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Lessons To Learn From Hurricane Katrina

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

On the eve of the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, people in Louisiana are cleaning up from another massive storm - Hurricane Laura. As we make sense of the latest disaster compounded by the complications of a global pandemic, we look back on the lessons that the Katrina tragedy offered. As Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO reports, it's also a reminder of how little has changed in New Orleans.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Under ominous overcast skies, several people form a circle in front of the Superdome to hold a ceremony.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

WENDLAND: A billowing cloud of sweet-smelling sage smoke rises to the sky, the ceremonial cleansing of the dome, where - as the shelter of last resort - so many people suffered during Hurricane Katrina.

TROY ROBERTSON: I'm here because I want future generations and even our generation now to know what happened here.

WENDLAND: Fifteen years ago, Troy Robertson was starting his first week of middle school when his teacher said a storm was coming and to evacuate. He did and watched the devastation unfold on TV with his family in Dallas - people waving for help from rooftops and highway overpasses and packed tight into the hot, overcrowded Superdome.

ROBERTSON: I remember cutting on my television and seeing thousands of people. They were stranded. They had no access to resources and supplies and food.

WENDLAND: And most of those people looked like him - Black. It made him angry.

ROBERTSON: And definitely made it very clear that, from that point forward, something had to be done to prevent this from happening again.

WENDLAND: So at 21, he became a community organizer with the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy, which advocates for social and environmental justice. Now he's seeing what feels like the story on repeat, as Black Americans feel the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. In Louisiana, Black people are dying at higher rates. They're also more likely to be laid off from their low-wage service jobs and suffer from poverty, lack of health insurance and child care. Many are now also facing eviction. Attorney Collette Pichon Battle is Robertson's boss.

COLETTE PICHON BATTLE: We're reliving this all over again. These crises are so similar, and I think they're an indication of what crises will look like again and again, until we fix our structural breaks.

WENDLAND: Since Katrina, it's true that New Orleans has largely bounced back. During non-pandemic times, the city's full of life. There are more restaurants than ever. Houses and whole neighborhoods have been rebuilt. But the storm provided an opportunity to do something different.

PICHON BATTLE: We need to go back to the way our grandparents built houses in this area, which is off the ground, at the very least, if in the flood zone at all. Some folks had, you know, ways for houses to float.

WENDLAND: She says officials dropped the ball. Not only did they not build floating houses, most of the public housing was shuttered. The public hospital was closed. Federal disaster money mostly went to middle and upper-income families. Pichon Battle says Black Louisianans were vulnerable before Katrina, and they felt abandoned by the government during and after.

PICHON BATTLE: Katrina really made a lot of folks realize what the government will not do, who will not show up, who first responders really are - our friends, our neighbors, our families.

WENDLAND: Many moved away and never came back.

ANDY HOROWITZ: The idea is to restore things just the way they were before the disaster struck.

WENDLAND: Andy Horowitz wrote a whole book about it, "Katrina: A History, 1915-2015," and he argues that the response to the disaster magnified existing problems.

HOROWITZ: So all of the inequalities, racial and economic inequalities, that existed in New Orleans in 2005, policy was designed to simply put them back the way they were.

WENDLAND: Poor people who flooded received the least amount of support. Most of those poor people were Black.

HOROWITZ: There were tens of thousands of white people who were swept up in the flood's damage and who were counted among its victims. But the policy responses to the flood had the effect of disproportionately putting Katrina's burdens on the backs of Black people.

WENDLAND: And the cost of living keeps rising. Social safety nets are waning. And the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. Half of Black children in New Orleans live in poverty, unchanged from 1979. Black households earn 63% less than white families. Whether you were Black or white, at the time Katrina seemed like an extraordinary disaster, something you'd only see once in a generation.

HOROWITZ: But now, after Hurricane Sandy and Harvey and Maria and now Laura, in the midst of this terrible pandemic, it's really frightening to say that Katrina appears less like an exception than a harbinger of 21st century America.

WENDLAND: And if history is any indication of how recovery will look after Hurricane Laura hit this week, Horowitz worries that, once again, the most vulnerable will be left behind.

For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.