The response to Hurricane Katrina was a complete and utter failure on part of local and federal government. Black people make up more than half of New Orleans’ population, but they suffered disproportionately harsh repercussions compared to their White counterparts. A decade after the destruction in 2005, the city released the Resilient Plan alongside other cities in the “100 Resilient Cities” program which originated in 2013. The plan makes an effort to work with multiple organizations to address climate change, but will this plan be enough to recover what New Orleans’ Black community suffered?
The levees, tall protective barriers along the Mississippi River, broke because local and federal government failed to update the infrastructure of the levees, and low-income Black people were the ones predominantly affected. The local and federal government were aware that the levee system could not withstand a hurricane as strong as Katrina. Yet, they did nothing. When the government did arrive days after the disaster, the damage was done. The Black community’s losses were the direct result of the same environmental racism the U.S. federal government has perpetuated since its beginning. Katrina showed how majority Black communities living in flood zones are the first to be affected and the last to be protected. Today, the Resilient Plan has addressed those high-risk flood zones, and citizens are incentivized to permanently move out of the area while safety precautions are implemented.
After Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, hundreds of people, from eight-month-olds to 80-year-olds, suffered from overheating, starvation, and unsanitary conditions because the word did not get up the chain of command that buses were needed to get people out. The government’s inaction showed how little they were concerned with Black lives, particularly low-income families. The victims of Katrina were even referred to as refugees, implying that they were not even meant to be there in the first place. That is why the Resilient Plan is so necessary now, as it details how New Orleans is going to step up for their low-income communities by restructuring their priorities to include communities that have been treated as otherly or less desirable.
To escape the flood waters, many Black residents were stranded on their rooftops for days and in the Superdome, and since the levees broke prematurely due to government negligence, low income Black communities were much more severely impacted. Over 175,000 black residents were displaced, and 75,000 could not even afford to return. Nine hundred and one people died in Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina, and more than half of those fatalities were Black.
In a poll conducted a week after Katrina, 77 percent of Black people stated that the government did a poor job in their response, and 66 percent even said that the government response would’ve been better if the victims were White.
Now in 2020, New Orleans is struggling to find the funds to complete these projects and preserve the city. Sea levels are rising much faster than the city can find the funds to protect itself. This cultural hub will also have difficulty finishing these goals in a timely manner, as sea levels are rising at one of the fastest rates in history. New Orleans gets an average of 64 inches of rain per year, one of the highest rates of precipitation in the country. In other words - this city is sinking.
The Resilient Plan’s main objectives are to adapt to the changing climate, create an equitable city, and transform the city’s systems through sustainability. As a city that is constantly on the edge of a flood risk, The Resilient Plan aims to build stronger infrastructure. Then, buildings will be able to hold back water and hold steady even with strong winds. Creating better energy infrastructure will help develop the preparedness of various neighborhoods. The plan also details how New Orleans will advance their coastal protections and restore their wetlands to combat sea level rise and protect the ecosystems within wetlands. Lastly, they will also invest in better urban water management. Rather than constantly pumping water out of the city, which has proven to be an effective but unhealthy process for the city, an innovative plan would be to store the water and slow the pushing out process in seasons where there isn’t heavy rain. That extra water will go towards rain gardens and bioswales which help filter the water so that way the amount of water the city pushes out does not contribute to the rising water levels around the city.
Historically, the most prominent cause of flooding in New Orleans has been from hurricane disasters. That’s why the Resilient Plan aims to build infrastructure that is strong enough to hold back water and withstand strong winds. But as a reaction to Katrina, it came a decade too late.
New Orleans decided to join “100 Resilient Cities,” which laid the foundation for combating climate change in Louisiana, but the Resilient Plan came too late and only after they were encouraged to create a more detailed plan. New Orleans is showing how they plan to protect the city 10 years after it was needed–10 years after their Black community needed help. It’s an example of how the U.S. too often reacts to disasters: let it happen now and fix it later. Cities like New Orleans are now trying to actively address the issues of climate change, but it has come at a price of irreparable harm to their environments.
This is one of the many situations where environmental justice was needed, and many communities are still suffering from the effects of the government’s negligence today.
Header Photo: Shawn Rossi