The Demographics

During disasters, poor people, people of color, and the elderly die in disproportionate numbers (source), and Katrina was no exception. Many decisions were made in the days leading up to and shortly after Katrina that amplified loss of life for these groups. New Orleans is both a poor (23% poverty rate pre-Katrina – twice the national average) and segregated city, and these factors led to loss of life. First, an effective evacuation plan was not in place that accounted for the 112,000 poor, mostly black New Orleanians without cars. Additionally, the timing of the storm at the end of the month meant that those receiving public assistance were unusually cash-strapped. To make matters worse for poor people with children, school had just started so expenses for the month were higher than usual.

The immobile poor were disproportionately left behind and lost their lives. A comprehensive study of evacuees to Houston (who had stayed behind during the storm) found that 22% were physically unable to evacuate, 14% were physically disabled, 23% stayed in New Orleans to care for a physically disabled person, and 25% were suffering from a chronic disease (source). 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

Age was also a factor in fatalities. Nearly 40% of those who died in Katrina were elderly, and many more elderly individuals died from the stress of evacuation and home loss.

Government Response

Mayor Nagin received nearly $20 million to establish a workable evacuation plan in plenty of time for Katrina, but it’s questionable whether it was ever developed, and it was never disseminated. Two months before Katrina, Nagin spent money to produce and distribute DVDs in poorer neighborhoods to inform residents that they would be on their own if a storm hit because the city could not afford to evacuate them.  In the days before the storm, Nagin sent empty Amtrak trains out of the city, failed to mobilized available school and other buses, and waited an entire day to call for a mandatory evacuation so he could determine whether the City would face lawsuits from local businesses (source). All of these decisions were deadly.

The federal response was no better. The city was quiet after the storm whipped through late Sunday night/early Monday morning when President Bush announced that New Orleans had “dodged a bullet.” Within hours, three major levees breaches and over fifty minor breaches flooded the city. Despite Governor Blanco’s request for federal assistance on Saturday (two days before the storm made landfall) and concern from local media on Sunday (one day before the storm) that the levees wouldn’t hold, they breached on Monday morning with only two Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers on the ground (see the timeline). It would take two days for 1,000 additional officials to arrive.

Once on the ground, FEMA slowed the evacuation with unworkable paperwork and certification requirements. Marc Cresswell, a medic from a private ambulance company, reported that “At one point I had 10 helicopters on the ground waiting to go, but FEMA kept stonewalling us with paperwork. Meanwhile, every 30 or 40 minutes someone was dying.” FEMA was also criticized for turning away personnel, vehicles, medical equipment, food and other supplies, and diesel fuel.

The 30,000 people who evacuated to the Superdome (per Nagin’s instructions) were stranded for a week. Those who evacuated to the Superdome experienced deplorable conditions – unbearable heat, darkness, the stench of sewage, and a lack of food and water. They were not allowed to leave, and, according to several evacuees I interviewed in Texas shortly after the storm, this led one man to take his life by jumping from a balcony. This death was one of only six deaths at the Superdome: one person overdosed and four others died of natural causes. Another 20,000 people gathered at the Convention Center for assistance, an evacuation site the federal government was unaware of until three days after the storm.

President Bush was otherwise occupied during this time. The day Katrina hit, he traveled to Arizona and California to promote his prescription drug plan, had birthday cake with John McCain, and attended a Padres game.

Panicked at the slow federal response, Governor Blanco sent an urgent request: “Mr. President, we need your help. We need everything you’ve got.” The president retired to bed that night without responding to Blanco. The next day, he sang songs with country singer Mark Willis and returned to Texas for the final night of his vacation. The President was so oblivious to the suffering in New Orleans that his staff made a video of news coverage four days after the storm to sensitize him. And, in response, President Bush’s team assembled a carefully crafted PR plan to blame local officials seven days into the ordeal while thousands of people were still stranded. Later that same day, President Bush made the infamous statement, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.”

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s blog.

The political and engineering failures that caused the devastation in New Orleans were multiple and decades in the making. First, the storm surge was amplified by years of oil and natural gas companies degrading the integrity of the wetlands with pipelines, causing the land to sink at an alarming rate (source). The Mississippi river levee system was created in response to the sinking wetlands, but this system actually compounds the problem by preventing much of the river’s silt from being deposited in the ocean where it creates a natural buffer (source). Combined, these factors have eroded one million square acres of Bayou since 1930, bringing the coastline 30 miles closer to New Orleans and leaving only a 20 mile buffer from hurricanes (source). Every 2.7 miles of wetlands reduces storm surge by 1 foot, so Katrina surges of 10 – 20 feet in New Orleans would have been 0 – 9 feet with better oversight of corporations carving up the wetlands – not big enough to breach the levees (source).

