When we came home to New Orleans for the first time after Hurricane Katrina, over Thanksgiving weekend of 2005, my then three-year-old son, looking out the window on the drive in from the airport, said, “You told me we were going to New Orleans, but now we’re in Iraq.” This was three months after the storm hit. The floodwaters had receded, the Superdome had emptied, the national press had left, and we weren’t anywhere near the city’s most famous devastated neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward—but still what you saw was a landscape of abandoned buildings, moldy refrigerators set out on sidewalks, downed trees and electrical wires, and a thick impasto of mud covering everything. Even now, fifteen years after Katrina, New Orleans has not fully recovered, in population and otherwise.
By the standards of one’s middle-school geography class, New Orleans ought to be one of America’s most prosperous cities, instead of one of its poorest. It is the natural port for the vast interior of the country, from the Rockies to the Appalachians. In its immediate vicinity are many natural resources: rich soil for growing rice and sugarcane, and plenty of cotton, sulfur, seafood, and, beginning in the early twentieth century, oil. Then there are the city’s celebrated charms—the food, the music, the generally soft, seductive atmosphere. But New Orleans peaked, relative to other American cities, back in 1840, and has been losing ground ever since. It looks today like an especially severe example of the resource curse, because its economy of extraction was based originally on slavery—antebellum New Orleans was the country’s leading marketplace for the buying and selling of humans—and then on Jim Crow, which generated a system of exploitation that pervades every local institution, as well as a deep, evidently permanent mistrust between the races.
And then there is New Orleans’s relationship to nature. Half of the city is below sea level; only a relatively small portion, the section that was originally settled, is habitable by traditional definitions. The city is surrounded by an endless borderland that shifts between river, marsh, swamp, and ocean. Katrina was only one of a long series of hurricanes that have struck near the mouth of the Mississippi. In New Orleans, civic monumentalism was always bound up in the racial order—consider the Confederate statues that the city built, in the early twentieth century, and only recently removed—but not every expression of it was explicitly racial. Another important project, from the same period, was the creation of an elaborate system of drains and pumps, supervised by an engineer named A. Baldwin Wood, which was supposed to make the entire area within the great crescent bend of the river, all the way to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, permanently flood-proof. As Andy Horowitz, a young historian at Tulane University, writes in “Katrina,” his new history of the event, it was twentieth-century New Orleans—the part built after the drainage system was constructed—that flooded in the late summer of 2005.
If there’s a standard Katrina narrative among non-New Orleanians, it runs something like this: the storm was as devastating as it was because of real-time official incompetence, especially by the George W. Bush Administration. Its main victims were poor African-Americans, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, and today, thanks to the indomitable spirit of the community, the city has vibrantly come back to life. By stretching the frame backward by a hundred years, and forward by ten, Horowitz presents a strikingly different story, and a more depressing one. The main thrust of Horowitz’s account is to make us understand Katrina—the civic calamity, not the storm itself—as a consequence of decades of bad decisions by humans, not an unanticipated caprice of nature. “Usually, we imagine disasters as exceptions,” he writes. “We describe them as external attacks, ahistorical acts of God, blows from without. That is why most accounts of Katrina begin when the levees broke and conclude not long after. But these stories have a denuded sense of what happened, why, or what might have prevented the catastrophe. Somebody had to build the levees before they could break.” He leaves readers with a strong sense that it’s only a matter of time before there is a similar disaster in New Orleans, and that, in whatever lull there is between now and then, things aren’t great.
Horowitz’s story begins with oil, which seemed like a bonanza when it was discovered in Louisiana, in 1901, but which set in motion two long-running problems. Almost immediately, the state government realized it could finance itself by taxing the oil companies. (As Horowitz points out, in those days, “states’ rights” may have been primarily code for preserving racial segregation, but it also meant considering distant offshore rigs to be on Louisiana property.) It was during the era when oil revenues were flowing freely that the state’s grandest public buildings—the vast Charity Hospital, in New Orleans, and the state capitol building and the campus of Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge—were built. In 1950, a landmark Supreme Court decision, which severely restricted the zone in which the state could tax offshore oil rigs, ended that party. The state has never successfully developed another way of paying for a competent government. The oil companies also ravaged southern Louisiana’s previously trackless freshwater marshes, by drilling and by building access canals that allowed saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico to flow in. The result was a relentless, yearly loss of land—or, to represent more accurately what it looks like, “land”—and greater vulnerability to hurricanes.
A combination of civic boosterism and excessive faith in engineered water-control systems led New Orleans to keep reclaiming swampland for housing, building canal systems for commercial ship traffic, and dredging spillways that were supposed to draw floodwater away from the city when the need arose. These systems all failed during Katrina. A severe hurricane in 1915, Horowitz reminds us, caused relatively little damage and so enhanced New Orleans’s hubris. But in 1965 Hurricane Betsy—which I lived through as a boy, huddled next to my parents, as far as we could get from any windows that might blow in—was a demonstration of the folly of a half century’s worth of misguided building. The storm caused massive, sustained flooding. Two hundred and sixty thousand people had to leave their homes. Betsy coincided with the high-water mark of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society; Johnson immediately came to New Orleans to show his concern, and Louisiana’s leading politicians, then all still Democrats, demanded, and mostly got, generous federal emergency aid. But it’s always easier to address a pressing crisis than to prevent the next one, so the pattern of continued development without adequate flood protection continued. An ambitious long-term hurricane-protection plan passed by Congress and signed into law by Johnson was never completed.
