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Five Years since Hurricane Katrina: Pain Index Still at Crisis Level for Many

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SPECIAL REPORT

NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - It will be five years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29. The impact remains quite painful for many. This article looks at what has happened since Katrina - not from the perspective of the higher ups looking down from their offices, but from the street level view of the people – a view which looks at the impact on the elderly, the renter, people of color, the disabled, the working and non-working poor. So, while one commentator may happily say that the median income in New Orleans has risen since Katrina, a street level perspective recognizes that is because large numbers of the poorest people have not been able to return.

Five years after Katrina, tens of thousands of homes in New Orleans remain vacant or blighted. Tens of thousands of African-American children who were in the public schools have not made it back, nor have their parents. New Orleans has lost at least 100,000 people. Thousands of elderly and disabled people have not made it back. Affordable housing is not readily available so tens of thousands pay rents that are out of proportion to their wages. Race and gender remain excellent indicators of who is underpaid, who is a renter, who is in public school and who is low income.

In short, the challenges facing New Orleans after Katrina are the same ones facing millions of people of color, women, the elderly and disabled and their children across the U.S. Katrina just made these challenges clearer in New Orleans than in many other places. Here is where we are five years later:

Overall population

Five years after Katrina, the most liberal estimates are that 141,000 fewer people live in the metro New Orleans area. The actual population changes will not be clear until official Census Bureau findings are released in November, but it is safe to say that over 100,000 fewer live in the City of New Orleans.

The New Orleans metro area is made up of several parishes, primarily Orleans, Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany. Orleans had 455,000 people before Katrina. Now they have 354,000. Jefferson had 451,000 before Katrina; now 443,000. Plaquemines had 28,000 before Katrina; now 20,000. St. Bernard had 64,000 before Katrina; now 40,000.

Displaced People

Louisiana residents are located in more than 5,500 cities across the nation, the largest concentrations in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and San Antonio. A majority of displaced residents are women – 59 percent, compared to 41 percent men. A third earn less than $20,000 a year.

Lost Housing

More than one in four residential addresses in New Orleans is vacant or blighted – by far the highest rate in the U.S. Though the numbers have been reduced somewhat in the last three years, 50,100 residential properties in New Orleans remain blighted or have no structure on them.

About 58 percent of city renters and 45 percent of suburban renters pay more than 35 percent of their pre-tax household income for housing. Households should spend less than 30 percent of income on housing. Anything over 30 percent means that housing is not really affordable for that family and they are likely to cut back on other necessities.

Over 5,000 families are on the waiting list for traditional public housing and another 28,960 families are on the waiting list for housing vouchers – more than double what it was before Katrina and the government destruction of thousands of public housing apartments. Since the post-Katrina bulldozing of several major public housing developments, there has been more than a 75 percent reduction in the number of public housing apartments available.

Rebuilding

Under Louisiana’s “Road Home” program to rebuild storm-damaged housing, rebuilding grants for homeowners on average fell about $35,000 short. The shortfall hit highly flooded, historically African-American communities particularly hard. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center filed suit in 2008 against state and federal agencies charging that the grant policy was racially discriminatory and that Black homeowners received far smaller grants than White homeowners.

The judge in that case has opined that “on average, African-American homeowners received awards that fell farther short of the cost of repairing their homes than did White recipients.”

The judge also found it “regrettable that this effort” to rebuild New Orleans “appears to have proceeded in a manner that disadvantaged African-American homeowners who wish to repair their homes.”

At least 19,746 applications for rebuilding homes that are eligible for funding have not received any money from the Road Home Program grants.

Economic Health

The metro area has 95,000 fewer jobs than before Katrina, down about 16 percent.

Black and Latino households earn incomes that are $26,000 (44 percent) and $15,000 (25 percent) lower than Whites. White household income is $56,000, Latino household income is $41,000 and African-American household income is $35,000 in the metro New Orleans area.

New Orleans has a poverty rate of 23 percent more than double the national average of 11 percent. But because of the loss of people in New Orleans, there are now more poor people living in the surrounding suburban parishes than in the city.

Within New Orleans the majority of households are lower-income.

Public and Private Education

The number of students in public schools in New Orleans, which are over 90 percent African-American, has declined by 43 percent since Katrina.

But an average increase of 5 percent a year in enrollment for the last two years (35,976 to 38,051 from 2008-2009 alone) indicates that people whose children attend public schools continue to return as housing and employment opportunities allow.

In 2008, 85 percent of White students in New Orleans attended private schools, one of the highest percentages in a major city in the U.S.

New Orleans now has more charter schools than any other public school system in the country. Of the 89 public schools in New Orleans, 48, more than half, are charter schools. In other words, sixty percent of students now attend privately managed but publicly funded schools. The Metro area has recovered 79 percent of public and private school enrollment.

People Receiving Public Assistance

More than one-third of Social Security recipients who lived in New Orleans have not returned. There were 74,535 in 2004 and 47,000 in December 2009.

Medicaid recipients have declined by 31 percent: pre-Katrina enrollment in Medicaid in New Orleans was 134,249. December 2009 enrollment was 93,310.

Supplemental Security Income recipients are down from pre-Katrina 26,654 to 16,514 – a 38 percent decline.

Public Transportation

Total ridership has declined to 65.7 percent – from over 33 million in 2004 to about 13 million projected for 2010.

Crime

Violent crimes and property crimes have risen in New Orleans since Katrina and remain well above national rates.

The challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans reflect the problems of many urban and suburban areas of the US – insufficient affordable rents, racially segregated schools with falling populations, great disparities in income by color of households, serious pollution from remote uncaring corporations, and reductions in the public services like transportation. Katrina made these more visible five years ago and continues to make a great illustration of America’s failures to treat all citizens with dignity and its failure to achieve our promise of liberty and justice for all.

Bill Quigley is legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans; Davida Finger is also a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans; Lance Hill is executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University. They can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com; dfinger@loyno.edu; and lhill@tulane.edu respectively.

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