On August 29, we will commemorate five years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and since subsequently levees broke, drowning the city in feet of water. Five years ago our nation exhibited some of the most profound indifference to human beings as thousands of New Orleaneans were stuck without food, water, or sanitation in the Super Dome. In the aftermath of those five years, those divisions of race and class have determined which individuals have recovered from Katrina and who has not. Five years after the levees broke, the City of New Orleans is still bruised from the tragedy of a natural disaster, a man-made disaster, and an indifferent government.
Bill Quigley, Legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Loyola University law professors Bill and Davida Finger, and Tulane University researcher Lance Hill have compiled a "Pain Index" for New Orleans in 2010. They make the case that too many people have been permanently displaced, the infrastructure remains badly frayed, and that there is insufficient affordable housing. They note that while some say the median income in New Orleans has risen since Katrina, that income has only risen because so many poor people can't come back.
There are at least 100,000 fewer people in New Orleans today than five years ago. One in four residential addresses are vacant or blighted. Nearly 20,000 people are still waiting for money from the Road Home program to rebuild their homes. Meanwhile, rents have spiraled, and 5000 people are waiting for public housing; another 28,000 or so are waiting for housing vouchers. The public school system has been decimated, and it is unclear whether charter education has been an improvement.
In 2005, a New Orleans businessman promised the Wall Street Journal that the business community would use Katrina to reconfigure New Orleans politically, demographically and economically. With the city now being represented by a Vietnamese American Republican, and with a major demographic shift in the City Council, one might say that the businessman kept his promise. Whether benignly or deliberately, poor people have gotten the word - they are unwelcome in New Orleans.
Data tell one story, but it is souls and spirits that tell another. I've been to New Orleans twice this year, first for the Essence Music Festival, then for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority's 50th Convention. The events were great, as events go, with highlights, challenges, and plenty of crowding. The best part of going to New Orleans these days, though, is talking to the people who live there about their thoughts and feelings about "recovery".
"I wouldn't live anywhere else," the brother said. His voice has the thickness of gumbo, the jazzed nuance of many New Orleanean voices. The second time he picks me up to take me from one place to another, we get to talking and he tells me his story. He is 68, former military, and a retiree when Katrina hit. But he and his wife had to start all over, because they lost everything. So instead of enjoying retirement, he drives three days a week, and does "odd jobs" to make ends meet. When I ask about federal government help, he grunts, utters an expletive, and then says, "I told you we had to start over."
The housekeeper at the Hilton is a sweet chatterbox. When she brings extra tea bags, she natters on about why she prefers coffee to tea. When I ask her how she managed after Katrina, though, she grows silent and her countenance takes on sadness. "I lost my mother two years ago. I really think that storm killed her." She tells me a harrowing evacuation story that landed part of her family in Atlanta and part in Houston. Three of her five children chose to stay in Atlanta, feeling that starting over was too much. "I miss them and I miss my grands, but I have two others here,' she said. She speaks of Sunday dinners past with a wistfulness in her voice. "It is as if our family has been broken in half". People visit, she allowed. But it's just not the same. And, she says she is grateful for what she does have, including her health, her home, and good relationships.
Langston Hughes called stories like these "the sweet flypaper of life". Not enough to write a research paper on, just enough to get some flavor for. That flypaper isn't as sweet for many New Orleaneans as it was five years ago, and material conditions have worsened as well. When we turn the lens on New Orleans in a couple of weeks to commemorate the five years since Katrina, what can we say about the possibility that this city and its residents will ever be made whole?
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.