On the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, The Charter School Debate Fractures New Orleans Along Lines of Race and Class

Photographs are seen inside the heavily damaged Lawless High School in the Lower 9th Ward Aug. 28, 2007, in New Orleans on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  MARIO TAMA/GETTY IMAGES
Photographs are seen inside the heavily damaged Lawless High School in the Lower 9th Ward Aug. 28, 2007, in New Orleans on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.


The mere mention of the Category 5 monster of a hurricane that barreled down the Gulf Coast and made landfall in the early-morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, as a Category 3 is enough to retraumatize New Orleans natives who were forced to flee their homes in search of shelter.

“The Storm,” as it’s called by many in pained tones, decimated the Crescent City, leaving an estimated 80 percent of it underwater after the faulty levees broke. Entire neighborhoods in New Orleans were destroyed, primarily in predominantly black communities (pdf), leaving 70 percent of all occupied housing units severely damaged or uninhabitable. The total damage along the Gulf Coast reached $135 billion.

Approximately 1,833 people died because of Katrina—1,577 in Louisiana, 238 in Mississippi, 14 in Florida, two in Alabama, two in Georgia. According to the Data Center, an estimated 1,000 of those deaths were in New Orleans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency called Katrina “the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history.” For many evacuees, it led to unexpected and harrowing new beginnings in cities across the United States, mostly in Baton Rouge, La., Houston and Atlanta. For those who never left, trapped on rooftops or inside the Superdome, and for those who trudged back to pick up the pieces, home would never be the same.

Even as New Orleans has displayed remarkable resilience, the cultural and racial composition has shifted dramatically, and disparities, from incarceration rates to health care access, abound. Poor black families trickling back post-Katrina struggled to find some semblance of their former lives amid the rubble. They have since been pushed to the outer regions of the city while inner-city housing developments have been gentrified, and Section 8 housing is practically nonexistent.

According to the recently launched site KatrinaTruth.org, 10 years after Katrina, “the median income gap between Black and white households in New Orleans has widened by 18 percent from 2005 to 2013. The median white household income in New Orleans increased from $49,262 to $60,553 while the median household income for African Americans only increased from $23,394 to $25,102.” That compares with a $9,000 median income growth nationwide (pdf), illuminating that while African Americans experienced marginal economic growth in the United States post-Katrina, in New Orleans that growth virtually came to a halt.

In addition, 50.5 percent of black children in New Orleans live in poverty—higher than before Katrina; black women make 49 cents for every dollar that white men make; and 52 percent of black men in New Orleans are considered to be unemployed.

Despite these immense hardships, children still have to learn. And through the psychological and emotional storms that continued to rage post-Katrina, black New Orleanians were faced with an already dysfunctional public school system thrust into complete and utter chaos.

Children were losing education hours as families struggled just to survive, and the upheaval paved the way for the takeover of the widely touted Recovery School District that today is being heralded across the nation as a model of reform.

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