to offer any viable alternatives for the people of New Orleans. The mayoral elections of April 2006 offered a choice between the pro-big business incumbent mayor, Ray Nagin, and white lieutenant governor Mitch Landreiu. Though Nagin, who is Black, was re-elected largely on racial lines, it was apparent to the majority of working-class Blacks that he had nothing to offer but more of the same business-first agenda.

Instead of relying on politicians, however, residents have created hope for their communities by organizing independently to confront the agenda of the ruling class head-on. The city has historically been a hotbed of community-based activism, including a very active Black Panther Party branch in the 1960s and ’70s.

Since the hurricane, residents have gotten together in citizens’ groups and action committees to demand the right to return and rebuild. They have often confronted the unfeeling government with legal and direct action, including issuing demands to the city and sit-downs in front of bulldozers poised to demolish homes.

Several community-based organizations provide support to returning residents in the absence of government assistance. Groups such as the Common Ground Collective, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), and the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee enlist volunteers from around the city, region and country. They provide work crews, safety equipment, shelter, meals, legal advice, free medical clinics, and even day care services for returning residents.

They have adamantly supported the residents’ demands for the right to return and self-determination for their communities, as well as widely publicizing the plight of the city.

The immediate social breakdown on the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shocked the world. But despite the vast resources that exist in this richest of all nations, and despite almost a year of recovery time, the city of New Orleans and the surrounding areas remain disaster zones.

The situation has exposed the deep social contradictions that exist in America and the inability of capitalism to provide for the basic needs of citizens in times of disaster.