After Katrina, New Orleans Still Turbulent


These series of articles were produced with the assistance of a Grant from the Chicago Headline Club’s Watchdog Fund made possible by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, which supports investigative and enterprise journalism throughout the Chicago region.

More than four years after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, this is what the Residents’ Journal team found on our visit to the city:

Many of the city’s low-income, African American areas looked like ghost towns. Whole city blocks remained abandoned, still showing signs of storm damage. Moldy clothing, debris and other trash were piled up on the deserted streets.

In the high grass next to some abandoned houses were rusty, broken boats, cars and trucks. Schools, grocery stores and malls were still closed. Even the major public hospital near the French Quarter tourist attraction was closed.
Many of the storm’s low-income victims said they are still battling against displacement and gentrification. Some of those interviewed said that Hurricane Katrina also made matters worse because it highlighted the disparities between race and class in the city.

They said the racial tensions showed in the disaster response, cleanup, reconstruction and recovery efforts.

Over the course of a week in the Bayou State, RJ reporters interviewed residents at the last remaining public housing complex close to the French Quarter along with other low-income residents in the Lower Ninth Ward and their advocates.

RJ also learned about the lack of rebuilding efforts in low-income areas since Katrina became the most destructive and costly natural disaster in U.S. history in August 2005.

The Iberville Development
“If my life had improved, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in a better place,” said Tasha James, a 25-year-old mother of three.

James is a tenant of Iberville, a public housing site that reopened after Katrina because it suffered no significant damage. Iberville has 858 units but was only partially occupied when RJ visited.

“It’s still the same over here. They didn’t fix anything up. The windows are broken still the same,” James said.

Like many other people RJ interviewed, James expressed concerns about the unavailability of jobs, the lack of affordable housing and crime. James, who suffers from seizures, said she has lived at Iberville since she was 4 years old.

James said she suffered through hurricanes in the past, but this time, she and others felt forgotten by their public officials. She said she was surprised that the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) increased her rent after she returned from shuffling around different shelters in Texas and Little Rock, Arkansas.

“Me and my sister had a house out in Arkansas,” James said. “They [city officials] gave us a four-bedroom and FEMA (The Federal Emergency Management Agency) was paying our rent with a voucher for about a year. After that, you had to pay your own rent or move back to where you were.
“We used the money FEMA gave us to get a new car and came back here in a U-Haul rental. We still had a key so we just came back in.”
James said her seizures keep her from working, but her rent increased just as her benefits were cut.

“First, we were paying $25 for rent. Then, after Katrina, they went up on the rent to $50. My rent is $50 because I don’t get any income.”
James added that crime there had drastically increased since Hurricane Katrina because of the relocation of residents from former public housing complexes. Many developments were demolished and turned into mixed-income communities or are in the redevelopment process.

“Since I got back here, it seems like there’s more and more killing every day now. These are young children killing up each other back here,” she said.

Erica Jones told a similar story to James’.

A resident of New Orleans who uses a subsidized housing voucher, Jones is a 32-year-old married mother of five who was interviewed while she was visiting the Iberville public housing complex on April 6. Jones said she formerly lived in the Florida public housing complex, which was torn down before Katrina struck.

Jones, who is a Section 8 voucher leaseholder, said she was no better off than before Katrina as well. Jones said she received $10,000 from FEMA in 2006 based on their assessment of her losses during the storm and on the number of children she had.

But the money didn’t replace everything she lost. Jones said she used the money to buy food, clothes and shoes for her family, and to pay for furniture and a car to replace the one she had prior to Katrina.

Jones was relocated to Texas after being evacuated from another city in Louisiana immediately after Katrina. She said she faced a lot of prejudice there, especially when she tried to find work.

“It was a lot of discrimination out there too,” Jones said. “I couldn’t find a job because it was this thing about New Orleans people and we were in Texas and they really didn’t want us there.”

Jones said she ended up back in New Orleans because her husband was scheduled for surgery there.

“In the process of him having surgery, I found a job. So I wound up staying,” she said.

