It’s been a decade since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast area of the United States, and nearly destroyed New Orleans. Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, killing nearly 2,000 people, displacing thousands, and inflicting an estimated $108 billion dollars of damage.
Beyond the stats, when I think about the events that unfolded in late August of 2005, I remember what it taught me about our democracy.
Katrina was the first in a series of events that convinced me that the fight for racial equity in this country has not been won. Fifty-six percent of people who died as a result of Katrina’s devastation were black; most were poor. Having just graduated high school, watching the tragedy of Katrina unfold on television was significant in my understanding of Black American life as precarious, in need of affirmation and protection. Ten years later, the frustration and helplessness that many Americans felt about Katrina has influenced a movement to make Black lives matter in this country.
Today, much of New Orleans is on the rebound. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reporting stories about the city’s resilience. Residents, experts, and elected officials have all told me that the city is on the mend, though it will never be the same. Still, as New Orleans continues to rebuild and the events of this week ten years ago recede further into memory, let us take stock of all we witnessed and learned.
For a brief moment in time, the nation’s unreconciled inequality was on full display in New Orleans. Black and poor residents of New Orleans were physically and socioeconomically positioned in the path of that disaster, and when they needed their city, state, and federal governments the most, many were abandoned until it was too late.
But just as Katrina’s victims were made vulnerable to the storm, they could have been protected and should have been. We can’t undo the past, but today we can work toward protecting every American from all kinds of disasters, natural and manmade.