Secondly, in 1968, The Army Corps of Engineers built the 76-mile Mississippi River Gulf Canal Outlet (MRGO), a canal that brings ships straight from the Gulf of Mexico to the New Orleans Industrial Canal (source). The MRGO was built right through the Ninth Ward, physically separating the Lower Ninth Ward from the city. The canal salinated and decimated Bayou Bienville, a freshwater swamp and natural storm buffer along the north end of the Ninth Ward.

A healthy Cypress swamp:

Flickr creative commons Thomas Gehrke.

The Bayou Bienville Cypress swamp today:

The MRGO was nicknamed “Hurricane Highway” post-Katrina because it brought the storm surge directly to the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish. To add insult to injury, the MRGO has been an economic boondoggle; used by an average of one ship per day since it was built (source). The Army Corps started filling in the canal in 2009 after a federal court decision showing that officials knew that creating the MRGO would doom the residents of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower Ninth Ward (source). The judge chided the Army Corps, noting that they “not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the MRGO threatened human life… and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina.”

The third preventable human aspect of Katrina was a network of levees suffering from poor design and disrepair from bureaucratic bickering; an 80% cut to levee repair funds under the Bush Administration and misspent money (source). After Katrina, the Corps admitted that “the hurricane protection system in New Orleans and southeast Louisiana was a system in name only,” “an inconsistent patchwork of protection, containing flaws in design and construction, and not built to handle a hurricane anywhere near the size of Katrina” (source). With a weak storm buffer, the storm surge pipeline of the MRGO, and a fatally flawed levee system, it’s no surprise that the greatest number of fatalities occurred in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish (source).

This is an excerpt from a much longer account of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, published at Caroline Heldman’s blog.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s blog.

News media are comparing Hurricane Irene to Hurricane Katrina in ways that allow us to forget that Hurricane Katrina was a humanmade disaster, but in one way, these events are similar – prisoner evacuation. New Orleans officials chose not to evacuate 7,000 inmates, some of whom were trapped in flooded cells and later left on a bridge for days without food and water, as detailed in this post.  Officials in New York have made the same decision with Hurricane Irene.

Elizabeth Furth, a former student who has participated in rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, sent in this map showing that Rikers Island is not part of the City’s evacuation plan:

Riker’s Island is the unzoned white blob in this close up:

Mayor Bloomberg announced that Riker’s Island would not be evacuated at a recent press conference, despite the fact that the island is surrounded by areas with the second highest evacuation rating (Zone B).  Other New York islands on the map are in Zone A (mandatory evacuation) or Zone B, but Riker’s has no evacuating rating, perhaps because the Department of Corrections doesn’t have an evacuation plan.  According to the New York Times blog, “no hypothetical evacuation plan for the roughly 12,000 inmates that the facility may house on a given day even exists. Contingencies do exist for smaller-scale relocations from one facility to another.”

Solitary Watch reports that Rikers Island was built on landfill, which is especially vulnerable to disasters. Rikers Island may weather Hurricane Irene without incident, but this disaster has again revealed how prisoners are considered disposable in times of crisis.


Of the many people who did not or could not evacuate New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina, prisoners were especially helpless.  The American Civil Liberties Union gathered testimony from 400 of the 7,000 people locked up in New Orleans Prison at the time of Katrina, including approximately 100 juveniles.

Many reported being left in their cells while the water rose above their heads; being beaten and sprayed with mace once evacuated (to state maximum security prisons); and left on Interstate-10 in the hot sun for days without food or water. An entire building with about 600 prisoners was left behind in the evacuation process and weren’t rescued for days (source).

Most of the 7,000 prisoners had been charged with misdemeanor offenses and would have been released within a few weeks, even if convicted. But Governor Blanco effectively suspended habeas corpus (due process; right to a speedy trial) for six months, so some were incarcerated for over a year – doing “Katrina time.”  “The court system shut its doors, the police department fell into disarray, few prosecutors remained, and a handful of public defenders could not meet with, much less represent, the thousands detained” (source). Prison officials deny that anyone died in the crisis, despite several reports of deaths from both police officers and prisoners (source).