Katrina flooded out many white people as well as Black people, and, within Black New Orleans, many working-class and middle-class people as well as poor people. That was because the largest wiped-out neighborhoods—Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East—were places where New Orleanians of both races had moved to ascend the ladder by a step or two, often enabled by government-backed lending programs that didn’t sufficiently appreciate the risk of flooding. New Orleans’s extensive public-housing projects, all Black and all poor, were in older parts of the city, and mostly didn’t flood. But the dynamic of recovery was all about race. New Orleans is a Black-majority city. The mayor, Ray Nagin, a Black businessman elected with more white than Black votes in 2002, appointed an urban-planning committee, headed by a white real-estate developer, to guide the city’s recovery. (Nagin was later convicted of taking bribes from city contractors.) The committee soon unveiled a plan that entailed not rebuilding some of the Black neighborhoods that had flooded. Many residents were outraged; on the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday in 2006, Nagin gave a speech disowning the plan and committing himself to rebuilding “a chocolate New Orleans.” He was reëlected a few months later, this time with more Black than white votes, and the idea of shrinking the residential footprint of New Orleans to something closer to what it had been a century earlier became disreputable. Instead, the idea was that every homeowner should get prompt and generous help in order to return and rebuild.
But that didn’t happen, either. A series of measures that would have provided enough relief to rebuild New Orleans completely either wasn’t enacted or proceeded at the leisurely pace that is customary in Louisiana. New Orleans has a large racial gap in resources—the Black poverty rate is triple the white poverty rate—so whites were able to move back more quickly and with less hardship. For a decade after Katrina, New Orleans was a whiter city than it had been before. That fed into a venerable tradition, in Black New Orleans, of suspicion of what white New Orleans might be up to. Back in 1927, when the Mississippi River flooded disastrously (because of heavy spring rains, not a hurricane), New Orleans’s white city fathers ordered the dynamiting of the levee below the city, in the hope of preventing flooding. Since then, the idea that breaches in the flood walls were not accidental has been common in Black New Orleans—and, in fact, Horowitz unearths some evidence that official decisions may have contributed to one of the major breaches, in the Lower Ninth Ward, during Hurricane Betsy. After Katrina, the spectacle of a Black refugee population in the Superdome, along with the short-lived plan from Mayor Nagin’s committee to wipe out some Black neighborhoods, revived these sentiments. And, on the white side of town, lurid stories about Black criminality, that ancient fear of white Southerners, circulated widely. So did wishful conversations about the possibility of New Orleans becoming a white-majority city again, as it hadn’t been since the nineteen-seventies.
Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans during what was, it’s now clear, the final period of the New Deal political order. In the South, people still looked to government to solve big problems, as long as racism wasn’t included on the list of big problems, and the Democrats, the party of government, still held power. By the time Katrina hit, the Democrats had moved left on race and right on political economy, and the Republicans were in power nationally. Three major public institutions, all serving mainly Black clienteles, withstood the storm physically but not politically: Charity Hospital, the large-scale housing projects, and the unionized, government-managed public-school system. All were replaced by smaller, more privatized, more gentrified alternatives. Instead of Charity, New Orleans has the new, lower-capacity University Medical Center; instead of the projects, lower-density, more middle-class housing developments; instead of the old public schools, the country’s most extensive charter-school system, with mainly Black students and mainly white teachers. One could see these changes as evidence of civic rebirth, but it would be fairer to say that they represent a reordering of priorities, an embrace of a different political vision, and a racial recalibration. As Horowitz mordantly puts it, “What came to be known as New Orleans’s ‘recovery’ involved . . . a decision to evict people from their homes in the face of a homelessness crisis, a decision to close the hospital in the midst of an epidemic of suicide, and a decision to help children by firing their parents.”
New Orleans is a little corner of some other culture grafted onto the periphery of the United States. Horowitz points out that the state of Louisiana, in the last census before Katrina, had the lowest level of population mobility in the United States. Almost ninety per cent of Black New Orleanians had been born there, as compared with sixty per cent of Black Atlantans. The standard American idea of leaving an impoverished, provincial place to find opportunity elsewhere just doesn’t play in New Orleans: people who choose to make their lives elsewhere are the subject of hushed, sorrowful conversations, as if they had been banished because of some kind of disgrace. Just about everybody had to leave New Orleans for at least a few weeks after Katrina. If New Orleanians had been cost-benefit-calculating androids, a great many of them would have realized that it made sense to build a new life elsewhere. But the preference to return was strong, for both whites and Blacks and in all income categories. Did people imagine that they were coming back to a different New Orleans, or did they understand the essential bargain? Dense family and neighborhood ties, and a rich local culture unattainable elsewhere in the United States, in exchange for a society that is essentially premodern in what it can offer many of its citizens?
It is not possible to make New Orleans completely hurricane- and flood-proof, but if one wanted to try there would be two over-all approaches. One would be to depopulate the city and deindustrialize southern Louisiana, creating a small-footprint eco-paradise—the New Orleans that nature seems to want. That violates the strong preferences of the residents and a poor area’s hunger for money. The other option would be to invest in a protective infrastructure so mighty that, at least plausibly, New Orleans could survive anything. After Katrina, as after Betsy, such plans were drawn up, but nobody wanted to pay for them. New Orleans had to settle for levee enhancements that fell far short of providing invulnerability to a Category 5 hurricane, and wound up returning to something not too different from its pre-Katrina state. The city is an irresistibly alluring place that does far better by its white citizens than its Black ones. Life is sweet when it isn’t tragic. Lodged somewhere in everyone’s consciousness is the knowledge that what happened in 2005 is going to happen again.
Scenes from a week of weirdness under lockdown, as residents of New Orleans practice social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
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