Who “Recovered” in Post-Katrina New Orleans?
Author Gary Rivlin discusses how white homeowners disproportionately benefited from the multibillion federally funded Road Home program while working and middle class black families still await relief.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
It’s been ten years since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, resulting in the death of more than 1,800 people, leaving with it 1 million people displaced and an estimated $150 billion in damages. The worst devastation was felt by the city of New Orleans, where the levees that were meant to hold back the storm waters broke, flooding 75 percent of the metropolitan area.
At the time, many criticized FEMA and the Bush administration for their handling of the rescue effort. But now that it’s been ten years, what’s come of the city’s recovery? To mark the tenth anniversary, President Obama traveled to the lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest and hardest-hit areas of New Orleans. Here’s what he had to say.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And the storm laid bare a deeper tragedy that had been brewing for decades, because we came to understand that New Orleans, like so many cities and communities across the country had for too long been plagued by structural inequalities that left too many people, especially poor people, especially people of color, without good jobs or affordable healthcare, or decent housing. Too many kids grew up surrounded by violent crime, cycling through substandard schools where few had a shot to break out of poverty. And so like a body weakened already, undernourished already, when the storm hit there’s no resources to fall back on.
This city is moving in the right direction. And I have never been more confident that together we will get to where we need to go. You inspire me.
DESVARIEUX: So the president says that the city is moving in the right direction. But we want to ask, for whom?
Now joining us to help us answer this question and give us some perspective about where the city is headed is Gary Rivlin. Gary is a former New York Times reporter and author of the book Katrina: After the Flood, and he joins us now from New Orleans. Thank you so much for being with us, Gary.
GARY RIVLIN, AUTHOR, AFTER THE FLOOD: Thank you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: So Gary, there’s so much to discuss about this recovery effort. But I want to focus on how everyday people are faring down there in New Orleans. One staggering statistic is that the growth of racial disparities in the city is growing. According to the Urban League the income gap between black and white residents has increased 37 percent since 2007.
Gary, give us some specific examples of how inequality is soaring in New Orleans, and speak to which specific policies led to this increase.
RIVLIN: Right. New Orleans has the second-highest income gap in the country behind only Atlanta, Georgia. In the year 2000, the average black middle class family was earning $30,000 in New Orleans. In 2013 it was down to $25,000 a year. They’re going in the wrong direction. It’s not only a wide gap, it’s going in the wrong direction.
And some of the reason that it’s been an inequitable recovery is the lack of wealth in the black community compared to the white community. But it’s a lot more than that. And the real tragic element here is that there were policies put into place that made it harder for African-Americans to come back. Not just low-income people in the lower Ninth Ward, but the black working class, the black middle class, even the black professional class. You could look at Lakeview, a prosperous white community that was covered by water after Katrina. It’s 100 percent back now, ten years later. Go to New Orleans East, it’s 80 percent back. New Orleans East is a black, prosperous, professional class community. Then you go to the Seventh Ward, a black working class neighborhood. Fifty, sixty percent back after Katrina.
A lot of it comes down to this program called Road Home. Road Home seemed a miracle. It was $10 billion, the largest federal housing recovery program in U.S. history. It was supposed to help the working class and middle class rebuild. The problem is it wasn’t based on the cost of rebuilding. It was based on the assessed value of your home before Katrina. So if you had a home in the lower Ninth Ward that was appraised at $70,000, you maybe got your $30,000 from insurance, you get another $40,000 in Road Home to make you whole, up to $70,000. But it would cost you $150,000 to rebuild that home. So how are you going to rebuild it? Then go to Lakeview, a white, prosperous community, a 2,000 square foot home is worth $300,000. You needed $200,000, $250,000 to rebuild that home, they could rebuild their home.
Five years after Katrina a federal judge said it’s a racially discriminatory policy. But by that point there was only about $150 million left of the $10 billion and the die was set. There was inequality between the white communities that were flooded and the black communities, whether we’re taking about low income, working class, middle income, or even upper income.
DESVARIEUX: Okay, so from your observation and interviews with a lot of these community members, how do those groups feel? The ones, the black communities, you mentioned working class, lower income. How do they feel about the direction that the city is headed? And if they see it’s not working in their interest, are they organizing themselves?
RIVLIN: Right. Katrina didn’t create racial tensions here. New Orleans was a city with bad racial problems before the storm. They’re much worse. Right away in that first week you had the white business community, well known figures within the white business community saying publicly, this is our chance to change the city demographically–it was a 68 percent black city before Katrina–and change it politically. A black-run city. So you have people openly talking about that, openly plotting. This was an opportunity. The state took over the schools right after Katrina. Ten years later they still are running the schools. The local school board is only running a few of the public schools here. Public housing, some public housing was flooded, but much of it wasn’t. It was never open. It was just surrounded by a fence, put up razor wire. And for two or three years it just sat there until they knocked it all down, not giving a chance to the working poor, the kitchen help, the chambermaids who were cleaning the hotels, not giving them a chance to come back.
