8/29/05—8/29/15: “Progress without equity is injustice”

The title of this post comes from KatrinaTruth.org, a project of the Advancement Project and Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. Please visit their website for more information on racial equity and recovery efforts. 

Just a few hours before the storm was expected to make landfall, my family packed up our cars with little more than ourselves and the two dogs and headed west on I-10. We had never evacuated before. Hurricanes usually meant a few days off from school and if we were lucky, a good foot of rainwater to play in on our street, which ran alongside the 17th Street Canal.

When the CNN footage showed water up to the train tracks overpass just before the I-10W West End / Florida exit, my parents told us that our neighborhood was underwater, but I was sure they were wrong. It felt like only a few hours before that my mother was putting her foot down, refusing to evacuate, while my father pleaded for her to come with us. Three months later, I stood in our yard and in front of me was everything and nothing at all. Black water had turned books to pulp, destroyed photographs, and spawned mold from the floor all the way to the upstairs ceiling. But our loss was small compared to the trauma and loss experienced by so many families.

In the days after the storm, while we sat on the floor of a distant relative’s living room and watched the footage, thousands of people were waiting for help that came days too late. Survivors helped rescue their neighbors and friends while the federal government showed indifference to the city that was at the time, over 70% black. The whole nation watched in horror while families suffered in attics and on rooftops with no water or food. Law enforcement officers with the Gretna Police Department, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and the Crescent City Connection Police Department blockaded the Crescent City Connection and fired shots to prevent terrified New Orleanians from fleeing from a city 80% covered in water.

Orleans Parish prisoners were abandoned and forced to spend days in sewage water up to their chests with no food, potable water, or ventilation before being evacuated to an I-10 overpass. Children in the Office of Juvenile Justice Youth Center were left in water up to their necks for days before being rescued by adult prisoners. Four NOPD officers with assault weapons open-fired on the Bartholomew family while they walked to a grocery store, fatally wounding two and injuring four others. Governor Kathleen Blanco sent the National Guard in, not to help assist with rescue efforts, but rather to strengthen law enforcement. She told the media, “They have M-16s, and they’re locked and loaded … These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” Chaos and fear at the hands of the National Guard, the police, and armed vigilantes permeated New Orleans for weeks.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and yesterday former President George W. Bush was dancing at Warren Easton High School. Ten years ago, 1800+ people in Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes died in one of the most catastrophic disasters this nation has ever seen, tens of thousands were displaced, many of whom never got to come home, and later today there will be a parade.

In the years following the storm, public housing was traded in for mixed-income developments, and many low-income New Orleanians were pushed to the edges of the city by the rising cost of living. Road Home money was denied to thousands of black homeowners. The city’s public school teachers were all fired (well, that’s one way to disband a labor union), and the school system was overhauled. Today, much of the Lower Ninth still sits empty, and economic development has been concentrated in more affluent neighborhoods.

So if those are your markers of “recovery” and “resilience,” you’re celebrating the decisions that have directly contributed to our “recovery” leaving behind thousands of lower income, mostly black families. There is still much work ahead of us before we can truly call New Orleans recovered. Because “progress without equity is injustice.”

However, we can be thankful that there are people and grassroots organizations doing the work to help all of New Orleans move forward and continue recovering. We all have the opportunity to support progressive change in New Orleans. Here are just a few places you can learn more:

  • Learn about the work of STAND with Dignity, a grassroots organization fighting for the power of the working poor, who recently organized and won the fight for a higher wage in New Orleans.
  • Read up about BreakOUT, an organization devoted to ending the criminalization of LGBTQ youth of color.
  • Get connected with Gulf South Rising, a regional movement of coordinated actions and events to highlight the impact of the global climate crisis on the Gulf South (and go to one of their events between now and August 30).
  • Finally, head to KatrinaTruth.org to learn more about the inequity in our region’s recovery.