When Government Shrugs: Lessons of Katrina
A year has passed since Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans into the closest thing this country has seen to Pompeii. Although FEMA trailers dot more of the landscape than they did a few months ago, as homeowners have begun to dribble back, at least 60 percent of the city seems unoccupied. It will never be the same. Most of the markers of familiar life, the daily round, swept away, never to return. The beautiful Louis Armstrong song “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” used to give me a little rush of wistful, sweet nostalgia. Now it makes me sob.
Most of my family lives in New Orleans. Nearly all of them were or remain displaced. My mother’s Holly-grove neighborhood sat in four feet of water for nearly a month after the 17th Street Canal ruptured. She left home the day before the storm hit and couldn’t move back until New Year’s Day. Some family members were more fortunate, some less. Most of them lived in the Gentilly area, which was largely devastated by the breach of the London Avenue Canal. My aunt and uncle’s house, only a few blocks from the breach, was inundated, as was that of a cousin who lived near them. She had to be rescued from a rooftop. Even some relatives whose houses weren’t flooded remain displaced, as children had no schools and most of the city went without electricity and other services.
My boat-lifted cousin Ann works for the municipal Parks and Recreation Department. She needed to stay in the city to be available to respond in the storm’s wake. She was preparing to leave for work the bright, clear morning after the storm, anticipating what conditions would be like around town but feeling relieved that the city had dodged the worst. Then she saw water running down the street and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Within an hour, it covered the fire hydrant at the curb. Two hours later, she had retreated to a neighbor’s attic, where they were trapped overnight.
I thought of her whenever I heard someone exclaim self-righteously, “I don’t understand why they didn’t leave.” One day, I finally snapped.
I was in a Cincinnati airport restaurant when I overheard two women responding to television coverage on the night that Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard broke down in tears over the death of his emergency services director’s mother. She drowned in a St. Bernard Parish nursing home as a result of the storm. They seemed like Midwestern church ladies, though it turned out they were flying to Atlantic City, but I guess that is a place of worship. They went immediately from the “Isn’t it so sad what’s happening to those people?” to the “I just don’t know why they didn’t evacuate.” I turned to them and said, “That’s right; you don’t know because you can’t imagine being in their situation” and walked out without ordering anything.
Always ready to exoticize, even when on their best behavior, the news media pulled out their one-size-fits-all cultural exceptionalism. People down there are rooted in their ways, we were told. They have a primordial commitment to place that anchors them to an extent the rest of us can’t understand.
Of course, the media found cases to flavor this story—for instance, an elderly woman who refused to leave her cats. (Anyone remember the curmudgeonly old coot, a Gabby Hayes character-come-to-life, who wouldn’t evacuate his place on Mount Saint Helens?) The exoticizing narrative not only dresses up sentimentalized voyeurism as empathetic understanding. It also recasts victims as eccentrics who, by definition, are outside normal life and who, therefore, we don’t really need to care about. They prefer to live that way.
From that twisted perspective it appears almost disrespectful to consider them to be suffering; they march to the beat of a different drummer and make different choices from the rest of us. The implication is that they accept the consequences of those choices and that it would be condescending to believe otherwise. This is, of course, only a free-market, happy-face expression of victim-blaming.
The fact is that some people chose to ride out the storm in town because, like my cousin Ann, they had commitments to be on site to keep the city functioning and help return it to order. Some stayed for more idiosyncratic reasons, not least because they expected their homes to withstand the hurricane, which, incidentally, most did. The vast majority who didn’t evacuate as the storm approached, however, were either too poor or too frail to leave, or both. In the same news segment as the cat lover, a middle-aged man said that he had $5 to his name when the storm came. What, he asked, could he have done had he been deposited in some strange place with no money?
Two months before Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration determined that it couldn’t afford to provide public transportation to evacuate residents in the event of a major storm. So the city produced DVDs to distribute in poor neighborhoods, alerting residents that they would be on their own. There was no attempt, as part of the evacuation plan, to provide transportation for the nearly 100,000 New Orleanians who didn’t own dependable cars and couldn’t afford to pay their way out of the city. This was triage without the name or the courage of its convictions.
That decision—to shrug shoulders and conclude that the municipality couldn’t afford to mobilize adequately for evacuating up to a quarter of its population—speaks to the real sources of the devastation of New Orleans and the snail’s pace of its recovery. Every determination of what can or can’t be afforded depends on a calculation of costs and benefits and the relative weight of the interests that compete for use of resources. The Nagin administration couldn’t afford to deploy enough buses as part of its evacuation plan because it gave higher priority to dedicating funds to other purposes—such as subsidizing development and keeping taxes and fees low.