There’s a palpable anger here. In fact, you see it in the polls. There’s been several polls in recent weeks with the tenth anniversary of Katrina coming up, and you see. A poll from LSU School of Communications. Eighty percent of whites say the city is going the right direction, it has pretty much recovered. Forty percent of blacks agree with that statement. There’s a big divide in this city.
DESVARIEUX: All right, Gary. Let’s turn and focus on the lower Ninth Ward, as many people remember. It was clobbered after the levees broke and it was home to many poor African-American families. But Gary, development seems to be stuck in the mud there. Only a third of the homes have been rebuilt despite we have federal courts ordering the government to compensate the families who lost their homes.
Just give us a quick, the latest on the developments happening over there, and why is it taking so long to rebuild those homes?
RIVLIN: One thing to keep in mind about the lower Ninth Ward is it’s lower in the sense that it’s south. In the 1920s they build a canal through the Ninth Ward and spit it into an upper and a lower. But everyone, even the mayor of New Orleans at the time, Ray Nagin, assumes that the lower Ninth Ward is the lowest lying part of the city. It is not. New Orleans East which I mentioned before is lower lying, Lakeview is lower lying.
There’s this self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of New Orleans, flooded New Orleans opened about four weeks, five weeks, reopened four or five weeks after Katrina. Not the lower Ninth Ward. Four-plus months after Katrina you still had National Guard soldiers with rifles letting no one, no residents–it was the last place in the city to get electricity. The last place in the city to get gas. Last place to get water. Last place to get FEMA trailers. The schools didn’t want to, the school district didn’t want to put a school there. Why? It’s not going to come back. Forget it. Why would we waste our precious money on the lower Ninth Ward. So it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. They lost a year or two while they had to just sort of justify their right to rebuild.
And now we see that playing out. There’s a lack of business there. Only–in fact, the president yesterday spoke at the Sanchez center. I was there when it was flooded. The Sanchez Center only reopened in May. So it took nearly ten years to open the main community center there in New Orleans. There was FEMA money. The federal government was willing to pay for it. It just took ten years for the city and the state and federal government to get around to rebuilding it.
It’s just a shame that this place that actually had a rich history–you know, everyone thinks it’s poor. It was the working poor, it was retired people. The place needed help, but instead got the short end of everything, and now we see the results. You could drive around the lower Ninth Ward right now, you go two, three blocks and not see any houses. Just empty lot after empty lot after empty lot. If you see a house, maybe it’s occupied but most likely it just has a bashed-in roof and should be knocked down.
DESVARIEUX: So did these families get compensated by the government?
RIVLIN: Everybody got Road Home money. But like I said before, it was based on the assessed value. The problem in the lower Ninth Ward is most houses cost $50, $70, $80,000. But it would cost you $150 or $200,000 to build. They didn’t have that kind of savings. They didn’t have relatives who could do it. So they didn’t really have an option. I mean, some on their own rebuilt. But often what you saw was, even people with their check, there was contractor fraud. It was all over the place. Suddenly people have these huge checks, contractors are preying on people. Everyone’s waiting on the federal government.
So the federal government, a federal judge, as you say, said listen. You’re in part to blame for the flooding of the lower Ninth Ward. You arrogantly built a canal that ended up being a perfect hurricane storm surge delivery system that deluged the lower Ninth Ward. But it’s, like everything in the courts, it’s looking at appeals and it might be years, decades, if ever that people get compensation.
And meanwhile, it’s not even a half-built community. People live alone. I interviewed some guy, I spent some time with a guy, Henry [Urban] there, 79 year old guy, has lived there practically his whole life. He had the [grant], he had savings. He was a supervisor so he had some money, and he had flood insurance. And he rebuilt and moved back in in 2008, 2009. He’s still by himself on the block. He still has no neighbors. You can go two blocks in one direction, two blocks in another. You won’t see anybody. He’s just home alone. It’s tragic.
DESVARIEUX: Gary, let’s pause the conversation there, because we have so much more to get into. I want to talk about who is mostly benefiting from this post-Katrina New Orleans, and what is the role of the black establishment class in all of this. So Gary, thank you so much for joining us.
RIVLIN: Thank you, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
DESVARIEUX: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
We’re continuing our conversation about Hurricane Katrina ten years later and how the recovery effort has gone down there in New Orleans. Now joining us from New Orleans is Gary Rivlin. Gary is a former New York Times reporter and he’s the author of the book Katrina: After the Flood. Thank you for being with us, Gary.
RIVLIN: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: So Gary, let’s talk about who’s actually benefiting from this post-Katrina New Orleans. And let’s speak specifically about the black leadership, and that establishment class. Are their interests and the interests of everyday working-class people matching up here, now in this post-Katrina New Orleans?
RIVLIN: There’s some really interesting tensions in the months and years after Katrina. I think a lot of people look at the black community as if it’s a monolith, but of course you have well-off folks and people who aren’t as well-off.
