I. Refugees

We were no longer citizens of the United States. We were refugees. We were herded like cattle, we had to go through checkpoints, we had to be frisked. We had to stand outside of porta-potties to guard the doors for each other. It didn’t matter that we were people who worked in the hospital. We were combined with the people from the housing projects. We were all put together. So Katrina really was the great equalizer. It didn’t matter that I came from an affluent African American community here in New Orleans; it didn’t matter that I worked at the hospital. We were given a ration of food, we were all equal.

Denise Johnson

We don’t see Katrina as the storm. We see the government as the storm. We see FEMA as the storm….Basically I feel that I was not displaced by the storm, I was displaced by the government. I’ve been carrying the stresses of all the unresolved issues. I feel that the government has left too much unresolved that we, the displaced people are carrying. But we can’t resolve it without what I call the therapy of justice. Because we haven’t been treated justly and our situation has not been treated with caring.

— Harold Toussaint

About PTSD, they say that is very common among Katrina survivors, that we suffer from  post-traumatic stress disorder. But it’s not post. The trauma isn’t over so it’s not post-traumatic stress disorder.

— Parnell Herbert

When we hear the word “refugees,” Americans usually think of populations and landscapes far from the United States. We envisage blue-plastic tent cities housing Africans who have fled war or famine or Haitians displaced by an earthquake, or swirls of smoke and dust over slow-moving columns of overloaded trucks and oxcarts and peasants on foot escaping from violence or a flood in Pakistan. Or, from an earlier era, we might remember desperate families waving from the decks of flimsy fishing boats tossing in the South China Sea. Rarely do we connect the word with Americans or any American experience. But it is the right word for hundreds of thousands of Americans displaced from New Orleans and the surrounding territory that was struck by Hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005.*

How many people were made refugees by Katrina? Writing about the storm’s effects (and those from Hurricane Rita, which slammed into the Gulf Coast just a few weeks later) the authors of a Brookings Institution report observed that “the population dispersal they induced was the largest the United States has experienced during such a brief moment in time.” A U.S. government study estimated that the number of individuals aged 16 and over who left their homes because of Katrina was slightly more than 1.5 million, about three-quarters of them in Louisiana. A majority were able to return to their homes relatively quickly, in a few days or weeks. But approximately 450,000 people from the region were still displaced at the end of 2005. In the city of New Orleans alone, Census Bureau estimates in the summer of 2006 showed nearly a quarter million fewer residents than the pre-Katrina population, a decline of more than half. The surrounding suburbs showed a decline of nearly 60,000 additional residents. New Orleans had been losing population at the rate of  more than 5,000 a year since the start of the decade, so not all of the missing people could be assumed to have fled because of Katrina; But clearly the great majority had left for that reason, and remained displaced nearly a year later.[i]

How many were still displaced in 2010 — and how many could still be called refugees — is difficult to measure with any precision. Pending the release of the official 2010 census results, the most recent Census Bureau estimate showed the city’s population had rebounded to 355,000, almost 80 percent of the pre-Katrina level, but a significant part of the increase represented newcomers, not returning refugees.[ii] Nor was there any way to know how many of those who had left because of the storm still wanted or planned to come back, and how many were permanently relocated in new communities. Both groups might still be called refugees, perhaps, in the sense that they had migrated unwillingly from their old homes. But if those in the latter group were no longer in the refugee stage of their lives, the memories and consequences and emotions of displacement still had powerful effects even while they were putting down new roots in new places. Among African American refugees, who made up a disproportionate number of the long-term displaced, one significant emotion was a lasting anger at a portrayal that unfairly painted them as predominantly looters and criminals who became a burden on the public largely because they were too ignorant or irresponsible to save themselves.

Those memories and consequences and emotions — and the role they play in the official, social, and individual response to a traumatic event — were the focus of three days of discussion in New Orleans on June 9, 10, and 11, 2010, on the theme “Displacement as an Obstacle to Recovery.” Organized by the Academy for Critical Analysis at John Jay College of the City University of New York, the meeting brought together members of the New Orleans community and participants drawn from a variety of fields including mental health, emergency response management, public administration and leadership, sociology and media studies, and journalism. This was ACIA’s second case conference, following its July 2009 discussions on the aftermath of the shooting rampage by a mentally ill student that took 33 lives at Virginia Tech University in April, 2007.

