August 29, 2018 marks the 13th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and The New Orleans Tribune 300 in Black installation for its August issue is a story that was written by Bill Quigley one year after the storm. In the article, which has been edited for space and was originally titled “Trying to Make it Home Again”, Quigley honestly examined the state of the city 12 months after Katrina changed New Orleans forever—looking at everything from housing to health care, jobs to criminal justice, education to infrastructure. His analysis was, then and now, raw, sobering and saddening. Still, it ended with hope and highlighted off the strength, tenacity and sheer will of the people of this beautiful city. As New Orleanians remember the devastation of Katrina in this, the city’s Tricentennial year, we salute New Orleans and its people, especially those that have come home to reclaim their time and space in the city that will always be home.
by Bill Quigley
New Orleans is still in intensive care. If you have seen recent television footage of New Orleans, you probably have a picture of how bad our housing situation is. What you cannot see is that the rest of our institutions, our water, our electricity, our healthcare, our jobs, our educational system, and our criminal justice systems—are all just as broken as our housing. We remain in serious trouble. Like us, you probably wonder where the promised money has gone.
Bernice Mosely is 82 and lives alone in New Orleans in a shotgun double. On August 29, 2005, as Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the levees constructed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers failed in five places, and New Orleans filled with water.
One year ago Ms. Mosely was on the second floor of her neighborhood church. Days later, she was taken out of the city by helicopter. She was so dehydrated she spent eight days in a hospital. Her next door neighbor, 89 years old, stayed behind to care for his dog. He drowned in the eight feet of floodwaters that covered their neighborhood.
Ms. Mosely now lives in her half-gutted house. She has no stove, no refrigerator, and no air-conditioning. The bottom half of her walls have been stripped of sheetrock and are bare wooden slats from the floor halfway up the wall. Her food is stored in a disposable cooler. Two small fans push the hot air around.
Thousands of people like Ms. Mosely are back in their houses on the Gulf Coast. They are living in houses that most people would consider, at best, still under construction, or, at worst, uninhabitable. Like Ms. Mosely, they are trying to make their damaged houses into homes.
Ms. Mosely, who lives in the upper ninth ward, does not feel sorry for herself at all. “Lots of people have it worse,” she says. “You should see those people in the lower Ninth and in St. Bernard and in the East. I am one of the lucky ones.”
Hard as it is to believe, Ms. Mosely is right. Lots of people do have it worse. Hundreds of thousands of people from the Gulf Coast remain displaced. In New Orleans alone, more than 200,000 people have not been able to make it home.
Renters, who comprised most of the people of New Orleans before Katrina, are much worse off than homeowners. New Orleans lost more than 43,000 rental units to the storm. Rents have skyrocketed in the undamaged parts of the area, pricing regular working people out of the market. The official rate of increase in rents is 39 percent. In lower-income neighborhoods, working people and the elderly report rents are up much higher than that. Amy Liu of the Brookings Institute said “Even people who are working temporarily for the rebuilding effort are having trouble finding housing.”
In the face of the worst affordable housing shortage since the end of the Civil War, the federal government announced that it refused to allow thousands of families to return to their public housing units and was going to bulldoze 5000 apartments. Before Katrina, over 5000 families lived in public housing – 88 percent women-headed household, nearly all African American.
These policies end up with hundreds of thousands of people still displaced from their homes. Though all ages, income and races are displaced, some groups are impacted much more than others. The working poor, renters, moms with kids, African Americans, the elderly and disabled – all are suffering disproportionately from displacement. Race, poverty, age and physical ability are great indicators of who has and who has not made it home.
The statistics tell some of the story. The city of New Orleans says its half it is pre-Katrina size— around 225,000 people. But the U.S. Post Office estimates that only about 170,000 people have returned to the city and 400,000 people have not returned to the metropolitan area. The local electricity company reports only about 80,000 of its previous 190,000 customers have returned.
Texas also tells part of the story. It is difficult to understand the impact of Katrina without understanding the role of Texas—home of our displaced. Houston officials say their city is still home to about 150,000 storm evacuees—90,000 in FEMA assisted housing. Texas recently surveyed the displaced people living in the state and 41 percent of these households report income less than $500 per month. Eighty-one percent are Black, 59 percent are still jobless, most have at least one child at home, and many have serious health issues.
Another 100,000 people displaced by Katrina are in Georgia, more than 80,000 in metro Atlanta— most of them also need long-term housing and mental health services.
