When I teach a course on the history of New Orleans I often tell my students that there were two Katrinas. To be sure, this is a heuristic device, but I’ve found that it helps students understand the historical origins of the disasters that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. The first Katrina was the result of a low-pressure system that formed off the Bahamas on August 21st, 2005 and that in short order gained incredible speed and strength as it swept over South Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. By the time it made landfall in Southeast Louisiana on August 29th it was a Category 5 storm. The confluence of this hurricane with an antiquated, poorly funded, and incompetently managed federal levee system, along with bungling and criminal emergency management at all levels of government were the immediate causes of at least 1,833 lives being lost, 1.2 million people forced out of their homes, and the destruction of entire communities.
Like the first Katrina, the second was also a man-made disaster. Like the first, it visited tremendous destruction on the lives of poor New Orleanians and Southeastern Louisianans, a group of people disproportionately African American. At the meteorological level though the first Katrina really did not care about your income or racial status. Access to transportation and disposable dollars aside, if you were in the working-class and black Lower Ninth Ward on August 29, 2005 you were lucky to get out alive. If you were in working class and predominately white St. Bernard Parish that day you were lucky to get out alive. If you were in wealthy and white Lakeview that same day you were also lucky to get out alive.
The second Katrina, on the other hand, cares all too much about these things. Its ever-stronger winds swirl around New Orleans today, turning a city already rife with injustice in 2005 into an elite laboratory of plutocratic governance, market choice, education “reform,” ever-skyrocketing rents and real estate values, and the second highest level of economic inequality in the nation. From liberal to conservative, Americans have seen in the second Katrina, a blank canvas onto which they can play out a variety of self-serving fantasies. The fantasy that choice leads to equality. That knowledge conferred in a Yale or Tulane classroom trumps experience. That the poor do not understand the things they should really want. That those who produce our culture and traditions and those provide the support for them to do so do it from their hearts and souls and thus don’t need paychecks or places they can afford to live. That trickle down economics will actually lead to money trickling down. That the wealthy, powerful, and connected–by nature of their wealth, power, and connections–should be entrusted to make decisions for all of us. That a few small protests, hashtags, and petitions can constitute anything more than a sandbag in a levee breach.
Like all hurricanes, the second Katrina began as a low-pressure system. Our best radar systems show it forming in Washington D.C, on September 8th. That day, while water still covered much of New Orleans, President George W. Bush suspended the Davis-Act that mandates federal contractors pay prevailing wages. Many residents on the Gulf Coast were understandably occupied with other matters those days. In retrospect though, Bush’s decision to guarantee that federally funded rebuilding efforts would not provide decent wages to help bring those in the Katrina diaspora home can be understood as the beginning of a new hurricane, a storm that unlike a regular hurricane which tracks and dissipates slowly upon landfall, would park itself over New Orleans and only gain strength as time went on.
Later that month, the second Katrina became a tropical storm when Mayor Ray Nagin named his Bring Back New Orleans Commission. A diverse black and white committee inclusive of many of the city’s wealthiest residents and key powerbrokers, the only member of the Commission who was in any way answerable to any constituency of residents was City Councilman Oliver Thomas who went on record hoping that the “soap opera watchers” in public housing would not come home. Along with Thomas, many of the most influential members of the Commission like multimillionaire real estate developer Joe Canizaro, entrepreneur James Reiss, and shipbuilding magnate Donald Bollinger were clear in their advocation of a massive purge of poor people from the city.
The second Katrina reached hurricane status on January 31st, 2006. That day, the democratically elected Orleans Parish School Board, as a result of having the vast majority of schools stripped away from their control and handed over to an unelected state agency, fired all 4,600 teachers in New Orleans. This disproportionately African-American and female group had been the backbone of the city’s black middle class before the first Katrina. Now, rather than having jobs to return to, this cohort of experienced classroom teachers were left blowing in the wind of the second Katrina.
The state’s takeover of the school system and the firing of its teachers was a dream come true for a national education “reform” movement that proffered that market choice in schools combined with inexperienced yet energetic recent elite-college graduates would be a literal magic bean for underfunded and understaffed public schools serving students in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. New Orleans and its poor residents would be the lab rats in a grand experiment to show the world that schools should be managed like corporations, teachers should be evaluated like stock portfolios, and out of line students should be treated like prison detainees. Meteorologically speaking, the second Katrina became a category 2 storm when education “reformers” and leading opinion pages like those of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal doubled down on the notion of an educational grand experiment even as their own idiotic metric of high stakes test scores continued to show no improvement for poor and working-class New Orleanians–the people whose names these “reforms” were enacted in.
At is peak strength over land, the first Katrina topped out as a category 5 storm. As for the second Katrina, it continues to gather strength little by little, showing no signs of breaking up. It certainly hit category 5 status when the city’s remaining public housing units were shuttered, despite their structural soundness, in favor of land giveaways to developers who have been vocal in their desire not to raise the prospects and equality of the city’s poorest residents but to rather keep them as far away as possible from the new New Orleans. The second Katrina’s wind speeds probably reached the category four threshold of 130 mph when the contractor chosen to run the state’s Road Home Program, ICF International distributed only 1.5 billion dollars of the 6.4 billion it was allocated–even as its own stock price nearly tripled.
Day by day, the wind speed and quotidian storm surges of the second Katrina increase as the city is remade with amenities for tourists, property developers, and prospective residents with stable incomes while reliable transportation is a cruel joke, wages are stagnate and even declining in the city’s largest employment sectors, and income inequality ranks second in the nation. They grow stronger when the entire world pays homage to the cultures of New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana but cares little if those who produce and enable that culture–as well as through their presence and performance add astronomical value to the city’s real estate and tourist booms–live on less than $17,000 a year. They grow stronger when we see the little effectual resistance that has been mobilized against the second Katrina as anything even as strong as the shoddily maintained levees that allowed the first. The winds of the second Katrina will reach category five status when on August 29 many will celebrate the city’s “recovery” and “resilience” without giving a second thought as to who has recovered and upon whose back they have done so.
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