A critical incident, as defined by Dr. Frank M. Ochberg, the creator of the concept, “is a relatively brief occurrence involving injury, loss, conflict, discovery or change of significant proportion, usually unscripted and unanticipated, with the potential to alter existing societal norms. Critical incidents are usually traumatic, threatening the bonds of trust that bind communities, but may be positive, initiating historic consequences.” ACIA, established at John Jay College in 2009 with the support of the Dart Foundation, seeks to promote and disseminate multidisciplinary scholarly research relating to the emergence, management and consequences of critical incidents. For that purpose it sponsors scholarship and research, hosts conferences and symposia, and maintains research archives of incident information.

By definition, critical incidents involve the wider society, not only those directly affected. That makes the broader social context a crucial subject for analysis, along with the particular details of the event. In New Orleans, a poor city with a two-thirds African American majority, matters of race, poverty and social class were and remain prominent in the Katrina story — relevant to the population’s experience of the storm itself, and just as relevant to the numerous and complicated post-disaster issues of rebuilding, resettlement and return, and community and individual recovery. “Katrina killed whites as much as blacks, it killed rich as much as poor,” said cardiologist Keith C. Ferdinand, “but what people do not understand is that the lingering impact of Katrina is very disproportionate in the black community.” Notably, the problems of long-term displacement appeared to have affected African Americans far more than whites. In the initial evacuations, whites and blacks were represented roughly in proportion to their numbers in the population, but a much higher percentage of whites managed to return to their homes during the first year after the storm, while blacks disproportionately remained displaced. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study summarized the disparity as of October 2006:

Although the demographic composition of evacuees re­flects the composition of prestorm residents of the Ka­trina-affected region, the probability of returning varies considerably by demographic group…. Several demographic groups, including blacks, persons who had never married, and persons with lower levels of education, were much less likely to return than were individuals in other racial, mari­tal, or educational groups. Specifically, 54 percent of black evacuees returned to their pre-Katrina counties, compared with 82 percent of white evacuees; and 61 percent of nev­er-married evacuees returned, compared with 78 percent of married evacuees. The differences among educational groups are less marked, but the estimates indicate that evacuees without a high school diploma were less likely to return than were those with more education.[iii]

Three years later, though the city was still majority black, the percentage of African Americans in the population remained lower than before Katrina (61 percent as opposed to 68 percent before the storm). The percentage of poor people was also lower: the 2008 poverty rate of 23 percent, while well above the national average, was the lowest for New Orleans in three decades,  according to a study released by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. The study’s authors noted that “Post-Katrina, the city is now home to a broader number of households from across the income spectrum, specifically a higher share of middle-class families and upper-income families than before the storm.”[iv] While it is not the only factor, the disproportionate continuing displacement of African Americans is clearly reflected in those demographic changes.

Racial and class divides lay not just between different groups of displaced people. They also lay between many victims of the storm and the institutions and agencies that were responsible for dealing with their problems. In the acute phase of the disaster, these included civilian and military emergency responders, law enforcement, FEMA and military authorities, and public and private disaster relief organizations. In the aftermath, they included city and regional governments, planners, developers and other business and neighborhood interests seeking to guide and shape the rebuilding of the devastated city. To a significant extent, both during the crisis and in the reconstruction effort, a profound sense of “them and us” separated large segments of the displaced population from those who were supposed to be their rescuers from the storm or their supporters in the long process of recovery. The same sense divided many African Americans from much of the national media and others they believed, often with very good reason, had unfairly stigmatized their community with highly exaggerated or completely unfounded reports of crime and looting during the crisis. To many, the stigma reflected not just careless or unreflective racial stereotyping but also a deliberate shifting of responsibility — taking blame away from officials and agencies who botched the response to the disaster, and putting it on the victims instead.

Feelings of anger and alienation emerged frequently in the narratives of a group of survivors who told their stories during ACIA’s conference. Parnell Herbert, an activist, artist and playwright, commented that “government decision-makers had as much to do with what happened in New Orleans as the storm” — a belief expressed by others as well. “The prime example,” Herbert recalled, was the authorities’ decision to seal off all the buildings in several major public housing projects slated for demolition. Residents were not let back in even though the structures were still standing after the flood — as the people who had lived there and in neighboring communities expected they would, since the buildings had withstood earlier disasters.

“People who lived around town would come to the projects because they knew they could stand,” Herbert said. “I grew up in the projects over there and we knew.” But after the Katrina flooding, “the National Guard, the city, the state police would go out to the projects” and order people away, often at gunpoint. “You were not allowed to return to your home at all to get any of your belongings. So people displaced in Houston and other places, and after having experienced all that they had went through, the trauma of the flood, the hurricane and then the trauma of getting displaced, the trauma of being in a new city where you’re not welcome, they were forced to deal with the fact that their homes were going to be destroyed and that they would not be allowed to go back to get their belongings.” In the end “the projects were destroyed with people’s belongings still inside.” Herbert’s conclusion: “The government didn’t want the people back.”

