Opinion | Remembering Katrina and Its Unlearned Lessons, 15 Years On

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Early in the evening on Aug. 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Florida. A modest Category 1 storm, with top winds of only about 90 miles per hour, it passed just north of Miami, then lumbered across the Everglades toward the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

That night a birthday cake, white with pineapple filling, sat inside a glass cake stand on the dining room table at a house on the east corner of Dreux Street and St. Roch Avenue in New Orleans. It was my older brother’s birthday.

Within 72 hours, the storm grew into a colossal Category 5, its eye headed straight for the city. My family fled, leaving almost everything behind.

On Aug. 29, at 6:10 a.m., Hurricane Katrina slammed into the mouth of the Mississippi River as the fourth-most intense hurricane ever to make landfall in mainland America. Upriver in New Orleans, poorly made federal levees — which bracket the drainage canals coursing through the city — began to break like discolored Lego pieces when buffeted by storm surge. And a great deluge began.

On Aug. 31, President George W. Bush, who had been vacationing in Texas when the hurricane hit New Orleans, took a flyover tour of the destruction in Air Force One, while four-fifths of the city was underwater, and tens of thousands were stranded on rooftops, marooned on patches of dry streets or trapped in shelters.

On Sept. 2, as many still awaited rescue, and the death toll of more than 1,800 was still being tallied, The Baltimore Sun reported that the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert, “questioned the wisdom of spending billions to rebuild a city several feet below sea level.” It was a common sentiment at the time — also published in mainstream outlets like Slate and The Washington Post — that New Orleanians have never forgotten.

A month or so later, my family returned to our home on Dreux Street, with masks and gloves, to survey the damage, a mildewed mess: our furniture, the works by local artists, the old piano, all ruined. A chair hung from the chandelier. Below it on the counter, looking soggy yet almost untouched, was the birthday cake, still tucked inside its glass dome.

At the time, many here feared that “we may not see this city ever again, or at least not in the form we recognize,” as Wendell Pierce, the New Orleans native who starred in the HBO series “Tremé” about post-Katrina turmoil in the city, reminded me years later.

Mr. Pierce recalled how in those early months and years, “Do You Know What It Means (to Miss New Orleans)” by Louis Armstrong hit differently — not as bittersweet, but a dirge.

To his relief and that of millions of others, much of the city recovered after the hurricane, in its own uneven way.

Yet now, the coronavirus has killed over 4,000 Louisianans, put New Orleans’s service-based economy into a coma, shown the rest of America what a Katrina-size failure feels like and revealed how the lessons from the storm’s aftermath, regarding crisis management and social inequality, remain unlearned.

It can be hard to clearly remember August 2005. There have been so many storms — literal, cultural and political — that have happened since. But we can’t forget the singularity of its disaster.

We can’t forget that the levees, properly built, easily “could have been sufficient” for the storm surge, as Stephen Nelson, a professor emeritus of earth and environmental science at Tulane University and author of the seminal paper “Myths of Katrina: Field Notes From a Geoscientist,” told me. But the Army Corps of Engineers failed to drive the steel pilings that hold levee panels together far enough into the earth, among other grave failures.

We can’t forget that, adjusted for inflation, the median Black household in the majority-Black city earned only about $30,000 in 2000, and that evacuating can cost thousands.

We can’t forget that despite commanding the greatest ground, air and naval forces in history, the U.S. government took roughly a week to put in place a thoroughly engaged rescue effort — leaving tens of thousands stuck without suitable shelter, food or water.

Precisely because the federal government was largely missing for days — while state and local officials were mired in petulant disarray — we can’t forget the heroic acts New Orleanians did for one another.

One of the first people I visited this month in New Orleans was Rudy Major, a man responsible for rescuing 125 or so people from floodwaters in my old neighborhood, Gentilly, according to his rough estimate. Mr. Major, a man full of jokes, is girded by a militarylike seriousness when ready to talk business.

He sat me down in his den and explained that he stayed as Hurricane Katrina approached because he was confident that his house, on a ridge, would not flood and because he was equally confident that the low-lying Ninth Ward, only a couple of miles away, would — and he wanted to help.

