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Hurricane Katrina—class, race and climate change

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As flash flooding and tornadoes hit the north-east United States, Sophie Squire looks at the lessons from Hurricane Katrina in 2005
Issue 2770
Katrina caused terrible flooding
Katrina caused terrible flooding (Pic: US Archives)

When Hurricane Katrina hit 16 years ago it wasn’t just the ferocity of the storm that caused the devastation. It was a racist and unequal system that deemed some people weren’t worthy of assistance. 

Similarities can be seen across the US now. Hurricane Ida has destroyed areas in southern eastern states, including Louisiana, and moved northwards to the east coast hitting major cities such as New York.

The destruction from Katrina in 2005 was mainly felt in New Orleans, Louisiana, which suffered a large proportion of the 1,800 deaths. 

Before Katrina, it had been known for decades that the city was vulnerable to both flooding and hurricanes. 

But money for flood defences was regarded as less important than war by then-president George Bush. 

The climate crisis fuels hurricanes
The climate crisis fuels hurricanes
  Read More

He instead funnelled federal money away from infrastructure projects into his imperialist War on Terror. 

This meant levees, or flood walls, fell into disrepair. As a result many burst because of storm surges caused by Katrina. 

Around 50 levees broke in New Orleans alone leading to 80 percent of the city being submerged in filthy floodwater. 

In New Orleans, race and class already determined where you lived. When Katrina hit it then determined if your home was destroyed by flooding.   

Poor and predominantly black neighbourhoods such as St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward, which lay below sea level, were devastated by the water.

When the floods hit, the suffering was extreme. Elderly residents of a care home were abandoned and left to drown in the floods. 

Hospitals collapsed, contributing to 47 percent of the deaths from the storm being attributed to preventable and chronic diseases. 

Dying patients were abandoned to die alone. 

Instead of helping survivors who screamed for help on the roofs of houses surrounded by floodwater, the state scrambled to protect private property. 

The New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin gave the order for the police to concentrate on protecting shops against looters over search and rescue missions. 

In a number of cases, the police shot to kill. 

A black man named Henry Glover who had survived the initial floods was shot, beaten and then dragged into a car that was set alight by police officer David Warren.

The media turned on the black victims of Katrina, many who were demonised as “looters”. 

Meanwhile white victims were described as “survivors”. Across the US and the world people watched the horror unfold. 

Katrina became not just a hurricane. It was an event that exposed the sheer brutality, racism and corruption that was endemic in US society. 

The treatment of poor black people by the state was a reminder for many that in the US black lives simply didn’t matter. 

And the memory of Katrina was a part of the catalyst for the anger at state racism that fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement a decade later. 

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is a warning about the kind of brutality the system throws up when an environmental crisis hits. 

Institutional racism means those in poorer areas are more likely to be black. 

And those living in poorer areas are hit worse by weather changes.

The link between class, racism and environmental impacts are clear. 

And repeated attacks and failures by the state that lead to anger can explode into resistance on a mass scale.

The Black Lives Matter movement today can build from the connections between race and the fight for the climate to tap into discontent and widen the struggle.

As extreme weather events become increasingly common, the fight for a better planned and more equal system is becoming ever more urgent.

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