As believers, should our response to tragedy be distinctive from the world’s responses? Does our faith compel us to be more committed to restoring decimated regions and their beleaguered populations? When today’s headline becomes last week’s afterthought, is it still our priority as the Church to be present, intentionally ministering amongst the suffering and brokenness? These questions emerge whenever I contemplate Christian approaches towards rehabilitating New Orleans.
The People’s History
Hurricane Katrina occurred just ten years ago, yet the majority of our nation acts as if it’s ancient history. Despite our national amnesia and apathy towards New Orleans’ plight, most of the city is still recuperating from the merciless blows Katrina dealt it. Although the most esteemed areas of the city were expediently restored, the overwhelming majority of the city endured a bleaker reality. This truth becomes most evident in the city’s vast array of marginalized and stigmatized regions, many of which literally remain in ruins today. However, this stark divide between the haves and the have-nots of New Orleans did not materialize in the wake of, nor did it emerge as a result of, Hurricane Katrina. Social disparities became the city’s status quo long before Katrina, as they were sustained and reinforced legislatively, educationally, and residentially. In fact, the legacy of the city’s gross inequalities has fostered debates and dissension around what actually occurred during Hurricane Katrina, particularly regarding the levees.
Many residents adamantly believe that levees located in impoverished, African American communities, were intentionally breached in desperate attempts to preserve higher profile sections of New Orleans, particularly the French Quarter. It should be noted that this is not merely folklore for residents, a multitude of the city’s inhabitants testified to witnessing these events before investigative members of the House Select Committee. These residents swore under oath that actually observed the levees being intentionally breached within impoverished regions, like the 7th and lower 9th Wards. They corroborated the booming of the levees, evoking painful stories of distinctively hearing explosives detonate in these regions of the city seconds before the levees were compromised and the most devastating flooding occurred.
While most have written these testimonies off as conspiracy theories, the fact that these stories are exclusively told in communities populated by impoverished African Americans should raise questions. I make this statement in light of the history of race, poverty, and floods in New Orleans. When the Mississippi River flooded in “the Great Flood of 1927,” flood waters posed a threat to New Orleans and executive decisions were made to save certain parts of the city at the expense of other “less desirable” regions. African American communities on the southeastern side of New Orleans were sacrificed, their levees dynamited, to divert flood waters from more esteemed regions of the city. These breaching levees detoured rushing waters from prime real-estate, onto rural crop lands, and into impoverished African-American communities. An undisclosed number of blacks were killed during this flood and a number of others were left homeless, displaced, and left to fend for themselves without any governmental assistance. Subsequently, most of these communities’ survivors evacuated New Orleans, relocating elsewhere.
Additionally, many researchers attest that it could be argued that the same plan was executed in 1965, when New Orleans flooded again. Residents within these communities believe that there is a pattern of marginalized areas (e.g. the lower 9th Ward) being offered up as a sacrificial offering for the financial interests and livelihood of more esteemed sections of the city. Therefore, while it is possible that the city’s historic occurrences led lifelong residents to project their past pains onto what unfolded during Katrina, it is also plausible that the evils of the city’s past were actually recapitulated in 2005.
All histories have counter narratives, chronicled accounts, be they transcribed or orally persevered, existing along societal margins. These frequently unheard historical accounts narrate history from a different vantage point, from a perspective that we are taught to discredit. These recollections emerge from the perspective and lived experience of the poor, outcast, and disenfranchised populations of our world. They usually are not as polished as we are used to and frequently juxtapose the historical narratives to which we are most accustomed. Consequently, we are taught to distrust these counter testimonies, to seek “truth,” not conspiracy theories. However, I want to insist that “truth” is oftentimes not that straightforward. Moreover, truth is not necessarily what is chronicled within the historical record. Since we live in a world where those in power dictate society’s historic canon, we must consciously remind ourselves that truth is not exclusively on the side of the victor. Thus, truth is frequently more complicated than we care to admit, oftentimes it is not exclusively owned by one party, but exists somewhere in between, in the midst of the shades of grey.
Nevertheless, as people who are committed to working amongst and with the poor, as well as other socially stigmatized and marginalized people groups, CCDA is intentional about seeking alternative sources for discerning truth. In and through these relational interactions with the marginalized we begin to hear many popularized “truths” within a different light. It is in choosing to engage and enter into authentic relationships with the poor that we begin to be changed, that we start to realize that many of our presuppositions about them are challenged. When we ignore or misinterpret counter narratives we subconsciously and inadvertently discredit these voices, we affirm their marginality, and thus are complicit in their oppression due to our unwillingness to even expose ourselves to, much less consider any truths that they and their communities might have to offer. In light of this, this article seeks to stretch our perspectives of the history of Katrina and its aftermath. It seeks to press for a more holistic consideration of the social realities of New Orleans in both its pre- and post- Katrina state.