In Louisiana, there are 73,000 families in FEMA trailers. Most of these trailers are 240 square feet of living space. More than 1,600 families are still waiting for trailers in St. Bernard Parish. FEMA trailers did not arrive in the lower ninth ward until June – while the displaced waited for water and electricity to resume. Aloyd Edinburgh, 75, lives in the lower ninth ward and just moved into a FEMA trailer. His home flooded as did the homes of all five of his children. “Everybody lost their homes,” he told the Times-Picayune, “They just got their trailers. All are rebuilding. They all have mortgages. What else are they going to do?”
HEALTH AND HEALTHCARE
Early this month, on August 1, another Katrina victim was found in her home in New Orleans, buried under debris. The woman was the 28th person found dead since March. A total of 1,577 died in Louisiana as a result of Katrina.
A friend of mine, a lawyer with health insurance, recently went to a doctor’s appointment. The office was so crowded he had to sit out in the hall on the floor to wait his turn for a seat in the waiting room. Three hours later he met his doctor. The doctor thought he might have a gallstone and tried to set up an ultrasound. None were available. He ordered my friend to the emergency room for an ultrasound. At 4 pm my friend went to the hospital emergency room, which was jammed with people: stroke victims, young kids with injuries, people brought in by the police. At 5 a.m. the next morning, my friend finished his ultrasound and went home. If it takes a lawyer with health insurance that long to get medical attention, consider what poor people without health insurance are up against.
Half the hospitals open before Katrina are still closed. The state’s biggest public health care provider, Charity Hospital, remains closed and there are no plans to reopen it anytime soon. Healthcare could actually get worse. Dr. Mark Peters, board chair of the Metropolitan Hospital Council of New Orleans, said within the next two or three months, “all the hospitals” will be looking seriously at cutbacks. Why? Doctors and healthcare workers have left and there is a surging demand from the uninsured that, before Katrina, went through now non-existent public healthcare. There is a shortage of nurses. Blue Cross Blue Shield officials reported, “About three-quarters of the physician who had been practicing in New Orleans are no longer submitting claims.”
There is no hospital at all in the city for psychiatric patients. While the metropolitan area had about 450 psychiatric beds before the storm, 80 are now available. The police are the first to encounter those with mental illness. One recent Friday afternoon, police dealt with two mental patients – one was throwing bricks through a bar window. The other was found wandering naked on the interstate.
The elderly are particularly vulnerable. Over 70 percent of the deaths from Katrina were people over 60 years old. No one knows how many seniors have not made it back home. Esther Bass, 69, told The New York Times, after months of searching for a place to come home in New Orleans, “If there are apartments, I can’t afford them. And they say there will be senior centers, but they’re still being built. They can’t even tell you what year they’ll be finished.”
As of late July, most nursing homes in the 12-parish Gulf Coast area of Louisiana are still not fully prepared to evacuate residents in the face of a hurricane.
The health care community has been rocked by arrest of a doctor and two nurses after the Louisiana attorney general accused them of intentionally ending the lives of four patients who were trapped in a hospital. The case is set to go before a local grand jury which is not expected to make a decision on charges for several more months. The case is complicated for several reasons. Most Important is that the doctor and nurses are regarded as some of the most patient-oriented and caring people of the entire hospital staff. It is undisputed that they worked day and night to save hundreds of patients from the hospital during the days it was without water, electricity or food. Others say that entire hospitals and many others were abandoned by the government and that is what the attorney general should be investigating. The gravity of the charges, though, is giving everyone in the community pause.
Before Katrina, there were over 630,000 workers in the metropolitan New Orleans area – now there are slightly over 400,000. Over 18,000 businesses suffered “catastrophic” damage in Louisiana. Nearly one in four displaced workers is still unemployed. Education and healthcare have lost the most employees. Most cannot return because there is little affordable housing, childcare, public transportation and public health care.
Women workers, especially African American women workers, continue to bear the heaviest burden of harm from the storm. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that the percentage of women in New Orleans workforce has dropped. The number of single mother families in New Orleans has dropped from 51,000 to 17,000. low-income women remain displaced because of the lack of affordable housing and traditional discrimination against women of the construction industry.
