Three years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept through the Gulf Coast. The world watched with wide open eyes in the days that followed as gross government neglect and mismanagement (to put it nicely) led to the destruction of low-income black communities in New Orleans.
The aftermath of the storm, from the wholesale displacement of African-American communities to the terror of the Superdome exposed a deep vein of economic inequality tied to a legacy of systematic racism in this country.
As Hurricane Gustav hit the coast, what had changed?
Hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents, displaced by the aftermath of Katrina, still have not been able to return to their homes. Those who remained or returned to New Orleans are finding that living in the city just isn’t easy. According to analysis by
The Praxis Project, a Washington, D.C.-based policy advocacy group, the New Orleans city budget has increased by more than 500 percent since Katrina, thanks to state and federal recovery revenues.
Much of the spending is concentrated in business area development, increased policing and incarceration facilities. However, schools and parks and other services suffer deep cuts. Some youth programs have been cut completely.
To lend sharper relief to post-Katrina New Orleans: 5,000 public housing unites are being demolished (regardless of lack of storm damage) and 5,000 new prison beds are being built.
Prisons are not the answer to poverty.
These government-spending patterns are imperiling communities across the country. Rather than respond to the legacy of white supremacy exposed by the storm, the official response seems to further entrench racism and poverty.
Public programs that seek to level the playing field through assistance with housing, job training, and even public education equity are being cut at the national and local levels. There is a push toward privatization that benefits corporate interests at the expense of taxpayers and the general public. New Orleans is the starkest example of this trend.
While Gustav’s winds pulled branches from trees and power outages rolled through the city, many people were hopeful that the new evacuation plans would protect poorer residents from the worst of the storm. It is estimated that 30,000 residents received assistance to leave the city.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the great villain of the Katrina government response catastrophe, seems confident , “We don’t expect the loss of life, certainly, that we saw in Katrina,’’ FEMA Deputy Director Harvey E. Johnson told The Associated Press. “But we are expecting a lot of homes to be damaged, a lot of infrastructure to be flooded, and damaged severely.’’
Less-immediate deaths are an improvement, and only time will tell how good new emergency policies are in New Orleans. But what of the residents who want to return to their homes after the storm? Is there any forethought to rebuilding the city for those who live there?
There is already a displaced city population wanting to return home, without much hope. Thousands of residents who fled three years ago were this year turned out of their contaminated FEMA trailers with nowhere to go. The loss of a home weighs heavily on the heart and soul. The loss of property and a steady job pulls one down the hard-climbed economic ladder.
Storms will continue to hit the Gulf Coast. Storms will continue to hit South Florida. In both cases, we need to be prepared and ensure our people are not caught between nature and poverty. We need to make sure that a Katrina never happens again.
But we also have to understand that the tragedy of Katrina does not end with better evacuation, or better preparedness. The tragedy of Katrina continues beyond the wind, and rain and flooding. As the drama fades from public consciousness, a new movement is growing to reclaim our government from corporations, and to use public resources to put an end to racism and poverty.
This challenge cannot just come from New Orleans, it must come from cities across the U.S. Let’s not wait for another Katrina, a Rita or Gustav before we take action.
Aiyeshia Hudson is an organizer with the Miami Workers Center, an organization that develops grassroots organizations to work for an end to poverty and racism.