It would be myopic to assess the Crescent City post-Katrina without considering some fundamental realities of the city pre-Katrina. The U.S. Census illustrates that in 2000, five years prior to Katrina, the city’s poverty rate was 28%, compared to the national average of 12%. Moreover, of the city’s impoverished population, 38% resided in extreme poverty. Consequently, New Orleans housed the nation’s second largest percentage of residents living within extreme poverty in 2000. Race, which in the U.S. is inextricably linked to class, also played a pivotal role in the city’s poverty demographics. In 2000, the African American poverty rate (35%) was three times as high as the white poverty rate (11%). Moreover, a study conducted by Brookings Institution deduced that “by 2000, the city of New Orleans had become highly segregated by race and had developed high concentrations of poverty….Blacks and whites were living in quite literally different worlds before the storm hit.” Nevertheless, it is also important to comprehend the comprehensive plight of the city. When Katrina hit, New Orleans had unemployment rates over 50% higher than the national average. These grim statistics help elucidate why New Orleans has come to be known as The City that Care Forgot. While New Orleans had this title well before Katrina, in its aftermath we can affirm that this designation was properly bestowed.
Overlooked aspects of Katrina
The woefully inadequate response of the U.S. government to New Orleans and its citizenry immediately following Katrina is infamously seared into our national conscious. Recovery efforts immediately following the storm elucidated a plethora of overt examples of governmental neglect, particularly regarding the city’s most vulnerable and impoverished residents. While this would prove tragic anywhere, it was especially devastating in New Orleans where 23% of the city’s 484,000 residents had disabilities and this figure increased to 50% when assessing citizens 65 years-old and above. Governmental negligence forced a multitude of citizens whom lacked the resources and/or mobility to evacuate the city, to attempt to weather and fend off the ferocious storm unassisted. Of the 1,322 people who died in New Orleans as a result of Katrina, the vast majority were elderly, disabled, and children; society’s most vulnerable populations. Moreover, African Americans comprised the overwhelming majority of residents left behind to fend for themselves, representing 68% of the city’s population at the time of the storm, yet comprising 80% of those trapped within the city without access to evacuate before the storm.
Most residents who were able to escape the eye of the storm, yet were relegated within the city’s limits, were bused and forced to cohabitate within inhumane environments that were severely overcrowded and scarily supplied with the most basic survival elements. Thousands of evacuees were shepherded like cattle into destinations like the Superdome, despite prior knowledge of these facilities inability to provide physical provisions capable of sustaining these populations, as well as their incapability to be staffed to provide even the most basic levels of protection for the elderly, women, and children. People were forced to endure temperatures which regularly exceeded 100 degrees without access to food or water and these conditions were amplified by sewage spewing into the arena through busted pipes throughout the dome. Survivors recall the intolerable odor and irrepressible nausea saying, “we were treated worse than animals.”
Residents fortunate enough to evacuate New Orleans, were frequently flown and bused to distant locations without any say as to their final destination. In many cases, people pleaded to be sent to neighboring locations such as Texas and Mississippi, where they had family and support systems, but these requests were frequently denied. People were sent to every state throughout the nation, and as far away as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Furthermore, during this evacuation process, families were separated and many children were separated from their parents. People were issued one-way tickets out and after the storm these same people were oftentimes unassisted by the government in their attempts to return home, even though the government exclusively dictated where these people were relocated.
During Katerina and its aftermath, egregious violations occurred and citizens’ civil liberties were breached. On August 31, 2005, armed policemen in the West Bank city of Gretna blocked a bridge from New Orleans into its providence, preventing African-American evacuees from escaping the deluged city. Residents of Gretna, undoubtedly influenced by the propagation of derogatory media depictions of African-American evacuees, chose to obstruct their communal borders. Moreover, following the hurricane, throughout the city’s outskirts were signs reading “looters will be shot.” In Algiers Point, white vigilantes shot a number of evacuees and killed 11 African-American men. This sentiment of using violence to accomplish “peace” was reinforced by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco who said, “We are going to restore law and order… These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.” In efforts to restore “law and order,” the city summoned the National Guard, declaring Marshall Law. Survivors testified before U.S. representative saying we were “treated harshly by U.S. military personnel, who kept [evacuees] penned behind barbed wired, refusing requests for health care and first aid.” A woman testifying during this session on the militarization said “They set us up so that we would rebel, so that they could shoot us.”
CCDA’S Unique Contribution to Rehabilitation-Development
In marginalized communities, intentionally taking time to build genuine, reciprocal relationships which expose new truths cannot be overstated. While in New Orleans, I spent most of my time listening and learning from the community’s wisdom. While talking to Katrina victims, I repeatedly heard of their desire to know where money given to aid the city went. Residents wanted to know who was responsible for holding organizations and the government accountable for properly stewarding funds allocated towards rehabilitating the entire city, not just certain sections. Citizens craved ethical systems and partnerships. They desired trustworthy collaborations based upon unity and integrity. Residents desire alliances that will honor and consult communal leaders within recovery efforts and strategic planning, instead of partners seeking to dictator the terms of the city’s recovery from the outside.
These relationships fundamentally reconfigured my thinking, altering how I assisted in recovery efforts, and shifting my paradigm of relief philanthropy. These conversations contextualized the city’s needs and elucidated ways non-residents could constructively serve its populace. While these conversations oftentimes seemed an inefficient use of my time, paradoxically I came to realize that I needed to deviate from expediency. That is, in slowing down to learn from the metanarrative of the city’s socially crucified, I learned to authentically participate in God’s inauguration of newness.
