Sunday, August 30, 2015

Katrina, ten years later

Yesterday, August 29th, marked the tenth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. It devastated communities along the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana: 1,833 people lost their lives, over 350 thousand homes were destroyed, and an estimated $180 billion worth of property was damaged. Katrina was especially ruinous to the city of New Orleans: levee failures caused 80% of the city to be flooded for weeks, one hundred thousand housing units were damaged or destroyed, the city was almost entirely evacuated, and the storm created a level of human suffering unparalleled in recent American history.

Shortly after Katrina hit, I pondered the devastated city's future (see here and here) as well as its effects on neighboring locales such as Baton Rouge and Houston. Given the level of death and destruction New Orleans experienced, as well as the geographic conditions that made it so vulnerable to not only Katrina but future storms as well, did it even make sense to rebuild the city at all?

In retrospect, of course, the idea that an entire city was just going to "go away" - a city that has been there for almost three centuries, that anchors a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people, and that also happens to serve as the port at the mouth of the nation's largest and most important navigable waterway - is absurd. The Big Easy was always going to be rebuilt after Katrina. And while the city has met many milestones in its post-Katrina reconstruction, its recovery has been very uneven. Its population is one example, as The Atlantic's Laura Bliss reports:
According to the Data Center, more than half of New Orleans neighborhoods have now recovered to more than 90 percent of the occupied households they had prior to Katrina. Census estimates from July 2014 put the city’s population at 384,320, about 79 percent of its 2000 population of 484,674. Compared to 2000, about 100,000 fewer African Americans and 9,000 fewer whites live in New Orleans. The city is more diverse now: Its Hispanic population has grown by a little more than 6,000. There are more Asian Americans, too. (Notably, studies have shown that the post-Katrina rate of return for Vietnamese citizens was faster than the citywide rate.)

Still, thousands have not returned to the city they used to call home. We don’t know precisely how many or all of the reasons why. We do know that African Americans of low socioeconomic status, who lived in impoverished neighborhoods hit hard by Katrina, have been among the least likely to return. For example, as of 2013, only 30 percent of residents of the low-income, predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward had returned, according to Al Jazeera.

But out of all groups, it seems to be children who were the least likely to return to New Orleans. From 2000 to 2010, the Data Center reports, the number of children under the age of 18 living in New Orleans decreased by 56,193, or 43 percent. Presumably, their parents found better conditions outside the city, or found it too hard or expensive to move back.
The Crescent City, furthermore, has an affordable housing problem even as it remains saturated with blighted properties, still suffers from a high crime rate, its transit agency still only provides a fraction of its pre-Katrina services, the city has a 27% poverty rate and a huge income gap, and it struggles to attract major corporations and high-paying jobs.

Just as the idea that New Orleans could have been completely abandoned after Katrina is utterly ridiculous, a competing theory that arose in the days following the storm - that Katrina would "wipe the slate clean" and allow New Orleans to be "reborn" - to rise, phoenix-like, and become a better place to live, work and play than it was before - has proven to be just as fanciful.

In short, while the population of New Orleans today is smaller, older and more diverse than it was before Katrina, the city itself still suffers from the same problems, many of which were exacerbated by the storm and many of which are due to social and structural issues that are exceeding difficult to solve, hurricane or no.

Obviously, ten years is an insufficient period of time to survey the aftermath of an event as big and as catastrophic as Katrina on a city as large and as complex as New Orleans; its effects will continue to be felt for decades to come. A decade after Katrina, its recovery is nowhere near complete.

Shortly after the hurricane's landfall I also pondered the notion that Baton Rouge, which had been inundated with upwards of two hundred thousand Katrina evacuees, would replace New Orleans to become become Louisiana's pre-eminent city, much the same way Houston replaced Galveston as Texas's most important city after the hurricane of 1900. That proved not to be the case; the city's temporary New Orleans contingent made the trip back to their homes as soon as they were able to do so, and Baton Rouge's 2010 population was about the same as its 2000 population.

Finally, as Katrina evacuees made their way to Houston both before and after the storm's landfall, I pondered the effect of all these new residents on my city. Perhaps no city outside of New Orleans was affected by the storm as much as Houston, both in terms of the people it absorbed as well as the panic that it created among the population a few weeks later, when Rita approached and hundreds of thousands of people participated in a disastrous evacuation of the metropolitan area. Back to Laura Bliss:
The city of Houston received more Katrina evacuees than anywhere else in the country. As many as 250,000 arrived at the peak of the storm, many landing in the city’s Astrodome. An estimated 150,000 were still living in Houston a year later. For thousands of those evacuees, living conditions in Houston were not good. According to a 2006 survey by the city of Houston, about a quarter of former New Orleans residents who were displaced to Houston (including those displaced by Rita, which hit the Gulf less than a month after Katrina) were staked out “in FEMA-funded apartments in high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods on the city’s southwest side.”