A federal court decision in August 2010 appeared to support, at least by implication, the view that recovery efforts were skewed in favor of the affluent and against poorer residents, and thus against African Americans. Ruling that Louisiana’s formula for awarding grants to repair homes damaged in Katrina was unfair to black homeowners, U.S. District Court Judge Henry H. Kennedy, Jr., declared that “statistical and anecdotal evidence” submitted in the court proceedings “leads to a strong inference that, on average, African American homeowners received awards that fell farther short of the cost of repairing their homes than did white recipients.” Opinions about reconstruction efforts were also sharply divided. Five years after Katrina, according to a poll taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation, whites were much more likely than blacks to take a positive view of the city’s and their own recovery. While 42 percent of African Americans reported that their lives were still disrupted by the storm, only 16 percent of whites felt that way.[v]

(Of course, refugees can feel anger and alienation for reasons having nothing to do with racial and class differences. A common consequence of any traumatizing event is an isolating feeling that other people don’t understand — a feeling that can easily turn into anger. Sandy Rosenthal recalled that after she and her family were evacuated from New Orleans to Lafayette, La., she encountered “a woman who was trying to be nice to me and tell me a story that showed she had empathy for me, and she said ‘yeah, I know just how you feel, two years ago, luckily nobody was home but my house got hit by a tornado, it was horrible.’ My husband and I didn’t say anything but we were very angry because how can you compare your house being hit by a tornado, which is insured, you know, to what we’ve been through. We’ve lost everything, entire neighborhoods. I’m starting to get emotional, but where’s my son going to go to school? How am I going to earn a living? The woman she said she had to move into her mother’s house because of the tornado,. But in New Orleans after the levees broke, our parents’ homes were flooded too!  She had no idea. It is difficult, it is a challenge to get people to understand. It is difficult. And I wake up every day wondering how we can make people understand.”)

Working The System
One reason why Katrina’s consequences were disproportionately bad for African Americans is that they were often disadvantaged in getting assistance that should have been available. Those with less education and social status were less able to navigate the system and get benefits that could have helped them rebuild homes and lives. Cardiologist Keith C. Ferdinand, who was born and grew up in the Ninth Ward, lost his life work when the Heartbeats Life Center, which he and his wife Daphne founded and ran for 21 years in the Ninth Ward community, was ruined in the Katrina flooding. The flood also destroyed the first floor interior of their home. As devastating as those losses were, Ferdinand pointed out, with his education and means, he was better able to seek recovery from the financial loss than most people in the Lower Ninth:

There were certain monies you could get from Red Cross, FEMA. So I found out where the FEMA location was in Atlanta. I went down there. There was a guy in all black with a big military gun who was turning people away and said no more, do it online. Put your heads back to August 2005. The literacy gap in terms of computers is always wide, but back then it was even wider. You’re telling these so-called refugees, evacuees, whatever you want to call them, now you gotta do it online. Well, if you have a college education or if you have the means, you can figure out how to work the system. Some of the best progress in New Orleans has been in institutions like Tulane, some of the private schools, etc., and I’ll tell you why. Nothing illegal, but they’re able to work the system. They’re able to go into the computers, work the FEMA system, get the FEMA grants and insurance money. Many of the working class people I know were unable to access the insurance money, the government money. Basically they felt that whatever they got was whatever they got and they were happy to get it….

I’m personally fine. I know how to work the system. The insurance people, they tried to say it was all water and flood insurance and that’s all they’ll give you. Flood insurance capped at $250,000. I had medical equipment worth a million and a half dollars. $250,000 just made me feel worse. But I’m educated, I have means. So I got an attorney and I sued  and I got together documents proving that I had what I had. And I know they didn’t believe me because when they put it in the computer and it says zip code 70177 which is the Ninth Ward and the lower Ninth Ward, I know they thought, this claim pops up and this guy’s gotta be scheming, there’s nothing down there worth that much money. So they refused my claim.

