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The Racial Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Throughout the world, whenever a natural disaster strikes, people who are poor and marginalised often suffer most.  Consortium Board Member Dayna L. Cunningham, of Public Interest Projects, a social justice project-management organisation, writes about the insensitivity and incompetence surrounding response efforts after Hurricane Katrina.  She argues for the CFSC approach by showing the critical importance of listening to the people most affected by poverty and injustice.  

It is hard to believe, but in the United States, many people still question whether race played a role in the Gulf Coast flood after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the failed rescue efforts that followed and the half-baked recovery effort now under way. 

In fact, a TV news program shortly after the disaster opened with a panel of "experts" considering whether Katrina and subsequent events suggest that God is mad at us. 

Human Suffering and the "God Question'

When I first heard the God question, I was outraged by its pandering to the powerful U.S. Christian right wing.  Never mind the question's insidious implication that the people left waving frantically on rooftops or drowned in the rushing water somehow deserved it.  Or the suggestion that human acts and human will played no role in the horrific events.  Never mind that "us" is undefined, hinting that everyone is equally to blame for what happened. 

I have always had an aversion to mixing existential queries with matters clearly about politics and policy.  I have even greater scepticism that God concerns herself with such mundane matters as levee repair and emergency evacuation plans. 

Katrina: A Racial Disaster, Too

Nonetheless, the more I pondered the question, the more I thought it had merit: If there is a God attending to such things, and if I were she, I'd be pretty honked off.  Not at the poor people trapped in the Superdome, nor at the glorious old city abandoned and awash in debris and deadly toxins.  

Katrina was a natural disaster.  Its aftermath was a racial disaster that, like Katrina, could have been predicted.  Unlike Katrina, it could have been avoided.   

Jim Crow, the regime of racially oppressive laws and practices designed to preserve as much of the slave order as possible, got its name from a racist song popular at the time of emancipation in the United States. 

Jim Crow still haunts the Gulf Region, in the southern Mississippi delta area of the United States, taking on a life of its own. 

The region was built on an economy whose plantations exploited slave labour and, later, whose energy companies pumped crude oil from under the sea.  Such an economy demands, and produces, poor and uneducated people with few choices and even less say.  Jim Crow has worked overtime for generations to undermine infrastructure, rob schools, undercut livelihoods, marginalize black communities and even create a culture in which all of this injustice somehow seems normal. 

Jim Crow had a hand in confining African American communities to the lowest-lying, most flood-prone areas of the city.  According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor of Landscape and Architecture Ann Whiston Spirn, building black communities on flood plains, with poorly maintained infrastructure and weak development, is a segregation pattern so common in the United States that such communities routinely are called "black bottom."   

In New Orleans, the Ninth Ward, where people drowned when the levees burst, was a black bottom community.  The last time water overtook the city, in 1927, city officials used the Ninth Ward as a floodwater outlet for the city.  Jim Crow was there, as the levees were breached and water poured in, boats evacuating whites from adjoining neighbourhoods left Ninth Ward families behind, blasting the song "Bye Bye Blackbird" from speakers as they passed.  

Needless to say, when Katrina hit, Jim Crow's fingerprints were everywhere; he had already chosen the neighbourhoods to be spared, the families that had the resources to leave, the endangered survivors who were to be rescued first and, after Katrina, the communities and businesses that would quickly receive aid and the evacuated families to be granted the right of return. 

Alarmingly, because "black bottom" communities exist all over the country, there are thousands of similar disasters waiting to happen. 

Jim Crow was an active and insidious player in the Gulf tragedy, not merely a shadow of a shameful past.   The disaster's racial dimensions could be glimpsed in Washington's reckless failure to fund disaster prevention and relief for a majority black city, despite repeated warnings that a massive flood loomed.  Yet, President Bush's cavalier slashing of funding for flood management, levee maintenance and relief planning, and his subsuming of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Department of Homeland Security had consequences for the favoured oil and gas industries too.  Those particular failures speak more to the frightening incompetence of his administration and its misguided notions about the War on Terror. 

The most ugly and aggressive face of Jim Crow was the federal government's unspeakable callousness in the flood's wake as the city's vital systems failed and federal officials refused to intervene.  Worse still, when they finally arrived, many interventions were more dangerous than helpful.  Recall the National Guard troops with rifles trained on hopeless survivors and the FEMA agents barred from the Superdome because their leaders couldn't distinguish despair from thuggery.  The now-deposed FEMA chief admitted on national television that he hadn't bothered to check on the conditions of the mostly black survivors inside the Superdome.  His boss, the Homeland Security chief, inexplicably waited out the critical first 36 hours of the disaster before authorizing federal disaster relief.  

Even more damning, a week into the tragedy, FEMA was deploying out-of-state rescue workers to Atlanta, not the Gulf Coast, where they were sent for public relations training, not disaster-relief training.  According to the New York Times' Frank Rich, when finally dispatched to New Orleans, 50 of the newly minted "rescue" workers were assigned to "stand beside President Bush" for his unconscionably belated first visit to the ravaged city.   

How unspeakably mean to treat people, many of whom are black, this way.  Even given the Gulf's racial history, the disregard for their humanity is shocking.  How debilitating to the civic culture of our nation to witness such callow leadership.  Can anything now be done to heal this colossal breach of faith and avoid deepening disenchantment and cynicism?

African American culture is a deep generative source of faith in the power of struggle, and the Gulf Region is a particularly opulent taproot of that culture.  The terrible suffering that has occurred there has hallowed the region.  Its people dispersed, and its structures destroyed, it is now rich with redemptive potential.  Redemption, of course, requires a lot more than the bricks and mortar already pouring into the region. 

Rebuilding New Orleans: Communication is Key

In New Orleans and its environs a powerful experiment is waiting to unfold by which we might learn how to give new life to a battered region as a vibrant model of sustainable, inclusive, democratic urban design.  As of now, there has been little reflection, among government and other leaders, on the sins of exclusion they have committed there. 

The residents of the Ninth Ward, like many others whose pleas went unheard in the first days of the disaster, are fighting to have a say in what the city might become.  Leaders face urgent questions when entire communities are lost: How to gather up the 400,000 people who have fled?  When is it safe to return?  How bad are the environmental hazards?  What to demand from a government that failed to provide and protect?  How to prove title and value of lost property?  How to protect what is left going forward?  And in a more forward-looking vein, where to site churches and schools and how to recapture intangibles like trust and security and optimism?  

These are questions for the entire United States, not just the Ninth Ward.  They can be answered only via deep deliberative processes, the development of entirely new and different capacities and resources for communities to understand and communicate what they want, and to strategize about how to get it. 

If it can be done, there is great promise in the future of the Gulf.  If it cannot, God help us all.  We are on our own.

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