Still left behind in the new New Orleans

August 31, 2015

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, Socialist Worker contributors Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky were stuck in New Orleans--they had been attending a conference for emergency medical services (EMS) workers in the days before and couldn't get out. They spent most of the next week trapped by the flooding--and by the martial law cordon thrown up around the city.

When they finally were able to tell their story in Socialist Worker, it spread around the world, helping to reveal what was really going on in New Orleans during Katrina. In particular, the two were there when hundreds of people tried to escape across a bridge over the Mississippi River--and were stopped from doing so by armed police firing live bullets over their heads. In this interview with Elizabeth Schulte, Lorrie Beth and Larry consider what has changed--and what so clearly hasn't--in New Orleans, in the light of their experiences 10 years ago.

TEN YEARS ago, you wrote about your experiences in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina for Socialist Worker. What stands out to you looking back about that experience today? What does it mean to you with the 10-year anniversary passing?

Lorrie Beth: What stands out for us today is that the people who were left behind, forgotten and ignored when Katrina struck are, by and large, being left behind, forgotten and ignored in the recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans.

Larry: Watching the Katrina anniversary specials, we have been struck by the boasting and triumphalism of many government officials and commentators. Politicians and the business elite are telling us what a wonderful job they've done in rebuilding New Orleans from the floodwaters. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the Rockefeller Foundation have launched a project they call "Katrina 10," which calls New Orleans "America's best comeback story."

On the "Katrina 10" website, Mayor Landrieu boasts that "New Orleans has become this nation's--and, in many instances, this world's--most immediate laboratory for innovation and change. Now, the opportunity is to position New Orleans as a global leader on resilience."

Katrina survivors make their way out of flooded buildings
Katrina survivors make their way out of flooded buildings

"Katrina 10 Partners" consist of a who's who of business and civic organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce. The "Katrina 10" website tells the official, rose-colored version of the recovery, and it does so from the perspective of those who have done well in the reconstruction. The tagline for the mayor is "resilience," and it's being repeated ad nauseam in the media.

Lorrie Beth: It's true that there has been a lot of rebuilding in New Orleans, and the people of New Orleans have displayed remarkable resilience. But there is another narrative of the recovery--a bottom-up view of New Orleans 10 years after Katrina.

It can be found on "The Katrina Truth" website. "Katrina Truth" tells the story of those who have been left out of the recovery. Its tagline is "resistance."

Larry: President Obama acknowledges that while Katrina was a "natural disaster," most of the death, destruction, flooding and lack of evacuation was human-made. Who lived, who died and who suffered can be linked to structural inequality, race and class.

What the mayor and the president don't acknowledge is that pre-Katrina racial, economic and social inequality has returned with a vengeance. You can see that with poverty, health care, housing, policing, education and the environment.

Lorrie Beth: Wandering the streets of New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina, we were struck by the large number of families with young children. Also, we saw a lot of elderly and disabled, on the streets and in the mass of humanity sitting in and around the Convention Center in the sweltering heat. Nearly 40 percent of those who died in Katrina were elderly. The people left behind were often the most vulnerable segments of society.

Larry: When it comes to the plight of children, the rebuild has to be judged a failure. A new survey came out earlier this year reporting that the child poverty rate in New Orleans is now 39 percent. This is 17 percent above the national child poverty rate, and near the pre-Katrina levels of 41 percent. More than half of New Orleans' Black children live in poverty.

Lorrie Beth: Child development experts warn us about the "chronic toxic stress" that poverty has on children. I would say many of those families and kids who were left behind when Katrina hit were subjected to "acute toxic stress." So for many families, the recovery has meant trading acute toxic stress for chronic toxic stress.

But it was not just children, elderly and the disabled who were abandoned. Race and class also determined who was left behind. There were no millionaires camped out on the streets with us. Almost everyone we met was poor or working class, and mostly African American.

Larry: Who lives and dies in New Orleans and how well one lives has always been heavily skewed by race, class and location. Ten years ago, being Black, poor or working class greatly increased your chances of dying during Katrina. Today, 10 years later, life expectancy in New Orleans varies by as much as 25 years depending on what zip code you live in and what race you are. Zip codes with the lowest life expectancy have a much higher percentage of poor residents and people of color.