They sent in a guy from Chicago, nice suit, briefcase. Middle-aged white guy. We meet at one of these big law offices. And there’s a court reporter and they’re going to take my deposition. Now I know they’re not interested in taking my deposition. They want to show me the fear of going against  a big company and they’re going to use all their powers to fight my claim. So we went through all the certifications, board certified in cardiology, internal medicine, nuclear cardiology. I do all that stuff. I was never that impressed with formal education, I just did it. But I say to him, you can take my formal deposition but I’m going to court. I know all the judges, most of the people know me and know I had what I had, and even if there wasn’t flooding there was no electricity. These things were computer-based, they had chips in them, there are boards in them. I lost all my equipment so you can either pay me and if you don’t pay me we’ll go to court and I’ll sue you and I’ll win. I’ll pay 30 percent to this guy and then I’m going to sue you for damages.

Guy teared up a little bit because he was sent there to try to size me up. I later found out from the justice that that was indeed why they send people for these deposition hearings, to size up the person and how serious they are about their claim. So about ten days later I got a call from a lady in their national office  and she said, “I looked you up on the internet and you’re really a good guy. You were really doing a lot so we’re going to take care of your claim.” So don’t cry for me, I feel fine. But don’t forget the thousands of people who died and who have suffered so much due to hurricane Katrina. And it wasn’t the same for everyone, Race and class had a lot to do with that.

Parnell Herbert, Harold Toussaint, Denise Johnson, and the Rev. Aldon Cotton were speakers on a panel organized for ACIA by D’Ann Penner and Keith Ferdinand, co-editors of a remarkable oral history collection, Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2009). Fuller versions of their stories of Katrina, the evacuation and the aftermath appear in the book along with accounts of 23 others (including Ferdinand) who went through the storm and subsequent displacement.

Their presentations to the ACIA audience brought out several themes relating to the refugee experience. One could be phrased this way: People are not just displaced from where they were. They are also displaced from who they were. Refugees typically have lost status, as well as belongings — and the former loss can be the more painful. When you leave your home and your work and your neighborhood, you also leave behind many of the things that identify you to the rest of the world.  You no longer have the networks of friends and neighbors and workmates who know who you are and what you do. You are without the job that defines how you support yourself and spend your days, and that locates you in your society and gives a structure and purpose to your life.  You still have the same knowledge and experience and qualifications, but many of those around you don’t know about them.

Aldon Cotton, pastor of Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church — still in the last stage of constructing its new home, five years after the storm — described  having to resume his identity as a preacher but without having the respectable clothes that would make him look like one. “It happened in Greenville, Mississippi,,” he related, “that I met up with another church and they wanted me to do their Bible study. So I showed up in just a T-shirt and looking kind of rough and I could see, I could feel the stares, I could tell they were thinking,  `who is this guy?’ And it just so happened that in the Bible study the very passage we were discussing was chapter 2 of James that says don’t judge people by their clothes.* So I said, you all could’ve been judging me dressed like this, coming in from New Orleans, and from that point I taught that class every Thursday.” There is, of course, a crucial difference between losing identity externally and losing it internally. As Rev. Cotton explained later, he never lost sight of who he was. “It is knowing who I am and Whose I am that keeps me focused, no matter where I am. The fact that I didn’t have on a suit and tie did not mean I was not God’s preacher.”

Not having clothes  reflecting professional status might seem a fairly trivial matter, but the sense of losing identity, of being viewed only through the lens of stereotype and as one of an undifferentiated mass, was anything but trivial for many New Orleans refugees. As D’Ann Penner pointed out, that was what the refugees saw when their own experience was reflected back to them through news reports.

Penner identified “three typical storylines that emerged from the news media after New Orleans flooded.” The first told of a disintegrating society, characterized by the image of “a young black man with the flat screen TV and shooting at helicopters.” Only several weeks later, Penner said, did journalists begin to acknowledge “that reports of rampant crime and violence were either taken entirely out of context or were grossly exaggerated.” The second storyline, she went on, “was reserved for brave and resourceful hurricane Katrina heroes, who were predominantly white if you trusted the media.” And the third wave of stories after Katrina “focused on destitute black New Orleanians or so they seemed after surviving a hurricane, living without air conditioning for several days and wading through deep water with their salvageable belongings. This motif confused the working poor and lower working class blacks with the chronically unemployed and supposedly indolent underclass.”

Rescuers, as well as the national TV audience, often tended to see refugees as stereotypes too. That is probably why when a National Guardsman asked Harold Toussaint to walk over and wave down a unit of passing federal troops to tell them he needed help, they never let him get close enough to pass on the message. Instead, they trained M16 rifles on him and ordered him to get back. As Toussaint recounted the incident in Overcoming Katrina, he felt the troops regarded him as an enemy combatant. “All these federal police saw was that I was black, and blacks are criminals. That’s what I got from them when we needed them most. It was very discouraging to be treated as an enemy combatant rather than someone who needed to be rescued.”