The Orleans Parish Prison continues to have civil rights concerns. In 2009, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department found that conditions at OPP violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The report found that prisoners experience violence from other prisoners, excessive force from guards, are not provided adequate medical services, and live in unsanitary conditions with pests.

This hour-long BBC video documents their experiences:

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s blog.  

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.

Cross-posted at Ms.

A new study from the Pew Research Center reports staggering racial gaps in median wealth — a person’s accumulated assets minus her debt — between whites ($113,149), blacks ($5,677) and Latinos ($6,325). That’s a 20-to-1 white-to-black ratio of wealth and a 18-to-1 white-to-Latino ratio.

Essentially, all of the economic gains made by people of color since the Civil Rights Movement have been erased in a few years by the Long Recession. Whites experienced a net wealth loss of 16 percent from 2005 to 2009, while blacks lost about half of their wealth (53 percent) and Latinos lost two-thirds of their wealth.

Media outlets reporting on the Pew study point to housing loss as the primary culprit, since the net worth of blacks and Latinos is heavily reliant on home ownership, while whites are more likely to have retirement accounts and stock.

While this is certainly accurate, it obscures the core racism at play. Public policy decisions have been responsible for the speedy recovery of the financial market and the slow recovery of the housing market. From the start, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) favored Wall Street recovery over homeowner recovery, with only $12 billion of the $700 billion bailout spent on foreclosure programs. (To be fair, most of the Wall Street money was eventually paid back.)

So prioritization of corporate interests disproportionately assisted whites in the recovery — but (perhaps) not intentionally. The same cannot be said for actual lending practices.

Rampant– — and racist — fraud in the home loan industry was a primary contributor to the collapse, with 61 percent of sub-prime loan holders actually qualifying for prime loans that would have been easier to maintain. Blacks and Latinos were especially targeted for sub-prime loans, a practice called “reverse redlining.” Wells Fargo loan officer-turned-whistle blower Elizabeth Jacobson admitted that her company specifically went after African Americans for sub-prime loans through “wealth building” conferences hosted in black churches.

The employment gap between whites and blacks is also a contributor to the wealth gap. While white American are suffering through the Long Recession with 7.9 percent unemployment, blacks are experiencing Great Depression-like figures of 16.1 percent unemployment. This figure jumps to 31.4 percent for blacks ages 16 to 24, and black Americans have consistently had the higher rate of unemployment compared to white Americans since 2007.

Not surprisingly, the employment gap, too, has racist origins. The Center for American Progress analyzed unemployment data from the last three recessions and found that black unemployment starts earlier, rises faster and lingers longer. Explanations include the concentration of black workers in the stumbling manufacturing sector, the cutting of public sector jobs — and racial discrimination. This last finding is no shock given that employers are more likely to call back a white job applicant with a criminal record than a similarly qualified black man without a record.

The role of racism in poverty is important to keep in mind at a time Washington politicians are manufacturing crises that will slash the entitlement programs that 1 in 6 Americans rely on. It’s ironic that we’re cutting safety nets for the poor just as we’re experiencing the highest poverty rate since 1960, with blacks and Latinos three times as likely to live in poverty. Public policy is supposed to knock down racial and other non-meritorious barriers to pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, not jack them higher.

Cross-posted at Ms. and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

I suspect that U.S. citizens and policy-makers have a hard time imagining that modern-day sex slavery is prevalent in our country, and an even harder time understanding that the vast majority of trafficking victims here are U.S. citizens. In fact, the State Department estimates that, of the world’s 27 million trafficking victims, about 100,000 live in the U.S.

Yet, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, only 2,515 investigations of suspected incidents of human trafficking between January 2008 and June 2010, leading to 144 arrests so far. This means investigations were opened on only 2.5 percent of human trafficking cases. Federal efforts to address human trafficking in the U.S., it is clear, are simply not effective.

The U.S., however, still gets a top-notch rating from the State Department, which just-released the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report, which evaluates worldwide efforts to fight modern-day slavery. The State Department uses a three-tier system. Tier 1 countries are in full compliance with the TVPA, Tier 2 countries are making “significant efforts” to comply and Tier 3 countries are making no efforts whatsoever. The U.S. is ranked as Tier 1, which begs the question: How useful is this rating system if a 2.5 percent prosecution rate gets us to the top?