Today, African Americans of every age group are much more likely to die than white New Orleanians of the same cause. For instance, African Americans in New Orleans are three times more likely than their white counterparts to die of kidney disease and HIV. It's estimated that among African Americans 15 years or older in New Orleans, 30 percent of deaths between 2008 and 2010 were avertable. This unnatural disaster is occurring today, not in 2005.

Lorrie Beth: Many New Orleanians do not have access to health care benefits under the Affordable Care Act because Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal refuses to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income adults.

And tragically, like most American cities, the largest mental health facility in New Orleans is the Orleans Parish Prison. It is estimated that 45 percent of Orleans Parish Prison inmates have some form of mental illness. Rather than providing access to mental health services, politicians in New Orleans debate how large of a new jail to build.

Larry: In terms of child poverty and access to health care, there's clearly a lot more rebuilding to do.

WHAT YOU wrote in 2005 contradicted the "official" reports from New Orleans, which claimed there was widespread "lawlessness." Could you talk about that and describe some of the things that happened to you there--how people acted toward each other?

Larry: The media coverage at the time said New Orleans had descended into anarchy. One City Council member declared the French Quarter was "under siege," and the media were filled with sensational reports of mass looting, children being raped in the Superdome and rescue helicopters being shot at by snipers."

Lorrie Beth: I'm sure that some bad things happened to some people in New Orleans in the days after Katrina. But the sensationalized media stories, which were never "fact checked" or verified, turned out not to be true. The "lawlessness" narrative was necessary to justify the woefully inadequate relief efforts of the federal, state and local governments. It also reflected the racism in the media and in society.

Larry: I don't know if people remember the distinction between Black "looters" and white "finders"?

An Associated Press photo at the time showed a young Black man wading in chest-deep water with a case of soda and a bag floating behind him. The caption said he had been "looting a grocery store." Contrast this to another news agency photo showing a white couple, also chest deep in water, holding water and bags of food, and the caption said they had "found bread and soda at a local grocery store." Someone on the web put the two photos and captions side by side, and it generated intense debate on the racial bias of reporters.

Lorrie Beth: Before we had to evacuate our hotel, we were standing on the balcony and witnessed some people taking supplies from the Walgreens store across the street. A white woman, about my age, declared, "That is absolutely terrible, those people are stealing from Walgreens." Looking at her partially open suitcase stuffed with hotel towels and linen, I asked, "How is your taking towels and linen from the Hotel Monteleone not stealing?" She was extremely indignant and responded, "I am not stealing! I am only taking what I need to survive!"

Larry: Within days of Katrina, the Karl Rove propaganda machine sprang into action.

The stunningly inept and callous response from the White House, Homeland Security and the U.S. military was spun and reframed to say, "Katrina was a natural disaster that was unpredictable, and the lack of adequate disaster response was the fault of local and state officials, not the White House." The new Bush administration narrative said, in effect, that those who didn't evacuate deserved their fate, and besides, many were criminals anyway.

This ignored the fact that most of the 80,000 people who didn't evacuate were poor, had no car, were ill or disabled. Or they stayed to care for a family member who was ill or disabled. Or they were tourists, like ourselves, who had their flights canceled when the airport closed. Or they were hospitality workers whose boss asked workers to stay. Or they were essential government workers--like the 911 dispatcher who was ordered to stay on the job until the waters rose too high, and whose boss then dropped her off at the Convention Center.

Lorrie Beth: The problem with the looting is that it started too late, and it wasn't organized. Most of the food items in shops and restaurants had spoiled by the time the hot, weary, hungry and thirsty looters began breaking windows. Many of the other non-perishable goods that were taken would have been destroyed by the heat, humidity, floodwater and mold anyway.

Yet the mayor and the governor prioritized property over lives and deployed hundreds of police officers to chase petty "looters," rather than deploy the police to distribute food and store items or to rescue the scores of people still stranded in their attics or on their roofs. Shame on the mayor and the governor.

