Fourteen years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is reviving – for some

Canal Street after Hurricane Katrina, 2005. Image: Getty.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on 29 August 29, 2005, as a Category 3 storm. The city’s levees, pumping stations, sewage systems, and electrical grids quickly failed.

Over the following days, rooftop-trapped survivors watched hundreds of bodies float down flooded streets. Tens of thousands of New Orleanians huddled in the city’s Superdome for up to a week awaiting rescue. Looters exploited, then sustained the chaos across the city before the National Guard could respond. A gang of police officers began shooting bystanders and covering up the killings.

Even after order was reestablished, an exodus from the city continued: its population more than halved in a month. Live coverage from scores of media networks allowed the world to watch this ruin befall a great American city.

The spectacle was different from others that had been televised in past years. The World Trade Center had collapsed in the space of a few hours, while the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were being broadcast from half a world away. Katrina’s devastation – arguably enabled just as much by human error as natural factors – played out slowly over the course of days, weeks, and months, in America. The result was a deep and abiding social memory of the disaster: for maybe a decade, it was often the first thing anyone asked once you told them you were from New Orleans: were you there for Katrina?"

Today marks 14 years since the storm, and over the course of the city’s rebuilding a “renewal” narrative has taken hold in many circles there. It essentially runs as follows: for all of the damage Katrina wreaked, it also uncovered civic mismanagement that had allowed generations of social, economic, and racial disparity to fester in New Orleans. In laying waste to the city and exposing its systemic issues to outside eyes, Katrina offered a thin silver lining for a better rebirth.

The hitch in the renewal is that it hasn’t included everyone. All New Orleanians were affected by Katrina, but a disproportionate share of its destruction was shouldered by poor New Orleanians, and a disproportionate share of poor New Orleanians are African American. Often, these locals couldn’t afford to return home after Katrina. Demographically speaking, contemporary New Orleanians are less black, older, and more educated than their pre-Katrina peers.

Congress allocated $121.7bn to Gulf Coast hurricane relief between 2005 and 2008. For New Orleans, this relief money was complemented by an overhaul of city institutions. New Orleans’ schools – once ranked among the nation’s worst – became substituted by independent “charter schools”, often staffed by non-profit fellowship students in place of unionized teachers. Today, the state has almost no direct instructional role in pre-college education in New Orleans. This arrangement has outperformed what came before it: the city’s high school graduation rate has increased from 54 per cent in 2004 to over 80 per cent for 2018, while university entry rates have shown comparable growth over a similar period.

The city’s culture of corruption was also challenged: in 2013, Katrina-era Mayor Ray Nagin was indicted and imprisoned on fraud charges, while in 2012 the Obama Administration seized the notoriously crooked New Orleans Police Department with a federal decree. This intervention was prompted by Justice Department findings of profound graft and “unconstitutional conduct”, including racial profiling, by the Department’s officers. By early 2019, an auditor found the NOPD at or near “Full & Effective Compliance” with the majority of the decree’s priorities. A corresponding increase in efficacy has occurred: rates of homicide and gun crime have dropped to levels not seen since the Nixon Administration.

Still, the most important, still-incomplete redefinition underway is an economic one: New Orleans only emerged from a 28-month-long recession last year. According to census data, its 2017 poverty rate topped those of America’s largest 50 metropolitan areas. And the city’s population is still lower than it was before Katrina.

The energy industry has long been a crutch for the city’s economy; fossil fuels extracted in the nearby Gulf of Mexico must pass through New Orleans, via the Mississippi, to reach refineries and distribution networks in the American heartland. But the state’s oil production is now approximately 65 per cent of what it was a decade ago, and anemic global prices have increased the painfulness of the slump.

Not all local industries are sharing this fate. The city’s rich culture and easygoing ethos have yielded financial dividends through tourism: 18.5 million visitors came to New Orleans in 2018, injecting $9.1bn into the economy. Attendances for annual festivals like Mardi Gras and JazzFest continue to hit fresh records.

Yet the real hope is that new types of business will be cultivated in the city, as aided by favorable policy and the appeal of the local lifestyle. Much fanfare greeted the move of tech firm DXC Technologies into 300,000 square feet of downtown real estate, along with its intent to add 2,000 hires by 2024. State-issued tax credits designed to attract the film industry to New Orleans have been successful (though some question the net economic returns of this initiative).

And a unique entrepreneurship movement has taken hold: many of the non-profit volunteers who helped New Orleans’ rebuilding have stayed, creating a “social startup” culture using technology to expand access to health, education, and nutrition. In sum, New Orleans is working hard to redefine its commercial identity.

Young, educated Americans are the target of these efforts, as they are for competing ones in other cities around the country. Among them are members of the New Orleans diaspora who left their hometown for more promising shores long ago. Whether they can be convinced to return has yet to be seen.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.