In the year since Hurricane Katrina, our true colors have come out. As we all attentively watched the news a year ago, we sat in horror at the sight of the Big Easy, the city of Mardi Gras, flooded and destroyed. In the following weeks, ex-presidents – specifically former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton – appeared on television, urging us to give all that we could.
Celebrity after celebrity joined in. U2’s Bono and Mary J. Blige, among others, held a benefit concert. Actor Sean Penn put his money where his mouth was and actually went down to New Orleans. We all remember the pictures of him in a small boat with a red cup. These politicians and celebrities brought the same message: The people of New Orleans have lost everything. Give all you can.
Now, here we are a year later. Of the nearly half a million people living in New Orleans at the time of the 2000 U.S. Census, only a fraction has returned. Areas of the city are still devastated and bodies are still being found in damaged homes. On August 15, 2006, New Orleans was dealt another crushing blow. A Mississippi couple sued for $130,000 in compensation from their insurance company for wind damage caused to their home. In a win for the insurance industry, U.S. District Court Judge L.T. Senter ruled that the couple was entitled to only just under $3,000 from their insurer, Nationwide Mutual. Senter concluded that the couple’s policy did not include flood damage, and thus they were not covered under their insurance policy.
What a great precedent. I guess the next time a hurricane hits, people should stand on their roofs with a pad and paper and keep a tally of which damages to their property are caused by wind and which by floodwaters. Good luck with that one, your honor.
This decision deals a crippling blow not just to the residents of New Orleans, but also to our own sense of moral duty. We were encouraged to help out the residents of Louisiana and Mississippi, yet the very people who should be legally obligated to give not only refuse to, but will not be forced to either.
Senter’s decision, nonetheless, has prevented the low-income residents of New Orleans, many of them black, from returning to their ruined homes. The wealthier, predominantly white residents, who were able to afford a more comprehensive insurance policy or to pay for repairs from their own pockets, have been much more likely to return.
To pour salt on a fatal wound, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – which has now come out and admitted that poor planning and construction on its part contributed to the failure of the levees – has filed motions in federal court requesting immunity from lawsuits, including those associated with the breach of the levees in New Orleans.
What we are witnessing is the gradual racial and socioeconomic gentrification of New Orleans. It’s happening right now. In the year since Katrina, the white, non-Latino population of New Orleans has grown to 68 percent of the city’s population, up from 54 percent before the hurricane. While nearly everyone was forced to leave the destroyed city before and during Katrina, many of the city’s poorer and primarily black residents are not coming back.
To the Bush Administration and its parrots in Congress, this is progress. To the rest of us, it is injustice. Let us not forget it was Bush’s incompetence and that of his own crony, Michael Brown, that exacerbated the humanitarian disaster of Katrina. The images of mostly black residents in New Orleans stranded on their roofs, flagging passing helicopters for help that would not come until later, should be burnt into our memories.
After the court victory for insurance companies, it will be difficult to reverse this dangerous precedent. As many have already noted, if this gentrification continues, New Orleans will be New Orleans in name only. The New Orleans culture we have come to know and love will have been swept away by Katrina, replaced by a rich, white imitation.
Instead of turning New Orleans into a victory for greed and capitalism, we should turn it into a victory for true American values of hard work, community and egalitarianism. This being an election year, we should be sure to elect politicians who side with people over corporations, the law over the dollar, American ideals over politics.
If we let New Orleans as we have come to know her die, a piece of the American soul dies with her.