New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu took to the road to declare his city is “no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding” a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated it in one of America’s worst natural disasters, but some refuse to buy that speech.
For many African Americans who watched their city submerged in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for nearly a week in 2005, Landrieu’s message rings hollow.
Donya Richardson, a 41-year-old retail employee, moved from New Orleans to Atlanta in advance of the storm. She returned to her old neighborhood three times – each time leaving in tears.
She lived with her then 6-year-old daughter in the Ninth Ward, one of the low-lying, predominantly African-American areas hardest hit by the Category 5 storm that claimed 1,833 lives and left 705 people missing. The levees, built to contain a Category 3 hurricane, collapsed, and 80 percent of the city drowned under its enormity.
“I went back about a month after everything settled down. I cried because the neighborhood was a wreck. I mean, a wreck,” she said “The destruction seemed unreal. It looked like a bulldozer just came through and tore up everything in sight. There was nothing left to salvage. I broke down because I had a life in that place.”
Richardson returned in 2011. “I was excited because downtown looked the same, if not better,” she said. “You would have never guessed Katrina came through there. Then I got to the Ninth Ward and my heart just sank. It wasn’t as bad as that first time, but it still looked like a hurricane had been through there. It made me cry.”
She returned again in spring. “I was praying to see rebuilt houses, more families—signs that real change had been made. But I saw only a little. Not enough. So many houses are just ruined and still ruined. But in other places in New Orleans, places that were hit just as hard, you can never tell anything happened.”
Richardson is not alone in her observations. A wide gap exists along racial lines about attitudes regarding New Orleans’ recovery, according to a survey by Louisiana State University with 41 percent of whites said living in New Orleans improved since the hurricane clean up, while less than 20 percent of African Americans feel things are better.
‘We are unique’
“We don’t talk the way anybody else talks, we don’t dance the way anybody else [dances],” Landrieu said while touring Atlanta. “They don’t eat the way we eat. They don’t hug the way we hug. They don’t love the (same) way. It’s just different. And it’s wonderful. I love Houston. Houston’s one of the great cities in the world. I love Atlanta. But you know what? New Orleans does not want to be Houston or Atlanta. What we want to be is the best version of our real selves, because we are unique.”
Unique does not mean better for many Africa Americans living in the Ninth Ward, where homeowners either walked away from their destroyed properties or relocated to Houston, Atlanta and other cities. Many failed to receive enough insurance money, if any, to repair the vast destruction.
The city did receive $70 billion in federal aid for $150 billion in damages but a tour of the city revealed what neighborhoods were left on the sidelines.
“When you have that kind of gap (in monetary aid),” Landrieu conceded, “not everyone gets everything all the time.”
The mayor pointed to the refurbishing of the Mercedes Benz Super Dome—where 30,000 mostly African Americans endured six days of unseemly conditions as the city drowned—the many rebuilt neighborhoods and the overall growth in population of the city as evidence of progress.
“Y’all can come on home,” Landrieu said while touring Houston.
“But come home to what?” Anderson asked. “New Orleans is in my heart, in my blood. That will never change. But it’s not like it was the best place for jobs before the hurricane. And with our neighborhoods—not to say that we have to live where we always lived—but our neighborhoods just haven’t gotten the attention it deserves.”
New Orleans will make headlines again during the 10-year anniversary. President Obama plans a visit and so does former President George W. Bush, who was roundly criticized by many, including filmmaker Spike Lee, whose 2007 documentary on the aftermath of Katrina, When The Levees Broke, won two Emmys.
On his tour, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C, Landrieu called New Orleans “one of the world’s most remarkable stories of tragedy and triumph, resurrection and redemption.”
New Orleans will celebrate the city’s rebirth on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with parades featuring Mardi Gras Indians, and brass bands marching through Uptown and downtown New Orleans on August 29. The event is promoted as the Katrina 10 Commemorative Parade, created to be “a cultural showcase that celebrates New Orleans, its resilience and the incredible spirit of its people,” said Flozell Daniels Jr., president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana.
But many on the eastside and in the Ninth Ward will not see reason to celebrate. They are still drowning in tears.