The fetish of “efficient” government—code for public policy that is designed to serve the narrow interests of business and the affluent—is the ultimate cause of the city’s devastation. Remember that the city survived the hurricane. It flooded because the levees failed. The levees on the 17th Street and London Avenue canals failed because, in the words of the Independent Levee Investigation Team, “safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced costs.” This was the result of federal underfunding, the Corps of Engineers’ skimping, state and local officials’ temporizing, and a lack of adequate government oversight—or, in neoliberal parlance, cutting government red tape. Where the breech occurred on the 17th Street Canal, the Corps had made concessions in sturdiness of construction to accommodate real estate developers’ desire to stuff as much new upscale housing as possible into that neighborhood. The levee on the Industrial Canal failed because of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet’s extreme vulnerability to storm surge. MR-GO, as it is called, is a forty-year-old white elephant of pure corporate welfare.
The notion that government services are wasteful and unnecessary—the neoliberal idolatry that the market can take care of everything that needs to be taken care of—got exposed for the flim-flam that it is. FEMA was so feckless because Bush and the worthless cronies he put in charge of the agency fundamentally could not even conceive that a public institution should have any responsibilities for securing the public welfare. When disaster struck, none of them had paid enough attention even to imagine what the agency could do, that maybe its purview should include mobilizing rescue and assistance efforts for people on the Gulf Coast whose plight CNN was broadcasting round the clock. For Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and former FEMA Director Mike Brown, the organization existed only as an occasion for plunder, payoffs, and posturing.
As an illustration of how dominant that way of thinking is, Mayor Nagin, while the city was still submerged, fired 3,000 municipal employees, many, if not most, of whom had lost their homes or been displaced. Later, the Orleans Parish School Board laid off 7,500 teachers and other employees. No serious consideration was given to the possibility that maintaining a public workforce could help people return sooner by giving them income, providing services, and augmenting the cleanup and reconstruction efforts.
I’ve been through the city several times since last August. And apart from the ridge that runs along the Mississippi River from the Vieux Carré through the Garden District and Uptown—the area that locals now call the Sliver on the River or the Isle of Denial—the city is barely functioning. There are other pockets, like the Gentilly Ridge or Esplanade, that lie above sea level and didn’t take on significant flooding. However, they are surrounded by areas that did, that lay in the path of ruptures of either the 17th Street or London Avenue canals, or the breach of the Industrial Canal, which was primarily responsible for the devastation of the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, and much of St. Bernard Parish.
Most of the city remains practically deserted. In areas like Gentilly, Pontchartrain Park, the first black middle class subdivision in the city, and New Orleans East, where newer, one-story brick houses abound, the full extent of devastation might be overlooked. From outside, the brick structures seem intact. The grey film enshrouding the structures, however, gives away the reality; it marks the saltwater line indicating the flood’s depth on each lot. Looking inside reveals the moldy, fetid mush of destruction.
Social infrastructure is at best spotty in most of the city. Only 21 percent of Orleans Parish public schools had opened by the end of the 2005/2006 school year. Fewer than half of the city’s bus routes and less than a fifth of its buses are operating. The levee system hasn’t been adequately repaired or upgraded, though the new hurricane season officially opened on June 1. (The Army Corps of Engineers has apologized for its tardiness.)
Meanwhile, privatizers and developers lurk everywhere. Most of the schools that have reopened have done so as charter schools. Both mayor and council can imagine only scenarios in which the “private sector” will be stimulated to come to the rescue and lead a renaissance. This means that they can imagine only policies aimed at boosting investor confidence—cutting spending precisely when they should be increasing it—or drawing on corporate “expertise.” Speculators are chomping at the bit to act on redevelopment plans that would reconstruct the city as a theme park for wholesome titillation with resorts, casinos, and upscale housing.
Before the city was dry, the refrain could be heard all through the media: New Orleans could come back with a “smaller footprint,” as a whiter city with fewer poor people. A group of 200 respectable sociologists called for dispersal of displaced poor New Orleanians to other locales, presenting their proposal—which grants poor people no legitimate commitment to place—as a poverty program. City Council President Oliver Thomas complained in February that government programs and agencies have “pampered” poor people and proclaimed that they should not be encouraged to return. As he put it, “We don’t need soap opera watchers right now.” At least one other black councilmember expressed support of his view, as did the acting head of the Housing Authority of New Orleans.
Nagin speaks emphatically of his support for all displaced New Orleanians’ right to return, but that support is hollow in a context in which only property owners are seen as stakeholders. Landlords began evicting tenants without a hint of due process as soon as the water receded and rumors spread of possibilities for extracting exorbitant rents from construction workers. The state officially prohibited evictions before October 25, but that prohibition was academic for the tens of thousands of people dispersed in shelters around the region and nation. And even that minimal right was flagrantly ignored. The developers are winning, and renters have no effective voice. No plans have been seriously considered that would replace the rental housing, 90 percent of which was classified as low-income affordable, destroyed by Katrina and subsequent flooding. Indeed, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans have announced plans to raze existing low-income public housing and replace it with “mixed-income” occupancy developments, which will further reduce the potential number of affordable units in the city.
