Underpinnings of Government Policy and Hurricane Katrina
Vivian Glass is a sophomore at University of Washington. She is a Medical Anthropology and Global Health Major intending to double major in Public Health. Vivian is working towards a career in Epidemiology. This essay was composed for a lower-division English class titled "Acts of God: Natural Disaster in American Cultures" offered in the fall of 2016. The course investigated natural disaster through an interdisciplinary lens focusing on marginalized population vulnerabilities and disaster literature.
Many African American survivors of Hurricane Katrina still have this question playing in their minds: Why were we left behind? American author Michael Eric Dyson argues that, “We’re not responsible for the poor blacks being left behind. The local, state, or federal government is at fault” (4). Our government not taking responsibility, even today, adds to the woes of the extreme hardships that impoverished African Americans living in New Orleans endured after Katrina. Even now, after so many years have passed since the devastation, eyewitnesses and the public are hard-pressed to believe that there was no prejudice against below-the-poverty-line black communities in New Orleans. This prejudice is demonstrated in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild and in Shelton Alexander’s “Superdome Poem,” in which the main characters are forced to survive in hurricane-destroyed areas. The hurricane itself was a formidable act of nature, but the disproportionate number of African American victims was man-made. The history of New Orleans' government policy led to segregation long before the storm’s landfall, and the preexisting relationship between class and race was exposed through the treatment of victims and their inability to evacuate, decisions about government aid, and media coverage.
A look into the history of the Gulf Coast reveals how the racially segregated New Orleans came to be, the results of which ran their course after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. After the Civil War the city itself was not physically polarized; Dyson describes “the bustling ethnic and racial interactions—Driven in part by the unique ‘backyard’ patterns, where blacks and whites lived near each other, a practice that had roots in slavery” (7). The city became segregated as urbanization escalated, creating inner-city housing separated from suburban affluent neighborhoods. This series of city planning decisions to locate subsidized housing apart from suburban developments led to the city becoming increasingly racially polarized, isolating African Americans from equal educational and economic opportunities. It is said that history repeats itself, and here we see that played out with a physical divide between African Americans and whites for over 150 years.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina's landfall, New Orleans had become increasingly segregated by a host of government decisions related to city planning, including location decisions for inexpensive housing. For instance, “the federal government’s decision to concentrate public housing in segregated inner-city neighborhoods fueled metropolitan expansion. It also cut the poor off from decent housing and educational and economic opportunities by keeping affordable housing for poor minorities out of surrounding suburbs” (Dyson 7). This physical separation between poor African Americans and economically privileged classes demonstrate the government’s policies to racially divide the more affluent communities from the poor inhabitants of pre-hurricane New Orleans. The divisive structure and locations of these communities in New Orleans became a foundation for stigmas, making it difficult for the impoverished to hold a decent job or attend school in a more respected school district. Public schools in New Orleans are some of the worst in the country, and they determine much of children’s future economic success by influencing post-secondary schools and career paths. Parents that were unable to pay for their child to attend a private school had no choice but to allow them to enter their neighborhood's damaged public school system with less-than-optimal “teacher/pupil ratios, teacher quality, curriculum materials, and expenditures per student” (Dyson 8). Unfortunately, college acceptance rates from these schools were poor, forcing many into unstable jobs or the local Angola Prison correctional facility, continuing the vicious cycle of extreme poverty for African Americans residing in New Orleans.
The physical separation of the “haves” and “have nots” does not go unnoticed in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. The issue is especially apparent when Hushpuppy and Wink, her father, are fishing next to the levee in Mississippi. In this scene, Wink comments on the ugliness of the landscape of what they call the “dry side,” which has no sign of people from their perspective; only factories emerging from the horizon. This image of the levee as a barrier between poor, uneducated African Americans and those that live on the “dry side” demonstrates the lack of ongoing contact between communities and resources. A barrier, such as ill-located, dense affordable housing, or a levee, as in Beasts, denies opportunities for ease of access and communication across neighborhoods. Perhaps an improved integrated public housing system that promotes access to other communities could have lessened the stigma faced by poor inhabitants of the inner-city areas. Perhaps that access could have provided equal opportunity for education and jobs that still separate those communities in New Orleans today.
The lack of quality education and other economic opportunities such as a living wage job was experienced by a large percentage of the black population who had no access to transportation to get to those schools and jobs. These disparities not only were a result of segregation by government policy, but in turn set the scene for insurmountable barriers for the impoverished to evacuate before the hurricane made landfall. I argue that the federal government was at fault in denying those inhabitants a feasible evacuation plan and timely, acceptable housing after the disaster. Additionally, Dyson argues that “Black folk in these areas were strapped by incomes that were forty percent less than those earned by whites,” and “Black households nationwide generally have far less access to cars than white households, a trend mirrored in New Orleans where only 5 percent of non-Latino whites were without car access, while 27 percent of blacks were without cars” (5, 6). The government’s evacuation plan for New Orleans required families to have independent transportation and personal resources immediately available to leave their homes. These evacuations were unsuccessful because so many were without transportation by private car or public modes. The underprivileged—those from segregated, poorer neighborhoods—sought shelter in the Superdome, a structure that was not made to house thousands in extreme weather conditions. Sadly, some of those evacuees died under the supervision of the National Guard, and the government was unable to supply survivors with adequate amounts of food and water or a safe, clean environment. Evacuees, with nowhere else to go, were forced to stay in the Superdome, and conditions became dire. The same problem of being trapped is demonstrated in Beasts of the Southern Wild, when Wink questions those with their belongings strapped to the top of their vehicles why they are leaving, then comments they are, “scared of a little water.” This scene shows that those who had resources were the ones who left the Bathtub and those like Wink and Hushpuppy, who did not, couldn’t leave due to not having transportation for themselves or any government aid.
