Excerpted with permission from The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, by John C. Mutter. Available from Palgrave Macmillan Trade. Copyright © 2015.(Scientific American and Palgrave Macmillan are part of Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.)
When everything had quieted down in New Orleans after Katrina, there were plenty of people itching to use the opportunity presented by the razing of the city to give New Orleans a makeover. A make-over plan that was included in a report from the Committee for a Better New Orleans became a starting point. For most of the planners, a New Orleans makeover meant changing the demographics as much as the architecture and city layout. That is, in fact, what has happened.
One person who anticipated demographic change was John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University. He used the assessment of damage categories by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in New Orleans to correlate the extent of damage with socioeconomic indicators, asking, in effect, who suffered the most. Logan’s conclusions: “The storm’s impact was disproportionately borne by the region’s African American community, by people who rented their homes, and by the poor and unemployed.” In many instances, the most affected people fell into all four categories simultaneously. The greatest single disparity was by race. Logan’s analysis showed that the populations of the most damaged areas “were 45.8 percent black, compared to 26.4 percent in undamaged areas.” In other words, being African American made it almost twice as likely that your dwelling would be seriously damaged.
Less than a year after the storm, in May 2006, Logan speculated about what the “new” New Orleans might look like. He reasoned that if repopulation was not permitted in regions that were heavily damaged (something that was being talked about at the time and advocated by many of my colleagues in the natural sciences), the city would lose 50 percent of its white residents and more than 80 percent of its black population. The final sentence of his paper reads: “This is why the continuing question about the hurricane is this: whose city will be rebuilt? ”
As it turned out, Logan wasn’t quite right about the percentages, but he had the right idea. What happened in New Orleans…involved, in part, being strategic about doing nothing. The first attempt to reshape New Orleans came soon after the storm. Called Bring New Orleans Back, or BNOB, it was the product of an advisory panel handpicked by Mayor Ray Nagin. The most influential person on the panel was the real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro. Like many of his colleagues high up in the New Orleans elite, he viewed the damage to the city caused by Katrina as an opportunity. He expressed it this way: “I think we have a clean sheet to start again, and with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities.” Others were not as tactful. Richard H. Baker, the ten-term Republican representative from Baton Rouge, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Soon after, he posted a sort of retraction and rewording, saying that he was misquoted and what he “remembered expressing” was “we have been trying for decades to clean up New Orleans public housing to provide decent housing for residents, and now it looks like God is finally making us do it.”
I wonder if Joe Canizaro knew of Haussmann or the post-disaster master planners in Tokyo and San Francisco. I doubt it, but he was following in their path. The logic is, in brief, that the most damaged areas are the most likely to be damaged again (for the same reasons they were so badly damaged in the first place) so the best thing to do is strip people out of those areas. That will keep people safe. Even though they might not want to be moved out, it’s for their own good.
In an article in Mother Jones, Mike Davis argued that the New Orleans elite had long been anxious to purge the “problem people” from the city and tells us that one French Quarter landowner, speaking to Der Spiegel, said, “The hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city and we hope they don’t come back.” You can only imagine what was said behind closed doors on New Orleans’ tony Audubon Drive. US housing secretary Alphonso Jackson predicted that the city was “not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.” It seemed more like a wish than a prediction.
The Washington Post quoted then Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert advocating bulldozing part of New Orleans and Republican senator Rick Santorum suggesting that people should be punished for “ignoring” pre-storm evacuation orders, as if being flushed out of their homes and into the Superdome were not punishment enough.
In New Orleans, race played a defining role in hurricane mortality as well, though it did not look that way at first. What stood out most strongly in the initial statistics of deaths from Katrina was that the elderly were particularly at risk. In retrospect, that hardly sounds novel, but it did catch people by surprise, mainly because the proportions were so high—about 75 percent of the deceased were over 60 and nearly half were over 75. That’s very different from the representation of that 60-plus age group in the population.
What was more surprising from the initial impression was that black people were underrepresented in the deaths relative to their numbers in the New Orleans population overall. This seemed especially so given the racial makeup of those suffering from heat and hardship after fleeing to the Superdome. This fact led some commentators to gleefully suggest that race was not an issue in Katrina’s lethal blow. Freelance journalist Cathy Young even wrote an article titled “Everything You Knew about Hurricane Katrina Was Wrong.”
But victims of disasters and survivors of disasters are not likely to have the same demographics. In fact, you might well expect them to be different—survivors should be younger and stronger, able to swim or climb to a rooftop. Those who could not would become victims. But why were black residents underrepresented in the death toll?
These two observations are actually linked. First, if elderly people are overrepresented among the deceased victims, you have to ask about the racial mix of the elderly. That’s what I did when I first looked at the death statistics and what Patrick Sharkey noted in the Journal of Black Studies in 2007. It doesn’t take long to realize that among the elderly, white people are overrepresented, particularly elderly women. In general, women outlive men, and white people outlive black people. So there simply were more elderly white people for Katrina to seek out than elderly black people. Sharkey made the adjustment for the initial population figures and found what most people suspected, that “race was deeply implicated in the tragedy of Katrina.”