So this is where we stand on the anniversary of what is probably the worst—and certainly the most preventable—disaster to hit a major American city. Although the population is scarcely half what it was on August 28 of last year, people are returning. The FEMA trailers are a hopeful sign, a testament to people’s resilience.
My cousin Ann moved out of her trailer and back into her restored house at the end of May. Most of my family members are back in their houses now, though in nearly all their neighborhoods no more than a couple of homes per block are occupied. And the apparatus of neighborhood life—grocery stores and bodegas, dry cleaners and laundromats, coffee shops, restaurants, and the like—has yet to return. Stores remain damaged and boarded up.
The fact that nearly all of my relatives who lived in New Orleans on the day before the storm are living there now is partly a testament to good fortune: Only a minority of them lived in areas that suffered seriously destructive flooding. But it is, most of all, a testament to class privilege. No one in my family lost a job because of the hurricane. All had access to resources that kept their displacement as short and relatively comfortable as it could be. All are homeowners.
With each passing day, a crucially significant political distinction in New Orleans gets clearer and clearer: Property owners are able to assert their interests in the polity, while non-owners are nearly as invisible in civic life now as in the early eighteenth century.
Among other things, the travesty in New Orleans reminds us that capitalism enshrines the prerogatives of property owners—and the bigger the holdings, the more substantial the voice.
This underscores why a simplistically racial interpretation of the injustices perpetrated in New Orleans is inadequate, even when those injustices cluster heavily along racial lines. Substantial numbers of blacks as well as whites are in a position to benefit materially from this regime; blacks as well as whites support the de facto creation of a property owners’ republic. It is possible simultaneously to include black people as stakeholders in the equation for rebuilding the city and to exclude poor people. This is the truth beneath the 200 sociologists’ assurance that their proposal for dispersing the poor would not “depopulate the city of its historically black communities.” But this is a sleight of hand that seeks to sanitize class cleansing with a patter of racial respect.
Guardians of a stripped-down discourse of racial piety, such as Manning Marable and David Roediger, persist in taking me to task for supposedly not recognizing race as the crucial dimension of injustice in New Orleans. This is an all too familiar, tiresome canard, but in this context I find it especially bemusing. I don’t want to descend into what seems like a claim of authenticity based on personal biography. However, I do know New Orleans and its politics, racial or otherwise. I doubt that I could have overlooked the role of race in the city’s power relations during all those years on the segregated buses, streetcars, and ferries, at the segregated public park and zoo, on the segregated lakefront (our space was near the opening to the Industrial Canal), at the Jim Crow takeout restaurant window, at my segregated high school, during the year of white rioting over school desegregation, vicariously through the lives of the domestic workers and caddies who were my neighbors, or in the everyday world that reminded me at every step that any white person could do or say anything to me with impunity and I could have no expectation of due process before the law.
Yes, I’ve seen how many, if not most of the Crescent City’s white citizens’ perspectives on politics remain shaped by a racist worldview that persists as at least a default consciousness. This is especially notable in election seasons, most dramatically in David Duke’s two statewide races. Nominally educated, upper-status white people have been no less likely to embrace him and others like him than have stereotypical rednecks.
I’ve also closely observed the racial transition in the city’s politics over the last thirty years. I’ve seen it from the bottom up and inside out. The new black political class, including the first three black mayors, emerged from my family’s social stratum—our former schoolmates and circle of friends and associates, all part of the rising or entrenched black professional-managerial class. I’ve known many of these individuals, and certainly the stratum writ large, nearly all my life. I’ve seen the content and trajectory of their understanding of race and politics evolve over decades. I’ve seen—from the most casual banter at parties, weddings, and funerals to the crafting of public policy—how racial discourse can be a form of class capital. I know how easily the language of racial equity functions to obscure (typically without self-conscious guile; that’s the beauty of ideology) the reality of a political agenda that concentrates costs and benefits asymmetrically within the black population. A politics built on denouncing racism simply cannot help us understand these dynamics at all.
Last September, watching scenes of the partly submerged Parish courthouse, I kept recalling the feeling of rage that welled in me taking the bus home from school as I’d seen the breathtaking hypocrisy carved into the building’s façade: “The Impartial Administration of Justice is the Foundation of Liberty.”
But even then the language of racism was inadequate to explain the foundations of the inequality we experienced most immediately along racial lines. Much less is it adequate now to mount an effective challenge to the mechanisms that produce and reinforce hierarchy and injustice—in New Orleans and across the country.
Adolph L. Reed Jr. is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party.
- Give a Gift
- About Us
- Civil Liberties
CURRENT ISSUE: December 2013 / January 2014
Rick Bass | Why I’m left with no choice but to put my body on the line.
When Government Was Neighborly
Wendell Berry | Saluting a New Deal program that helped Kentucky farmers.
The Bravest Woman I Know
Kathy Kelly | How an eighty-two-year-old librarian braved Baghdad.
How to Build a New World
Naomi Klein | Why I was wrong in The Shock Doctrine—and what we must do now.