FEMA Response: Class Warfare And The Superdome

by Letters 4 the Damned

FEMA Response: Class Warfare And The Superdome

Abstract: The purpose of this essay is to evaluate Hurricane Katrina and its relation to class warfare. Topics covered include historical background, evacuation procedures, conditions of the super dome, labeling, recovery process, urban sprawl as a result of the storm, and conflict theory as an explanation of these topics. Furthermore this essay identifies the causes of class warfare and its impact on Katrina storm victims.

Historical Background and Conflict Theory

Katrina was not the first hurricane or weather related catastrophe to hit New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1927 The Great Mississippi Flood broke through the levees. The public was assured by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the levees could sustain the weather. Alternative views presented by one of the top 5 engineers of all time, who ranked along with the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci had a different view. James Eads advised the use of cut-offs and reservoirs to hold back the water, yet officials were confident in the levees alone, which proved disastrous. Within eighteen hours there was fifteen inches of rain and soon twenty-seven thousand square miles would be submerged. By the time the floodwaters were decreasing one and a half million acres were under water. Then, In 1965, Hurricane Betsy wreaked havoc on New Orleans. It was reported as one of the most deadly and costly storms in history. With a maximum wind speed of one hundred and fifty-five miles per hour, Hurricane Betsy killed 76 people and cost the United States almost one and a half billion dollars. Most recently Hurricane Katrina caused mass wreckage and other major damage. This was not new information however, about one year earlier a study was conducted called Hurricane Pam. Hurricane Pam was a simulation exercise predicting the results and effects of a category 3 storm on New Orleans. Emergency planners concluded that a category three storm would kill tens of thousands of people, destroy hundreds of thousands of homes while making the area of South Louisiana inaccessible for months. Katrina was a category five. It has been a long time since Karl Marx proposed his conflict theory with its central argument being the haves versus the have-nots, in other words, the bourgeoisie versus the proletariat. In the case of Katrina, class warfare was apparent. The aftermath of Katrina alone left more than 200,000 New Orleans residents outside of their former city and home, and it was the largest exodus of people since the civil war. Eighty percent of these residents were African-American. New Orleans before the hurricane was one of the ten poorest cities with the lowest median income and Orleans Parish had one of the highest poverty rates among the surrounding counties at 24.5 percent. The storm’s damaged areas were approximately half African-American, around forty-five percent. Twenty percent of the damaged population of the Orleans Parish was below the poverty line. In the City of New Orleans however, seventy-five percent of people in damaged areas were African-American. Neighborhoods consisting of public housing had poverty rates between sixty and eighty percent with unemployment affecting one fifth of the population. Ninety percent of the populations in these public housing areas were African-American and all of these were damaged areas directly affected by Hurricane Katrina. With such disproportionate numbers it is no wonder why Kanye West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on live television news. However, it seems more so, that the President didn’t care about poor people. This observation is substantiated by the government’s late response to one of the worst and most damaging storms in the history of New Orleans.

Late Evacuation And Previous Warnings

Federal and State officials blamed each other for their poor response. State officials particularly blamed the Federal Emergency Management Agency while the Federal Government claimed that the responsibility lied with state and local officials. All officials involved, both state and federal, were made aware of the possible damage Katrina could inflict by the results of the Hurricane Pam simulation. These results were delivered to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state officials over one year prior to the incident in July 2004. Despite the disaster plan which called for an 
evacuation three days before Katrina made landfall, New Orleans had not ordered a mandatory evacuation until less than a day (20 hours) before the hurricane hit land. FEMA officials, according to the plan, were to have important resources and assistance in place before Katrina made landfall. This was a major responsibility since the submitted disaster plan in July 2004 noted that Louisiana had a shortage in resources needed to evacuate and supply the shelters. Yet, it was not until August 30, 2005 that FEMA started the National Response Plan in order to completely mobilize the federal governments resources. Before FEMA had gotten involved local and state officials had already issued a hurricane warning for southeastern Louisiana, and had issued a voluntary evacuation which was to be made mandatory a day later. All of this work by local and state officials happened before FEMA’s direct involvement. It seems local and state officials did as much as they could and were impatiently waiting for federal assistance. Though the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been made aware way ahead of landfall, they did nothing until a full twenty-four hours after landfall. While everyone is playing the blame game, it is quite clear that Federal involvement bared the majority of responsibility and failed in providing the resources and manpower needed to save lives.

