Illustration by Brian Hubble
On this eleventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina landing in New Orleans we share a personal account of the decade following the storm. The story was originally published in the September 2015 issue of The Progressive Magazine.
I am a parent of three, a black New Orleanian with roots going back at least five generations. I think of myself as a glass-half-full kind of person. I’m usually happy and optimistic.
But when I talk about what has happened to my city, I become angry. Not the polite, upper-class, northern white lady clutching her pearls kind of angry, but the Bible Belt South, black woman from New Orleans angry. It’s the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back kind of angry, the kind of angry that breathing exercises and yoga can’t erase.
If you listen to our esteemed mayor, Mitch Landrieu, everything is going wonderfully in New Orleans, ten years after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
We are a model of how to rebuild after a natural disaster. Our job growth after the storm was almost the highest in the country (though lately it has returned to normal). We have new school structures. We have new charter operators. Billions of dollars in new funds poured into a city of less than 400,000 people. So we’re doing well, right?
Well, a lot of money did come into the city. And some people did get jobs. And, yes, new schools have opened. But pay attention to who is getting jobs and who is not.
When all eyes turned to New Orleans ten years ago, I thought, finally, people will see the poverty, people will see the income inequality, and things will change.
Some of our school buildings were more than 100 years old, with falling ceilings, and walls and floors eaten through by termites. We had mold in our schools long before the flood, and damaged roofs that leaked whenever there was a hard rain. We had schools built for air conditioning and heating that have not been heated or cooled since the 1980s.
We had income inequality on a scale that should not exist in a civilized country, especially one of the wealthiest countries on earth. We had people who worked hard their whole entire lives and couldn’t afford to buy a house. We had people who had made a generational investment of hard work, sweat, and tears in this city, but due to racism, racist systems, and racist structures of oppression, were never able to break out of the cycle of generational poverty.
But, still, we had a culture in which people loved and supported each other. We took care of each other the best we could. Yes, the crime rate was high. It was as high as any place where people are hungry, and their hopes denied.
Going back to my hopeful naivety, I believed that things would change for the better. When I heard about all of the people coming together who wanted to help New Orleans, I was excited. So what happened?
Today, about half of working-age black males in New Orleans are employed. Many others, cut out of the rebuilding process, have left the city. New Orleans’s black community has shrunk by about 30 percent since the hurricane.
I belong to several organizations and coalitions, including one called Justice and Beyond. It is a coalition of ministers, union leaders, masons, electricians, teachers, cooks, and community members from all over. Most of us are native New Orleanians. I have been able to see who has benefited in the post-Katrina era, and who has not.
Despite all the construction of new schools and hospitals, black contractors from New Orleans are not being hired to rebuild in our community. Instead, companies from other states bring in undocumented labor. They pay their workers less so they can profit from our disaster. Local companies who paid a living wage could not outbid them, so most of our companies did not get contracts rebuilding our own community. Those excluded are middle-class, unionized professionals who have been doing this kind of work most of their lives.
And it’s not just construction jobs. New Orleans has something called “Hollywood South,” where films, television shows, and major motion pictures are made. Production companies get big fat tax breaks, paid for by the citizens of New Orleans. However, the majority of people who work on the sets—not counting the extras like Mardi Gras Indians and jazz musicians, when they need an authentic New Orleans scene—are producers, writers, set designers, even caterers from outside of the city.
After the storm, the already huge economic gap between whites and blacks in New Orleans widened, by 18 percent, according to an Urban League report. Between 2005 and 2013, the median white household income in New Orleans rose from $49,262 to $60,553, compared to an increase of just $23,394 to $25,102 for African Americans. And the number of black children living in poverty also rose, from 44 percent in 2005 to 50.5 percent in 2013.
Even before Katrina struck the city on August 29, 2005, the schools of New Orleans were dilapidated. In the aftermath of the disaster, I participated in what felt like a hundred processes with parents and community members talking about what they would like to see happen, now that we had the opportunity to rebuild our schools. I thought we would be heard.
