Revolution #99, August 26, 2007

Katrina: Two Years Later

Two years after Katrina, much of New Orleans remains a wasteland.

In the Lower 9th Ward, a poor, Black section of the city, only 20% of the residents have returned to their homes and the area lies largely in ruins. The city plans to bulldoze much of the neighborhood even though a recent university-sponsored study shows that over 80% of the buildings are structurally sound.

In August 2005 New Orleans had over 450,000 people. Today only 250,000 people live there.

Tens of thousands of families throughout the Gulf Coast are living in 240-square-foot trailers, most of which house at least three adults. According to the Associated Press there are still 45,000 families living in trailers in Louisiana, 20,000 in Mississippi, 17,000 in Texas, and 400 in Alabama.

These trailers are often located in remote areas far from services that people need and any jobs that they could get to earn money to be able to return to New Orleans. For example, the Sugar Hill Trailer Park in the midst of cane fields near Convent, midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is 20 miles away from the nearest grocery store. There is one bus that leaves at 9 a.m. and returns at 4 p.m.

People living in these government trailer parks often face a hostility from the communities they are located in. Cities routinely pass zoning regulations that only allow the trailer parks to be located in very remote locations or ban the parks altogether. City officials may then decide to evict the residents with only a few hours notice. On top of this, there is general harassment to let the poor and Black residents of the parks know that they are not welcome. In one New Orleans suburb, a sheriff told reporters that he was going to protect his jurisdiction from "thugs" and "trash" migrating from closed public housing projects in the city. He said that every person who wore "dreadlocks or che-wee hairstyles" could expect to be stopped by law enforcement.

Toxic Trailers

Recent testimony before Congress revealed that many of the trailers provided by FEMA had very high levels of formaldehyde. People living in the trailers had complained that the chemical caused frequent nosebleeds, breathing difficulties, and mysterious mouth and nasal tumors. When FEMA first got complaints about the trailers, they did nothing about it. After many months, FEMA finally tested a trailer in March 2006 and found that the level of toxic chemical formaldehyde was 75 times higher than the government-recommended level for workplaces. Despite this, FEMA issued a statement saying, “We are confident that there is no ongoing risk.”

Mary C. DeVany, an occupational health and safety engineer advising the Sierra Club, testified that FEMA’s “misapplication and skewing of scientific results is at best unethical and grossly misrepresents and attempt to minimize the adverse health effects being experienced by thousands of travel trailer residents.” The Sierra Club reported finding unsafe levels of formaldehyde in 30 out of 32 trailers it tested along the Gulf Coast.

Destruction of Public Housing

At the time of Katrina, more than 5,000 families, nearly all of them African American, were living in New Orleans public housing. A couple of thousand more units were vacant or uninhabitable. The waiting list for housing had 8,250 names. Two years later, most of this housing remains closed, surrounded by razor wire. Only about 1,400 units are occupied, according to HUD figures. The plan is to tear down the old housing projects and replace them with “mixed-income developments.” This means that public housing for the poor will not be replaced or rebuilt in anywhere near the numbers that existed before Katrina.

The demographics of New Orleans are being systematically and forcibly changed. Before Katrina the city was about 67 percent Black and 28 percent white, according to Census Bureau figures. A more recent study conducted for the Louisiana Recovery Authority estimates that the city, still well under half its pre-storm population, is 47 percent Black and 43 percent white.

Flood System

According to an article in the New York Times, after two years and more than a billion dollars spent by the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild New Orleans’s hurricane protection system, if a big “100-year flood” hit the Gentilly neighborhood in New Orleans, the water level is likely to be reduced by only 6 inches. By comparison, the wealthier neighborhood to the west, Lakeview, had its flooding risk reduced by nearly 5 and a half feet.

The entire flood system still provides much less protection than New Orleans needs, and the pre-Katrina patchwork of levees, floodwalls, and gates that a Corps of Engineers investigation called “a system in name only” is still just that.

Inadequate Health Care

Only one of the city’s seven general hospitals is operating at its pre-hurricane level; two are partially open, and four remain closed. The number of hospital beds in New Orleans has dropped by two-thirds. Charity Hospital, which provided basically all the medical care—emergency, acute, and basic—for the city’s poor, is closed with no plans to reopen.

There are now 16,800 fewer medical jobs in New Orleans than before Katrina, down 27 percent. More than 4,486 doctors from three parishes in the New Orleans area have been displaced, creating a shortage that continues to be a problem at many hospitals.

Donald Smithburg, chief executive officer of the Louisiana State University Health Care Services Division, said, "If you are uninsured and have a broken bone, and it needs surgery, you could be waiting months and months, there are so few orthopedists and even fewer who will take the uninsured.”

Two-Tier Education System

Before Katrina, New Orleans had 128 public schools, 4,000 teachers, and 60,000 students. One year later, only four schools were controlled by the local school board. Today 70% of New Orleans schools are privately run charter schools.

Public schools with the best test scores and the least damage were given away to private companies to form charter schools, attended by students with better test scores whose parents have the ability to get them into those schools. Students with average test scores or learning disabilities, or from single-parent families, will have to attend deteriorating public schools.

At John McDonough—a public high school created to take the place of five pre-Katrina high schools—teachers, textbooks, and supplies remained in short order months after the school opened. The school has 39 security guards and 3 cops on staff but only 27 teachers.

Restoring the Tourist Industry

The government poured millions into restoring some property.

$116 million from FEMA was spent on restoring the New Orleans Superdome and $60 million on restoring the Morial Convention Center, and $37 million was spent on building a new parking garage for luxury cruise boats leaving the port of New Orleans.

Earlier this year J. Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said, “It’s almost a tale of two cities. We have some outlying post-World War 2 neighborhoods that suffered damage that is incomprehensible. But the original city areas that the tourists come to—the French Quarter, the Garden District and the Arts District—are not only intact, but look better than they did before the storm.”

Send us your comments.

If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.

What Humanity Needs
From Ike to Mao and Beyond