Conditions In The Super Dome

The Superdome was comparable to a jail but worse. The toilets were either overrunning or clogged; there was no electricity, and not nearly enough food or water. While parents with disabled children worried about their health, as there was no medication for them, young women were being attacked and sexually assaulted in the bathrooms, and one man even committed suicide. One 80-year-old woman complained “I’ve been in the food line twice, and every time I get to the front they tell me they don’t have any left.”(Treaster, 2005, p. 4) The horrendous health hazards such as puddles of urine, bloodstains, and crack vials endangered about 16,000 citizens of New Orleans. Conditions were so severe that one mother was provided with two diapers and told to reuse them by scraping off the child’s waste from the diaper. Horrendous heat filled the dome as the power went. There was no air conditioning. Bryan Hebert a 43-year-old man arriving at the dome was quoted saying, “There is feces on the walls, there is feces all over the place.”(Gold, 2005) One man tried his best to escape, as was common with many. The man had lost everything and could not handle the stress. Most people in the dome had lost their home, some lost relatives, and as in this case had everything they brought to the Super dome stolen. The National Guard chased him down and in response the man told them, “I just want to get out, to go somewhere”.(Gold,  2005, p. 2). In response, the National Guardsmen took him to the terrace and told him to look at what was left, and all the man saw were continually raising floodwaters submerging cars and everything in their path. The man broke down and started crying. The vulnerability of the individuals in the Superdome was high due to factors such as lack of preparedness, adaptiveness, resistance and the ability to recover. Their ability to adapt was limited due to low socioeconomic standing, and the storm had a much greater effect on them because their ability to recover from damage was much less than that of their middle and upper class counterparts. Vulnerability in the context of natural disasters considers these aforementioned factors. While traditional risk assessment methods fail to take into account the heavier burden carried by the poor other studies show that “socio-economic status is a significant predictor of physical and psychological impacts” in both “pre and post disaster stages” (Masozera Bailey Kerchner, 2006, p. 300). Studies such as these have shown many times over that “the poor are more likely to die, suffer from injuries, have proportionally higher material losses, have more psychological trauma, and face more obstacles during the phases of response, recovery, and reconstruction”(Masozera et al., 2006, p. 300). This suggests that natural disasters are more damaging to the poor. With that mentioned, their recovery then depends upon the amount and quality of care given by local, state, and federal governments.

Criminalization of New Orleanians

Five days after Katrina made landfall state officials had organized and set up a booking and detention center to temporarily house individuals accused of violent crimes, looting, or terrorizing in any way the people of New Orleans that were awaiting evacuation. Louisiana Corrections Secretary Richard Stalder referring to this situation said, “We are in business.”(Kaufman, 2006, p. 1) The question therein was why was the criminal justice system the first organization to be back in business? Was this a criminalization of poverty or a necessary tool to maintain some semblance of civilization? Social science experts have long understood that natural disasters do not have unnatural social consequences. Many times natural disasters have exposed cities and states underlying social issues. Stephen Jackson argues “the scale of a disaster’s impact has much less to do with, say, an earthquake’s Richter force or a hurricane’s category strength than with the political economy of the country or region that it strikes.”(Kaufman, 2006, p. 1)The use of victim blame by press organizations was all too common in nationwide media coverage of the incident. The blame was placed on residents because they did not evacuate when they were told, despite their lack of resources. Articles with headlines such as “The Looting Instinct” or “Thugs Rein of Terror” reinforced and enabled further categorization and labeling. This maximizing of individual criminal or violent acts is all too often a major theme in American media. Meanwhile, on the Internet a pair of photos with completely opposing captions began circulating quickly. The pair of photos highlighted the racism issue in media coverage of New Orleans. While one photo of an African American man pictured carrying soda and a grocery bag was captioned with the words “looting a grocery store” the opposite photo of the pair was of a white couple also carrying food with the underlying caption “found bread and soda from a local grocery store.”(Kaufman, 2006) The infamous “West Bank” occurrence had a similar feel to it. The West Bank Bridge connected two racially segregated areas of the county, one side being a more affluent white neighborhood and the other a low-income population. Thousands of residents walked towards the bridge but armed sheriffs refused to let residents self evacuate on foot. This act of classism and racism was rationalized by the reasoning that the West Bank was not to become New Orleans and that they would not offer assistance or “superdomes” to the needy. When a few residents told the sheriff’s that the police commander told them to cross the bridge to get to the buses, the sheriff’s responded that there were no buses. The police commander was trying to divert the residents rather than help them.

Refugees In Their Own Country?