Instead of giving us useful information about what countries are most effective in prosecuting trafficking, this map simply gives the illusion that the U.S. is doing a bang up job.  If we were more honest about U.S. efforts, though, it would expose the U.S. as less than the ideal society we think it is. In fact, federal efforts to address human trafficking are an abysmal failure.

I traveled to Silsbee, Texas five times in the past six months, with conservative blogger Brandon Darby, to investigate why, despite the volume of evidence, a grand jury did not indict two football players accused of raping a high school cheerleader (who was later kicked off the squad for refusing to cheer for one of them).  The case is a troubling example of what many victims experience when they dare to report their rape and proceed with a prosecution.  In this post, I’d like to highlight the community reaction.

Hillaire was found half-clothed and crying under the pool table, saying she’d been raped.  She reported that Rakheem Bolton, a star high school football player, raped her while another football player, Christian Rountree, held her down. Three students outside the room heard her cries of “stop” and broke through the door, only to find that three of the four athletes in the room had fled out the window, breaking it in the process.

As Bolton ran off, Stacy Riley, the homeowner, heard him yell:

I didn’t rape no white girl.  I wouldn’t use anyone else’s dick to fuck her. I didn’t put my dick up inside her. I don’t know if she has AIDS. I don’t even know that girl.

Bolton would later admit to penetrating Hillaire.

This was not a he said/she said situation and you can read the evidence in more detail in the full report at my blog. Suffice to say: Witness statements from the police report confirm that Hillaire was raped. An inexperienced drinker, Hillaire was exceedingly intoxicated after drinking a beer and six shots and could not legally consent. Before her friends cut her off, Hillaire made out with a guy in the living room and was egged on to kiss a female friend by a group of ogling young men. Bolton and his friends arrived late to the party, and, seeing an intoxicated and flirtatious Hillaire, isolated her in the pool room.

Hillaire spent the early morning hours after the rape at the police station and at a nearby clinic.  Of the four guys in the room, Bolton and Rountree were charged with “child sexual assault” (because Hillaire was a minor and they were “of age”) which carries a prison term of two to twenty years.

Hillaire assumed this crime would be fairly prosecuted. Instead, she faced intense mistreatment from her peers, many residents of Silsbee, school officials, public officials prosecuting the case, and the local press.  When she returned to school she faced a chilly environment from her peers and school administrators. School officials urged her to take a low profile, and the cheer squad wanted Hillaire to skip homecoming because, according to a fellow cheerleader, “Someone from another city had called and threatened her. If she cheered at another game, they were going to shoot her.” Hillaire went anyway, and some students painted Bolton’s and Rountree’s jersey numbers on their faces to protest their removal from the football team. Students also chanted “free tree” (referring to Rountree) at the homecoming bonfire within earshot of Hillaire.

Many in Silsbee bought the “slut” defense – that Hillaire was to blame for what happened that night because she made out with several people at the party. Describing Hillaire’s sexual behavior at the party, Sarah [name changed], a fellow student and cheerleader, told me that she believe Hillaire was raped and that “a majority of the school felt this way.”  Hillaire was called a “slut” several times to her face.

An anonymous letter to Hillaire’s family laid bare the “slut” defense that so many in Silsbee seem to hold:

These boys are nice respectable boys and you can’t tell me that there were no other girls that wanted to be with them so they raped your daughter (please).  Just think how you have ruined these children [sic] lives and your daughter gets to carry on and be a cheerleader after drinkingherself and going against your family values… This makes your daughter [sic] reputation look very bad and if you think people will forget, remember we live in Silsbee. Someone will always remember!  (Don’t think she won’t be talked about).

A toddler approached Hillaire at a town parade shortly after the rape and called her a “bitch.”

Hillaire’s status as a popular cheerleader at the high school couldn’t compete with the popularity of high school sports that grants the best male players special privileges. The high school stadium seats 7,000—equal to the town’s population—and it’s full on game days. Celebrating high school sports is ingrained in Southeast Texas cultures, so it’s no wonder that many in Silsbee rallied behind Bolton and Rountree.  A common argument, articulated to me by one student, is that Bolton wouldn’t rape anyone because “he was popular. A lot of girls wanted to be with him.”