Tens of thousands of migrant workers, roughly half undocumented, have come to the Gulf Coast to work in the recovery. Many were recruited. Most workers tell of being promised good wages and working conditions and plenty of work. Some paid money up front for the chance to come to the area to work. Most of these promises were broken. A tour of the area reveals many Latino workers live in houses without electricity, other live out of cars. At various places in the city, whole families are living in tents. Two recently released human rights reports document the problem of these workers. Immigrant workers are doing the dirtiest, most dangerous work, in the worst working conditions. Toxic mold, lead paint, fiberglass, and who knows what other chemicals are part of the daily work. Safety equipment is not always provided. Day laborers, a new category of workers in New Orleans, are harassed by the police and periodic immigration raids. Wage theft is widespread as employers often do not pay living wages, and sometimes do not pay at all. Some of the powers try to pit local workers against new arrivals – despite the fact that our broken Gulf Coast clearly needs all the workers we can get.
Public transportation to and from low-wage jobs is more difficult. Over 200 more public transit employees have been terminated – cutting employment from over 1,300 people pre-Katrina to about 700 now.
Single working parents seeking childcare are in trouble. Before Katrina, New Orleans had 266 licensed daycare centers. Mississippi State University surveyed the city in July and found 80 percent of the day care centers and over 75 percent of the 1,912 daycare spots are gone. Only one-third of the Head Start centers that were open pre-Katrina survived.
Before Katrina, 56,000 students were enrolled in over 100 public schools in New Orleans. At the end of the school year there were only 12,500. Right after the storm, the local school board gave many of the best public schools to charter groups. The State took over almost all the rest. By the end of the school year, four schools were operated by the pre-Katrina school board, three by the State, and eighteen were new charter schools.
After 32 years of collective bargaining, the union contract with the New Orleans public school teachers lapsed and has not been renewed and 7,500 employees were terminated.
For this academic year, no one knows for certain how many students will enroll in New Orleans public schools. Official estimates vary between a low of 22,000 and a high of 34,000. There will be five traditional locally supervised public schools, 18 schools operated by the State, and thirty-four charter schools. As of July 1, not a single teacher had been hired for fifteen of the state-run schools. As of August 9, the daily report there are no staff at all identified to educate students with discipline problems or other educational issues that require special attention.
Whatever the enrollment in the new public school system is in the fall, it will not give an accurate indication of how many children have returned. Why? Many students in the public charter schools were in private schools before the hurricane.
SIGNS OF HOPE
Despite the tragedies that continue to plague our Gulf Coast, there’s hope. Between the rocks of hardship, green life continues to sprout defiantly.
Fifteen feet of water washed through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School for Science and Technology in the lower 9th Ward, When people were finally able to get into the building, the bodies of fish were found on the second floor. Parents and over 90 percent of the teachers organized a grass-roots effort to put their school back together. Their first attempts to gut and repair the schools by locals and volunteers from Common Ground were temporarily stopped by local school officials and police. Even after the gutting was allowed to resume, the community was told that the school could not reopen due to insufficient water pressure in the neighborhood. But the teachers and parents are pressing ahead anyway in a temporary location until they can get their school back. Assistant Principal Joseph Recasner told The Time-Picayune: “Rebuilding says that this a very special community, tied together by more than the location, but by spirituality, by bloodlines, and by a desire to come back.”
The New Orleans Vietnamese people continue to inspire us. They were among the first group back and they have joined forces to care for their elders, rebuild their community church, and work together in the most cooperative manner to resurrect their community. Recently they took legal and direct action to successfully stop the placement of a gigantic landfill right next to their community. Their determination and sense of community building is a good model for us all.
Tens of thousands of volunteers from every walk of life have joined with people of the Gulf Coast to help repair and rebuild. Lawyers are giving free help to Katrina victims who need legal help to rebuild their homes. Medical personnel are staffing free clinics. Thousands of college, high schools and even some grade school students have traveled to the area to help families gut their homes. Churches, temples, and mosques from across the world have joined with sisters and brothers of New Orleans to repair and rebuild.
Despite the open attempts to divide them, workers of different races, backgrounds, and ethnicities have started to talk to each other. Small groups have started to work together to fight for living wages and safe jobs for all workers. Thousands came together for a rally for respectful treatment for Latino and immigrant workers. Seasoned civil rights activist welcomed the new movement and pledged to work together.
Ultimately, the people of the Gulf Coast are the greatest sign of hope. Despite setbacks that people in the US rarely suffer, people continue to help each other and fight for their right to return home and the right to live in the city they love.
A 70-year-old woman recounted how her children were scattered across the country. “They are all scattered,” she sighed. “One is in Connecticut; one is in Rhode Island; one is in Austin. I am in Texas right now. I am back here to visit my 93-year-old mother and go to the second line of Black Men of Labor on Labor Day. But I’m coming back. Yes indeed. I’m coming back.”