Once citizens, these victims were now considered by mass media to be refugees of their own country. This exclusion from the rest of society gave way to desensitization and due to its classist implications; the term refugee gave way to the idea of separation. Americans no longer had to think of them as fellow Americans, instead they were termed refugees, which allowed the American public to view them as outsiders. As Al Sharpton had said, “They are not refugees. They are citizens of the United States.”(Burnett, 2005) The argument presented was based on the negative connotations associated with the word refugee. Refugee implies that these people were crossing international or trans-national borders. This was a serious problem because the term refugee inferred that they are outsiders looking for charity when in fact these were victims of neglect within our own country. This debate over terminology resides around the notion that people who left before the storm were evacuees and those who chose to stay behind which, were mainly the lower income population were something else entirely and thus they were termed refugees. As previously pointed out these victims were more vulnerable, they had less resources than the “evacuees” and it is safe to assume that many lacked transportation or a place to go. Based on this there is no reason to use a term that would strip these victims of their dignity. This categorization and labeling criminalizes these victims and even allows for situations of self-fulfilling prophecy as exhibited by labeling theory. Judy Rogers, a social worker from Harlem, was quoted saying the term was “inappropriate, divisive, even racist when applied to American citizens.”(Masquelier, 2006, p. 737) This act of mislabeling encourages the idea of victim blame. Karl Marx’s conflict theory can be used to explain the victim blame that occurred. The bourgeois or upper-strata had more influence over the course of this natural disaster and having been for the most part indirectly involved had little hesitation to use the term refugee. It is in fact easier to mislabel and categorize these people because it provides an easing of responsibility on those able to help and puts the responsibility on the shoulders of those unable to help themselves. Victim blame takes away from the dignity and relevance of individuals and further more allows the system to be less involved.

Rebuilding New Orleans

Six years after Katrina, some areas in New Orleans are still struggling to rebuild while other areas are almost fully rebuilt. Broadmoor has had their homes freshly painted and their parks restored. The local charter school was reopened in January and after an impressive twenty nine million dollar rebuilding process, there was a newly built library, two months after the school was finished. Yet a fifteen-minute drive outside Broadmoor reveals a disturbing landscape. New Orleans East is nearly a ghost town. The businesses are boarded up, plazas are empty and there is no medical care. The remaining residents have to drive over ten miles to treat medical emergencies or to even shop. Both neighborhoods are similar in their racial makeup and class status; this suggests that the rebuilding process is based on who is helping what areas. The more successful neighborhoods were rebuilt without government assistance. The members of the community with deep pockets were able to support the rebuilding of their area. In order to rebuild the area of Broadmoor the city partnered with colleges such as Harvard University, MIT, and Bard University. These collegiate institutions sent volunteers, more than 13,000, who spent a collective 300,000 hours rebuilding Broadmoor. Across town New Orleans East has gone without basic services. Six years after the storm there was not a hospital in the area and was not rebuilt until late 2013. Due to this lack of basic services businesses continued to stay clear of the area leading to further economic decline. The residents returned but it was rather clear to them that the government was not interested in rebuilding the storm worn area, leaving the people to take care of things by themselves. It is no wonder why the population has decreased by more than 100,000 residents. Although the levees have been rebuilt, this time to withstand a category three hurricane, it is safe to assume that there are bigger social problems at hand. FEMA’s Public Assistance program that is supposed to provide grants for the reconstruction of public facilities demands a rigorous review and depends on local governments to cover construction costs before reimbursement from FEMA. Homeowners due to the difficulties of acquiring assistance were left to rebuild their homes with the same residential standards as before Katrina instead of rebuilding in a manner that would reduce vulnerability against floods. Rebuilding in this manner allows for the damages to occur again. While areas such as the French Quarter are nearly rebuilt, other sections still suffer. Lower Ninth Ward streets are still abandoned and 19,000 people are homeless, one of the highest rates in the country. While federal aid attempted to solve this problem by providing living quarters for three months for the homeless, without employment and with most businesses not returning there was no way to retain their housing. More disturbing was that federal programs were racially biased, many helped white homeowners before African-Americans. Though upsetting, reconstruction efforts are looking up. With 34.5 billion in federal aid and 19 billion still unspent, employment in the construction vocation has risen five percent while in the rest of the country it has fallen by more than ten percent. On the other hand, while the Army Corps of Engineers is spending 14 billion to rebuild and improve the levee system, residents especially in the lower ninth ward are skeptical to say the least. Even their representatives don’t feel safe. Councilman Jon Johnson verified this concern when asked if the Corps of Engineers had done enough to protect the city. His answer of no, though simple, was the same as most residents in the area. Despite these commonly shared feelings, the steps to taken to ensure the damage does not happen again are quite reasonable. The Corp is building flood defense systems 12 miles from downtown and 9 miles from the greatly affected Lower Ninth Ward. The levees have been fortified and are now anchored one hundred feet below ground and the elevation has been raised from fourteen to thirty-two feet. For even more assurance the Corps is building the world’s largest flood pump. HUD or the Department of Housing and Urban Development, however, has taken steps that are counterproductive to the rebuilding of New Orleans. They tore down over 4,600 public housing apartments and are replacing them with 744 similar units, which was over an eighty percent reduction in living quarters. Not only is there now less space but the apartments being built have an average cost of over 400,000 dollars, far beyond the reach of many residents who are low income. Despite protest by residents and non-residents federal courts had denied stopping the construction and the gentrification continued. HUD, although promising 100 days to subject demolition plans to public scrutiny, approved demolition with no community input in less than two days. While the courts did recognize the lack of fairness, they ultimately concluded that if the demolitions presented were found to be illegal that residents could ultimately recover their monetary damages. This discrimination of the lower class had become all too familiar with the rebuilding of New Orleans. The lack of assistance during the storm coupled with the racially and economically biased decision making regarding the rebuilding process will leave New Orleans a city once again. However, it may not be the same city people once loved for its ethnic diversity or it’s unique celebrations.