Denise Johnson was an evacuee because she had chosen to stay on her job at Charity Hospital to care for her family and her patients and not because she didn’t have the means or the sense to leave, as many assumed about New Orleans refugees. Once the hospital was evacuated, though, no one knew that about her. Instead, she was just one more anonymous unit in the mass of displaced humanity — and treated that way, with no recognition of her courage or the harrowing experiences she had gone through.

"I volunteered to stay for the storm, at the time I was on staff as a nurse at Charity Hospital," Johnson (who went on after Katrina to get a clinical doctorate in medicine) told the ACIA audience. "I volunteered to stay because my husband had sickle cell anemia, so at that time he was in a lot of pain. So I said I’m willing to volunteer to stay, can you use me? And they said are you kidding? I was thinking to myself, I’ve ridden out every other storm, this will just be another storm and I’ll be back home on Monday. And everything went well and then suddenly, I think it was late Monday night or early in the morning Tuesday, all of a sudden the water started coming up. We were standing on the balcony across from University Hospital and we could actually see the water coming up. As a matter of fact there was a gentlemen standing next to a stop sign, and we were calling to him, 'come on up to the hospital, come on in,' and he was holding on to the stop sign and said, 'I can’t swim.' So he wouldn’t move and the water started to rise up around him and there wasn’t anything we could do because we were trying to get him to come in and within a matter of minutes this fellow drowned right in front of us just holding on to a stop sign. Because he couldn’t move."

The hospital “was like a nightmare,” Johnson went on. “… No running water, no lights.  The stench, the bodies floating in the water.” Afterward, she added,  “it took a year just to get my six-year-old grandchild to take a bath because she wouldn’t get in the water. She was in the hospital and she wouldn’t get in the water after that. She just assumed if she took a bath she was going to die. She had to go to therapy to encourage her to get in a bathtub and it really took a year.”

Four or five days into their ordeal, someone found a working cell phone. Johnson related: “I called my brother and he said ‘where are you?’ Because all the news networks had said that all the hospitals had been evacuated. And I said no, we’re still here. And he said no you can’t be there, CNN and all the networks said you’re gone…. We were all so scared. They had actually taken the prisoners out, evacuated the prisoners. I don’t know if you’re aware of how the prison system works but they get paid for every  prisoner the state has in their custody. We had watched them with these machine guns taking their prisoners out. And they said we’ll come back to get y’all. So in the next days we saw helicopters landing everywhere and helicopters landing on top of buildings to rescue people. And to this day it’s hard to talk about because it makes me so furious what really happened.”

Johnson and other staff members who had volunteered to stay — many, like her, accompanied by family members who had also taken refuge in the hospital — struggled to take care of patients in stifling heat, with no lights, no power for the ventilators in the intensive care unit, no hot food, no running water after the first day or two. “After a point,” she said with remarkable understatement, “we got tired.” Along with being tired, they also grew fearful, as days passed without rescue, that nobody would ever come to get them out. When a flotilla of small craft finally appeared to evacuate the hospital, Johnson’s husband, 16-year-old son, daughter and grandchildren got on the boats while she remained on duty. “I stayed in the hospital; I watched every patient get evacuated from the hospital and I stayed until the very end.” When she finally left, the boat ride to waiting evacuation buses left a final chilling memory: “you could hear the bodies in the water thumping up against the side of the boat.”

Rescue workers told her not to be concerned about being separated from her family. “They said don’t worry about it, you’ll all end up in the same place. Just get on the bus.” In fact it took three days before she found the rest of the family — three days that still make Johnson angry when she remembers them. “The treatment I received from the time I got on the bus until I got to Texas was inhumane. It was just inhumane.” Even after she was reunited with her husband and other family members and given temporary shelter in a comfortable home in an affluent Houston neighborhood, more painful experiences awaited, much of the pain coming from being seen not as who she was but only as one of an undesirable group of refugees.

“The treatment that we received there was also a big disappointment. Because here we are in an affluent white community, we were black, and they were thinking, they knew why we were there, they were thinking who’s paying for this black family to live in our nice gated community? The children in the neighborhood harassed my grandson, other children said they thought that all black people live in the projects and they don’t belong here. And the most hateful thing of all of it was the word “nigger” being written on my car.

