As the commission appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans unveils an ambitious plan to rebuild the ravaged city, this is a good time to revisit some of the myths and assumptions that surround Hurricane Katrina.
From the beginning, reports on Katrina portrayed the hurricane as not just a natural disaster, not even just a tragic case of government bungling, but a devastating indictment of American racism and social injustice. A headline in the British newspaper The Guardian read: "Hurricane Katrina not only destroyed New Orleans, but also laid bare the ugly truth about America's racial divide." At home, the tenor of the coverage and commentary wasn't all that different, with such headlines as, "Racism hurts us more than a hurricane." Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean declared, "We must come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age, and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not."
As it turns out, Dean got two out of three wrong.
Late last year, after the state of Louisiana released information on the victims whose bodies have been recovered so far, Knight Ridder Newspapers came out with an investigative report analyzing the statistics. A study of the locations where bodies were recovered showed that they were not disproportionately concentrated in low-income neighborhoods. According to the story, "42 percent of the bodies found in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes were recovered in neighborhoods with poverty rates higher than 30 percent. That's only slightly higher than the 39 percent of residents who lived in such neighborhoods."
And race? In a database on 486 Katrina victims, "African-Americans outnumbered whites 51 percent to 44 percent. In the area overall, African-Americans outnumber whites 61 percent to 36 percent."
Age did matter. People 60 and older made up about 15 percent of New Orleans residents but 74 percent of the known victims. Many reports suggest that this sad statistic is due not to callous abandonment of the most helpless but to the fact that many elderly people, who had weathered many previous storms, refused to evacuate. While this is only a partial database, it is unlikely that the complete data will significantly change the statistical breakdown of the deaths.
The conventional wisdom that Hurricane Katrina had an especially devastating effect on blacks in New Orleans is not entirely mythical. According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, an analysis of block-by-block census data and flood maps suggests that about half of the city's white residents experienced serious flooding, compared with three-quarters of African-Americans. It was no accident that so many of the refugees at the Superdome were black.
Yet one reason we saw so many black survivors on the news was that mostly white-populated areas the hurricane hit—St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans, the cities of Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi—received relatively little media attention. Partly, this was because some areas were much less accessible than the city in the days after landfall; partly, because flattened houses look much less dramatic than refugees escaping the flood. Later, the media had their narrative in which Katrina victims were poor and black; white people left homeless and waiting in vain for help did not fit the picture.
For some, the race angle clearly served a political agenda. Last October at the "Millions More March" organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as featured speakers—the alleged racism of the Katrina tragedy was a central theme. At congressional hearings on the subject convened in December at the request of Representative Cynthia McKinney, Democrat of Georgia, an outspoken member of the Congressional Black Caucus, words like "genocide" and "Holocaust" were bandied about.
Ironically, the focus on African-Americans as victims also ended up perpetuating some racist stereotypes—such as tales of rape, murder, and other lawlessness among Katrina refugees.
The new data on the demographics of Katrina deaths probably won't change entrenched popular perception (especially with much of the media ignoring the story). Meanwhile, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission says that rebuilding should be permitted in all of the city, even in heavily damaged, flood-prone neighborhoods below water level. One likely reason for the controversial recommendation is that proposals to abandon these neighborhoods, which are mostly black, have been angrily denounced as ethnic cleansing targeting African-Americans. Thus, race-based paranoia may end up putting many black citizens of New Orleans in harm's way—literally.