Urban Sprawl By Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Katrina devastated the community of New Orleans. Katrina caused a total of 200 to 300 billion dollars in property damage, covering 300 miles of the gulf. Having inflicted twice as much damage as Hurricane Andrew did in Florida in 1992, it was the most destructive storm to date. Katrina destroyed more than 62,000 buildings and flooded a quarter of a million homes, and took with it 1,200 lives. This led to the displacement of over one million Americans across 92,000 square miles. It was estimated that only fifty percent of residents would return. In response, many planners started developing a planned shrinkage plan to create a more compact and efficient city with less vulnerability to flooding. However, of the few plans developed, none guaranteed a right to return for the displaced residents nor did they address the issue of compensation. Furthermore the residents themselves were left to prepare plans that would prove their neighborhood should be restored. Previously before the storm New Orleans was battling white flight and the decrease in population in the city. Due to the federal and state government investments in flood control, wetland reclamation, and highway construction a city that was one of the most diverse in the nation in income and race became racially segregated. From 1970 to 2000 New Orleans was already experiencing little growth in its transportation, energy, tourism and retail sectors. The employment shifted into the service sector and as a result the median city income became one of the lowest in the country. Without employment opportunities for skilled workers New Orleans could not keep these residents in the city. This combined with the cost of living, in a city that has to maintain over 300 miles of levees, canals, and water pumps, there were no incentives keeping middle-income residents and businesses in the city. The majority opinion between the lower class and African Americans is that the current leadership had greater interest in supporting elite members of the local community then addressing common social issues in the area. For Example, The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development did not help the situation when the secretary of HUD, Alphonso Jackson commented, “New Orleans was bound to become a much whiter city as a result of Katrina.”(Reardon, 2006, p. 4) Though many planners feel rebuilding the most damaged neighborhoods is unrealistic the people still want their homes back. After a rigorous inspection, the ULI issued a report proposing a selective rebuilding plan. The panel organized cities into three categories. Category A consisted of the most damaged homes and areas and these areas were not to be rebuilt. The land was to be used for wetlands and parks, which in turn would demolish the homes of the working class and racial minorities. Category B consisted of areas with intermediate damage and the residents were responsible for returning and working on viable redevelopment plans to make their area eligible for investment. Category C consisted of the least damaged areas and would be eligible immediately for redevelopment. However for the homes in category A and B the ULI did argue for compensation similar to displaced residents post-9/11. However, issued in January, Mayor Nagin’s commission report allowed for all neighborhoods to gather restoration plans and submit them by May 20. It also stated that the city would work to get in contact with the displaced residents to encourage and involve them in this process. Although attempts were made by the mayor to encourage the return of residents, many did not wish to return based on the uncertainties of the planning process and no guarantee that residents could return permanently. The largest exodus of people since the civil war began. We normally think of Urban Sprawl in terms of regions within a state and its effect on the central cities as white middle class families move out of the city to suburban areas. New Orleans, although it had exhibited these patterns pre-Katrina, lost 100,000 residents because of the storm alone. With this decrease in residency and the city struggling more to maintain and rebuild levees, water pumps and canals, to stay, would be to pay. This combined with the lack of guarantee for previous residents to have a home makes it extremely difficult to persuade any one to return much less encourage others to stay.

