Andre Perry remembers returning to New Orleans in 2005 shortly after Katrina had savaged the city he called home. He recalls seeing the devastation wrought by the hurricane’s maximum sustained winds of 175 miles-per-hour with explosive gusts and destructive storm surges. The city was left underwater after levees and flood walls breached in more than 50 places, resulting in 80 percent of the Crescent City being left inundated for weeks and months after.
“I was there during Katrina and left a day later. It was devastation. I came back before they were letting people back in,” said Mr. Perry, who lived in New Orleans for 14 years before accepting a position as a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “There was an eerie silence. I didn’t hear the sound of children or animals. No birds were chirping. New Orleans is a very social place. I did not see gatherings you were accustomed to. It felt like you were in some post-apocalyptic movie.”
Katrina left New Orleans shredded, soaked and battered with more than 100,000 residents scattered like seeds in the wind across the United States. Most never returned. Those who spoke to The Final Call lamented this displacement while describing the incalculable loss of people, culture and family. The Crescent City is still recovering from the scars of so many individuals and families being so violently uprooted. But each person who spoke, cited the strength, resilience and deep faith of New Orleans’ African American residents and how these characteristics buoyed crushed spirits and over time lifted the fortunes of those most affected by the killer storm.
Mr. Perry said significant numbers of African American residents of New Orleans, 15 years ago and now, are dependent on public transportation. So when Katrina hit, more than 100,000 residents who were stuck in the city and not evacuated were forced to take refuge in the Superdome and “refuges of last resort” after the flooding destroyed most of New Orleans’ transportation and communication facilities. Residents were left trapped with little access to food, shelter or other basic necessities.
In retrospect, Mr. Perry said, he fears that all these years later, New Orleans is still not prepared if a hurricane of Katrina’s power and intensity rolls through.
“The true testament is if another storm hits the city. Would it have the same impact? Hell yeah,” said Mr. Perry, a nationally known commentator on race, structural inequality and education and a scholar-in-residence at American University. “People couldn’t leave on their own. The levee system would make matters worse. Would you see a different outcome? No, because the man-made elements are still there. The levees were inadequate. With education, school buildings are new but people are falling into the cracks. Poverty is still rampant. Today, people do not have the resources to evacuate on their own. That is a sign of a broken jobs market and unaffordable housing which is why Katrina was so bad.”
An incomplete comeback
Marc H. Morial, who served as mayor from 1994-2002, and is now the president and CEO of the National Urban League, said he prefers to focus on all that’s good about the city of his birth.
“The good is that notwithstanding Hurricane Katrina, the spirit of the people and their culture has been reaffirmed,” he said. “This is led by people not politicians. There’s an unmistakable energy. I think there has been a comeback of sorts but it’s not complete.”
Mr. Morial, an attorney who served as state senator before becoming mayor, did touch on some of the issues New Orleans has faced.
“A substantial part of the African American population did not come back because they couldn’t,” he said. “It was done in an ugly ethnic cleansing sort of way. But there was great backlash against that. They were going to basically bulldoze traditional African American neighborhoods and turn them into dunes. It was ugly, ill-advised, and delayed reconstruction. It inflamed racial divisions and scars remain today,” he said.
“There was a failure of politicians and business leaders to recognize their moral responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable. I have mixed emotions. There is quite a large amount of rebuilding. There is a renaissance in the city but some parts of the city has been left out. There is a tremendous amount of work yet to be done.”
Student Minister Willie Muhammad echoed Mr. Morial’s upbeat demeanor but his comments were also very sobering as he described New Orleans in 2020.
“I see a city of promise. I see a city that is deeply influenced by African culture. I also see a city that still suffers from inequalities birthed by racism. Along with that I see a spirit amongst Black people who are not willing to tolerate that anymore,” he intoned. “There have been improvements. I would be lying if I said otherwise. We elected our first Black female mayor and more people are politically and socially active. We are thankful for those improvements, but our goal is to see our people resurrected and self-sufficient. Until we get there, we aren’t satisfied,” said Student Min. Willie Muhammad of Mosque No. 46 and local representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.