Soon after two nearby levees broke that Monday morning, Mr. Major hopped into his 30-foot boat with his son, Kyle, then 19. They made dozens of trips to fetch people from their roofs and bring them back to his terrace, just safely above the waterline, “whether they looked white, Black, Creole, something else, whatever.”

They saw corpses float by. They hacked into an attic after hearing faint cries for help to discover a grieving woman with her two young daughters and their lifeless grandmother.

Such stories are just some of thousands of wrenching tales from the aftermath, created and compounded by government ineptitude. Mr. Major expressed a similar frustration with the government now, as the coronavirus strikes Louisiana with a particular severity.

“There are distinctions, but a lot of similarities,” he said. “You need a federal plan, a state plan, a local plan and they have to be connected.”

In 2005, the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin; Gov. Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana; Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi; and the Bush White House stumbled over logistics and wrestled over funding as lives were in the balance. In 2020, the cast of battling characters is simply broader, as governors from California to Texas and New York clash with mayors, and the Trump administration undermines them all, while refusing to take the lead itself.

Depending on where and who you are, the result of this politicized crisis response is just as deadly. “I’ve lost 15 friends to Covid,” Mr. Major said.

Pre-Katrina, there was already a considerable shortage of affordable housing in New Orleans. The situation has only become worse, as many of the affordable units the city had were never rebuilt after the storm and the urban core became whiter and wealthier.

New Orleans now has roughly 33,000 fewer affordable housing units than it needs, according to HousingNOLA, a local research and advocacy group. There are opportunities in every corner of the city to fix this, explained Andreanecia Morris, the executive director of HousingNOLA, when we met in her office in Mid-City on South Carrollton Avenue.

Most New Orleanians are renters. Pre-Katrina, the market rate for a one-bedroom apartment was around $578 monthly. It has roughly doubled since then, meaning a full-time worker must now earn about $18 per hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

Real wages, however, have stalled, and many of the service businesses that employ New Orleanians remain closed. Tens of thousands of workers in the city’s beloved music, drinks, food and tourism businesses — who were the most likely to lose their livelihoods both after the storm and now during the pandemic — make a minimum wage of $7.25.

In some other cities, Ms. Morris explained, unaffordable rent “is the result of a housing stock shortage, but in New Orleans we have a vacancy rate of about 20 percent!” There are about 37,700 vacant units in the city.

Residents like Terence Blanchard, the Grammy award-winning trumpeter, who resides in a thriving midcentury neighborhood along Bayou St. John, live this dichotomy. “People talk about the recovery,” he told me as we stood on his dock overlooking the water and City Park. “But if you go to my mom’s house in Pontchartrain Park, there was no real recovery.”

The federal housing vouchers mostly known by the shorthand “Section 8” — which subsidize rent payments above 30 percent of participants’ income — fully cover “fair market rate rent,” which in New Orleans is calculated as $1,034 to $1,496 for a one-bedroom apartment. That means even in increasingly upscale, higher-ground areas of town there is little stopping developers and landlords with vacant properties from lowering rents by a few hundred dollars and still being able to generate revenue.

For Ms. Morris, the continued holdout by many landlords that want “a certain kind of family,” or Airbnb customers, has grown to “psychotic” levels of classism and racism. “At a certain point,” she said, “the math has to let you at least manage your prejudices.”

I met Malik Bartholomew, a young local historian and born-and-raised New Orleanian, at the last Black bookstore in town, the Community Book Center, based in the Seventh Ward on Bayou Road. A cultural hub that was on the verge of closing because of the coronavirus, it’s been rescued for now by what the owner — known to her clientele as Miss Vera — views as a surge in white guilt after the death of George Floyd.

“Books started flying off the shelves,” Miss Vera said, her ambivalence visible despite the mask on her face.

Shortly after, Mr. Bartholomew gave me a tour of the Tremé, where I briefly worked as a teenager in 2013. Already gentrifying then, it’s become even fancier since.

As an eighth-generation New Orleanian, I wanted to be a good native and scoff at it all. But I found myself almost viscerally charmed by the carefully redone homes and the cafes frequented by young white people alongside the scene of a retired Black gentleman enjoying his shaded porch.

