Hurricane Katrina 15 Years Later: The State of Black New Orleans from Black Voices

Donney Rose
Aug 29, 2020 - 9:00

Being Black in America can often feel like surviving a multitude of storms with no provision of shelter. In 2020, those storm surges have come in patterns of disproportionate coronavirus deaths, record numbers of unemployment and a persistent showering of bullets to Black bodies from law enforcement and vigilantes.

To be a Black resident of the Gulf Coast region of the United States, is to live in the eye of literal and figurative storms. There are quality-of-life inequities to contend with that when combined with destruction caused by hurricanes and historic floods, swallow Black lives into the ether.

I am writing this piece from my hometown of Baton Rouge during the last week in August with an aggressive rhythm of rain beating against my windows. I am hoping to not lose power as Hurricane Laura is scheduled to mutate into a Category 5 hurricane. I am roughly 120 miles from where the storm is predicted to make direct impact, but still within the radius of its chaos.

I am also a month away from relocating to a different region of the country, where the storm patterns of Black American life may move differently, but are destructive by nature. The social construct that produces surges of dehumanization is never calm. The surges may pivot, but they never cease.

It is impossible to be a resident of the Gulf Coast and not be gripped with paranoia when news of a hurricane is pending. It is doubly impossible to be a Black resident of the Gulf Coast and not be wracked with anxiety and fear that your government will abandon you. To be a Black resident of the Gulf Coast is to live in the duality of storm. It is to be aware that whatever damage nature does not bring your way, systemic failures can ensure that disaster hits your doorstep.

A Summary of Disaster 

Fifteen years ago, America got an up close look of the duality of storms that Black New Orlenians lived with when Hurricane Katrina barreled into the region. Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005, as a Category 3 hurricane with winds as high as 120 miles an hour. The strongest impact of the storm was not felt during the actual wind and rain, it was when the aging levees of New Orleans broke and low-lying areas of the city became enveloped in flood water several feet high.

Those areas were primarily inhabited by poor Black residents of New Orleans

In 2015, President Barack Obama described Hurricane Katrina as “a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.” Without directly naming President George W. Bush, who was president during Katrina, the implication was clear. Ask any Black New Orlenian about their memories of Bush’s  infamous “flyover” the region as thousands of Black New Orleanians were stranded on rooftops pleading for help, and they will likely tell you it is an image permanently seared into the consciousness of Black New Orleans.

Black New Orleanians Still Struggle to Find Their Placement

The road to restoration for Black New Orleans has been a 15-year chapter filled with setbacks, displacement and gentrification. A number of New Orleans’ poorest Black citizens were rounded up on buses and taken to states they had never even visited. This involuntary migration was the federal government’s so-called “rescue” plan. It resulted in thousands of Black New Orleanians being unable to return home or being priced out of their neighborhoods upon returning, which felt all too familiar to enslaved families being separated and involuntarily sent to plantations across the South.

And even in the midst of celebratory moments like the New Orleans Saints’ 2010 Super Bowl victory or the full-fledged return of Mardi Gras, Black New Orleans has struggled to find its footing in the years since Katrina. Natives of the city have been rightfully critical of a place that has felt foreign for over a decade.  One that consistently siphons the spirit and culture from its Black neighbors, while pushing those same residents outside the margins.

Voices of Black New Orleans Give Their Take on the City’s Past and Current State of Affairs

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with five Black New Orleanians about their experiences in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. Their words offer a glimpse into the state of Black New Orleans 15 years after the most devastating natural and man-made disaster in the city’s history. I trust the narratives of those who lived this event and still endeavor to prosper in the Crescent City.

These are their stories.

(Photo courtesy of Folami Jenkins)

Folami Smith Jenkins, 41

Event Producer/Digital Event Strategist

What do you remember about the soul of New Orleans before August 29, 2005? What has felt foreign since then?
“What sticks out to me about the soul of New Orleans Black is lineage. We had pride in our direct connections to our greatness all the way down to what school you attended. Something that is uniquely New Orleans is when asked where you went to school a native would run off their elementary, middle and high school. To outsiders they thought grade school was probably the highest education level we received but to our city it tells the tale of your upbringing, your musical/athletic aspirations, your family history or your passage into some private clubs.”

If Black New Orleans gave an honest update on its status since Hurricane Katrina, what would be said about the city’s treatment of its Black citizens?
“We were tricked into believing we were not great. Once we bought into the propaganda then they dangled the shiny toy of school choice. The city bought and paid for our children to be in the worst educational position it’s been in since slavery…Not even segregated education was as bad as the current system in New Orleans. We are paying companies millions of dollars to fail our children knowing the best way to have a kept negro is to have an uneducated negro.”

(Photo courtesy of Nate “Suave” Cameron)

Nate “Suave” Cameron Jr, 36

Co-Owner Them People Productions

Tour/Production Manager at Tank and The Bangas

What do you remember about the soul of New Orleans before August 29, 2005? What has felt foreign since then?

“What I remember about the soul of New Orleans, specifically Black New Orleans, was that we had spaces and places that were historically rooted in being just for us. Second lines, music venues, cultural centers, bars, restaurants, community centers, etc. We had a plethora of hubs that embraced, encouraged, and incubated young Black kids. Many of which were cultural arts based. Those types of programs and places are vastly extinct now for a lot of systematic reasons.”