“The city experienced a few years (post Hurricane Katrina) where there was a slight reduction in the annual homicides. Violence is still an issue,” he explained. “There are efforts to promote equitable housing, however, the rent amounts have increased, and the job market is still based on tourism which does not provide a meaningful living income for many. The jury is mixed on the issue of education. Some decry the system being transformed into all charters. However, some look at it as an opportunity for those interested in seeing a better quality education for Black and Brown children. For example, one of the top performing charters is run by a Black man who makes no apologies for wanting to see greater educational opportunities and advancements for Black and Brown children as well as increase in salaries for teachers,” Student Min. Muhammad concluded.
For New Orleans resident Sue Mobley, the good and best thing about New Orleans in 2020 “is that we’re still here. It was not a foregone conclusion,” she told The Final Call. “The bad is that we’re here in a very different way. One hundred thousand residents are gone. We lost a lot of Black people, a lot of middle-class residents. That’s not spoken of much. The city has been turned into an open-air hotel because so much of core of the city has been turned into short-term rentals, Airbnb and such. The high-ground neighborhoods have no one there. There was a tremendous impact on the city losing them. And sea levels are rising.”
Ms. Mobley, an urbanist, organizer, advocate and senior research scholar at Monument Lab, said the ugly aspects of post-Katrina New Orleans includes the city’s high levels of income inequality and an over-dependence on tourism.
Then there is the Covid-19 global pandemic which has disproportionately killed and sickened Black and Brown people in disproportionate numbers that have alarmed the medical community and the affected communities alike.
“This is hitting the city incredibly hard. We’re seeing a massive wave of evictions beginning,” Ms. Mobley explained. “Families are doubling and tripling up and there’s a danger of higher rates of (Covid) infection in multi-family homes,” she added. New Orleans’ chances of survival and success is very much in flux, Ms. Mobley explained. “There’s not the political will to make hard choices. The current administration is left with a lot of hard choices. They inherited situations where the hard choices were not made.”
And this state of affairs has been compounded by mistakes the current administration has made, such as not putting resources where they’re most needed, Ms. Mobley added.
When asked, Ms. Mobley waxed poetic about the people of New Orleans: “I love the people. They are kind with gallows humor. They’re extremely warm and happy to be out in the streets. They communicate with each other, but this is does not translate to a political sense of shared destination, which I wish it was.”
A tale of two cities
New Orleans is truly a tale of two cities some residents said, with policies and programs that continue to favor the monied class, exacerbate the Black-White wealth/salary gap, deep racial inequalities and further marginalization of an already marginalized community. More than 50 percent of New Orleans’ residents are Black but they only own or control just two percent of the city’s wealth and resources, radio talk show host Oliver Thomas tells us. And although more than 18 million visitors came to New Orleans last year and billions of dollars routinely flow through the city, most of that largesse never reaches the majority of Black residents.
Meanwhile, the largest race or ethnic group mired in poverty is African Americans and the poverty rate, according to Data USA is 25.4 percent. Flozell Daniels, Jr., said the data point that New Orleans’ White residents have the highest level of inherited wealth in the country, coupled with the entrenched racism in Louisiana and New Orleans tells a good deal of the story as to why Black people have struggled so hard to gain traction.
Mr. Daniels, a New Orleans native and president and CEO of Foundation for Louisiana, described Black people and marginalized people in his city as the epicenter of opportunity. But progress is slowed or mixed, he said, because the state and this city are burdened by a slave past that those who hold the real power still haven’t reconciled.
“What we’ve seen is some success in areas viewed through the humanitarian lens,” he said. “There is deep racial inequality. But as activists work to subvert the power structure, there are enough wins and successes such as unanimous juries, and the reduction of arrests—60,000— between 2010 and now by two-thirds.”
“We still have a lot of work to do to be certain. But activists, philanthropist and public leaders finally paid attention and enacted policies that are making a difference. If you look back in our history post-reconstruction, enormous wealth was created by the enslaved society. But those in control quickly pivoted to a public safety strategy,” Mr. Daniels said.
“It was ritually observed. It’s not surprising of the long history of tying incarceration to the landed gentry. The majority of residents got convinced that we needed heavy police presence so we had the War on Drugs and other anti-crime initiatives. New Orleans was better at that than most.
“For example, in 2010, there were 6,700 people in jail which I considered to be an unmitigated disaster. Today we have a little more than 800—the largest per capita reduction in the U.S.,” he said.