Her situation got worse because her belongings in Texas were stolen while she was getting situated in New Orleans. The thieves stole her remaining items, leaving her to begin building her life all over again.

“I went back to Texas to get my furniture. But they had kicked in my door and took everything,” Jones said.

The cost of living in the city was of grave concern to Lois Gibson, a disabled resident of Iberville who has lived there for a quarter-century. Gibson, who lives alone, said it was harder for her to survive after Katrina.

“We ain’t doing any better. Our officials is not doing nothing for us. Nothing at all. We came back to the city for this? It’s badder than what it was before. It costs two times more now to live down here than before,” she said.

Gibson said HANO officials increased rent and began charging the residents new fines and fees immediately following Katrina and Hurricane Gustav.

“We had a disaster hurricane, and then we had another hurricane with Gustav, right? Then they are going to tell you within a month or something that they are going to jack your rent up $25 dollars or more,” Gibson said.

Gibson was one of the thousands of people who was stranded at the Superdome for days after Katrina struck.

Despite the difficulties in New Orleans, Gibson, who has protrusions visibly sticking out of her stomach, said it was better for her to deal with her ailment there, compared with remaining in Texas, where she had been evacuated after Katrina.

“I just couldn’t take it in Texas. I could deal better here. There I don’t know where I’m at.
“It’s like two miles before you get to a store,” she said.
Gibson also said there were no hospitals or clinics near her home in Texas.

Inez Scott said life has become harder for low-income families in New Orleans after Katrina.

Scott was relocated to Iberville in 2000 or 2001 from the St. Thomas public housing complex.

After Katrina struck, Scott said the nearby supermarket closed and has not re-opened. Now there is only a corner store which charges high prices.

“It was a whole lot better before,” Scott said. “It’s been over three years since the hurricane and Win-Dixie (supermarket) is not even open,” she said.

A Poor Man’s Tale

RJ could barely find anyone to talk to in the African-American poverty-stricken Lower 9th ward, which received a significant amount of flood damage during Katrina.

It was nearly deserted and resembled a ghost town.

There were blocks of abandoned homes and vacant lots that seemed to stretch out for miles.

Broken-down boats and abandoned cars were strewn near single-family one- and two-story houses.

Many of the houses still showed signs of the horrible damage done by Katrina.

Torn-up, dirty clothes were lying around on the ground in and around some of the houses, as well as other forms of garbage. Weeds grew out of control.

RJ walked around for some time inspecting vacant houses until we found a lone construction worker removing debris from a dormant elementary school.

The worker, who identified himself as Joseph, said he lived in a non-governmental, subsidized rental unit before Katrina struck.

He said FEMA didn’t provide him with any financial support after losing all his personal belongings in the storm, and life for him has become more difficult afterward.

Joseph said the area used to be lively and active with people, but only one of the three schools in the area had been repaired after Katrina and drug dealers are moving into the vacant areas.

“Look around. It’s empty,” said Joseph, gesturing around the money. “If they improved it, the same young kids wouldn’t be on the corner. If they improved it, that school would be fixed.

“The parks are tore up. The only thing that got better is the drugs.
“It was bad. But it wasn’t as bad as it is now,” Joseph added.

After RJ’s return from New Orleans, we received reports of more violence in the Iberville development, including the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy.

The Slow Recovery

In his final State of the City address in May 2009, outgoing New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin said that the US Army Corps of Engineers has not completed all of its work on the city’s hurricane protection system since Katrina.

Nagin added, “Vulnerabilities in certain low-lying areas in New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward and Algiers” still existed.

The Army Corps of Engineers confirmed Nagin’s statement in an August 2009 report.

For those trying to move New Orleans’ recovery forward, the situation can be frustrating. In at least one case, New Orleans plans to get resources from Chicago to help deal with the problems that have arisen since Katrina.

During a phone interview in June 2009, Walter C. Flower III, president of the publicly chartered non-profit Industrial Development Board in New Orleans, told RJ that the whole city is faced with “terrible crime problems.”