Bolton and Rountree did not receive the same chilly treatment as Hillaire. In a taped interview with The Silsbee Bee, Rountree’s mother thanked “all the members of the Silsbee community that have supported us; all the love and prayers that have been sent out. We’ve had a tremendous, just a tremendous outpouring of support and we just appreciate everyone and thank you for believing in these boys.”

[wpvideo eWIYrDXp]

The local paper, The Silsbee Bee, favorably covered the accused, even publishing an article titled, “Sexual Assault Prosecutions Cost County Nearly $20,000.” It was hard to miss the implication that this was money ill spent.

Later the editor of the Silsbee Bee would resign.

In many ways Hillaire was the perfect victim.  She’s pretty, white, and underage; a cheerleader in a football-loving town. She went to the police and the health clinic immediately after her assault. In addition to the physical evidence that was collected, she brought into court the testimony of witnesses and a threat from her rapist.  Detective Dennis Hughes, the officer assigned to the case, told Hillaire’s father that, given his four decades of police experience, “This is a slam dunk case. There’s more evidence than we see in most sexual assault cases, and we’ve got lots of witnesses.”

Still, despite all of this, the community turned against her. It’s no wonder that rape victims are reluctant to report their assaults; how much evidence, and how much privilege, does one need to get justice?  Three months after the rape, a grand jury dismissed the case.  Later Bolton would plea guilty to assault, a misdemeanor.


For more — including ways to help Hillaire and protest her treatment, as well as details about the role of the NAACP and highly suspicious ties between Bolton’s family, the police, and the district attorney – see the unabridged reporting on this story here.

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

Essence Music Festival, the “party with a purpose,” is a three-day event in New Orleans, featuring speakers during the day and musical performances at night.  It also caters to an almost exclusively black audience, bringing 400,000 people to the Crescent City each year.  Their sheer presence challenges informal systems of segregation in New Orleans.

After the show, I walked through the French Quarter with a few friends and noted how unusual it is to see so many black people in this part of town. Despite losing 118,000 black residents after Katrina, New Orleans is still a majority-black city, but highly segregated and even more so after Katrina.   Formal and informal “policing” generally keeps black locals out of the touristy French Quarter, with the exception of Black residents who work/entertain there.

You can see just how segregated in this map by Eric Fischer (each dot is 25 people; red = White residents, blue = Black residents, and Green = Asian residents):

I first learned about this informal segregation a few years ago when I convinced my reluctant friend, Earl, to go to the Cat’s Meow on Bourbon Street for karaoke. A few blocks from our destination, Earl lagged behind for a moment, distracted by a cat painting, and a group of white locals “warned” me that I was about to “get jumped” by the black guy behind me. Once on Bourbon, we were there for less than a minute before a police officer approached us, questioned Earl’s reason for being there, and told us both to leave.

Policing also occurs in “black neighborhoods” in New Orleans. Working and living in the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards, my white students and I have been stopped more times than I can count by NOPD, other law enforcement, and “friendly” white people who question why we are in these neighborhoods (or as one member of the National Guard called the Seventh Ward, “Ghettoville USA”).

With the Essence Festival in town, it was refreshing to see many black faces around the French Quarter over the weekend, enjoying the most enriching nightlife in the country. But not everyone saw it this way.

An acquaintance told me her white roommate stayed in all weekend because the Essence Festival was in town and she didn’t want to “get shot.” A white friend who works as a server in the French Quarter told me she was happy when the Essence Festival was over because she wouldn’t have to hear all the racist comments from her fellow servers and her boss. While these white residents live in a majority-black city, they feel threatened when black people come from out of town and don’t follow the rules that keep local blacks in “black neighborhoods.”

Then came the news that a New Orleans Police Department Commander was reassigned pending an investigation of instructions he gave to officers on Friday night when deploying them into areas catering to Essence Festival visitors. He allegedly instructed them to single out young, black men, although the exact language he used has not been released. It’s worth mentioning that Essence has never had an incident of violent crime during its seventeen years, and (now former) Mayor Ray Nagin reported that there is less crime in the city during the festival.

The presence of hundreds of thousands of black people from other parts of the county who don’t know the unspoken rules of racial segregation in New Orleans exposes both these rules and the pernicious racism that undergirds them.


More maps from Eric Fischer.

Also on residential segregation, see our posts on how it leads to uneven rates of asthma, lead poisoning, and exposure to toxic release facilities.  But we blame poor people anyway.