Generally, residents of New Orleans are “remarkably optimistic” about its recovery and future. Partly because the city had just begun to recover from Hurricane Katrina when the Great Recession began, it suffered less job loss relative to its pre-recession state and GDP actually grew 3.9% between 2008 and 2011. No other southern metropolitan area cracked 2% in the same period.
Richard Webster, writing for nola.com, offers the following evidence of New Orleans’ resilience in the face of the Great Recession. Chart 1 shows that it lost a smaller percentage of its jobs than the U.S. as a whole.
This is even more significant as it looks, as New Orleans had been in economic decline for decades before Katrina. At EconSouth, Charles Davidson reports that “the economy in New Orleans has reversed decades of decline and outperformed the nation and other southern metropolitan areas. Consider: the job growth in New Orleans shown in Chart 2 may not look impressive, but compare it to the declines of its neighbors (blue is before Katrina, green is after).
Residents seem to feel that the city is doing well, with the stark exception of fear of crime. But white residents are much happier with the state of the city than the 60% of residents who identifies as African American (image via NPR). This likely reflects the widening wealth gap in the city post-Katrina.
New Orleans continues to face serious problems, including low wages, a widening wealth gap, an evisceration of the public schooling system, underfunded higher ed, high crime, negative effects of gentrification, and the looming threat of another storm. Still, thanks to greater diversification of its economy, entrepreneurship, record tourism, and rising investment money, many are arguing that the city is in the midst of a revival.
A child that was 7 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans will be 17 today. When the storm hit, he would have just started 2nd grade. Today, that 17-year-old is more likely than his same age peers in all but two other cities to be both unemployed and not in school. He is part of the Katrina generation.
When the city was evacuated, many families suffered a period of instability. A report published nine months after the storm found that families had moved an average of 3.5 times in the first nine months. One-in-five school-age children were either not enrolled in school or were only partially attending (missing more than 10 days a month).
Five years later, another study found that 40% of children still did not have stable housing and another 20% remained emotionally distressed. 34% of children had been held back in school (compared to a 19% baseline in the South).
With so much trauma and dislocation, it is easy to imagine that even young people in school would have trouble learning; for those who suffered the greatest instability, it’s likely that their education was fully on pause.
At The Atlantic, Katy Reckdahl profiles such a family. They evacuated to Houston, where they suffered abuse from locals who resented their presence. At school, boys from New Orleans were getting picked on and getting in fights. So the mother of three kept her 11- and 13-year-old boys at home, fearful for their safety. Indeed, another New Orleanian boy that they knew was killed while in Houston. The boys missed an entire year of school.
“An untold number of kids,” writes Reckdahl, “probably numbering in the tens of thousands—missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina.” She quotes an educator who specializes in teaching students who have fallen behind, who estimates that “90-percent-plus” of his students “didn’t learn for a year.”
When the brothers profiled by Reckdahl returned to New Orleans one year later, they were placed in the correct grade for their age, despite having missed a year of school. The system was in chaos. Teachers were inexperienced thanks to charter schools replacing the public school system. One of the boys struggled to make sense of it all and eventually dropped out and got his GED instead.
No doubt the high number of unemployed and unenrolled young people in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities devastated by Katrina is due, in part, to the displacement, trauma, and chaos of disaster. Optimistically, and resisting the “at risk” discourse, the Cowen Institute calls them “opportunity youth.” If there is the political will, we have the opportunity to help empower them to become healthy and productive members of our communities.
For more, pre-order sociologist Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek’s forthcoming book, Children of Katrina, watch an interview about their research, or read their preliminary findings here.
When tourists returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, there was a new site to see: disaster. Suddenly — in addition to going on a Ghost Tour, visiting the Backstreet Cultural Museum, and lunching at Dooky Chase’s — one could see the devastation heaped upon the Lower Ninth Ward. Buses full of strangers with cameras were rumbling through the neighborhood as it tried to get back on its feet.
Reader Kiara C. sent along this photograph of a homemade sign propped up in the Lower Ninth, shaming visitors for what sociologists call “disaster tourism,” a practice that is criticized for objectifying the suffering of others. It read:
Shame On You
Driving BY without stopping
Paying to see my pain
1,600+ DIED HERE
Imagine having lost loved ones and seen your house nearly destroyed. After a year out of town, you’re in your nastiest clothes, mucking sludge out of your house, fearful that the money will run out before you can get the house — the house your grandmother bought and passed down to you through your mother — put back together.
Imagine that — as you push a wheelbarrow out into the sunlight, blink as you adjust to the brightness, and push your hair off your forehead, leaving a smudge of toxic mud — a bus full of cameras flash at you, taking photographs of your trauma, effort, and fear. And then they take that photo back to their cozy, dry home and show it to their friends, who ooh and aah about how cool it was that they got to see the aftermath of the flood.
The person who made this sign… this is what they may have been feeling.
Trigger warning for racist language and discussions of racial violence.
After the storm had passed, while New Orleans was still in a state of crisis, residents of a predominantly white neighborhood that had escaped flooding, Algiers Point, took it upon themselves to violently patrol their streets.
“It was great!” says one man interviewed below. “It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it!” According to one witness testimony, they were looking for “anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag…” At least 11 black men were shot.
This next video, sent in by reader Martha O., includes some of the footage above, but focuses much more on the experiences of several African American men who lived in the neighborhood and were shot or threatened by their White neighbors.
The men talk about the panic and terror they felt during these incidents. Toward the end, Donnell Herrington watches footage of the White residents bragging about their exploits. It’s brutal to watch this man listening to the militia members talk about shooting African Americans casually and with obvious enthusiasm and pride.
The video is part of an in-depth story about the Algiers Point shootings featured in The Nation in 2008. And as Martha explained, it’s a harrowing example of how swiftly organized violent racism can emerge when external constraints are even briefly weakened.
Originally posted in 2012. Watch the full documentary here.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
This is what it looks like when government fails to protect its citizens:
When Hurricane Katrina hit, more than a quarter of people living in New Orleans in August of 2005 lived below the poverty line. Many of the poor in stayed at home to weather the storm. Why?
27% of New Orleanians didn’t own a car, making evacuation even more difficult and expensive than it would otherwise be.
People without the means to leave are also the most likely to rely on the television, as opposed to the radio or internet, for news. TV news began warning people how bad the storm would be only 48 hours before it hit; some people, then, had only 48 hours to process this information and make plans.
Poor people are more likely than middle and upper class people to never leave where they grew up. This means that they were much less likely to have a network of people outside of New Orleans with whom they could stay, at the same time that they were least able to afford a motel room.
For those who were on government assistance, living check-to-check, it was the end of the month. Their checks were due to arrive three days after the hurricane. It was also back-to-school time and many were extra cash poor because they had extra expenses for their children.
A study of New Orleanians rescued and evacuated to Houston, described here, found that:
…14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease… Also,
• 55% did not have a car or a way to evacuate
• 68% had neither money in the bank nor a useable credit card
• 57% had total household incomes of less than $20,000 in the prior year
• 76% had children under 18 with them in the shelter
• 77% had a high school education or less
• 93% were black
• 67% were employed full or part-time before the hurricane
The city failed to get information to their most vulnerable residents in time and they failed to facilitate their evacuation. The empty buses in flood water, buses that could have been filled with evacuees prior to the storm, is a testament to this failure.