Crime wasn’t too bad in the Lower Ninth Ward, Flower said, only because the population was so much lower than before Katrina. He said his organization would be working with the Chicago Cease Fire group to come up with some crime-stopping strategies for New Orleans.

“New Orleans is also faced with terrible crime problems. And the Cease Fire group that’s been working in Chicago that’s been so successful in helping your crime rate has offered to come here.
“There is no really true safe haven in the city. It’s mainly everywhere all over the city and it’s mainly drug related. We are virtually the murder capital of America if you do it by population,” Flower said.

Flower said the economic recession is blocking money that could be used for New Orleans’ recovery. Flower said that more than $700 million in Gulf Opportunity Zone “GO Zone” bonds remain untapped because of the nation’s economic plight.

The GO Zone Bond program was created by Congress in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricanes, but developers have been unable to take advantage of the program.

“The problem has been that a lot of developers have not had the financial strength to be able to borrow money which they have to have in order to use these bonds,” Flowers said.

Federal Rebuilding Efforts
In his remarks at the town hall meeting at the University of New Orleans on October 15, 2009, President Barack Obama admitted how much work was still needed to be done in the City and in the other Gulf Coasts areas affected in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“It has now been just over four years since that terrible storm struck your shores,” Obama said.

“Whether you’re driving through New Orleans, Biloxi or the southwestern part of Louisiana, it’s clear how far we have to go before we can call this recovery a success. There are sewers and roads still to repair. There are houses and hospitals still vacant. There are schools and neighborhoods still waiting to thrive once more. And so I promise you this – whether it’s me coming down here or my Cabinet or other members of my administration – we will never forget about New Orleans. We will never forget about the Gulf Coast. Together, we will rebuild this region and we will build it stronger than before.”

Obama said his administration is working to release $1.5 billion in recovery and rebuilding assistance “that had been tangled up in red tape for years.”

On the housing front, Obama said his administration is also tackling the “corruption and inefficiency that plagued the New Orleans Housing Authority for years, and have also dramatically cut the number of people who are still in emergency housing. And we’re moving families towards self-sufficiency by helping homeowners rebuild and renters find affordable options.”

A few reports from think tanks in New Orleans and around the country lay out just how much Katrina has disrupted life in New Orleans.

A November 2009 report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center and the Brookings Institute states that housing remains unaffordable for many people in the region and the city’s recovery was stalled by the national recession.

According to the 2008 American Community Survey, fewer families with children have returned to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina and more singles and childless couples have made New Orleans home.

A January 2009 point-in-time survey by Unity for Greater New Orleans estimates the number of homeless in New Orleans at 11,500.26, which is roughly twice the number of homeless people before Katrina.

About 80 percent of the homeless are single individuals, 7 percent are living in a two-person household, 5 percent are living in a three-person household and 8 percent are living in households of four persons or more.

Citing a HUD Resident Characteristics Report, the Unity for Greater New Orleans report states that 1,750 public housing units were occupied as of September 2009.

Judge: Levee Breaches Caused by Negligence
On Nov. 18, 2009, a New Orleans federal judge decided that neglect by the US Army Corps of Engineers caused the severe flooding after Hurricane Katrina, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward and the nearby St. Bernard Parish.

In a 156-page decision of Robinson v. U.S, U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval Jr. awarded the six plaintiffs thousands of dollars for their damaged homes. Duval said the Army Corps of Engineers’ “gross negligence” of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet caused the levees to breach.

Duval wrote that in August 1966, the Corps reviewed its elevations of the levees with lessons learned from the recent Hurricane Betsy.

By September 1968, the Corps determined that the levies should be raised, but the work wasn’t completed by the time Hurricane Katrina hit nearly 50 years later.

The judge said “It was clear from its inception that because of its location, degradation of the area would result unless proper, prophylactic measures were taken.

“Some measures were included in the Corps’ plans; they simply were not implemented in time to prevent immense environmental destruction.”

Categories: Special Reports