Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina landed on the coast of Louisiana, flooding New Orleans. Even though this was a massive hurricane, the chaos that followed was man made.
Who can forget the TV images of New Orleans mostly black residents, flooded out of their homes with no safe place to go, no medical care for the injured, no food or drinkable water for days? Nursing home residents were abandoned as the waters rose, along with prisoners awaiting trials in the New Orleans jail. Nearly 2000 people lost their lives in the chaos. For a week after Katrina hit New Orleans, the federal and state government made no effort to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of now homeless survivors. Instead of relief, desperate people faced cops, with guns drawn, holding back groups of people trying to make their way to safer ground in richer, whiter neighborhoods.
But while the government did nothing, ordinary New Orleans people found ways to help each other survive. People found boats and used them to rescue people stranded on rooftops. Food and water taken from warehouses was distributed to the thousands of desperate people who had taken refuge in the Superdome.
For decades before Katrina, politicians refused to build adequate flood protection for the poorer neighborhoods despite constant warnings about the risks. Now after spending $15 billion to strengthen the flood barrier system, the poorest neighborhoods, those in the low-lying areas, are increasingly vulnerable in the event of a new flood. For New Orleans as a whole to be protected, oil companies would have to stop their destruction of wetlands, which used to help buffer the city from storms. But the oil companies practically run Louisiana, and they have no plans to leave the wetlands.
Of the billions of dollars in funds to rebuild New Orleans, money first went to restore the French Quarter where the casinos and profitable tourist industry is. Instead of repairing public housing, the city government tore it down so real estate tycoons and bankers could develop upscale housing.
Today New Orleans has one third fewer hospital beds accessible to the working class and poor than it did before Katrina. Over 90 percent of school children now attend charter schools, where most of the teachers are young and paid less than the public school teachers they replaced. The New Orleans police department, known for its racism and corruption, has not changed its ways in spite of repeated investigations and exposures.
Since Katrina, the population of New Orleans has fallen by twenty percent. In the Lower Ninth ward, fewer than half of the 14,000 residents living there before Katrina have returned. The business elite of New Orleans have worked to attract young professionals, middle managers and upper-class businessmen to the city – all mostly white. At the same time, the city has done almost nothing to restore the homes and bring back displaced working class residents – all mostly black. As President Obama went to New Orleans to praise what he called great progress, over 80 percent of black people in New Orleans said life had not improved since Katrina.
Hurricanes are naturally occurring events. But there was nothing natural about the consequences of Katrina. They were the result of decisions by powerful people to put the interests of profit ahead of the needs of the people. This same drive for profit explains why, after ten years, life for the working class, and especially the black population of New Orleans, is worse than before the hurricane.