Teachable Instant: Hurricane Katrina Anniversary

In this brief activity, students consider how the storm, and the rebuilding of New Orleans, affected people differently, depending on their income and race.   

Ask students to read, or share out loud, the following:

Hurricane Katrina Anniversary

Why are people marking the anniversary of a hurricane?

What makes Hurricane Katrina so special that Amazon lists over 60 books and 15 movies on the subject? Why are there almost 1500 articles on Katrina in the New York Times?

The storm was devastating, but the answers to the above questions lie as much in the human reaction to the hurricane (especially in New Orleans) as in the storm itself.

The storm:

  • Was one of the largest in U.S. history.
  • Resulted in the deaths of over 1800 people, many of them senior citizens.
  • Produced a rise in water level of 20 feet.
  • Cost over $125 million in damage.
  • Climate scientists are virtually certain that the global rise in water temperatures increased the water level and wind speed.

The human reaction:

  • The preparation for the storm and response to the storm by governments at all levels was inadequate, inefficient and late in arriving.
  • The residents of New Orleans were mostly poor and mostly African American, leading most commentators to conclude that the miserable rescue effort in the immediate aftermath of Katrina had a lot to do with the race of the victims.
  • National media focused much attention on the violence and lawlessness (mostly proven to be exaggerated) in New Orleans during and after the hurricane.
  • Some flooding of the city was entirely predictable and the levees designed to protect New Orleans from flood waters were known to be inadequate.

Ten Years After

Definition:  Gentrification is the process of change accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into low-income areas, often leading to rising rents and prices that displace poorer residents.

Hurricane Katrina forced more than 80% of New Orleans residents to move from their homes. Some moved into temporary shelters; some stayed with relatives and some moved out of the area completely.

Amidst the celebrations of the city's "rebirth" after Katrina, there are concerns that not all of the city's residents have benefitted from the billions of dollars poured into the reconstruction.

Again, race has been a crucial factor:

  • New Orleans has 100,000 fewer African Americans now than before Katrina
  • The percentage of the city that is Black has decreased from 67% to 59%.
  • The white population has grown from 26% to 31%; Latinos from 3% to 5%.
  • 56% of new arrivals to the city are white.
  • Less than half the displaced African American residents were able to move back after one year had passed; this compared to over 70% of white residents.
  • 80% of New Orleans residents who are white say that Louisiana has mostly recovered from the storm, while 60% of Black residents say Louisiana has not mostly recovered.
  • The 55% of New Orleans residents who do not own their own homes have seen their rents and utilities go up by 33% since the storm.
  • Home sale prices have gone up by about 40%

As prices go up, lower-income residents can no longer afford to rent or buy houses. The process of gentrification, which occurs in many U.S. cities, got a big helping hand from the hurricane and the rebuilding that came after. The African American residents of New Orleans have created a special and much-loved culture over the centuries that includes music, food and language. But many feel that culture is being threatened by what some outsiders see as a great recovery.

As hard as it is to fight against a process that is proceeding in many places at once, furthered by decisions made at high levels of government and business, there are dozens of groups working to slow gentrification and to address the conditions that made the storm extra-devastating. Neighborhood associations, churches, unions, environmental and political organizations have fought battles large and small. One group, Gulf South Rising, has formed to coordinate the campaigns of dozens of organizations throughout the Gulf states.

For Discussion:

  1. Should the government response to natural disasters mostly affecting poor people be equal to the response to natural disasters mostly affecting  middle class people? If no, how should resources be allocated? If yes, how can we make sure the government handles emergencies fairly?
  2. Gentrification results in more prosperous houses, stores, parks, schools and neighborhoods. It also pushes poor people from their homes.  Is gentrification a good thing or a bad thing?
  3. The African American and poor people of New Orleans were treated unfairly during and after Hurricane Katrina. Is there anything more they could have done to receive the services they needed?