Socialist Worker

New Orleans: they used the deluge to 'clean' the city

One year after Hurricane Katrina struck, the once vibrant US city of New Orleans remains a devastated place, says Mike Davis

Issue No. 2016

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders

New Orleans is still broken. There is a “beauty strip” along the river in mainly white neighbourhoods, where “les bon temps” are still celebrated, but the heart of the African-American metropolis, middle class as well as working class neighbourhoods, remains a ghost city. Vast areas of the city are still without power and bodies are still being discovered in the toxic rubble.

More than half of the population, meanwhile, remains in exile. A quarter of a million Louisianans, at least 80 percent black, are in Texas. Another 100,000 are in Atlanta.

Homeowners in New Orleans and adjoining parishes, unbelievably, have not yet received a single cent of federal reconstruction money. Only the small minority of homeowners who had flood insurance have been able to start rebuilding.

Those who rented their homes - a majority of the pre-Katrina black population - receive nothing, and the Bush administration refuses to re?open most of the federal housing projects in the city.

The other day I talked over the phone with a Cajun friend of mine. “Maybe we should invite Hizbollah to New Orleans,” he said. He had just read an article in the New York Times about the speed and lack of red tape with which the Shia movement was starting to rebuild southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, a visiting delegation from Sri Lanka and some of the other tsunami devastated countries was reportedly “appalled” by the incomprehensible conditions they found.

Although he inexplicably failed to interview key local activists or to show any footage of the many recent street protests, Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke, just shown on cable television, is a powerful indictment of the criminal negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers, whose shoddily built levees drowned most of the city.

Spike - in striking contrast to Congress - lets the ordinary people of New Orleans, black and white, speak at length. Their re?telling of their experiences is both magnificent and heart breaking.

Ethnic cleansing, meanwhile, works. New Orleans right now is a small, probably white majority city. At least 100,000 black votes - the former balance of power in Louisiana - have been lost, probably permanently, to the benefit of the Republicans.

Property values in the white “beauty strip” from Tulane to the French Quarter are soaring, and even more black residents will probably soon leave for lack of schools or affordable rental housing.

The Latino immigrants brought into New Orleans by unscrupulous building contractors remain camped out in their cars, harassed or arrested once their labour is no longer needed.

The anger in the city remains incandescent, but the fate of Gulf Coast is now only a marginal national issue. The Democratic betrayal of New Orleans is almost as great as, and certainly more hypocritical than, the Bush administration’s.

Hilary Clinton and her ilk are too busy defending Israel’s right to destroy Lebanon to waste even crocodile tears on black folk and poor Cajuns.

I must confess to being shocked at how little real rage the Congressional black caucus has mobilised, or how little priority the labour movement has given to one of the most shocking assaults on working class people in modern US history.

The main burden of solidarity with New Orleans has been borne by groups such as Acorn (a national union of working class homeowners), Common Ground (drawn from a broad alternative left and anti-war movement), and a coalition of black nationalist and Afrocentric groups, civil rights veterans and former Black Panthers.

In April, I wrote the following in The Nation and, sadly, it remains my judgement:

“It would be inspiring to see in this latest battle of New Orleans the birth pangs of a new or renewed civil rights movement, but gritty local activism has yet to be echoed in meaningful solidarity by the labour movement, so-called progressive democrats or even the Congressional black caucus.

“Pledges, press statements and occasional delegations, yes, but not the unfaltering national outrage and sense of urgency that should attend the attempted murder of New Orleans on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act [the 1965 act that helped enfranchise black voters].

“In 1874... the failure of Northern Radicals to launch a militant, armed riposte to the white insurrection in New Orleans helped to doom the first Reconstruction. Will our feeble response to Hurricane Katrina now lead to the rollback of the second?”

Mike Davis’ book Planet of Slums is available for £15.99 from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Sat 2 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2016
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