The lampposts along New Orleans’s Canal and Rampart Streets have plaques commemorating the phases of the city’s history: “French Domination, 1718–1769,” “Spanish Domination, 1769–1803,” “Confederate Domination, 1861–1865,” and “American Domination, 1803–1861, 1865 to Date.” It’s a poignant example of the city’s exoticism and cultural distinctiveness, its sense of standing apart. Other American cities, even elsewhere in the former Confederacy, don’t suggest that the United States was a kind of foreign power whose rule was likely to be temporary.
This cultural and geographical otherness makes it easy for many Americans to shrug off New Orleans’s climate change predicament. It’s why, since Hurricane Katrina, you hear arguments that those crazy people living in the path of disaster should just pack up and move elsewhere. (It’s never clear where they should go. Baton Rouge?) Yet the “otherness” view of New Orleans—appealing as it is, in different ways, to both residents and outsiders—is highly misleading. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, echoes Katrina in many ways. It shows how vulnerable we all are to catastrophes, how their impacts fall disproportionately on the poor and people of color, and how Donald Trump’s incompetence and hostility to expertise are just the latest steps in the generational Republican Party project of weakening government.
The pandemic gives the national tragedy of the Katrina disaster and its aftermath a jolt of renewed relevance. But revisiting it is a more difficult task than you might think. While Katrina has been explored by a platoon of journalists, historians, memoirists, fiction writers, and makers of films and television shows, genuine insights into the “Why did this happen in America?” question are a little harder to come by. What made a U.S. city so vulnerable to collapse when faced with a “natural” catastrophe?
In Katrina, Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, answers this question by tracing more than a century of local and national political and economic decision making, shaping where and how people lived in and around metro New Orleans, who won and who lost. It’s a revealing way to frame the Katrina story. In a brief, bracing 200 pages, Horowitz chronicles an endless hustle in which governments and wealthy developers seize landscapes and mold them without regard to long-term consequences, and in which white people and moneyed interests have fixed advantages. Inequities and outrages, from stolen tribal lands to the splintered homes of Katrina refugees, are papered over again and again by layers of myth and self-delusion. It was these forces that created the circumstances of the disaster, and then mapped the city’s path of recovery. Katrina is a sadly predictable, distinctly American story.
New Orleans was founded in 1718, on the bank of a bend in the Mississippi River that is now the French Quarter. (This section of the city remains the high ground and did not flood during Katrina.) The settlement’s existence was precarious from the start both from hurricanes—it was struck in 1719, 1721, and 1722—and from the threat each spring of the Mississippi overflowing its banks. Eventually, in the 19th century, strong river levees were constructed to address the latter problem. But ending the spring flooding cycle also ended the regular replenishment of delta marshlands with river silt, and marshes built up over thousands of years began to disappear. This placed the entire region in the path of rising waters from the Gulf of Mexico. In the early 20th century, Louisiana sold drilling rights to oil companies, which carved up the marshes with canals, rigs, and storage facilities, speeding up this process by leaps and bounds.
It’s easy to lay the fault for Katrina at the feet of these companies, and they certainly bear a share of the blame. But they were only part of a broader, relentless transformation of frontier wilderness and swamps into property suitable for development. As fur coats became popular in the 1920s, for example, fur trapping (usually muskrats) became a bonanza in rural south Louisiana. At the time, the land was mostly worthless. Trappers, most descended from Canary Island immigrants and known as Isleños, operated freely, mapping out their own territories with cane poles without paying for the privilege. Then John R. Perez, a member of a politically powerful family in Plaquemines Parish, southeast of New Orleans, saw an opportunity. He set up the Louisiana Fur Corporation, which leased these vast trapping areas from their nominal landowners and then tried to rent them back to the trappers at sky-high prices. Trappers challenged the move, clashing in 1926 with scabs Perez sent in to take over, and eventually killing a local sheriff. Some trappers were later able to form associations and buy their own land; soon after, however, the Great Depression abruptly ended the fur boom and drove most of them out of business.
Variations on this theme occurred over and over, before, during, and after Katrina. During the 1927 Mississippi River flood, New Orleans’s white business elites convinced the governor to dynamite a section of the river levee below the city, creating a safety valve to lower the high water threatening the city. It devastated people living in the parishes of St. Bernard and Plaquemines, but it reassured investors that the state would protect their urban properties at any cost. Those then-rural areas were home to people from a checkerboard of ethnic backgrounds—Spanish, French, African, and Native American—most of whom lived off the land and water.
As the modern postwar state evolved, with its strong central government and more robust social programs, the once marginal federal role in disaster response grew. But when aid was offered, the poor and lower middle classes, particularly African Americans, usually ended up getting stiffed. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy flooded the predominantly black and poor Ninth Ward (later devastated by Katrina flooding as well). Senator Russell Long proposed an aid package of grants to homeowners, but it was bitterly opposed by segregationist New Orleans Representative F. Edward Hébert. According to an account from the time that Horowitz quotes, Hébert “address[ed] himself almost exclusively to the Negroes present” at a public meeting and announced that “this was not the time for charges of any kind.” The package was dramatically scaled back, and black homeowners saw few benefits.
