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New Orleans After Katrina: Inequality Soars as Poor Continue to Be Left Behind in City’s “Recovery”

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Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a different city. The population of New Orleans is now approximately 385,000—about 80 percent of its pre-Katrina population. The number of African Americans has plunged by nearly 100,000 since the storm. According to the Urban League, the income gap between black and white residents has increased by 37 percent since 2005. In 2013, the median income for African-American households in New Orleans was $25,000, compared to over $60,000 for white households. Thousands of homes, many in African-American neighborhoods, remain abandoned. We speak to civil rights attorneys Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute and Bill Quigley of Loyola University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The 2005 storm devastated the Gulf Coast, killing 1,800 people, forcing more than a million people to evacuate. Well, 10 years later, New Orleans has become a different city. The population is now about 385,000—about 80 percent of its pre-Katrina population. The number of African Americans has plunged by nearly 100,000 since the storm. According to the Urban League, the income gap between black and white residents has increased 37 percent since 2005. In 2013, the median income for African-American households in New Orleans was $25,000, compared to over $60,000 for white households. Thousands of homes, many in African-American neighborhoods, remain abandoned.

We’re joined now by two attorneys who have fought for the poor, elderly and the displaced, who have yet to find their way back to the Crescent City. Tracie Washington is a civil rights attorney in New Orleans, founder and president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, which works with impoverished communities and communities of color. And Bill Quigley is a professor and director of the Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University in New Orleans. He led the fight for residents of New Orleans’ public housing when activists attempted to occupy a building to prevent its demolition.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! And, Bill, I wanted to start with you. When we talked to you just after Katrina hit 10 years ago, you were trapped at Memorial Hospital Tenet with your wife, who is a nurse, and many hundreds of patients. I want to go back to part of what you had to say that day.

BILL QUIGLEY: Who’s left behind in New Orleans right now, you’re talking about tens of thousands of people who are left behind, and those are the sickest, the oldest, poorest, the youngest, the people with disabilities and the like. And the plan was that everybody should leave. Well, you can’t leave if you’re in a hospital. You can’t leave if you’re a nurse. You can’t leave if you are a patient. You can’t leave if you’re in a nursing home. You can’t leave if you don’t have a car. All these things. They didn’t have—there’s no plan for that. And so, we’re talking about somewhere in the neighborhood, I think, of 100,000 people probably in the metropolitan New Orleans area.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill Quigley 10 years ago. Bill, talk about that day 10 years ago in the hospital and where your city, New Orleans, is today.

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, thank you, Amy. And first, I think it’s important to recognize that Democracy Now! was really the first voice of the people who were left behind, those of us who were trapped back in New Orleans. As you noted, you know, there were nursing homes full of people, a lot of deaths in those nursing homes; hospitals full of people, a lot of deaths in those hospitals. The jail was full, 7,000 or so prisoners there without electricity, water, everything, that—people stranded on house tops, etc., etc. And the whole thing was—we heard the mayor say mandatory evacuation, but there were no buses, there were no trains. There was no—anything like that. And the disaster that befell the people who were left behind, I think, was obvious to most people who could watch TV. Unfortunately, I was in a hospital, didn’t have electricity, so I didn’t get to see it, but all my friends and family saw it.

And I think it’s important to recognize who was left behind 10 years ago because, in fact, the same people have been left behind in the 10 years of the recovery. There has been a recovery of New Orleans. It just has been some parts of the city and some people in the city who have recovered. The tourist community has recovered to some extent, and we certainly want people to come and visit New Orleans. It’s safe. The hotels are up. The restaurants are up. But, you know, 100,000 of our sisters and brothers in the African-American community have never made it back, ever. And of the people who have made it back, many of them are economically worse off than they were beforehand. We had 5,000 units, good, solid units, of public housing that were bulldozed as a social experiment, part of the ongoing social experiment to get the government out of the area of housing. We have privatized our public housing. We have privatized our healthcare. We had a big Charity Hospital system that has been broken down into lots of parts, a lot of which are under private management. And we have been privatized in terms of our entire public education system. As a result, you know, we had 7,000, mostly African-American, but mixed, as well—7,000 teachers, administrators, teachers’ aides, cafeteria workers and the like who were fired, just like the 5,000 families who were in public housing, who said, “We don’t want you back. We don’t want you to come back to do your job in public education.”

So, the recovery that we’ve had in the last 10 years, there has been recovery, primarily in the white community, primarily in the higher economic areas, primarily among homeowners—not all in homeowners. But the people left out: renters, the disabled, the elderly, children. We have thousands and thousands of fewer children in the community. We have thousands of less of older folks. I don’t want to say senior citizens, because I’m a senior citizen myself, so… But the recovery has been a tale of two cities. And we have a lot, a lot of work to do. And we’re fighting right now as a community over this, the story of who has recovered and who hasn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to August of 2010, when President Obama spoke at Xavier University in New Orleans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. This is part of what he said.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots. There are still too many students attending classes in trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work. And there are still too many New Orleans folks who haven’t been able to come home. So while an incredible amount of progress has been made, on this fifth anniversary I wanted to come here and tell the people of this city directly: My administration is going to stand with you and fight alongside you until the job is done, until New Orleans is all the way back. All the way.

AMY GOODMAN: After President Obama spoke in 2010—by the way, he’s there in New Orleans today, as well, and will be speaking—we interviewed our next guest, civil rights attorney Tracie Washington, for a response.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: That snippet, and part of the speech by President Obama, while on the one hand is encouraging, on the other hand is also frustrating to me. We heard a promise from the government five years ago that we were supposed to be able to recover. We’ve continued to hear promises that have been broken. … When you continue to make these promises, federal government, at this time, this fire next time, this five years, I want you to put in accountability measures so that we don’t have the theft and graft, and people rich in Manhattan and Long Beach, and us still suffering in New Orleans because of disaster profiteers, that you ensure that our folks here in Louisiana state and locally—make sure that the people who were directly victimized by inaction, by the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to protect us, now get remedy, and finally, that those folks who are still stuck in the diaspora, who are in almost every zip code in the United States of America, are truly guaranteed the right and given free passage back to New Orleans, because, remember, we put them—we gave them a one-way ticket out. We need to make sure folks not only are welcome back, but are given a plane ride back, given a bus ride back, and ensured that they have housing when they get back here. So that’s my impression. That’s my frustration five years from now. I say this: I will continue to work, because this is my home. And I love this city. But let’s not put the “mission accomplished” banner out now, because we’ve got a lot more work to do.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Tracie Washington five years ago when President Obama came to town. It is now 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. Tracie Washington, what is your assessment? What say ye today?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Good morning, Amy, and thank you for inviting me on the show. Well, before we were—excuse me—on air, I joked with Bill that maybe we should all have these shirts that have “mission accomplished” and the sort of Ghostbusters circle with the X inside of it. The mission has not been accomplished to my satisfaction, and most certainly not to the satisfaction of those individuals who are still 100,000 in the diaspora. Look, at this point, at this point 10 years down the road, I think it’s—it’s almost cynical to go to Atlanta and go to Houston and say, “Well, y’all come on back. We want you back now,” still offering no free passage, still saying to those folks that, “You know, you can come back, but you come back on your own.” The $71 billion that the government put into New Orleans for recovery has already been spent. We’ve had recovery, yes, but the recovery that was promised should have been guaranteed, and there is no guarantee to recovery—that’s number one.

And number two, the recovery that was promised was supposed to be equitable, not equal. We didn’t need equal recovery. Those people who had cars, we knew they were going to get more cars. Those people who had American Express cards, they were going to have another American Express cards. But what President Bush said was he acknowledged that in the city of New Orleans—in the city of New Orleans, we had poverty that should not have been here, that we had economic growth and development that wasn’t reaching a whole segment of our community. And he said when we rebuild, we’re going to rebuild these streets and these communities better, so that everyone can take part. That doesn’t mean equal; that means you start with rebuilding that says, “I’m going to have to give certain communities more.” That’s equitable recovery. We didn’t get it. And that’s why, Amy, the rich have gotten richer. And that’s why the French Quarter looks better and smells better than it ever did. That’s why the Sliver by the River has recovered, but not the Lower Ninth Ward, you know, Venetian Isles. That’s what equitable recovery is supposed to look like.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where—

TRACIE WASHINGTON: And we didn’t get it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s where President Obama is going today, right? To the Lower Ninth Ward. A recent rating was done of 300 American cities around economic inequality. New Orleans is number two after Atlanta on the economic inequality rating.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you say to President Obama today? Will you actually see him?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: I’m supposed to be there, along with a whole lot of other people in the city of New Orleans. And I hope to see him.

I would say to him, number one, “No mission accomplished. You were right five years ago. Don’t come here today and say, 'Mission accomplished,' because while you’re at a beautifully rebuilt Sanchez Center, if you go three blocks in from Claiborne Avenue, you’ll see that our mission is far from accomplished.” The lots aren’t overgrown in many instances; they’re just bulldozed over, right? And so, we still need the rebuild. We still need the equitable recovery.

And again, it’s about accountability. It’s about accountability. And 15 years from now, when we do this on the 25th anniversary, we need to be able to go back and say, “President Bush, you know, President Obama, you failed us.” And they need to—and who’s ever in government at that time needs to be able to accept that. I’m still here. I am still hopeful that we won’t be in that situation. But, Amy, I don’t want him to come here and say to that community in the Lower Ninth Ward, “Hercules is all done. Great.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tracie Washington, Bill Quigley, I want to thank you both. Tracie Washington, civil rights attorney, founder of the Louisiana Justice Institute; Bill Quigley, law professor and director of the Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University, speaking to us from New Orleans. When we come back, we’ll be joined by Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, founder of Common Ground. Stay with us.

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If You are Poor, It’s Like the Hurricane Just Happened: Malik Rahim on Katrina 10 Years After

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