By Marc H. Morial
“So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses.” – President George W. Bush, National Address from New Orleans, September 15, 2005.
Ten years ago last week, Hurricane Katrina slammed its Category 3, 125 mph fury into the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. A decade later, much of my beloved hometown of New Orleans continues to bear the scars of one of our nation’s deadliest hurricanes, and its costliest natural (and man-made) disaster to date.
The devastating combination of Katrina, the failure of the levees to hold back the surging storm water from the Gulf of Mexico, and the catastrophic failure of our government’s response to the storm, led to a record-breaking loss of life and property. Ultimately, 80 percent of New Orleans would flood under water up to 20 feet high. Katrina would claim nearly 1,900 American lives and property damage would eventually be estimated at more than $100 billion.
Katrina did not discriminate in its devastation and made victims of most New Orleanians. But many of the most heartrending images from the storm were those of the desperation of its mostly African American victims clinging to the roofs of flooded cars and houses waiting for help, or squashed together inside the Superdome seeking refuge from the storm. New Orleans’ Black residents – who mostly lived in the city’s poor, low-lying areas, which suffered massive flooding – were disproportionately affected by the flooding and the seemingly non-existent rescue and recovery plans of the local, state and federal government.
For many in our nation, the storm swept away any illusions about inequality and its devastating impact on communities of color in New Orleans – both before and after the storm. During his national address, President Bush acknowledged the “deep, persistent poverty in this region,” adding, “that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.”
As a senator touring Katrina’s destruction in the region, Barack Obama shed a bright light on the city’s historic racial and economic injustices and the role it played in Katrina’s racially disparate impact: “I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the Hurricane. They were abandoned long ago – to murder and mayhem in their streets; to substandard schools; to dilapidated housing; to inadequate health care; to a pervasive sense of hopelessness. That is the deeper shame of this past week – that it has taken a crisis like this one to awaken us to the great divide that continues to fester in our midst.”
Despite the unprecedented pain, waste and loss, New Orleans has made great strides. There are bustling businesses where there were once ravaged storefronts. There are homes where there were once empty, neglected lots. High schools are even graduating students at a higher rate than before the storm.
But according to a recent survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, African Americans and Whites have vastly different views of the ongoing recovery. Nearly four out of five White residents say the city has mostly recovered, while nearly three out of five Blacks say it has not. The recovery, seen through a lop-sided racial lens, highlights the need to ensure that any recovery in New Orleans must include African Americans and all communities of color. To recover and lose the ethnic flavors and cultural influences that have made New Orleans the iconic city it is would mean losing the city’s heart and soul.
New Orleans remains a work in progress and the hardest work lies ahead. To assist on the road to recovery, the Urban League of Greater New Orleans, in partnership with the National Urban League, will host “RISE: Katrina 10.” The commemorative conference will evaluate the city’s progress over the last decade and make recommendations for continued improvements.
The events will bring together a cross-section of community members, civic, industry and national leaders to discuss topics ranging from housing to environmental justice and disaster preparedness in post-Katrina New Orleans. The entire conference will be informed by the data released in the “State of Black New Orleans: 10 Years Post Katrina” report, because we understand that armed with the facts, we can rebuild a New Orleans that is stronger than the city before.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.