The influx slammed Texas government. Housing was scarce and often unaffordable for evacuees. Schools, transit systems, and Medicaid programs were overwhelmed. A 2006 report from the office of former Texas Governor Rick Perry beseeched the feds for $2 billion in extra funding to cover the costs of this new, highly vulnerable population, which included Rita’s victims. (The state, and others, did receive extra federal assistance to assist evacuees.)

To make matters much worse, longtime Houston residents were wary of Katrina evacuees, who were overwhelmingly poor and black. Residents complained of a crime wave connected to their new neighbors, which was later debunked. But the negative tone lingered. In 2010, an annual citywide survey revealed that 58 percent of Houstonians felt that the overall impact of the evacuees on the city had been “a bad thing.”
The "myth" of a crime wave in Houston caused by Katrina evacuees is explored in this article from Rice University's Urban Edge blog. It does note that violent crimes such as homicides and robberies increased following Katrina, but that other types of violent and property crime did not increase. "If a bunch of violent New Orleans residents were taking over the streets of Houston, it would be unlikely they’d commit homicide but not other crimes," the article notes. Nevertheless, the perception that Katrina evacuees created a spike in the local crime rate remains.

Ten years later, a large number of Katrina evacuees have remained in Houston:
As New Orleans marks the 10th anniversary of Katrina this week, many who called the city home in August 2005 will be absent. Tens of thousands swapped one of the nation’s most distinctive and historic cities for the car-centric urban sprawl and homogenous modern suburbs of a metro area of six million people that is today about five times larger than greater New Orleans.
Estimates vary, but of the 250,000-odd evacuees who arrived in Houston after the storm, up to 100,000 likely stayed permanently.

“We call Houston ‘New Orleans West’,” said Mtangulizi Sanyika, an academic who left New Orleans after his house flooded and ended up staying in Texas when his wife found a job at a hospital. Sanyika is chairman of the New Orleans Association of Houston, which is planning a series of commemorative events.


Carl Lindahl, a University of Houston professor, said that two sections of the displaced population in particular tended not to return: parents of young children, who felt Houston was safer and had better schools, and the elderly, who believed New Orleans lacked social services.
Which goes back to some of the basic issues New Orleans faces, issues that were part of the city before Katrina and which need to be addressed if the city is to fully recover. In the meantime, countless individuals still continue to live as citizens of two different cities at the same time:
Spread out across Houston’s vastness, the exiles remained linked by their common culture, said one of the evacuees, Dallas McNamara, a photographer. “Things like music allowed people to get together,” she said. Bands formed. Branches of New Orleans-based churches set up in Houston. Restaurants opened.

“I think people are kind of surprised by how much they like Houston. They have a nicer home, they like the schools. They’re blown away by the amount of driving that they do but they tend to become pleasantly surprised,” McNamara said. Still, she added, “I do miss the politeness that was just ingrained … and there are more rules here. You can’t walk out of the bar with your cocktail or beer.”
For Sanyika, “The most negative aspect of Houston for most New Orleanians is the transportation. The other is the food. It’s a very different kind of taste,” he said. “A Texas gumbo doesn’t taste quite the same.”

He misses the organic way that “New Orleans culture bubbles from the bottom up, from the streets, the neighbourhoods, the working class people especially”, but said he is happy in Houston. “You never lose your cultural heritage and roots, you simply learn to integrate them in whatever environment you find yourself in,” he said. 

The 73-year-old still visits New Orleans regularly. “When I leave there is always a sadness,” he said. “New Orleans is in your soul, your heart, your roots, it anchors who you are and you take it with you wherever you go.”
Given their geographic and economic similarities, Houston and New Orleans always have been and always will be closely linked to one another. Katrina only made those bonds stronger.

I've followed the story of New Orleans' recovery on this blog; see posts I wrote ten months, one year, three years and five years after Katrina.  

The New York Times has a lengthy but excellent multimedia presentation regarding the ten year anniversary of the storm: "Ten years later, it is not exactly right to say that New Orleans is back. The city did not return, not as it was," it notes.

Slate takes issue with a handful of Katrina myths, including the idea that "everything is better now." The Chronicle has its own slideshow of debunked myths. The Data Center has an entire page full of facts and graphs regarding the state of New Orleans, ten years after, and the series of articles at Vox and The Atlantic are worth perusing as well.

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