The Legacy of Post-Katrina New Orleans’ Political Theater on Today’s Climate Crisis
Samantha Montano Considers the Threat of Disaster Capitalism
On the little black and white TV in my parent’s kitchen I listened to politicians promise to “Build Back Better” in the aftermath of Katrina. It was the same rah-rah-rah I heard from them after every disaster I’d paid attention to since 9/11. Post-disaster politicians profess their communities are resilient, despite the disaster. They frame the disaster as a battle to be won and refuse to accept defeat as they pit the community against the tragedy. The whole thing is pretty performative but the underlying idea of coming together to conquer the crisis is one that can be inspirational.
Politicians laid it on thick in New Orleans. President Bush stood in a backlit Jackson Square and promised, “this great city will rise again” and “build better than what we had before.” They promised to spare no resources in the rebuilding of the city and that anyone who wanted to return the city would able to. Changes would be made, though, because now there was a window of opportunity to make New Orleans “better”. Some of these elected officials also talked about how changes could now be made to the city because it was a blank slate. I was only in New Orleans a few days before I realized this was performative.
On my first trip to New Orleans my high school classmates and I had spent the week driving around the city, completely lost as we looked for the houses we were supposed to rebuild. There were several near misses as other drivers came barreling out of nowhere abiding by what seemed like invisible traffic laws. There were no street signs, no houses left to hold address numbers, and if there was a single stop sign left in the city, I didn’t see it. Everything had been washed away.
Towards the end of our trip, our group was paired up with a group of local high school students to do rebuilding work together. We had already heard stories from the adults at the homes we worked on, but we were intrigued to hear from people our own age about their experiences. We divided our groups up so we could drive together to our work site. I ended up in the car of one of the local high school students and proceeded to look on apprehensively as he wove in and out of traffic.
He casually chatted with us about the work they had been doing since the storm, seemingly unaware that we were gripping our seatbelts, certain we were moments away from crashing into incoming traffic. Finally, I realized, he did not need street signs or stoplights. There actually were invisible traffic laws. New Orleanians remembered where stop signs had been and what streets to turn down. What felt like anarchy to us outsiders, was muscle memory to the locals.
Disasters do not erase everything. As poet Kalamu ya Salaam said of New Orleans, “It wasn’t a blank slate, it was a cemetery”. Floodwaters do not destroy the human experiences, memories, history, or sense of community. It does not erase the people who live there and want agency over their futures.
I quickly dispelled with the idea that New Orleans was a blank slate but the goal of building back better stuck with me a bit longer. Building back better is an easy sell. After all, the sentiment is not unreasonable. New Orleans did need to be rebuilt so there was an opportunity to improve the community. After all, the state of the city before the flood had facilitated the conditions that made catastrophe possible in the first place. Making changes so the catastrophe is not repeated is the responsible thing to do. New Orleans did need new, stronger levees and flood infrastructure. The electric grid should be rebuilt stronger and homeowners should take future flood risk into account when they rebuild. It is not even possible for a community to be put back together exactly as it was before a disaster, so the idea of rebuilding it better resonates.
As my time in the city lengthened and my geographies expanded, I saw which neighborhoods were looking “better” (Lakeview) and which were not (Tremé). I saw who did get to make decisions (business elites) and who did not (marginalized groups) about what would be rebuilt better. I saw who was paid (private companies with ties to local officials) for these betterment projects and who paid (people prevented from returning home). In New Orleans, building back better meant reinforcing inequality and systems of oppression as well as advancing corporate and elite interest. As writer Margaret Atwood warned, “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse for some.”
What I hadn’t understood when I first arrived in New Orleans is that others heard those same promises—of windows of opportunities and building back better—and understood it to mean something very different. As I became more regularly exposed to these types of recovery speeches, these innocuous phrases became more than just empty promises—I heard them as a threat.Floodwaters do not destroy the human experiences, memories, history, or sense of community. It does not erase the people who live there and want agency over their futures.
