In mathematics, the letter x often represents an unidentified variable, the unknown. In Roman numerals, x represents the number ten. In New Orleans, many remember it as the symbol first responders marked on the front of one’s home during Hurricane Katrina to signify how many were found dead or alive.
August 29, 2015 marked the 10th anniversary of Katrina's landfall. In actuality, the hurricane itself caused very little damage to the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. However, the levee breach that occurred hours after the storm, and the onslaught of privatization that followed, devastated the city and its people.
A changed city
The hurricane triggered a mass exodus of the city for those with the means to get out in time. As journalist Naomi Klein points out, “It was taken for granted that the state—at least in a rich country—would come to the aid of the people during a cataclysmic event.” Many of the 120,000 New Orleanians without transportation waited for help that never arrived, while others were shipped out of the city without any knowledge about their final destinations or the whereabouts of their loved ones. In the weeks after the storm, the city became an empty and eerie place, a tabula rasa, or “an opportunity,” as economist Milton Freidman put it.
Friedman saw it as a chance to reinvent the public sphere, to make it private. His ideas were welcomed by the city, devoid of its people and its accountability base. The drastic change in the composition of the city following the storm has progressively gotten more distant from its pre-Katrina make-up.
According to the 2000 census, Orleans Parish’s population was nearly 500,000 people, with two of every three residents being black. In a special report from the Census Bureau in early 2006, the city’s population was only 158,400. Since 2006, the population has grown to 384,320 residents. However, in the new New Orleans, only three of every five citizens are black and the white population has increased by roughly six percent.
Demographics have not been the only thing to change substantially since the storm. In the wake of a tragedy, the new privatized city that Friedman dreamed of was finally born. The “shock doctrine” tactic of forcing disaster capitalism onto New Orleans affected everything from education to housing to culture. Unfortunately, Friedman died before he was able to see his handiwork.
The destruction of the city’s public education system came just months after the storm. The state-run Recovery School District took over the majority Orleans Parish public schools in November 2005; Orleans Parish Public School Board fired 7,500 experienced school personnel in December 2005; and all but a handful of the city’s traditional public schools were taken over by out-of-state charter organizations. 10 years later, most historic schools have been closed or chartered, schools named after black leaders have been renamed, and students are being taught by predominantly white fresh-out-of-college Teach for America teachers.
TFA teachers and other transplants sought housing in hip and affordable areas. Many took refuge in the Upper Ninth Ward (now known as the Bywater), the Irish Channel and Mid City, which have been predominantly black neighborhoods for the past few decades.
Gentrification and the lack of affordable housing continue to push New Orleans’ historic residents beyond the city limits, disconnecting them from their place-based identities. Concurrently, housing developments are being razed, having their names changed, or being converted into mixed income apartment complexes.
Stories of survival
Between a lack of affordable housing, poor education, and a shortage of living-wage jobs, it is no wonder that so many of the city’s residents not returned. Peace by Piece (PxP) New Orleans intern Breial Kennedy collaborated with The Real News Network to collect stories of recovery by displaced New Orleanians. The compilation of survivor stories was made into a short documentary entitled Katrina X.
The success of Katrina X was made possible by the generosity of other groups in the Friends network, such as the Houston Meeting, who provided the film crew with lodging, as well as Baltimore’s Friend of a Friend program, who helped secure much needed resources—resources that would have been priceless during Hurricane Katrina.
While filming, Breial found that the overwhelming reason New Orleanians did not return to the city was a “lack of resources and better opportunities.” The film underscores the struggles of displaced New Orleanians, as well as the shortcomings of local and federal governments following the storm.
Youth were also a reoccurring theme in documentary interviews. Katrina survivor Chanel Shorts abandoned the home she bought only months before the storm because she felt that her children were getting a better caliber of education in Houston. Betty Carter said, “There were not enough services to meet the needs of [New Orleans’] children.” Attorney Carol Kolinchak pointed out that following the storm, New Orleans’ juvenile detention facility was rebuilt on a toxic brown field.
Given the grave effect that Katrina had on a generation of young people, it was only fitting that Breial take the lead on Katrina X. Her own experiences during the hurricane, as well as the knowledge she gained while filming, helped Breial to land a spot on a discussion panel following the film's premiere.
Moreover, the documentary provides a counter-narrative to the city’s resilience charade. Are the people of New Orleans resilient? Yes, but the trauma is ongoing. 10 years after the storm, we have survived, but recovery remains a mystery to many.
- Tabitha Mustafa, Peace by Piece program associate, New Orleans
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