Far too often, he said, Crescent City residents can’t get jobs, business permits or access to the types of jobs that would allow them to have a decent living and take care of more than their most basic needs.
A resilient community amid challenges
“But there are two sides to the coin post-Katrina,” explained Mr. Daniels. “We have a stronger network of activists working towards social justice outcomes in education, housing, economic justice and voting rights. In the social justice infrastructure, we finally have enough people who know how to do the work. You’re seeing a lot more folk with the talent and expertise on how to use their skills to fashion policies working and working together, even as we’re seeing extraordinary pushback by federal, state and local officials.”
At the same time, education is worse, housing is worse, housing equity is worse and there is a real challenge for access to jobs, said Mr. Daniels, who worked as a specialist in urban policy in the Office of the Mayor, Division of Federal and State Programs. Then he served as Tulane University’s assistant vice president and executive director of state and local affairs. “Everyone here is not trying to get rich. They want a good job and to take care of their children. The system is so resistant but you have folks fighting like hell, making progress with the biggest obstacles confronting them.”
Mr. Thomas, who grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, said New Orleans is a city which survived despite challenges.
“It’s one of the most resilient communities of color in the U.S. Despite billions coming through all we have is resilience,” said Mr. Thomas, who hosts a morning show on WBOK and is a former member of the city council. “The mayor is doing absolutely wonderfully. We have first-class schools, no question. If I had a wand, I would place a moratorium on the alcohol and tobacco outlets flooding our community and use public policy to create more affordable and public housing. I don’t recognize the city anymore (because of gentrification and other parts being so run down),” he added. “The wealth gap is 10 percent worse; disparities are even worse and many of the institutions that helped are gone,” he continued. “That is another knee on our neck. We were able to wriggle around with a foot in our ass but a foot on the neck it’s another extreme situation. I’m not gonna say White folks don’t care. What they see is what they’re taught to see. They learn ‘His-Story.’ It’s not that they don’t see what’s going on. They’re eyes are clouded.”
Mr. Thomas said the way to change what African Americans face is “painting our own picture, making sure that Black dollars circulate in the community for more than 8 hours; creating and strengthening functional homes with responsible adults; and not giving up Big Mama and Big Papa’s land.”
Ms. Mobley said she wishes she could be more optimistic, but the daunting challenges New Orleans faces give her pause.
“It’s hard to know where the city is going. It’s a question of how long the pandemic is allowed to rage unchecked,” she said. “I can’t be sure that we can go back to an economy that’s 60 percent tourism. Nor should we. In the late ‘50s and ‘60s it was clear then that these was dead-end jobs. Workers can’t build wealth with what they’re paid. I think we’re going to see an uptick in interpersonal crime of people stuck together inside for months. It’s a volatile environment where people have guns …”
Mr. Perry said while he’s heartened at the number of White people participating in protests, many of them will resist when it comes to putting housing development in their neighborhoods, for example.
“They will go to march and say they’ll never put their children in a Black school, never hire Black people. We should not be jumping for joy that we’ll see a sea change. Trump may win because he has their support. A lot of people don’t see this as policy matter but see it as interpersonal lovefest. They fight against any integration in their neighborhood and are the first to say someone should be locked up forever. It’s not duplicity, they protest as far as their willing to go. They’re not trying to change,” he said.
“Which leaves us where we’ve always been. We have to put pressure on businesses, fight in the legislative arena, and scholars will have produce data and studies. Anything we have is because of Black people’s efforts in spite of WP’s resistance. The fight continues, I’m an optimist. See doers in New Orleans. I find hope in the doers. I’m not as pessimistic as some. I see lawyers, teachers, everyday people in restaurants doing what they can to make ends meet.”
Andre Perry, author of the new book “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,” said he finds less hope in “muckety-mucks.”
“Steve Perry, who leads the tourism industry, has not been willing to show that he appreciates the labor that contributes to the assets and bright spots in this world,” he said “He and others like him are the problem. Until workers get a fair wage, hazard pay during the pandemic, until we see new units in Lake View and other parts of city we won’t see the progress that needs to happen,” he said.
“But I don’t focus on them. They are a given. We have to work around, through them… .”