If Black New Orleans gave an honest update on its status since Hurricane Katrina, what would be said about the city’s treatment of its Black citizens?

“I think because we now have more younger representation politically, the city is seeing and addressing more of the needs of the Black citizens. I also am encouraged by some of the community outreach and input I’ve seen some of our local politicians seek out to address community issues and concerns. There are still MANY unaddressed issues as it relates to Black New Orleans, but the social climate of the world as it related to Black people, has helped to also shed some light on how that affects us locally.”

(Photo courtesy of Letreian Johns)

Letreian Johns , 44
“Creative Lee”

Co-Founder & Creative Director of Curve The Runway NOLA

What do you remember about the soul of New Orleans before August 29, 2005? What has felt foreign since then?

“Before Katrina, our people were unstoppable and unmatched in creativity and still are. We were and still [are] the city’s heartbeat. Living so creatively free without any push back. We welcomed the world into our homes and shared our soul. They couldn’t get enough of our spirit. Not only did the world come for our creativity but they came for our lifestyle. The world discovered our culture was our soul business.  Katrina gave them an opportunity to move in  & produce our soul in mass production.   We were so busy sharing our souls, we forgot to secure the business of our culture and the properties that housed them”

If Black New Orleans gave an honest update on its status since Hurricane Katrina, what would be said about the city’s treatment of its Black citizens?

“It’s not the treatment I see, but more of a feeling like we were late to our own party.  It scares me to know for so long we invited the world to experience all that we had to offer and never knew our true worth. The truth is Katrina devastated the country when New Orleans was flooded.  New Orleans also shut down the state. But headlines called us refugees and talked about the economic gaps for citizens. We had poor judgement but we were extremely wealthy. We just didn’t know how to leverage our wealth.   

Today we know our true value and now we’re playing catch up. The key to catching up is never stopping.”

(Photo courtesy of Charlie Vaughn)

Charlie Vaughn, age unlisted

Art Teacher /Artist /Emcee/ Culture bearer

What do you remember about the soul of New Orleans before August 29, 2005? What has felt foreign since then?

“The things that stand out for me is the PEOPLE who gave my city character and an EDGE….The BLACK NATIVES were and are the SOUL of the city …..sure the city still has A few mainstays around ,but it was the PEOPLE  who gave the city character , A sassy neck roll, A loud outburst of laughter provoked by asking questions about which High school was the best (even though they graduated 30 plus years ago) or which ward was the hardest, who you know , Who Dat  etc. etc.

What has felt foreign has been the idea that the PEOPLE whom I was related to by blood or section of town…..Even the physical landscape has become foriegn ….Tulane Avenue or even Freret St. were once rough n rugged are now expensive college based /AirBNB styled residents…So the PEOPLE who I seek everyday since I moved back are FEW & far in between the RENAMED schools & neighborhoods , bike lanes , yoga spots & pet stores ( huh bruh?)”

If Black New Orleans gave an honest update on its status since Hurricane Katrina, what would be said about the city’s treatment of its Black citizens?

“In my mind is that WE (the original native Black & underserved families ) were removed or phased out of areas that had already been set up due to be demolished or redone anyway,….Katrina just sped up the process & red tape to clear out the land and neighborhoods. I honestly feel that the natives of the city were sacrificed to make way for A NEW -NEW ORLEANS. Again , we still have the overall hospitable & welcoming energy here, but it is definitely missing that MAGIC that made our small city unmatched compared to major cities . It still hurts to know that we have family who felt betrayed by the city itself to not be able to come back to a place that they once called ‘home.’”

(Photo courtesy of Anthony “Moose” Davis)

Anthony B. Daniels aka Moose Harris, 40 

Musical Artist / Radio Host / Legendary Saints Beerman

What do you remember about the soul of New Orleans before August 29, 2005? What has felt foreign since then?
“The soul of New Orleans is what got me there. Growing up in small town South Louisiana, the concept of experiencing a “big city” version of Louisiana culture day to day – instead of just visiting on school field trips – for college and beyond was enticing. It was tight knit, it was “local” maybe because I’m from two hours away, but those two hours made all the difference in the world.”

If Black New Orleans gave an honest update on its status since Hurricane Katrina, what would be said about the city’s treatment of its Black citizens?

“I wonder from time to time what NOLA would be like, if Disney World has been built in the area in the 60s, and how close to Orlando we’d be today. I say that to say in the last 15 years, we’ve crept closer and closer to what that could’ve been, and not totally in a good way. I didn’t live in NOLA’s projects, but I have memories of being in them. They’re all but gone. The Saints are great, and my spirit (and professions) appreciate it, but the “loveable loser” aspect of the community is going down. It’s like we forgot what it was like to be 8-8 and wishing. This place kinda forgot where it came from, in part, because NOLA not totally knowing where it’s from, but just being itself was once part of the beauty of it all. It slowly feels more of an attraction than a presentation. And since Black folk makes up like 80% of said presentation, the treatment is different. It is not as direct as it used to be, even when bad. And NOLA is used to dealing with things directly.”

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