Meanwhile, 20th-century American expansionism was helping to build modern New Orleans. For all its problems, this was not just a matter of developers making a buck; it had broad benefits. Yet as time went on this process endangered more and more of the people it was helping. Federal policies, Horowitz writes, systematically encouraged development in previously uninhabitable wetland areas near Lake Pontchartrain, most well below sea level. The GI Bill, for instance, which subsidized mortgages for veterans in the 1940s and ’50s, “discouraged rehabilitating older buildings at the city’s core and urged new construction in lower-lying areas.” These areas were drained and filled, and the neighborhoods built in them began sinking almost immediately.
This development strategy foundered most spectacularly when it came to the “hurricane protection system” constructed post-Betsy—floodwalls, built with flawed designs, collapsed during Katrina and flooded the city. The system’s central premise, Horowitz notes, was actually not about protecting lives, but protecting property. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers justified its designs and funding through arbitrary cost-benefit formulas that were all about the idea of making land available for development. Meanwhile, using the same rationale, and over the protests of residents in adjacent St. Bernard Parish, it set about dredging a huge white-elephant ship channel that ended up little used and worsened marsh erosion and storm surge vulnerability.
When Hurricane Katrina eventually hit, it broke New Orleans open like a piñata, and all of these accumulated problems came pouring out. The George W. Bush White House, baffled at the basic layout of the city (and having deliberately hollowed out the capabilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency), fumbled the response, leaving tens of thousands of stranded residents without food, water, or medical care for several days. They had been left out of postwar growth and prosperity; the failed levees represented false promises about their safety; and now the federal government had all but abandoned them.
New Orleans’s post-Katrina story is complicated. An influx of Millennials seduced by its charms has helped make the city arguably more vibrant and prosperous. The poverty rate is 24 percent, versus 28 percent in 2000. At the same time, the population is 14 percent smaller, and its economic and racial inequities have intensified. The black population has taken an enormous hit, having fallen by 92,000 people from pre-Katrina levels, from 66 percent of the total to 60 percent. (The white population fell by less than 9,000.) The remaining black middle and upper classes are significantly smaller, leaving an African American population that is poorer overall. In 2013, the median black household income was just over $25,000—$5,000 less than in 2000, adjusted for inflation.
Horowitz traces these problems to the structure of relief and rebuilding programs. Their designers, he writes, proceeded as if poverty and inequity were “natural” and thus unfixable problems—and those attitudes helped determine the trajectory of recovery. The $10.5 billion federal Road Home program, the centerpiece of the effort, was overseen by a board appointed by Governor Kathleen Blanco and made up of “[her] close allies, wealthy business executives, Washington power brokers, and university officials,” according to The Times-Picayune. The program offered grants to homeowners but no support to renters—who made up half the population and were disproportionately black.
It wasn’t just black renters. Thanks to program rules, arbitrary grant formulas, and lower property values, African American homeowners consistently took a greater financial hit than their white counterparts. For example, Road Home required applicants to show clear titles for their properties. Many black homeowners had lost these in the flood, and African Americans were more likely to have purchased using nontraditional means such as lease-to-own, or to have inherited homes without processing paperwork at all. Meanwhile, grants depending on the assessed pre-storm home value were lower in black neighborhoods, even though rebuilding costs might equal those of a similar house in a pricier white area. The result: “The average gap between the cost to repair and the amount of insurance and Road Home coverage was under $31,000 for white people, but over $39,000 for African Americans.”
Thus, many black New Orleanians simply couldn’t afford to rebuild their houses. They, like many renters, never came home. Both the white, prosperous Lakeview neighborhood and the poor, mostly black Lower Ninth Ward were underwater on August 30, 2005, Horowitz writes, “but in one neighborhood, nine out of ten residents returned, and were celebrated as symbols of American resilience, while in the other, only three out of ten returned.”
After the flood, New Orleans residents embraced the idea of building “Category 5” levees to provide protection for the strongest hurricanes. Behind that notion were certain assumptions about the basic role of the U.S. government—that the nation would guarantee citizens’ basic security and not see its huge investment in the region destroyed (again). But another American idea won out: You’re on your own. The federal government was never going to pony up the $100 billion or more that Category 5 protection would cost. The levee system was upgraded to the tune of $15 billion, to a relatively weak standard.
These problems won’t be solved easily; perhaps the country can’t afford the huge expense it would take to protect every vulnerable coastal community. But we haven’t even begun to engage the issue seriously; after all, America expands and sweeps obstacles out of the way. It’s hard to even contemplate an adversary like climate change, one that can’t be defeated or bought off. We’re getting a taste of it with COVID-19, and we’re seeing that half measures—do something that appears just good enough, pat yourself on the back, and try to move on—are now our standard operating procedure. As climate impacts accelerate, the gaps between the myth of an endless frontier and reality, and between what we expect from government and what we actually get, are only going to grow.