Author Naomi Klein introduced the term “disaster capitalism” in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, published in 2007. The introduction begins with Klein talking to a Katrina evacuee in a Red Cross shelter who was lamenting politicians calling Katrina an opportunity: “It’s a goddamned tragedy.” Klein goes on to outline her theory of disaster capitalism. In short, elites can use a crisis to implement policies that benefit themselves while the affected community is occupied by their own urgent recoveries. Further, government and elites may instigate the crisis or at least do nothing to stop it. With the public preoccupied, policies and plans that otherwise would have faced opposition are easily implemented, often under the guise of community recovery. This can further a government’s existing agenda, which may not mirror the wishes of the community, particularly those marginalized members who are traditionally under- or unrepresented in government.
One architect of this post-Katrina pro-corporate power grab was former Vice President Mike Pence. At the time, Pence was the Chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Within two weeks of Katrina the group had met at the Heritage Foundation to develop a list of 32 “Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices” which Klein called “straight out of the disaster capitalism playbook”.
Disaster capitalism wove its way through the recovery process in New Orleans, manifesting most obviously in the taking and privatization of the public-school system and the dismantling of public housing. While most residents were focused on figuring out their housing situation, the city took advantage of the “window of opportunity” to make extensive changes to the social infrastructure of the city. They moved quickly to privatize the city’s public school system and bulldozed public housing in New Orleans, much of which had actually escaped flooding. The “opportunity” was to build a privatized school system and push low-income renters, mostly women of color, out of the city. Louisiana Representative Richard Baker admitted as much saying, “we finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
The window of opportunity that was opened by Katrina and the failed government response wasn’t being used to create a city that worked better for all New Orleanians. It was an opportunity to implement an agenda for the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. As I learned about disaster capitalism and the insidious ways it is wielded to reshape communities around the world in the favor of elite interests, I came to understand the terms “build back better,” “windows of opportunity” and “blank slates” as the language of disaster capitalists. These phrases are meant to manipulate. They are a palatable articulation of disaster capitalism created from the co-opted hope of disaster survivors. It is rhetoric used to persuade the public of neoliberal agendas.
There were no blank slates in New Orleans. The federal government had no intention of building back better for everyone, and this metaphorical window was only opened to elite and corporate interests. I began to reinterpret much of the turmoil I saw in New Orleans not as profound incompetence among institutions and political leaders, but rather as intentional. I also saw others around the country taking notes. An article published in the Chicago Tribune on the 10th anniversary of Katrina speculated that if a similar catastrophe befell Chicago they’d be able to privatize their education system too. Instead of Chicago, in the wake of Hurricane Maria the disaster capitalists descended on Puerto Rico.Disaster capitalism wove its way through the recovery process in New Orleans, manifesting most obviously in the taking and privatization of the public-school system and the dismantling of public housing.
A reasonable person would assume that rebuilding an entire city is an endeavor that would benefit from having some sort of plan. In the weeks following Katrina, it became clear, that neither the city nor the federal government had a rebuilding plan. Not since the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire had a recovery of this size been needed in the United States. There was no modern equivalent. But at the time, the federal government had no blueprint to follow. This uncertainty created widespread confusion over the future of New Orleans and left open for negotiation who would get to be a part of the city.
Following the flood, Mayor Nagin created the “Bring New Orleans Back Commission” (BNOBC) to develop a rebuilding plan. New Orleanians were scattered around the country and while most people wanted to return and rebuild, exactly when and how they would be able to do so was unclear. Even without a plan, basic services, or instruction from the city, many New Orleanians returned and began to rebuild on their own, but without a clear signal from government, it is hard for survivors to make informed decisions. Recovery is a dance and in New Orleans no one knew the choreography. They weren’t even listening to the same song.
