The night before Katrina was a Category 5, the worst possible, and headed straight for New Orleans. But overnight the storm weakened and turned a little to the east. It seemed the city’s prayers were answered. But then the levees began to break and the waters began rushing into the city.
Nearly half the city is below sea level. The only thing that keeps it safe are the levees, walls round the city that hold the water back. But the levees could only stand up to a Category 3 hurricane. When Katrina hit it was a 4.
Everyone knew the levees had to be made stronger against the day a bad hurricane came. There was even money set aside to do this. But New Orleans is badly governed: the money for the levees disappeared.
Those who had cars left the city before the hurricane hit. Many of those who did not have cars were left behind while city buses sat doing nothing. Some stayed because they did not believe the warnings.
Over 1500 died, about half as many as died on 9/11. Over 700 are still missing.
Those who lived found themselves stuck on islands of high ground or their roofs. Many of those left behind were poor blacks. The government was slow in getting them to safety. Law and order broke down.
Mayor Nagin did not lead and President Bush was slow with help. It was shameful and the whole world saw. It made America look like some country that was too poor and too badly run to help itself.
Five days later at a benefit to raise money to help New Orleans, Kanye West famously said on live television that, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He was only saying what many were already thinking. When the benefit was shown in the west, his words were cut out.
The mess in New Orleans was readily compared to the mess in Iraq. Both were seen as proof that Bush does not know what he is doing.
Even now, two years later, help and money from the government has been slow in coming. Little money is going to ordinary people to rebuild their houses, so only the rich and well-to-do have been able to repair their houses. And the levees themselves will not be fully repaired till at least 2011.
Despite his terrible leadership, Nagin won the election last year for mayor!
Four in ten never came back. Poorer neighbourhoods stand empty – only broken down houses are left there.
The French Quarter, where they hold the Mardi Gras parade every year, escaped the worst: it is built on high ground. So it is back in business and looks like it did before Katrina.
– Abagond, 2007.
Update (August 29th 2015): It is now ten years since Katrina hit. The government has poured billions into the city to help it recover, but it has mainly benefited those who needed it least. The city is now more racially unequal than ever, one of the worst in the country. The well-to-do White parts of the city are back and better than ever, the middle-class Black ones are 80% back, the working-class Black ones 50% back. That does not count the 100,000 people, most of them Black, who have not come back, partly by design by the city elders who used Katrina to engineer a bit of ethnic cleansing: New Orleans is now much Whiter than it was.