Five years later, what good came from Hurricane Katrina?
Any reminder of that catastrophic situation usually brings nothing to mind but pain for so many. The nation’s inability to help Americans overwhelmed by the flooding remains a damning political indictment against local and state officials in the Gulf region, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Bush administration.
But the raw emotional hurt goes beyond any political blame game.
The sight of people, overwhelmingly children, seniors and poor black people, scrambling for survival like third world refugees in one of America’s major cities, remains a scar on America’s self-image as a modern, powerful society and a beacon to all the world of the promise of “justice for all.” The clogged highways, the racism against people seeking to reach safe ground, the talk show hosts quick to shout “looting” at desperate people simply seeking food, all made for a very bad time.
Most of the news reports out of New Orleans in the last few weeks have replayed all the hurt and political stupidity that led to that shameful episode. They are ignoring good news.
Because while it is easy to be negative it is now also possible, five years later, to say out loud, without appearing insensitive, that a lot of good has come from the devastation that threw people far and wide from their homes, family and culture.
For example, one New Orleans resident pushed out by the storm, Josh Levin, wrote in Slate Magazine last week that the storm “gave New Orleanians an unprecedented opportunity to remake a city that wasn’t working.” He described the rise of politicians such as Republican Joe Cao and Democrat Mayor Mitch Landrieu as evidence of a new “crusade against inertia” that had been the rule of local life and allowed for high poverty rates, high crime rates, bad schools, bad health care and corrupt politicians and even more corrupt police.
That is not just one man’s odd opinion. A Pew Research Center poll’s finding show 69 percent of Americans say a lot (14 percent) or some (55 percent) progress has been made in getting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast back on track. There is no political divide here. Pew found close to two-thirds of Democrats saying progress is underway. And that view is backed up by three-quarters of Republicans and independents. There is no regional split on whether life is better on the Gulf Coast. Three-quarters of Southerners, the highest percentage of people in any region in the nation, say they see a turn for the better in the city and the region today, five years after the hurricane.
This emerging positive consensus, which is never featured on major news reports, is backed up by a report released by the Brookings Institution this month.
“The real makeover may be in the new spirit of reform and enhanced self-reliance in the city,” according to the Brookings survey. Among the positive developments listed in the think tank’s report is that the New Orleans metropolitan area now has 90 percent of it people back home and 85 percent of its jobs back in place even as the nation goes through recession. The authors found more arts groups, better health care, reforms to the criminal justice system, more monitoring of police and even an improved master plan for city development. The new plan does away with walled-off poor and dangerous neighborhoods that made a walk beyond the French Quarter a matter of taking your life in your hands.
Improved race relations are central to any civic improvements taking place in New Orleans. So much of the negativity around the future of the city has to do with the rarely mentioned fact that the hurricane blew open the door on the deep and hidden black poverty behind the happy, party town Mardi Gras façade.
New Orleans before Katrina was 70 percent black, the city had the highest percentage of black people of any American city. And black families made up 90 percent of the city’s families living below the poverty line. Close to 40 percent of the city’s children, mostly black, lived in poverty. A third of the black people in the city had never finished high school. The result was a heart-breaking black poverty rate in the city of 35 percent, which was higher than the national black poverty rate of about 25 percent.
So before the storm, for all the talk of tradition and culture, the reality was that New Orleans represented the nation’s biggest concentration of rank black poverty. Again, it may sound insensitive to say it out loud but the rarely spoken truth is that breaking up that poverty and all the negatives associated with it — from acceptance of crime, drugs, family breakdown and bad schools — is a good development for anyone, black or white, mired in a dysfunctional society.
Change is tough for anyone. For some people it can be too much. About half of the 1,464 people who died as a result of the storm were over age 74. And more than a million people in the Gulf Coast region had to leave their homes. No one wants to bear such a burden.
But there is something to be said for pulling apart neighborhoods paralyzed by crime and drugs and creating new opportunities by forcing people locked in there by inertia to get out of town. There is even more to be said for rewarding people by giving them the chance to take the initiative to build a better life when if they come back.
The Brookings report concluded that entrepreneurship in New Orleans, which was lacking before the storm, has now surpassed the national average. And it is no coincidence that the report also finds that average wages are up 14 percent in the last five years and are now equal to the national average — something not seen in New Orleans since the 1980s.
That is why 63 percent of blacks – along with 70 percent of whites, in the Pew poll — agree that a lot or some progress has been made in rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in the last five years. This is a reconstruction project that goes far beyond better levees and floodwalls.
This has to do with rebuilding the soul of the region for its neediest residents. And on that score America has a lot to be proud about five years after a natural disaster blew away any pretense of normalcy in New Orleans as well as a lot of convenient lies that cemented poverty and disadvantage.
Juan Williams is NPR Senior Correspondent and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is “Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America–and What We Can Do About It.”