Larry: We believe the real looting of New Orleans began with the reconstruction. I can't recall who it was who described Katrina as the most profitable disaster in U.S. history.

Naomi Klein calls it the "Shock Doctrine"--when private companies working with governments take advantage of a crisis to fleece the public and get rich. The Blackwater security firm was given a $70 million no-bid contract for security, while Bechtel and other politically connected corporations received similar no-bid reconstruction contracts. Klein and Caroline Heldman aptly call this "disaster capitalism."

Lorrie Beth: Our experience on the streets was a far cry from the media scare stories. We found people were generally friendly, looked out for one another, and many tried to help others.

I don't want to overstate it and give the impression that being on the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was nice or great. The streets were tense--people were exhausted, hungry and thirsty, and the heat was sweltering. Most people only had the clothes on their backs. People with chronic health conditions were without their medicine and were getting sicker by the day.

People were frustrated, some were dispirited, others resentful. We were living in sewage, filth and human excrement. The "rescuers"--from the police to National Guard troops to many other federal agencies--appeared cold and uncaring, and in some cases were openly hostile.

Larry: That was one side of it. As we wrote in our article, we were able to establish a camp on a freeway overpass, in full view of the media helicopters. Once we managed to secure food and water--someone brought us a water delivery truck, and we scavenged a couple pallets of C-rations apparently lost on a tight turn a mile away--cooperation and community flowered.

In the midst of tragedy and misery, we were able to witness what is good and great in the human spirit. The problem was that whenever we came together in numbers greater than four or five people to work together or pool our meager resources, the officials saw a "mob" and perceived us as a threat.

Lorrie Beth: The only violence we witnessed personally was from the Gretna Police Department. Gretna police officers fired gunshots to prevent us from walking out of New Orleans over the Greater New Orleans Bridge (Crescent City Connection).

Larry: Speaking of looting, the worst looting we saw was carried out by a Gretna police officer who held a gun directed at us while he stole our camp's food and water. First, a "rescue" helicopter came down and hovered just above our fragile cardboard encampment of approximately 100 people, and blew the camp to smithereens--dispersing women, men, children and disabled folks to whereever they could find a momentary place of safety.

We were incredulous, and the two of us went to "reason" with the officer who was loading up the police vehicle with our encampment's "findings." Some of our new campmates physically pulled us back saying, "The cop doesn't care who you are or where you are from--he sees that you are with us."

Lorrie Beth: In our experience, those who had the least shared what little they had, and those who had resources put a gun in our faces.

A KEY part of the story that you told 10 years ago was about what the police were doing to the poor and working-class people of New Orleans--in particular, the confrontation on the bridge across the Mississippi River, to Gretna on the other side. Armed Gretna police officers fired live bullets over the heads of people trying to flee.

Larry: The facts of what occurred on the Greater New Orleans Bridge, which we reported in Socialist Worker, are not in dispute. The mayor and police chief of the little suburban town of Gretna took it upon themselves to send armed officers up on the bridge to close it to all pedestrians. The bridge, sometimes referred to as the Crescent City Connection, was the only land route out of New Orleans.

What the mainstream media didn't tell you is that able-bodied survivors didn't have to be trapped in New Orleans. Many of us could have walked out of the city had the bridge not been blockaded by armed officers.

After Socialist Worker broke the story, various national and international news agencies questioned the mayor and police chief, and both stated publicly that they ordered the bridge closed, that they stood by that decision, and, most troubling, that they would do it again tomorrow.

"If you are in your house, and they're rioting all around to get in, are you going to let them in?" Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson was quoted as saying in the New Orleans Times-Picayune a month after Katrina struck. "We saved our city and protected our people."

Lorrie Beth: Now, mind you, all first responders, including police, fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS), receive similar disaster preparedness training. As we wrote in an "Open Letter to the Residents of Gretna," in any large mass casualty incident (MCI), one of the very first things that 911 responders are taught to do, before we treat anyone, is to direct people to get up and move to a safe place.

As you can imagine, this accomplishes several things. It moves the uninjured and those with minor injuries to a safe area. It allows the rescuers to focus on those with more serious injuries. This is basic--as basic as breathing! One shouldn't even have to think beyond this simple triage plan.