“We were already down because of what we had been through. The traumatic experience of the boat as we’re trying to get to the bus to get out of the city. We’ve already been herded like cattle and treated like refugees as we’re herded out of the city. The traumatic experience of it all — and then to have the neighbors reject us because they felt like somebody was giving us a place to stay that we didn’t deserve, like we were getting a handout to stay in a gated community. And that’s the thing that broke my heart because I felt like we were people, and yes we were from New Orleans, but everybody in New Orleans didn’t rob to get what they had. I have worked every day of my life to get what I had and to provide for my family. So to be treated like that was unbearable.”

Another theme in the displacement experience could be formulated as the abrupt, unexpected vanishing of a familiar world, the loss of one’s past. And with that loss, one of a different, haunting kind, too: the loss of things that never happened.

Arnessa Garrett saw Katrina’s effects from the vantage point of a community that at one point harbored 40,000 displaced people — nearly a 50 percent increase over its normal population of approximately 100,000. The influx was a major story for The Advertiser, the local newspaper in Lafayette, La., 120 miles west of New Orleans. As senior editor of the paper, Garrett supervised much of the coverage of the refugees’ experience in Lafayette. Many of the subjects of those stories, she recalled at the ACIA conference, wanted first of all “for us to know how everything in their lives changed in an instant. That phrase kept coming up in the initial stories that I saw. I thought, well, that’s kind of an obvious thing but it seems really important for the evacuees to tell that side of their story. A lot of the stories had: ‘I packed a bag expecting to be home in 3 days and now I’ve got nothing, months later I have nothing that’s familiar to me.’ It was things like wedding pictures and baby pictures, all of that was still in their homes. They wanted to give you the feeling that their life changed in an instant and they were left feeling uncertain. And that level of uncertainty was part of the trauma that was part of the reason they had so much anxiety. If you can’t trust that your family, your friends are going to be there the next day, the world all of a sudden becomes a very scary place.”

The impact of that loss “really hit home,” Garrett continued, when it became possible to visit New Orleans again after the storm. “You could drive around and see the signs on schools, back to school party August 29, which obviously never happened. Or gospel mass, September 1. Events that people had planned for, that they may have gotten a new outfit for, that never happened. The idea that your life could change in an instant like that was very important.” (Listening to Garrett’s account, Steven M. Gorelick, professor of media studies at Hunter College in New York, recognized something from his encounters with survivors of the Holocaust and their memories. “Part of the loss is those things that never happened,” Gorelick realized. “I haven’t thought of it as much as I should have, but if you read a lot of accounts of survivors of genocide, of refugees, children who were never conceived come up. And they begin to loom in memory as people. Houses that weren’t built, birthdays that weren’t celebrated, weddings that didn’t take place. These events, when people talk about them, eventually they begin to be remembered from before they happened and now I see that when they don’t happen they continue to live in some way.”)

Loss of the past and the familiar can remain deeply painful even when a refugee seems to have adjusted well to a new place. Pamela Jenkins, a University of New Orleans sociologist who has studied the effects of displacement on Katrina refugees, told about a conversation with one woman who outwardly appeared to have successfully reestablished her life in Baton Rouge. The family had a new house, the husband was working, their daughter was doing well in school, and “on the surface,” Jenkins said, “it would look like they were recovered.” But the appearance was deceiving. “‘I’m more isolated,'” Jenkins recalled the woman telling her. “‘When I was in New Orleans I was very active, very outgoing, always busy, teaching at my church, working at my church. I was really busy, excited about where I was.'” She had tried to recreate that life in Baton Rouge: “‘I go to church every Sunday, I go to Sunday school.'” But she still felt isolated. “‘I try to work through that in my mind. I have this home but sometimes I just stay in the home and sometimes my husband will come home and he’ll see the newspaper outside in the yard and he’ll say, why’d you leave the newspaper outside? And I’ll say I don’t know, I just couldn’t find my way to walk out the door.'”

A last theme in the stories of the displaced could be what they missed, what they no longer belong to… a “constant looking for home,” as Pamela Jenkins put it, even if home no longer exists .

Since most people have a strong attachment to the place they think of as home, whether the place is known for a vivid, distinctive culture or not, it may not be literally true that people from New Orleans are more powerfully attached to their city and neighborhoods than other people are to theirs. It is true that compared to other cities, New Orleans has traditionally had an unusually large number of people who were born there and spent their entire lives in the same neighborhood, so it is conceivable that those ties truly are more meaningful. In any case the sense of New Orleans as an unusual, different and special place gave a particular form to the feeling of loss after Katrina — a loss felt not just by those who permanently settled elsewhere but among those who returned, too, since in significant ways the city was not and would not be the same as it had been before the storm.