So, when the city finally announced they would be releasing their rebuilding plan, there was widespread anticipation. Based on recommendations from the Urban Land Institute, a national coalition of experts, the BNOBC proposed their plan in January 2006.
A map of the plan hit the front page of the Times Picayune and caused immediate outrage across the city. The map showed six ominous green dots over various New Orleans neighborhoods. The plan was a proposal to turn certain parts of the city into green space. This is how the city thought they would build back better—by bulldozing people’s homes and turning the land into parks under the guise of creating a “safer” city.
Developing green spaces as a way to minimize flooding is a legitimate mitigation strategy, and implementing mitigation during recovery is appropriate. However, what the green dot map showed was that some property, often belonging to marginalized residents, would be sacrificed. The white, wealthy neighborhoods would be unaffected. There was no green dot over Lakeview. There was no green dot over the French Quarter. There was no green dot over the St. Charles mansions uptown. Instead, the green dots loomed over the predominately Black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and New Orleans East.There were no blank slates in New Orleans. The federal government had no intention of building back better for everyone, and this metaphorical window was only opened to elite and corporate interests.
The green dot map was a version of the “shock therapy” that Klein identified as a tool used by government and elite’s post-disaster. The only way to fight it is through community organizing and that’s exactly what New Orleanians did. One green dot neighborhood in particular, Broadmoor, led the charge against the proposal. Broadmoor, compared to some of the other green dot neighborhoods, had more resources. They also had effective leadership, among them the now-mayor of New Orleans, Latoya Cantrell. Through the Broadmoor Improvement Associate, subcommittees tackled various recovery issues in the neighborhood and ultimately were able to bring so many residents back to town that the neighborhood was seen as “viable” to the city.
The green dot map was never implemented in its entirety, but in the past 15 years some parts of the city have effectively become greenspace. For example, in the Lower Ninth Ward there are large swaths of empty overgrown lots that have not been rebuilt. The city may not have explicitly implemented their plan, but they did implement policies and hold back resources from some communities, which had a similar effect .Pre-Katrina there were 14,000 people living in the Lower Ninth Ward but five years post-Katrina the number shrunk dramatically to 3,000. Best estimates from 2018 put the total number of people living in the neighborhood under 5,000, meaning close 2/3 of residents did not return to the neighborhood.
As with the recovery planning, when federal dollars began to flow into the city, questions were raised about who would benefit. There were concerns over which neighborhoods would receive the most help, but also who would be on the receiving end of the government contracts. The concerns were well founded. Mayor Ray Nagin, reelected the year after the storm, was found guilty and sentenced to prison time for a number of corruption charges related to taking favors from companies with city contracts post-Katrina.
While some post-disaster corruption is overt, other forms of corruption emerge out of inefficiencies. After the storm, a federal program was developed to give tarps out to homeowners whose roofs had sustained damage. The idea was that installing tarps would prevent further damage to the home until a new roof could be built. A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Times Picayune found that the federal government was paying up to $5,000 to have a blue tarp installed on a house, while the workers who were actually installing them made only a fraction. One company received the federal contract and they sub-contracted to another company, which then subcontracted to another company, which then subcontracted to another, all the while they each withheld a little bit of money, until the workers who actually did the work earned a pittance. Absent of government oversight, this sub-contracting scheme would have continued if not for local investigative journalistic efforts. When the federal government cannot effectively facilitate a contract to hand out tarps, it does not bode well for how the rest of recovery will go.
Corruption, inefficiencies, backroom deals, and opportunists with selfish intentions permeated the recovery. They all blended together, so it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. It left the city in a perpetual crisis, and me confused. To obscure and disorient is, of course, part of the strategy.
This approach to recovery is designed to appease the needs of the white middle class, provide a safety net for the wealthy, clear the way for elite interests, and for businesses to make a profit by exploiting the marginalized. This is what they mean by better.
Excerpted from Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis @ 2021 by Samantha Montano, used with permission by Park Row Books.