With humility and intentionality, I submitted to alternative sources of truth, indigenous knowledge, and mitigated restoration strategies. Theologically I began “doing theology from the underside of the cross.” I allowed historical testaments of marginality to influence and shape my praxis. The unearthed testimony of local everyday citizens, those without positions of social status and power, must inform our advocacy and outreach. CCDA opposes both ministry and aid imposed upon impoverished communities, outside the context of being in authentic relationship with those within these communities. Philanthropy outside the context of genuine relationships and relief given independent of insight from the community it seeks to assist, is colonial in nature.
Affirming human dignity, irrespective of social status, contradicts social norms. Through embodying this ethic, we counterculturally bear witness to our true citizenship, one not of this world. In faithfully responding to the gospel in this regard, we begin to listen to, learn alongside of, and glean from the intergenerational knowledge of communities. Indigenous voices must be empowered to play pivotal roles in community development. Methodologically, this shifts us from working for, to working with; from ministering to, to ministering alongside of; from seeing ourselves as “saviors” of, to co-laborers with. As a result, we enflesh Philippians 2 by willingly taking the form of servants, sacrificially giving ourselves to God for our neighbors’ good.
This article was originally written for the 2013 CCDA Theology Journal (lightly edit here)
Brookings Institution. “New Orleans After the Storm: Lessons from the Past, a Plan for the Future.” Washington, D.C.: The Brooking Institute, 2005.
Crowley, Sheila. “Where is Home?: Housing for Low-Income People After the 2005 Hurricane.” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, edited by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires, 121-166. NY: Routledge, 2006.
Dalaker, Joseph. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Series P60-214, Poverty in the United States: 2000, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2001.
Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. “Katrina and the Politics of Later Life.” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, edited by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires, 103-120. NY: Routledge, 2006.
Hamilton, Bruce. “Bridge Standoff Still Under Scope: Gretna Faces Lawsuit for Stopping Evacuees.” Times-Picayune, 4 January 2006.
Hartman, Chester and Gregory D. Squires. “Pre-Katrina, Post-Katrina.” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, edited by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires, 1-12. NY: Routledge, 2006.
Lee, Spike. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Directed by Spike Lee. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2006.
Jones-DeWeever, Avis A. and Heidi Hartmann. “Abandoned before the Storms: The Glaring Disasters of Gender, Race, and Class Disparities in the Gulf.” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, edited by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires, 85-102. NY: Routledge, 2006.
Smith, Martin. The Storm. Directed by Tim Mangini. Arlington, VA: PBS Frontline, 2005.
Stein, Alan H. and Gene B. Preuss. “Oral History, Folklore, and Katrina.” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, edited by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires, 37-58. NY: Routledge, 2006.
Thompson, A.C. “Katrina’s Hidden Race War.” The Nation, January, 2009. Internet. Available from http://www.thenation.com/article/katrinas-hidden-race-war#.
. Alan H. Stein and Gene B. Preuss, “Oral History, Folklore, and Katrina” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, ed. Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires (NY: Routledge, 2006), 37.
. Spike Lee, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. “Act 1,” interview with Dr. Doug Brinkley, directed by Spike Lee (40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, 2006).
. Lee, When the Levees Broke, “Act 1.”
 Joseph Dalaker, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Series P60-214, Poverty in the United States: 2000, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2001, p 17.
. Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires, “Pre-Katrina, Post-Katrina” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, ed. Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires (NY: Routledge, 2006), 2-5.
. Brookings Institution, “New Orleans After the Storm: Lessons from the Past, a Plan for the Future” (Washington, D.C.: The Brooking Institute, 2005), 6.
. Avis A. Jones-DeWeever and Heidi Hartmann, “Abandoned before the Storms: The Glaring Disasters of Gender, Race, and Class Disparities in the Gulf” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, ed. Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires (NY: Routledge, 2006), 88.
. Margaret Morganroth Gullette, “Katrina and the Politics of Later Life” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, ed. Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires (NY: Routledge, 2006), 103.
. Martin Smith, The Storm, directed by Tom Mangini (Arlington, VA.: PBS Frontline, 2005).
. Gullette, “Katrina and the Politics of Later Life,” 104.
. Stein and Preuss, “Oral History, Folklore, and Katrina,” 37.
. Sheila Crowley “Where is Home?: Housing for Low-Income People After the 2005 Hurricane” In There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina, ed. Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires (NY: Routledge, 2006), 122.
. Lee, When the Levees Broke, “Act 2.”
. Bruce Hamilton, “Bridge Standoff Still Under Scope: Gretna Faces Lawsuit for Stopping Evacuees,” Times-Picayune, 4 January 2006.
.A.C. Thompson, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” The Nation, January, 2009, Internet, available from http://www.thenation.com/article/katrinas-hidden-race-war#.
. Lee, When the Levees Broke, “Act 2.”
. Stein and Preuss “Oral History, Folklore, and Katrina,” 37.