Harold Toussaint, a chef and wine steward whose family roots branch back to Senegal, Martinique, Haiti, France, and Louisiana’s native Houma Indians, spent many years away from New Orleans but never stopped thinking of it as a place that is different from everywhere else. “A place of unconditional growth on the soul level,” he calls it. “People are allowed to express themselves, nobody gets criticized because we believe that everybody has a gift here and don’t stop them or you’ll squash the gift. Just let them be and they’ll cultivate it. The country needs more of that. There is a rich spiritual vein in this place. I don’t know what it is but we’re very very fortunate…. There’s something in this area, there’s something and we have to keep coming back here just to get it. We’re rich. We are all rich, we’re very rich people down here.” Before Katrina the spirit “was wide and it was everywhere,” Toussaint went on, and when he came back after Katrina it was still there but “condensed,” not as evident or visible as before but like a vein of precious metal under the ground:

“It was a vein but it’s like the mother lode, all you have to know is how to tap into it. And people from all over the world come here to get their soul restored. I’ve often thought of it as an elephant’s graveyard. You know, elephants have this certain place they go to die, when they’re about to die. But they go to that place to get their spirit back. There’s something about here — it’s a gifted place. I hardly know anybody here who’s not gifted. Even the children are gifted in the spirit. They see things that we just don’t know….”

Pamela Jenkins learned from her research that displacement is not a single event. “It’s a process. It doesn’t end.” For many Katrina refugees, the first place they reached after evacuating was by no means the last. “People would go to Houston first. And then something would happen and they would go to Atlanta. And then they would go to Jackson, and maybe they’d end up in Baton Rouge,” Jenkins said. She herself lived in “nine places in 18 months,” which she called “pretty average for people in this diaspora” (it’s also the title of one of her chapters in a forthcoming book). In her interviews, Jenkins recalled “we asked a question, are you home here? And we would’ve gone through this whole interview process and they’d say, oh I’m doing fine, I got a job, I got a house. Towards the end we’d say are you home? And they’d say oh no, I’m not home. And so there’s that constant looking for home….”

A Man-Made Disaster
In some disasters, it is not just people who are displaced. Trust and the connection between people and their government and other institutions of public life can be displaced too. What was widely seen as a disastrously bungled rescue effort during the Katrina crisis frayed public confidence in official agencies and national leadership, not just in the region but across the country. In New Orleans, the crisis of trust went farther, involving not just the response but the reasons the storm was so destructive in the first place. “The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made disaster and not a natural disaster,” Sandy Rosenthal, founder and head of an organization “with a mission of education on the true root cause of the flooding,”  told the ACIA conference. “To refer to the flooding as a natural disaster protects those human beings responsible for that disaster.”

Rosenthal started her organization, called Levees.org, while still temporarily living in Lafayette, La., where she and her family took refuge after the hurricane. Its mission statement declares that the flood “was due to the failure of the levees and floodwalls which should have performed as storm surge protection,” and that responsibility for that failure “lies squarely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”  In the more than four years since its founding, the organization has sought — as of this writing, still unsuccessfully — a  federally ordered independent review of the  levee and floodwall failures. It refers to the proposed study as the 8/29 Investigation, named for the date when Katrina  passed east of the city.

Rosenthal’s presentation to ACIA was a sharp example of how a critical incident may widen the gap between government and the governed — but also how a critical incident may spark increased engagement and activism from concerned citizens. Here are excerpts from her account:

Until the American people see that the flooding of New Orleans was a federal responsibility, they will never see rebuilding as a federal duty, and that extends even today…. Inexplicably, after the levees failed, no one complained when the commander of the Corps of Engineers, the organization responsible for the levees, no one complained when the commander convened an investigation of the levees. No one said you can’t investigate your own work; if you investigate your own work what do you think you’re going to find? The Louisiana delegation didn’t complain, our mayor didn’t complain, nobody thought anything was odd about the organization responsible investigating its own work….