Evacuees Relocate

FEMA was required to relocate evacuees out of shelters by October 15, 2005, yet two months after Katrina made landfall thousands of residents still had nowhere to go. While some concerned Americans opened their homes to the victims. FEMA has relied on trailer parks to house families. Over a hundred thousand are living in hotels and aboard cruise ships and though the majority have relocated to Texas and Louisiana evacuees were still spread across the whole country with 
some in every state. After adding questions to the Current Population Survey conducted from October of 2005 till October 2006, the current conditions of Katrina evacuees were observed. The survey found that those that did not return to their homes in New Orleans had higher unemployment and lower median income than those that returned home. Those less likely to return were typically young adults, African Americans, or those that were single. Throughout Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi one and a half million people ages sixteen and above relocated and did not return, Around seventy-five percent of these individuals lived in Louisiana. The majority of this seventy-five percent came from the coastal area of New Orleans. Interestingly enough, despite popular belief, people of all socioeconomic statuses had to evacuate due to Hurricane Katrina. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that members of the most and least educated residents were slightly less likely to evacuate, and that Hispanic Americans were more likely to evacuate. The purpose of this data was to show that no demographic group in particular failed to evacuate. Sixty five percent of evacuees returned to their pre-Katrina locations while seventy three percent returned to their original county. The social cause of this is that staying within your home county allows you to maintain social groups and employment opportunities not otherwise available. This can be 
rather appealing especially after such a large natural disaster. Though Louisiana had the lowest percentage of returnees this is believed to be due to greater damages to their environment both from Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which struck only a month after. The amount of residents that returned did so reasonably quickly after the storm. Two hundred and eighty thousand residents did not return to New Orleans and are relocated in every state in the US though the majority stayed in their home states. There is relevant demographic composition of the people who returned. As observed the probability of returning increased with the age of residents. There are also disparities in the percentages of black and white residents who returned. While fifty four percent of black residents did return eighty two percent of white residents returned to their pre-storm counties. Similarly single residents were less likely to return and by a small difference in percentage those without high school diplomas were less likely to return as well. The storm also greatly affected the employment and job seeking efforts of evacuees. The unemployment rate of evacuees was 12.1 percent. Evacuees had triple the unemployment rate of the other unaffected areas of the country. Eighty four thousand residents of two hundred eighty thousand who did not return reside in Atlanta. This has increased the cities burden to maintain and care for residents in regards to mental and physical health and housing. Houston of all cities has carried the biggest burden with one hundred fifty thousand evacuees residing in the city. This increase in population has caused a spike in both unemployment and crime. Many evacuees were still not considered on their feet almost one year after the storm. Kathy Walt of Governor Perry’s office was quoted saying  “because the vast majority of the people who fled Louisiana in the wake of Katrina were lower-income individuals…if they are going to remain here, we need to know what kind of services they are going to need.” (Axtman, 2006) The Gallup survey showed that fifty nine percent of evacuees in Texas were unemployed and forty one percent had an income less than five hundred dollars a month. Mayor Bill White’s response was shared with other citizens of the city who felt the impact of increased residency. Bill White pointed out “We don’t believe in dependency in Houston. We’re a working city. It may not be the perfect job, but there are jobs available and people should take them.”(Axtman, 2006) Harris County Hospital costs for treating evacuees was higher than seven million dollars, which only a third of was repaid by the Federal Government. After receiving ample money to cover Katrina oriented educational prices, the state observed an increase of forty six thousand and five hundred students with thirty one thousand returning the following year. As far as the crime impact on Texas residents, Houston County’s criminal justice system has spent more than eighteen million on just Katrina evacuees alone including at least 40 murders in the area.


The pressures of poverty are common in America at this time, yet, none of us seem to understand its effects. From the criminalization of the poor, to the racist ideologies of looting versus finding, we are left with a society unaware of the causes and effects of poverty. We are more willing to blame the victim than the system. Blaming the system may greatly improve the conditions in which we are treated by changing policy and developing laws that protect the poor. We are a nation that recognizes wrong but we are also unfortunately a nation of mostly apathetic citizens. The fact is we can be better. This is the driving force behind America, though we are slowly becoming a nation that is too complacent with injustice. Why would we accept these conditions? The greatest American leaders certainly never did. From abolishing slavery to giving women the right to vote, from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam protests, America has always been a country of change. It is all too common throughout our history, our belief that America can be better. We must make the effort to stay informed and by doing this we can once again work to improve our country. Katrina though a horrible disaster brought attention to many social concerns and if we fail to be better or learn from this, then the thousands of lives lost and the struggles of the victims would have all been in vain.

– Christopher Kolezynski


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