Therefore, it galls me when police said they were overwhelmed by the emergency, and that's why police got to break the law. Since law enforcement can't seem to operate in an emergency, perhaps we shouldn't invest so heavily in police departments and instead divert some money to train local people who are willing and able to follow simple disaster plans?

Larry: We wonder this: If Socialist Worker hadn't told the story, would the closure of the Greater New Orleans Bridge have ever made national and international news?

WHAT DOES what you said about the police's role mean to you now--considering the fact that more and more people know about the racist, brutal role of police after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Larry: Prior to Katrina, racism, poverty and oppression in New Orleans were rarely reported on in the media. It wasn't newsworthy. It wasn't judged important enough to report. Similarly, in the past, the media rarely reported the extrajudicial killing of Black men and women. These murders were not newsworthy and weren't covered.

In both cases, it was denial by neglect. Then something like Katrina or Ferguson happens, and it thrusts the issues into the public domain. Simple neglect and denial no longer work.

The next line of defense is to demonize and criminalize the victims. For example, Mike Brown, the unarmed Black teenager who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, becomes the aggressor, the "hoodlum," and every white officer who kills an unarmed Black man or woman tells us they feared for their life.

So it was with the Black population in New Orleans after Katrina. Remember the Rove narrative--the residents should have evacuated, and besides, many of them were criminals from the public housing projects, and therefore deserved their fate. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco also referred to looters as "hoodlums" and issued a "shoot to kill" edict.

Finally, when police misconduct is undeniable, the media tell us that it's the action of a "rogue cop" or a small bunch of "bad apples."

Lorrie Beth: We were asked to give depositions about what happened on the Greater New Orleans Bridge to the Louisiana attorney general's office, and later in class-action civil lawsuits.

The questioning in both instances focused exclusively on the actions of individual officers and whether we could identify the officers who discharged their weapons. We repeatedly tried to turn the questioning away from the actions of individual officers and focus on the explicit public statements by both the mayor and police chief of Gretna--that they ordered the bridge closed. It is public record that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's office also sent armed officers to blockade the bridge.

Larry: One of the contributions of the Black Lives Matter movement is the understanding that individual officers are simply the last link in a racist and repressive political-legal structure. Black Lives Matter has helped us look at the whole power structure, in which the individual officer is simply the most visible manifestation.

Lorrie Beth: In the case of the Gretna officers who shut down the bridge, once they stopped shooting, we got close enough to talk one on one with them. We heard racist justifications--"This is not New Orleans" and "We don't want any Superdomes over here." Clearly, these were code words for "no Black people are coming into or near our city."

But it's important to remember that it was the police chief and the mayor of Gretna who ordered the bridge shut to pedestrians precisely to stop the majority Black population from walking to safety because the route came too close to their city.

Larry: So what has happened to the Gretna officials? Absolutely nothing. The Louisiana attorney general didn't take action. Then-Louisiana Gov. Blanco didn't take action or even publicly condemn or censure their actions. The U.S. House of Representatives produced a 600-page report on the problems of the government's response to Katrina. The Senate produced an 800-page report, but the federal Department of Justice didn't even charge Gretna officials with interfering with interstate traffic by closing the bridge.

Lorrie Beth: The actions of Gretna officials begs the question of why were thousands of us up on the bridge trying to evacuate ourselves five days after Katrina hit? Why was FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] not able to marshal a few thousand buses to evacuate the nearly 80,000 of us still in New Orleans?

While more than 1,800 people died from this human-caused disaster, the officials at the very top of our government went about their business with a casual and callous disregard for the loss of life, mostly Black lives.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went on vacation, stopped by the U.S. Open to play a few holes, was observed buying thousands of dollars of expensive shoes, and took in a Broadway musical. President Bush went on vacation too, delivering a birthday cake to Arizona Sen. John McCain. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took in a San Diego Padres baseball game, and FEMA Chief Michael Brown fought with his staff over the length of his restaurant reservations.

All this, while Black people died or were trapped in their homes or languished in the Superdome or Convention Center or on the streets. Clearly, Black lives did not matter in Washington, D.C., Baton Rouge or New Orleans.