Couldn’t there be, I asked, a world in which some of the well-off people who come to visit and decide to stay then respect the culture, integrate into it, increase the tax base and help uplift others?

Mr. Bartholomew explained — in between waving to residents he knew — that my integrationist daydream puts too much faith in “the Part 2,” in which wealth and power would be shared. “I’ve never seen that happen,” he said. “People just make money off our culture.”

As Mr. Bartholomew and other community organizers see it, “the wealthy interests are more powerful than ever.”

The mayor of New Orleans, LaToya Cantrell, said she largely agreed.

Ms. Cantrell, both the first woman and the first Black woman to lead the city, is from Broadmoor, one of the seven lower-lying neighborhoods that a panel appointed by the mayor’s office after Hurricane Katrina planned to transform into parks and wetlands.

She rose in local politics as a leading opponent of that failed plan and won the mayoralty on a platform of creating a New Orleans “for all New Orleanians.” But she confessed as we spoke in her sunlit yellow and blue City Hall office that, even before the coronavirus, every day felt like pushing a boulder uphill.

“All the time,” she told me, stretching out each syllable. “But if you don’t push, you’re not going to move. The systems that have been created, particularly in this city, are so that we’re doing all the pushing around here — and have been.”

Those systems are many and layered. There are regional business elites and the Federal Reserve — which has once again declined to be as generous to indebted municipalities as it’s been to the corporate markets it has saved. A hostile and controlling conservative state government blocks or vetoes many policies City Hall desires and starves the city of funds, even though much of the tax revenue generated in New Orleans goes to state coffers. As a result, Ms. Cantrell complained, she has no ability to make reforms like raising the minimum wage, and little room to redirect taxes or revenue.

So far, she has had more success with infrastructure projects, including a deal to divert some tax dollars from the tourism industry into initiatives that include a focus on sustainability. Instead of abandoning low-lying neighborhoods, the city is seeking to re-engineer their open spaces — like unused lots and wide avenues — into a network of water gardens, mini wetlands and drainage canals that feel more like babbling creeks. These “blue and green corridors” are meant to reduce flooding and reverse subsidence, the sinking of land, which has been increasing.

This reworked cityscape will be immensely beneficial to New Orleans’s viability if completed. But in the face of climate change — rising seas and disappearing wetlands to the south — Ms. Cantrell acknowledged it won’t be enough over the next 15 years.

There’s only so much, she said, that a mayor with a municipal budget can do — for wages, infrastructure, housing, education, economic mobility and more. And that’s true anywhere.

For all of New Orleans’s cultural uniqueness, for all of its ability to be a multicultural mecca in fleeting, festival moments, its struggles and needs are practically the same as every other urban area. Nearly everywhere, the city — this central, vital organ of modern society — is yet to be fairly figured out, with citizens living in just and environmentally stable harmony.

For such a city to be achieved, rich people of all colors will need to stop hoarding resources and live next to working people, schoolteachers may have to be paid like professors, living wages may need to be subsidized and epic adaptations will have to be made for climate change.

The scale of this need can be met only by the vast fiscal and monetary powers of the federal government. The alternative is for coastal areas around New Orleans, Miami, New York and Charleston, S.C., to become ever more unequal in the coming decades, sinking under the weight of their contradictions, then succumbing to nature and being overrun by the sea.

A day or so before I left town, I sat with Dr. Nelson, the Tulane geologist, in his backyard, and he told me he was skeptical of society’s ability to control coastal erosion in time. “For humans, if the return on investment isn’t immediate, you don’t do it,” he said. “But the Earth doesn’t work that way.”

For America to make an adequate pivot to environmentalism and egalitarianism may require a miracle unseen in lifetimes.

Still, as I took off from the Louis Armstrong Airport, I noticed how within seconds we were soaring over the wetland created by the Mississippi River, much of it less than 1,000 years old, but now teeming with humans busying about, visible from a vehicle thousands of feet on high — a larger, more implausible-seeming miracle.

It reminded me of one of the last things Dr. Nelson told me, eyes smiling above his mask: “You can’t ignore what’s underneath you. Because you’re building everything on top of it.”

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