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Hurricane Katrina: A Climate Justice Catastrophe

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

By Evan Bianchi

Hurricanes are terrifying. Fearsome winds, devastating floods, and brutal rains that damage homes, displace families, and kill and injure the people within their reach. Hurricane Katrina was no different. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina descended upon the Gulf Coast of the United States and devastated the communities in its path, hitting New Orleans, Louisiana the hardest. Hurricane Katrina left more than 1,800 people dead in its wake and destroyed or compromised over 800,000 housing units, leaving thousands homeless. The second most deadly hurricane to hit the United States in the last 120 years, Katrina is second only to Hurricane Maria in 2017. Katrina is tied with Hurricane Harvey for the most costly tropical storm to have struck the contiguous United States, with up to $125 billion in damages. Yet, were these damages within our control? Was it just the hurricane, or are we also to blame?

New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

One may think that Hurricane Katrina was one of the most powerful storms to hit the U.S. due to its level of devastation; however, that is not the case. Hurricanes are sorted into categories based on their maximum sustained wind speed, going from Category 1, with 74-95 mph wind that is very dangerous and causes some damage, to Category 5, with winds of 157 mph or higher that causes catastrophic damage. Hurricane Katrina was a strong Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall on August 29, with wind speeds of 125 mph. The power of Katrina, however, does not even compare to that of Hurricane Michael, one of four Category 5 storms to ever hit the United States, with wind speeds of 164 mph. As devastating as Hurricane Michael was, it resulted in only 74 deaths, compared to the 1,800 and more of Katrina. So if the strength of the storm does not determine its death count, then what else affects it? We are because of the racism and neglect toward communities of color and impoverished communities. When Hurricane Michael hit in 2018, it made landfall in the Florida Panhandle, an affluent area in a state that was 74.7% white at the time. New Orleans, on the other hand, was 60.5% black when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and it’s residents of color experienced severe economic disparities with their white counterparts, for many black residents lived below the poverty line.

Wealthy white people slowly and systematically pushed out poor and black residents in New Orleans, driving them out of the inland areas that offered higher elevation. As a result, they were forced to settle in areas that were highly susceptible to flooding. Additionally, the local government did not maintain the infrastructure in predominantly black and impoverished communities; thus, many of the levees and floodwalls in those areas failed when Katrina hit (a levee is an embankment built to prevent flooding). Experts consider the failure of this infrastructure to be the worst engineering disaster in the history of the United States. By August 31, 80% of New Orleans was flooded, with some parts under 15 feet of water. In an analysis of 971 fatalities in Louisiana and 15 additional deaths of storm evacuees, 40% of deaths were caused by drowning, meaning that if the levees and floodwalls had been properly maintained by the city, over 720 lives could have been saved. Even with this increased threat of flooding, many of the residents in these areas did not follow the Mayor’s mandatory evacuation order. Many people lacked either the financial resources or the access to transportation needed to evacuate — more than 30 percent of black New Orleans residents didn’t own cars when Hurricane Katrina hit. Just imagine being told that you have to evacuate for your own safety, but not having the ability to do so. Even some with the means to evacuate decided not to because they felt an obligation to protect the only property still available to them. As Reilly Morse of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies wrote in a report titled “Environmental Justice Through the Eye of Hurricane Katrina,” the impact of Hurricane Katrina on people of color directly related to the “history of discrimination in settlement and other living conditions that disproportionately increased their vulnerability to disaster and the barriers they faced in precaution and recovery.”

Hurricane Katrina is an example of not only climate racism but also environmental racism and injustice. New Orleans is part of an area in Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley,” an 85 mile-long stretch of the Mississippi river lined with oil refineries and petrochemical plants, where residents are more than 50 times as likely to get cancer than the average American. As a result, when the floodwaters poured in, they carried toxic pollutants along with them. This contamination of flooded areas meant that even the people who would have had the ability to rebuild were permanently displaced due to the pollution.

All in all, the population of New Orleans fell from 484,674 before Katrina to an estimated 230,172 almost a year after — a loss of over half the city's population. But, where did all of these people go? Many low-income New Orleans evacuees spent several years after the storm in nomadic exile, moving among family members’ residences or searching for jobs or housing. A 2006 study by the Children’s Health Fund and the National Center for Disaster Preparedness found that families, majority black or low-income, displaced by Katrina had moved an average of 3.5 times in the six months after the storm, with some moving as many as nine times.

For those who were able to find a home, they were met with racism and hostility. Many evacuees, the majority of whom were black, retreated to Houston, Texas where people called them "refugees," as if they weren’t from the country and suggested they "swim home" to New Orleans rather than burden Houston, according to Devante Lee, an evacuee who was 11 when Katrina hit. Many New Orleanians, like the mother of Devante and his sister, Cessileh, chose to keep their children out of school because fighting was so common. Their worst fears were confirmed when a family friend from New Orleans was shot and killed in Houston. The Lee children lost over a year of school and were two of tens of thousands of students estimated to have missed large amounts of school due to Katrina. All of this ties into the underlying issue of systemic racism that creates a never-ending cycle of poverty and oppression. Many of these then children, now adults, have likely been hindered by this loss of education and may have had difficulty finding well-paying jobs, that they could have used to support their families and take up residence in areas that are not susceptible to flooding.

Hurricane Katrina was a tragedy and extremely destructive, but we are also responsible. We could have prevented the loss of countless lives if we, as a nation, had recognized and addressed that low-income and black people are forced into areas that lack natural recourse, that are most susceptible to damage from extreme weather events, and that hold the brunt of our toxic waste. People live in these areas with no support. Nils Gilman, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, explained how we must learn from Katina going forward: “Katrina provides an unprecedented opportunity to communicate that “racism” is not just a matter of the psychology of hatred but is instead also a matter of the racial structure of political and economic inclusion and exclusion.” Although Hurricane Katrina is likely one of the most prominent and common examples of the links between climate issues and racism, it is certainly not the only one. Examples exist across the United States and throughout the world.

Extreme weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, and tornados will occur more frequently and with greater severity in the coming years as we continue to destroy the environment. Sea levels are rising, making people even more susceptible to flooding without the help of tropical storms. Right now, we are less than halfway through hurricane season, during a global pandemic that disproportionately affects people of color. Black people are going to have to choose between the dangers of a hurricane and the danger of a virus that, as of July 12, has killed over 137,000 people nationwide and over 560,000 globally. These circumstances separately are horrible, but together they are catastrophic, and if and when catastrophe strikes, it will be the communities of color that feel the brunt of it.

We are at an unparalleled time now as a nation and a world, and although there are horrible negatives to what is happening, there are also positives that we must take advantage of. Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements are finally receiving the attention they deserve. COVID-19 has provided us the opportunity to change, to invest in public transportation and other green jobs to stimulate the economy, and to simply reflect on our impact as individuals and a society. This time is difficult but also one of immense opportunity to educate ourselves on climate injustice and the impacts of racism in our society, so that we may prevent another Katrina.

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