Larry: I think the other connection between what happened with Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement is that both are a product of the government's shift from social welfare to punishment.

On the one hand, both Democrats and Republicans tell us there is no money for public services, no money for the social safety net or for things like health care and education. There's no money to rebuild our infrastructure. The final report on why the levees failed during Katrina concluded that safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced costs. In other words, those in charge cut corners to save money. There's no money to address climate change that produces super hurricanes like Katrina.

The neoliberals in government and among the corporate elite tell us that we must shrink the size of government, and they push an austerity agenda at the federal, state and local level. Yet alongside the squeezing of the public sector and public resources, we see an enormous growth in expenditure on policing and incarceration. Richard Seymour points out there is a moral authoritarianism at the heart of the austerity agenda. Hence, the ideological attack on "the culture of dependency," "welfare queens" and the criminalization of Black youth.

Alongside the attacks on workers' living standards, we see "law-and-order policing," "zero tolerance," "stop and frisk" and "broken windows policing." These have very little to do with crime-fighting, but everything to do with shifting resources from social welfare to punishment. This explains the increased militarization of police forces that was so clearly illustrated in Ferguson and in other cities.

Lorrie Beth: And sadly, it explains the increased militarization of emergency medical and disaster response. To this day, I am horrified that a brother paramedic displayed a gun instead of a first aid kit as part of the "rescue."

Larry: In New Orleans, the incarceration rates is four times the national average. Nationally, 236 people per 100,000 are incarcerated. In New Orleans, it is 912 per 100,000--and 84 percent of the imprisoned are African Americans.

YOU SAID that you were in New Orleans recently for another convention. What did you see when you were there? What has "reconstruction" meant for New Orleans?

Lorrie Beth: We were in New Orleans 10 years ago for a paramedic conference, and we returned this year so I could attend a sign language interpreters' conference.

One of the first things that struck us was the contrast between the gentrification of parts of downtown and the lack of reconstruction in historically poor, working-class and Black neighborhoods. Again, it is the intersection on race, class and location.

The Times-Picayune reports that New Orleans home prices have surged 46 percent since Katrina. That's an average--some neighborhoods have seen barely any increase since Katrina. Four of the city's poorest neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, are still largely abandoned. Meanwhile, other gentrified working-class neighborhoods near downtown are becoming as unaffordable as parts of downtown New York or Chicago.

Larry: Who got to rebuild and why were the results of government and business decisions that prioritized gentrification, displacement and steering resources to those who where financially better off.

Lorrie Beth: Public housing has been decimated--five of the large public housing complexes have been closed and/or demolished. Only one-third of the 5,000 former residents from these complexes have found replacement housing.

More than 13,000 families, 98 percent of them African American, are on the waiting list for Section 8 housing. The list was closed in 2009. Public housing has been replaced with a voucher system. A recent survey shows that residents with vouchers are confined to the poorest and most segregated neighborhoods.

Larry: Also, there has been complete destruction of the New Orleans public school system. We stopped into the Louisiana Children's Museum in New Orleans and were struck by how many children now attend charter schools. The museum surveyed what kind of schools the kids attended--the numbers were so low for public schools that public schools didn't even have their own category.

After Katrina, the state turned over 80 percent of New Orleans' 126 public schools to the Louisiana Recovery School District with the mandate that they become charter schools. Today, 90 percent of the city's public school students attend charter schools. Arne Duncan, Obama's secretary of education, had the nerve to say, "Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans."

Lorrie Beth: That's similar to what the politicians said about the destruction of New Orleans public housing projects. Republican Rep. Richard Baker said, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it. But God did."

That was similar to former First Lady Barbara Bush's statement about Katrina survivors being relocated to Texas, who were "underprivileged anyway--so this is working out very well for them."

Larry: Charter school advocates cite the increase in test scores and graduation rates as proof of "the impressive improvements brought by charter schools" in New Orleans. Of course, what they don't tell you is that the increase in test scores and graduations is also the product of charter schools' selective recruiting by creating complex and restrictive application processes, filtering out kids with special needs, shunning "challenging" students, pushing out lower-achieving children, suspensions, expulsions and generally leaving the neediest students behind.

Lorrie Beth: Charter school advocates also leave out that FEMA infused a lump sum grant of $1.8 billion to the charter schools. Can you imagine what the non-charter school system could have achieved with an investment of nearly $2 billion?

Larry: And then there's the question of what happens when Katrina 2 hits?

The best protection against another hurricane is to restore the costal wetlands. Between 1932 and 2010, New Orleans lost 948 square miles of costal wetlands. The Louisiana coastline is now 30 miles closer to New Orleans. Decades of oil and gas company exploitation have degraded the integrity of the remaining wetlands. Industrial canals became "Hurricane Highways" and brought the deadly storm surge directly to the Black working-class neighborhoods of the Lower Ninth Ward.

Lorrie Beth: The Times-Picayune reports that the state has a 50-year, $50 billion master plan to address costal restoration and flood protection. The paper says state officials picked the $50 billion price tag because that was the most they thought they could raise in 50 years. The real cost is projected to be at least double that.

Now, $1 billion or $2 billion a year sounds like a lot of money, until you consider the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars bailing out Wall Street banks and trillions more on the Iraq War.

Larry: The other thing about New Orleans that hit us is the poverty. Tourism is alive and well, and it's the largest sector of employment in New Orleans. Yet that sector pays poverty wages. Minimum wage for most workers in New Orleans is $7.25 an hour.

A recent study says a single worker needs to earn $22 an hour to lead a "modest but dignified life." That is two-and-a-half times what many workers in the tourist industry earn. One-third of households earn less than $20,000 a year. Tens of thousands of women earn less than $17,500 a year. Four in 10 New Orleanians pay at least half their income in rent.

Lorrie Beth: While walking through parts of New Orleans, I was stuck by how uneven the sidewalk pavement was, with slabs of stone jutting this way and that, leaving large gaping holes. It was easy to trip on the rough surfaces and fall into one of the large crevices.

Then we passed a mother and her 5-year-old son who were selling plastic Mardi Gras beads to tourists. Down the street, several elderly New Orleanians were bedded down on the sidewalk for the night.

It struck me how the big gaps in the sidewalk became a metaphor for the large gaps in the social safety net for New Orleanians who have been left out of the city's economic recovery.

It takes tremendous resiliency to sleep rough on the sidewalk, or to work full time and earn less than $16,000 a year and raise children in poverty. Instead of platitudes praising our resilience, how about some action on the part of the mayor, governor and the president to enact policies to help poor and working-class New Orleanians?

Larry: Earlier, we talked about child poverty. The study we mentioned cites low wages as the primary contributor to child poverty. Politicians pushing the austerity agenda want to tell us that child poverty is the result of family dysfunction in working-class or Black and Brown families, but the research shows child poverty can almost be wiped out overnight simply by raising the wages in the low-wage sectors of the economy.

Lorrie Beth: Minimum wage laws, support for public housing, improved access to health care--these are all policies that are within the power of the sponsors of the "Katrina 10 Project" to advance and implement.

Larry: But waiting for the politicians to act is what led to the destruction of New Orleans. People waited for years for the Bayou to be restored and the levees upgraded. Residents were still waiting for the politicians to act when the floodwaters arrived.

Lorrie Beth: People who were immobile, either physically or economically, waited to be evacuated before Katrina. Meanwhile, Mayor Ray Nagin sent an empty Amtrak train out of the city, refused to mobilize city and school buses and hesitated until the last minute to order a mandatory evacuation because he feared a lawsuit by businesses in the city. People were waiting for action by politicians until the floodwaters forced them to retreat or they died. Many sprang into action and rescued themselves and their neighbors.

Larry: Eighty thousand of us waited days after the storm and flooding to be evacuated because state and federal authorities couldn't put a plan together to bring a thousand buses to New Orleans. Those of us who tried to evacuate ourselves were turned back at the mouth of the bridge.

Lorrie Beth: Patience and resiliency are great attributes. But they need to be supplemented with resistance and self-activity.

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