Hurricane Katrina uprooted the lives of millions, washed away the dreams of an entire city, and swept away the hard work of several generations. Causing one of the largest displacements in U.S. history and an almost immediate 50 percent population loss, the natural disaster knocked New Orleans residents down to their most vulnerable state. In the episode "Rebuilding New Orleans," Laura Flanders, host of Link TV’s “The Laura Flanders Show," visited some of the most influential stakeholders in the recovery to explore the race, class, and gender outlines of the reconstruction efforts. The event is significant to her because it served as a bellwether of social issues that still dominate headlines today.
“What always struck me about what New Orleans went through was that it seemed to reveal the really vulnerable underbelly of American society,” she said. “It continues to reveal the direction that the society as a whole is going.”
The problems that flooded the city were brewing long before the levees broke and many have lingered and even amplified during the decade that followed. Even though the flood water was pumped out of the city nearly a decade ago, many Americans continue wading in the same murky troubles of the past.
“Look around. How many people are metaphorically or physically stranded on their rooftops today? How many people are stranded, abandoned by our society today?” she asked.
The poverty, insufficient resources, lack of preparation, racial tension, police brutality, and underfunded infrastructure that surfaced after the storm are not problems unique to New Orleans.
“Ten years ago, many Americans felt ashamed that so many people had been allowed to lose their lives and lose their homes in the richest country in the world and we did nothing,” she said.
The focus on recovering business rather than the people has left many locals struggling to this day, she said.
“We chose a market recovery rather than a community recovery and that makes it very emblematic of the choices we’re making in America,” Flanders said. “People are still losing their loved ones, still losing their lives, still losing their homes [but] we just call it something different now. Now we call it market forces at work, gentrification, or modernization.”
As much faith as she has in the resiliency of locals, Flanders is afraid the market will continue pushing out the people who give New Orleans its flavor.
“When I was in New Orleans this last time, it was on the verge of being ‘Disney-fied.’ There is this idea we can create a cosmetic version of New Orleans without the poor people, without the people of color, except as performers,” she said.
“Can you have the gumbo without the grandmothers? Can you have the culture without the people who give the culture its spice, its flavor?" she asked.
While the future of New Orleans culture appears uncertain even a decade after the storm passed, Flanders also saw areas of growth. These include new businesses that have thrived, a reduced prison population, immigrant groups that are electing politicians after having no voice, and Native American groups that are fighting for recognition. The decrease in the criminalization of the transgendered community and the use of a land trust model to keep property in the hands of locals are among those successes.
She saw many groups that are effecting change by building their political and economic strength. But there’s a long way to go before a true recovery comes to fruition, despite the picture painted by mainstream media on this 10th anniversary, she said.
“Now the story is, ‘New Orleans is back,’ but it's way more complicated than that. It’s back by the skin of its teeth and there’s a lesson there for everybody,” Flanders said.