After the devastating effects of Katrina trapped thousands with little or no government assistance, the media portrayed post-disaster New Orleans as a third-world country, as poor black victims were depicted akin to refugees in their own city. The picture the media painted shed light on how little the local, state, and federal government had planned for such a huge natural disaster, then made clear that the government didn't adequately care for those left without housing and the means to return to some form of decent existence. In the depictions that millions saw on their television screens—night after night—of African Americans searching for food and crying for help in toxic flood waters, our society watched as the results of the government's segregation of neighborhoods played out on the nightly news. The segregation kept the African American communities from good jobs and better schools, holding them low on the economic ladder without the means to buy cars and get to those jobs and schools. When Katrina hit, they were trapped in the Bathtub, and the ramifications of intertwining racism and classism became clear as victims had to loot to survive. Instead of opening stores with food items to feed the desperate, the residents who were looting to feed their families were depicted on national television as criminals. These populations of displaced, hungry citizens searching for food and supplies to survive had no choice, because the government's reaction was slow and inadequate: "Men, women, and children tore through deserted streets lined with empty stores, hunting for food and water and clothing for their bodies. They were hurried along by the steadily diminishing prospect of rescue by the government, by their government, whose only visible representatives were the police who came after them for looting" (Dyson 2). In the unfortunate circumstances these people faced, we see the opposite of assistance by government officials: punishing survivors in search of basic requirements for survival.
After Hurricane Katrina made landfall political measures were also highly visible to the public through visual representations of containment in a holding pattern, rather than rehabilitation into respectable living situations. Shelton Alexander, writing of his Superdome experience in “Superdome Poem,” expresses feelings of entrapment: "'Why are we being held as prisoners of war?' He responded, following orders, 'Marshal law.' Understand, it felt more like Afghanistan and Iraq and not New Orleans.” His concern over why the National Guard kept people from leaving is also demonstrated by video footage of his poem, which shows dense crowds of people in and surrounding the Superdome while just beyond the guarded perimeter there was little chaos and mayhem. It is clear that people were not being held inside the Superdome with their own best interest at heart. Rather, it was easier to contain people in one tight area and administer minimal care, than to transport victims and displaced community members to better equipped facilities. Video evidence can portray many different perspectives to a large group of diverse viewers, but a common view of the ongoing live coverage of the aftermath of Katrina is that "Many colors were present in this multicultural stew of suffering, but the dominant color was black" (Dyson 2).
Even off camera, post-disaster New Orleans involved atrocious treatment of African American survivors by government programs, forcing them to live in unsuitable conditions or compromise their lives and leave their homes. Shelton Alexander, in “Superdome Poem,” is not hesitant to punctuate the dirty and inhumane environment he and thousands of others were forced to live in, and the violence that existed over obtaining food and water. He says, “A bottle of hot water, a riot almost started, shoved and pushed forward, over food, a shortage.” This scene shows a crowd of primarily African Americans around a small group of national guards who clearly have too little to supply food and water to those who could not leave the city. The conditions Alexander shows through his words and images of struggling people in the presence of government assistance demonstrates the lack of care from emergency assistance agencies and Homeland Security. This lacking treatment is also shown in Beasts of the Southern Wild, when the residents of the Bathtub are moved to what seems to be a shelter with volunteer caregivers. Hushpuppy describes the environment saying that, “It didn’t look like a prison, it looked like a fish tank with no water.” In one scene, Hushpuppy looks petrified and like she does not belong, standing against a stark white wall in the shelter’s child care area. She is cleaned and dressed the same as the other girls in the room, yet she is being yelled at for standing still by a white woman working there while the other girls, lighter than her are screaming and throwing toys across the room without punishment. This shows that even in post-disaster treatment, there is prejudice against poor American Americans that stayed and now require help due to not having the resources to leave.
There is no denying that those left behind were largely poor African Americans, lacking resources and rendered vulnerable by the continuous neglect of government policy makers and emergency aid. The government's response to Hurricane Katrina victims was entrenched in a history of the systemic segregation in New Orleans. The ramifications of this intertwined racism and class stigma played out in the ugly aftermath of the relief efforts as the undeniable link between the underpinnings of government policy toward division of class and opportunity, and the negative impact on the African American communities of New Orleans. Twelve years after the destruction by Hurricane Katrina and racial divide is rampant in the United States, making it difficult not to detect racism and classism as a government production, especially in national response to ongoing attacks and disasters today.
Alexander, Shelton. “Superdome Poem.” YouTube, uploaded by History, 20 Aug 2015,
Beasts of the Southern Wild. Directed by Benh Zeitlin, Icon, 2012.
Dyson, Michael Eric. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. New York: Basic