So one touchpoint, one flashpoint was Section 8 housing. New Orleans East, a well-off community, became a dumping ground for the city to put its Section 8 subsidized housing. And so after Katrina, a lot of the black middle class saw it as their opportunity to make sure that the Section 8 housing, the subsidized housing, didn’t come back. Public housing, itself. That was another issue that really split the black community.
In New Orleans they call it the Big Four. There are four big housing projects. Don’t imagine tall buildings. They are three or four story buildings that just, scattered over blocks. And the shame was that they didn’t all have to be knocked down. Much of the Big Four survived the storm with only minimal damage. But they were never reopened. And they were knocked down and replaced with mixed income. So one-third of the residents of each of these projects are the traditional low-income housing project residents. But another third is middle income, and the final third is market rate. And so the third that are living there love it. It has all sorts of amenities. It’s brand new. But there’s a waiting list right now of 18,000 people waiting for public housing, or Section 8 vouchers. And they closed that list in like, 2012 because it was getting too long. They estimate there would be 50,000 people.
I mean, after a storm like this with 80 percent of the city covered in water, housing became at a premium. So rent soared. There’s a real crying need for affordable housing here. What you saw among the white and black leadership alike is, this is our opportunity to get rid of public housing, and in fact that has happened.
DESVARIEUX: And those who were relying on public housing, Gary, where did they end up going?
RIVLIN: Well, there’s, today there are 100,000 less African-Americans living in New Orleans than there were at the time of Katrina. And it was only a city of 455,000 at the time. Many of them are still in Houston, or Atlanta, wherever they ended up. Some are here and struggling. Some are out in the suburbs, and now are two or three buses from getting downtown to their jobs. It’s been a real problem here.
New Orleans used to be home to the oldest public hospital in the United States. It never reopened after Katrina. Charity Hospital never reopened. The state, the governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco, a moderate Democrat didn’t want that hospital to reopen and in fact fought FEMA. FEMA said, it wasn’t that badly damaged. Why don’t you just rebuild it? She fought it, and New Orleans no longer has a public hospital. Again, something that got in the way of everyday people coming back. Those who didn’t have health insurance. Those who needed some kind of healthcare system to know they could come back and be healthy, be safe.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about what policies should have been put in place, if policy was in the interest of everyday people. What could have the political leadership have done differently to build New Orleans back better and work on the staggering poverty rate?
RIVLIN: Right. Let’s start with a Road Home program that was based on the cost of rebuilding. The idea of Road Home was like, we need to help people rebuild. This was a catastrophe that not only devastated people, it was a man-made catastrophe. We’re commemorating not really a hurricane ten years ago in New Orleans, we’re commemorating a flood. It was a man-made levee system that failed. Half of the 350-mile system collapsed after Katrina. It was supposed to be, it was rated to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. It was a Category 3 hurricane. It’s in large part the fault of the Army Corps of Engineers, and they’ve admitted that. And so there was this sense like we need to help people rebuild. But the whole basis of Road Home wasn’t on the cost of rebuilding. Instead it was based on the appraised value. It just, it compounded the disaster.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about what, let’s say, if there was to be another hurricane, another flood, like you said, another disaster, do you see the city being better prepared? And are those communities that were so vulnerable at the time that the flood took place, are they in a better position now?
RIVLIN: Right. A lot of the issue back at the time of Katrina was the Mayor gave a mandatory evacuation order. But one in four people in New Orleans didn’t own a car. There was no plan to help people, like, oh, maybe we should run trains. In fact, there’s the famous phantom trains. Five Amtrak trains left New Orleans that Sunday right before the storm, empty. Totally empty. And so what happened is people were on their own. Maybe they could beg a ride from a neighbor or a relative. But for the most part people were on their own and they ended up at the Superdome where they were trapped for five days. The city flooded on a Monday. It wasn’t till Friday, day five, that the buses started showing up en masse. Now there’s a plan to help people get out.
The second thing is, the good news is there’s a much stronger flood protection system. The federal government spent nearly $15 billion to rebuild the city’s flood protection system, and it’s much more secure than it was at the time of Katrina. The flip side of that, though, is coastal erosion. The best buffer against the storm surge is that natural coast land. And New Orleans has been losing, sorry southern Louisiana has been losing 25-30 square miles of coast land a year. And what that means is the water, the Gulf of Mexico, is that much closer. You could build the best flood protection system in the world, but unless you stop the erosion of the coastal wetlands, the water’s going to be right here. There’s nothing could hold that back.
So right now, New Orleans is safer. But in a few decades the $15 billion system they have is going to be obsolete unless there’s more done to protect the coastal waters.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Gary Rivlin, joining us from New Orleans. I certainly learned a lot during this interview. I hope our viewers did as well. Thank you so much for being with us.
RIVLIN: Thank you so much, Jessica.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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