Forty percent of people who died in Hurricane Katrina died by drowning. We knew that other states had pools in schools, and that teaching children to swim was a part of everyday curriculum for millions of children across the United States. However, even though we live in a city below sea level and are surrounded by water, the people who designed our schools forgot to put in pools. That mistake could be easily corrected with the billions of dollars coming in. It hasn’t been.
Many young people in our communities, even before the storm, had trauma disorders. Because of the storm, that number has increased. All of our children and families were in need of counseling, therapy, and other services which we could use the schools to deliver. We wanted a psychologist in every school. That didn’t happen.
We wanted programs to address racial oppression and teach our children to understand racist structures and how to navigate them. We would rebuild in such a way that our children could finally break the cycle of poverty, by creating entrepreneur programs, funding high-school tech programs that gave students certificates for learning to rewire computers, make apps, and other technical skills.
We would train our teachers in new, innovative ways to reach children with different needs. We would create schools that had free child care, not just for teenagers but also for busy parents. We would have health-care facilities near the schools. We would have solar power, hydropower, and other alternative energy plans.
We would have programs where students and our community would come up with ways to creatively intervene and create new solutions for the city. We would pay community members from the city to come into the schools and help teach the children restorative justice through peer-to-peer counseling.
We would have the children rediscover the richness in their own communities by learning about the spoken word from Sunni Patterson and Asia Rainey. They would study photographs with great local artists like Saddi Khali, while cultural workers like Wendi O’Neal would teach them storytelling and spiritual ancestral songs. They would have trainers to do history and diversity trainings.
We wanted schools where youth and community members could produce media from a multimedia hub. We were going to recreate schools that were already working. We were going to hire dozens to hundreds of other people from the community to teach based on what the community needed and to develop a community hub and beacon for other cities to follow.
What actually happened was this: The state raised the cut-score on standardized tests, and took over all the schools in Orleans Parish, an area that is predominantly black. It fired all of the teachers, counselors, and administrators. Then Teach for America came in, because we suddenly had a teacher shortage. Huh, I wonder how that happened?
Teaching is a profession that requires a four-year degree and classroom training. New Orleans embraced the notion that all you need to be a teacher here is to be really smart, preferably white and from someplace else. Then, with four weeks of training you could come to a city with a devastated populace and properly educate children. Today, what we see a lot of in New Orleans are D and low-C operators getting more schools to run. Most of the charter operators and boards are white and from outside the city.
And children are being put out of schools. When I worked at Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, we actually tried to pass legislation to prevent children in kindergarten through fourth grade from being suspended for uniform violations like a wrong colored belt or a white checkmark on an otherwise black shoe. After a lot of work, with heavy legislative education, it passed both houses of the legislature, only to be vetoed by our governor, Bobby Jindal.
In charter schools in New Orleans, children can be suspended for anything. The most common transgression is willful disobedience. That can be coughing, laughing, picking up a pencil, or looking at the teacher the wrong way. My own eight-year-old daughter was suspended for bringing a doll to school.
I could go on and on about how education has failed the children of New Orleans. I could tell you about roughly 15,000 young people between sixteen and twenty-four who are not working or in school. They are called opportunity youth. We most definitely had an opportunity to help them. But in every way we failed them.
With all of this bad news, there is good news. The good news is that there are people who are trying to address the challenges of the moment, having real conversations about race and economic justice, about elitism and hope. The good news is that we have another ten years to start doing this right.
I’m still optimistic that all of these conversations will lead to policy action and action on an individual level.
We have an opportunity to look at New Orleans as a model of what not to do to people. We have the opportunity to be a real model of rebuilding.
I hope you will join me in this quest. I’m optimistic that together we can make New Orleans into a place that tells the story of a culture that was almost destroyed, of people who were almost left behind, but who then came together to make a victory for all.
Ashana Bigard is a lifelong resident of New Orleans, mother of three, social justice organizer, and advocate for children and families in Louisiana. She is Progressive Education Southcentral Regional Fellow.