In downtown and the French Quarter, where much of a convention of educators took place this month, this city looks as if it has bounced back from Hurricane Katrina hitting in late August 2005.
But in discussions and black community tours, people at the National Association for Multicultural Education conference learned that white, wealthy and tourist areas recovered well while the Upper Ninth Ward and Lower Ninth Ward haven’t. “It was a natural disaster complicated by man-made failure,” Dereck J. Rovaris, vice provost for diversity and chief diversity Officer with Louisiana State University, said during a panel discussion of Katrina survivors that NAME board member and former New Orleans resident Melba Venison put together.
Katrina also exposed America’s continuing failure of social justice, equity, respect, empathy, compassion and even love for all human beings. Speakers at the conference said these are values that schools with a high-quality, multicultural education curriculum should have taught.
Reuben Bernard III, owner of Bernard Transportation, drove people from the convention around the Ninth Ward. This is where people were seen on rooftops crying for help and bodies floated in the floodwater.
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Bernard pointed to slabs where occupied houses once stood and fields of weeds that used to team with people and neighborhoods. There are no grocery stores, drugstores, hospitals or hardware stores here.
“Before the storm, the Ninth Ward was a forgotten area,” Bernard’s mother, Merline Bernard, said, echoing the decades of disinvestment, neglect and flight of people and commerce from the black community here and nationwide. “The storm just finished it.”
Katrina was the costliest storm on record in the U.S. and the deadliest since 1928, the census reports. It claimed 1,833 lives and did an estimated $151 billion in damage, including $75 billion in the New Orleans area.
Katie Rovaris, an educational consultant and president of the Louisiana chapter of NAME, said she and others define their lives as before and after Katrina.
Vaughn Valeary, a senior patrolman with New Orleans police, explained that residents were kept from their homes for weeks after the levies broke, flooding much of the city and they had no way to learn whether loved ones were OK because no phones were working. He said people couldn’t eat, sleep or drink because of feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. It has left a population of people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
Katie Rovaris said when storms hit the children become scared to death, wondering whether it will be another Katrina. Panelists also agreed that the schools without veteran educators are worse now than before the storm.
“There are scars, emotional and psychological scars that will stay with us for the rest of our lives,” Venison said.
New Orleans population dropped from 494,294 in 2005 to 384,320 in 2014. The black population fell from 67.3 percent of the 2005 total to 59.8 percent in 2014.
Blacks who stayed found utilities weren’t restored for months, and they couldn’t return to their homes until January 2006. Many faced contractor fraud and couldn’t move back in for years if at all, Bernard said. In some black neighborhoods, young white families have bought property, fixed it up and moved in.
Bernard took us to the levies that held, those that broke and to a sign erected by the government for the 10th anniversary showing the disaster changed construction standards.
People praised volunteers for their help. But the work is hardly done especially for the city’s neediest residents.