Three Years After Katrina
While Republicans and Democrats Gather and Celebrate, A City Still Searches for Recovery
As headlines focus on conventions and running mates, the third anniversary of Katrina offers an opportunity to examine the results of disastrous federal, state and local policy on the people of
According to a study by PolicyLink, 81 percent of those who received the Federally-funded, State-administered Road Home grants had insufficient resources to cover their damages. The average Road Home applicant fell about $35,000 short of the money they need to rebuild their home, and African-American households on average had an almost 35% higher shortfall than white households.
More than one in three residential addresses – over 70,000 - remain vacant or unoccupied, according to a report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. While workers with Brad Pitt's Make It Right project are working on overdrive to finish the first of their scores of planned houses in the notoriously devastated Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood overall ranks far behind other neighborhoods in recovery, with only 11 percent of its pre-Katrina number of households. The same report notes that since the devastation of the city, rents have raised by 46% citywide (much more in some neighborhoods), while many city services remain very limited – for example, only 21% of public transit buses are running.
Its not just activists that speak of race and class divisions in
The survey found large percentages saying that their own situation has deteriorated. Fifty-three percent of low- income residents report that their financial situation is worse today than pre-Katrina. The percentage of residents who say they have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as depression has tripled since 2006.
There is a continuing debate about how many people live in
Blank Slate or Burial Ground
Much of the change in the city is led by a new strata of the city's population – planners, architects, developers, and other reformers. Many of them self-identify as "YURPs" – Young, Urban Rebuilding Professionals - in their work with countless nonprofits, foundations, and businesses. Some of New Orlean's newer residents have spoken of the city as a blank slate on which they can project and practice their ideas of reform, whether in health care, architecture, urban planning, or education. What this worldview leaves out, according to some advocates, is the people who lived here before, who are the most affected by these changes, and have the least say in how they are carried out. "It wasn't a blank slate, it was a cemetery," says poet and educator Kalamu Ya Salaam. "People were killed, and they're building on top of their bones."
The vast majority of
For example, our education system was in crisis pre-Katrina, and certainly needed revolutionary change. Change is what we have gotten – the current system is in many ways unrecognizable from the system of three years ago – but this revolution has been overwhelmingly led from outside, with little input from the parents, students and staff of the New Orleans school system.
Shortly after the post-Katrina evacuation of the city, the entire staff of the public school system was fired. Not long after that, school board officials chose to end recognition or negotiation with the teachers' union – the largest union in the city, and arguably the biggest outlet of Black middle class political power in the city. Since then, the school landscape has changed remarkably – from staff to decision-making structure to facilities. According to Tulane professor Lance Hill, "
The school system used to consist of 128 schools, 124 of them controlled by the New Orleans School Board. Now according to Hill, 88 have opened for the fall, and "50 of them are charter schools (privatized management) governed by self-appointed, self-perpetuating boards; 33 are run by the State Department of Education through the Recovery School District; and only five are governed by the elected school board."
"There are now 42 separate school systems operating in New Orleans," Hill continues, with their own "school policies, including teacher requirements, curriculum, discipline policies, enrollment limits, and social promotions. Publicly accountable schools in which parents have methods for publicly redressing grievances are limited to only five schools (5.6% of the total)."
Several recent articles have expressed excitement and admiration for the new school system, including extended pieces in the New York Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. For school reformers, who came to
There is no doubt that some students receive an excellent education in the new New Orleans school districts, but critics are concerned that the students that are being left behind, are those that need the most help – those without someone to advocate for them, to research and apply for the best schools. According to New Orleanian Kalamu Ya Salaam, who is director of a school program called Students at the Center, the new systems represent "an experimentation with privatization, and everything that implies."
Although the new charter schools have been able to choose from the best facilities and have used methods such as state standardized tests to pick only select students (including 40% fewer special education students), there are still serious questions over the extent to their much-heralded success.
Anniversary and Commemoration
August 29, the anniversary of the devastation of the city, falls between the Democratic and Republican conventions. While the Democratic and Republican parties crown their nominees, activists on the ground will be on the streets, still fighting for a just recovery. "It ain't to rain on Obama's parade," says Sess 4-5, a New Orleans-based hip hop star and activist, "but the people down here need the world to understand that its still a tragic situation. The rent has tripled, the health care system is in shambles, we have less access to education for our kids. The working class and poor are being exploited, while everyone at the top is getting fat off our misery."
"We think August 29 should be holy day, not a day for business as usual," explains Sess, who is one of the organizers of a Katrina March and Commemoration, starting Friday morning in the Lower Ninth Ward, and marching into the 7th Ward. That march is one of two activist commemorations in the city that day, the other starting uptown, near the BW Cooper development, one of the major housing developments torn down this year. "The Mayor announced to the world that New Orleans was 'open for business' but we're here to tell you that it is closed for families," declares former public housing resident Barbara Jackson, who will be part of the demonstration at BW Cooper, called Sankofa Day of Commemoration. "Five thousand demolished homes. Eight thousand new jail beds. This is their one for one replacement plan for us."
Taking to the streets is not the only agenda of local activists. In
It's been community, not foundations or government, that has led this city's recovery at the grassroots. Bayou Road - a street of Black-owned, community-oriented, businesses in
The Right to the City alliance (RTTC), a nationwide coalition of organizations that focuses on urban issues such as health care, criminal justice, and education, sees the continuing crisis in
The work of RTTC deserves special notice, as a coalition that has worked to support the struggles of the people of
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and his reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans has been published and broadcast in outlets including Die Zeit (Europe's largest circulation newspaper), Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now.
Resources for Information and Action:
Sankofa New Orleans March:
Katrina March and Commemoration:
Greater New Orleans Community Data Center
Kaiser Family Foundation Poll:
Left Turn Magazine:
Right To The City Alliance