So we put up our website. I realized, well, who’s going to listen to Sandy Rosenthal? At the time I was 49 years old, I’ve never done any political activist work, I’m not an engineer, I’m not a lawyer, no political background, nothing, who’s going to listen to me. So I thought, well, what if we have followers, get other people following us? So I came up with the idea of putting a petition on the website to the president of the United States, asking him to please fulfill his promise that he made to bring back New Orleans even better and stronger. I now know that’s not how you get anything done. You don’t petition the president if you want to get something done, but I didn’t know that at the time. Up goes the petition on the website, we sent it to family and friends and before we knew it we had 200 supporters. Now we have membership. We have a website, we have members, we must be somebody. It was a surprise how all that worked… How we were able to go from me and my son to 25,000 supporters, is another story. I’m very proud of it but that’s a story by itself. It has to do with advocacy, it has to do with focusing on the mission, working with volunteers. It has to do with my life being like the weather channel, 24 hours a day seven days a week. If you don’t believe me ask my husband, but that’s another whole story

The Corps spent 35 million dollars of taxpayer money blaming the levee failures on anything but itself. They blamed the topography of New Orleans, our local levee boards, they said Katrina was such a big, bad storm. Anything but itself. In January 2008, a federal judge determined that the US Army Corps of engineers squandered millions of dollars building levees that they knew by their own calculations would fail, but he had to let them off the hook. He had to hold them not liable for damages and the reason is an 80-year-old law, the Flood Control Act of 1928 that holds the Army Corps of Engineers not liable. So here we are at the mercy of the Corps’ levees while they have no incentive to build them right and no financial or professional consequences when they fail.  And that’s where we’re living now. But it’s not all bad news. The corps is under the microscope now and if the new levees fail there’s going to be a whole city of people who will know exactly whose fault it is. We around here know, partly through the work of Levees.org, we know exactly whose responsibility it is.

I called [Louisiana U.S. Senator Mary] Landrieu and said we need an independent investigation of the levee failures. We can’t be relying on the Corps investigating its own work. So if I get support for you, will you back calling for an independent investigation? We call it the 8/29 investigation. She said yes I will. This was January of 2007. And we hosted a press conference and announced to the world that we were going to push for this 8/29 investigation. It made the front page of the Washington Post. Pretty exciting. The AP picked it up. But the law never got passed. Republican opposition didn’t want it, fought against it and it was ultimately dead in committee. The next year Senator Landrieu reintroduced it. Identical language. Again it didn’t pass. We just couldn’t get the momentum and the power that we needed to get it passed. However, pushing for legislation is a great way to educate. And pushing for education is a great way to increase your membership. Our membership skyrocketed when we started pushing for legislation. I don’t regret spending all that energy pushing for it because there were a lot of benefits to pushing for it even though it didn’t get passed.

Behind my back  the Army Corps and its consultancy communities marginalize me. I’ve been called a desperate housewife. I’ve been asked why don’t I try to work with the Corps. Well, because if I work with the Corps I can’t do my job, part of which is calling them out at every turn…. I was told that I’m dismantling the federal government, I’m anti-American, that our work disparages the Army Corps of Engineers and disparages our boys and young men and women fighting in Iraq.

But we get heard. Even with the deepest pockets there are, that can’t compete with a bunch of citizens all agreeing. That’s another reason I did this. Because I know that nobody in town would disagree with the work we were doing. There’s nobody in town who doesn’t want safe levees.

* The passage says: “For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”

* The United Nations and other international agencies limit the word “refugee” to those who have crossed an international boundary — persons who have left their home country and seek refuge in another. Those who flee violence or disaster but remain in their own country are known as IDPs, or internally displaced persons. In the international context, the distinction is necessary because it affects a range of legal questions including the right to protection, issues of asylum and return, and the status and obligations of international aid groups. None of those issues has any relevance to the Katrina disaster or those it displaced, however, and rather than the cumbersome, bloodless and bureaucratic label IDP, this paper will refer to them as refugees in the traditional, nonlegal sense of that word.

[i] William H. Frey and Audrey Singer, Katrina and Rita Impacts on Gulf Coast Populations: First Census Findings, The Brookings Institution, Washington D.C.: June 2006; Jeffrey A. Groen and Anne E. Polivka, “Hurricane Katrina evacuees: who they are, where they are, and how they are faring,” Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Washington, D.C.: March 2008; “Hurricane Katrina Impact,” News Release,  Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, New Orleans: April 15‚ 2010.

[ii] “Census Population Estimates 2000-2009 for New Orleans MSA,” from U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, County total population and estimated components of population change: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2009, compiled by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center (http://www.gnocdc.org/census_pop_estimates.html)\

[iii] “Hurricane Katrina evacuees” p. 41

[iv] Amy Liu and Allison Plyer, “An Overview of Greater New Orleans: From Recovery to Transformation,” in The New Orleans Index at Five. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution and Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, August 2010, p. 5; https://gnocdc.s3.amazonaws.com/NOIat5/Overview.pdf

[v] “New Orleans Five Years After the Storm: A New Disaster Amid Recovery,” Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park, CA: 2010, p. 14

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *