Think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you. Now imagine someone asking you to tell that story publicly. But it won’t be just you sharing. There will be thousands of others talking about the same thing, some in ways that create a common narrative, some in ways that erase you. That’s what this 10-year “Katrina-versary” is like for me
I’m not actually interested in sharing my pain and my neighbors’ pain and my city’s pain. Much of the news coverage about this storm has shown the world a back-of-the-hospital-gown view of my city. But that is precisely why I can’t be quiet, when the ones passing the laws and writing the budgets are telling the stories for us.
Katrina was not just a hurricane. It’s more accurate to call it “Sinkhole Katrina” or “Wormhole Katrina” or “Super Vortex Katrina,” as public officials and their private partners and patrons have developed policies and practices that have sucked public space and resources away from the people who built this city. Those who stand to lose the most include poor black and brown people who birthed jazz, laid the cobblestones in the streets and cooked the Creole flavors that draw tourists from around the world.
My city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, says we are bouncing back. But he is claiming recovery on the backs of poor people of color who have decreased access to jobs, housing, public schools and hospitals. As white, young, relatively affluent people move into the city, improved health and education outcomes are largely made up of cooked books. These improvements exist because much like the continuing colonialist project, Hurricane Sinkhole Wormhole Super Vortex Katrina has stolen from the public—mainly black folks—through substandard health care, incarceration and displacement.
But those of us who are left here and those who continue to commute from outposts like Baton Rouge, Houston and Atlanta are still fighting. Here is a list of 10 New Orleans groups that have exposed, battled and solved problems created or exacerbated by the many-headed hydra that is Hurricane Sinkhole Wormhole Super Vortex Katrina.
The Fight Back Center was once the site of a community center and development corporation in the heart of St. Bernard, one the city’s "Big Four" housing projects demolished after Katrina. Residents were required to evacuate for Katrina. Despite minimal water damage to their homes, residents who tried to return to St. Bernard were literally locked out of the project. On Martin Luther King Day 2007, the Fight Back Center helped organize an action in which residents tore down the chain-link fences impeding their entrance. This allowed residents to reclaim their space, recover their personal items and briefly occupy the place they called home. Since Katrina, the volunteer staff of the Fight Back Center has worked with displaced public housing residents and their allies to assert that housing is a human right. This year they are building a tent city to symbolize thousands of displaced public housing residents. They plan to construct a tent for every public housing complex destroyed since Katrina.
Since the 19th century, black neighborhood-based Mardi Gras Indian "tribes" have been parading during Carnival season. According to the 30-year-old Mardi Gras Indian Council (MGIC), the elaborate suits they design, hand-sew and wear during events are an homage to Native peoples who provided sanctuary to blacks escaping from slavery. But there is a long history of tension between law enforcement and the Mardi Gras Indians. On March 19, 2005, just months before Katrina, police descended on a Saint Joseph’s night event demanding that Indians remove their "fucking feathers" and arresting MGIC founder Betrand Butler. That June, Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana famously railed against police harassment at City Hall, suffering a heart attack at the podium and dying that same night. And the post-Katrina creation and enforcement of noise ordnances and higher permit costs have challenged an Indian culture already reeling from the displacement and deaths of key members. To ensure widespread support and investment in protecting the Indians’ traditions, particularly Super Sunday and Saint Joseph’s night, Butler and the MGIC have brought together police and community. The effort has been so successful that there is a Cultural Campus being built across the street from the historic A.L. Davis park where the Native American, Civil Rights and Mardi Gras Indian histories of New Orleans intersect.
The Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) came together in 2004 to expose the horrors inmates endure at Orleans Parish Prison while awaiting their day in court, including deaths, sexual assaults, beatings, the indefinite detention of immigrant detainees and violations of their religious rights. During Katrina, the disproportionately black and brown inmates were locked in their cells while the prison flooded.
More than 40 people have died in the jail in the years since the flood. And as more and more reports of violence and misconduct by guards and medical personnel have emerged, OPPRC has called for federal oversight of the sprawling corrections complex. The resulting investigation by the Department of Justice led to a consent decree in which a federal judge appointed an external monitor. The OPPRC has also advocated for families of prisoners lost in the system, and presented a host of crime-preventing, healing and generative alternatives to more prison beds.
Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association (VAYLA) was born in New Orleans East, the third-largest per-capita Vietnamese community in the country. The group now works on issues ranging from education to immigration to language access. However, VAYLA emerged in 2006 out of a multigenerational response to the city opening a landfill adjacent to their neighborhood without community input. The Chef Menteur C&D Dumping Site, which was earmarked for Katrina construction debris, threatened the quality of water that elders use to sustain the gardens that feed many families and contribute to a 30-year-old Vietnamese farmers market. Through advocacy—including an epic sit-in at the landfill—VAYLA helped shut down the toxic site.
A grassroots collective of black women born and raised in New Orleans launched Women With a Vision (WWAV)* in 1989 as an AIDS service organization. Relying heavily on the donation of time by its founders, WWAV provided heavily marginalized community members such as poor black sex workers, transwomen and IV drug users with life-saving health education, HIV testing, food and community space—all in a non-judgemental environment. Katrina pushed their clients further toward the margins.
In 2008 WWAV found that hundreds of black women engaged in survival sex had been charged with felonies and labeled as sex offenders due to an arcane statue and corrupt police practices. The group helped launch a successful class action lawsuit. The result? Nine hundred people branded as sex offenders were removed from the registry. Despite a 2012 break-in and arson of its office, WWAV has taken its advocacy further by piloting a sex worker diversion program.
Around for more than 35 years, the Welfare Rights Organization (WRO) has a record of advocating for people who receive government assistance. In the years since Katrina, members have exposed the corruption and discriminatory practices of the Road Home program. Bringing together families from all over the metro area who have languished in half renovated homes and suffered from stress-related health problems, WRO has a holistic approach to achieving justice. Participants share stories, run a thrift store, circulate petitions, host a weekly talk show and have even traveled, en masse, to Washington, D.C. to present their cases to President Obama. Their creative approach has stymied efforts by Louisiana state to make Road Home recipients return funds and they have secured new grants to help families repair their storm-damaged homes.
New Orleans education officials are planning to build a new school for predominantly African-American students at the site of a former toxic waste dump. The plan is particularly disturbing because the new school will draw students out of Walter L. Cohen, a high school building with no record of environmental contamination that happens to sit on prime real estate.
In response Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AFEHR) is bringing together a wide variety of community organizations, associations and civic groups including the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, The NAACP and The Sierra Club. So along with the usual tactics of litigation, advocacy and direct action, the group is using an intersectional approach, connecting the city’s toxic plan to children’s ability to learn, the school-to-prison pipeline and the human right to return to one’s city.
You’ve probably heard about the influx of Latino laborers who were recruited or trafficked into New Orleans to rebuild the city after Katrina. Lesser known are the longstanding Latino and Latin-American immigrant populations that have been in the region for many decades.
For example, New Orleans and its suburbs have boasted the largest Honduran population outside of Honduras for many years. There are also established Salvadoran and Cuban communities, evidenced not only in demographic reports but by cultural markers such as the Jose Marti statue on Banks Street and the numerous places selling pupusas and Cuban sandwiches. Despite their size however, these communities lack political representation, particularly after Katrina when majority-renter populations weren’t able to return home.
Puentes New Orleans was founded in 2007 to build interethnic power in these communities. The group has a range of programs including one to boost Latino academic achievement and one to increase civic engagement. Their civic engagement work includes voter registration, public policy advocacy and a communications campaign that dispels the myth that all Latinos are undocumented immigrants who can’t vote or engage in political life.
Gulf South Rising (GSR) is a multi state direct action collective made up of a variety of Southern groups including Black Youth Project NOLA, Fight for $15, Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy and South Alabama Center for Fair Housing. The group is hosting a series of events around the 10-year Katrina-versary that will give the mic to communities that aren’t usually in front of news cameras or at the podium in the halls of government. These include rural, fishing and Native American communities.
Using the hashtag #GulfSouthRising and the model of the People’s Movement Assembly, GSR is producing cultural events, healing spaces and speakouts throughout New Orleans as well as in Mississippi. #GulfSouthRising exemplifies the innovative, multi-racial, multi-issue, culturally rooted organizing that has always been at the center of successful movements in the Gulf South.
As the city attracts an increasing number of young, predominantly white professionals, there has been a major turnover of black political leadership in New Orleans. Communities of color have also seen organizations that claim to advocate on their behalf created and led by white people from outside of the region. This has meant a loss of representation at many levels, in both public and private sectors, but all with public funds.
Local activists founded the Greater New Orleans Organizers Round Table (GNOORT) in 2007 to strengthen the community organizing that has been happening for decades in the Metro New Orleans area and to preserve community access to new groups. GNOORT’s campaigns vary, as their membership has boasted more than 80 organizations in the past eight years. Notably the Round Table has tackled failed evacuation plans, a Jim Crow era city charter that hinders the electoral power of communities of color, and the city’s co-optation of post-Katrina narratives around recovery and "resilience." Most recently, the Round Table has brought together families of organizers who have died since Katrina and produced a 30-minute documentary about the 10 years since the levees broke.
Rosana Cruz is the Leadership Action Network Director for Race Forward, the racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines. Based in New Orleans for more than 15 years, she has organized around a range of local issues including workers’ rights, black and brown criminalization, felony disenfranchisement and post-Katrina displacement.
*Cruz serves on the board of directors for Women With a Vision.