Hurricane Katrina’s 10th Anniversary: How Much Has Really Changed?

BY: AMANDA POWELL

It has been ten years since the country watched Hurricane Katrina rip through New Orleans. It has also been ten years since Kanye West made the infamous statement, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Whether you believed that statement to be true at the time or not, there are current racial disparities in environmental justice that can no longer go unaddressed—including the views of the recovery efforts in New Orleans.

Seventy-eight percent of white residents believe that Louisiana has “mostly recovered” since the hurricane, whereas almost 60 percent of black residents say Louisiana has “mostly not recovered.”[1] Those responses reflect a truth about New Orleans that is impossible to ignore, no matter how much you dislike Kanye West: Black residents were disproportionately affected by the flooding of Hurricane Katrina.

An even more troubling trend is the racial gap in perceptions of New Orleans as a good place for children. Seven in ten whites residents (70%) now say it is a good time for children to be growing up in New Orleans; however, in contrast, fewer than four in ten black residents (40%) agree.[2]

Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina is not the only environmental issue that disproportionately affects people of color. Miami had Old Smoky, a large incinerator that was placed in the West Groves; Chicago is home to the United States’ largest incinerator, and in Richmond, California, there is an abundance of toxic release facilities.

The residents of Richmond live in an area surrounded by eight Superfund sites, five major oil refineries, three chemical companies, dozens of other toxic waste sites, highways, two rail yards, and ports and marine terminals where tankers dock.[3] Richmond and North Richmond, where people of color make up 69 and 83 percent of the population respectively[4], experience certain health issues measurably more than other residents in Contra Costa County.

The health gap among low-income, non-white residents, whose homes tend to surround the industrial sites, is even more distressing. Kinshasa Curl, administrative chief of Richmond’s environmental division found that “[p]eople of color in Richmond live on average 10 years less than white people living in other parts of the county.”[5] Citizens in Richmond have elevated risks of heart disease, strokes, asthma, and even cancer.[6] Residents living near Richmond’s industrial mainstay complain of issues such as headaches, breathing difficulties and fatigue. Others see high rates of autoimmune disorders, such as psoriasis, among their family and friends.[7]

Unfortunately, in the United States institutional racism has a major influence on who lives where, and with how much exposure to risk a person will experience. With the recent onset of publicized tragedies primarily affecting people of color, we are now at a much better place to confront deeper issues of racism than we were 10 years ago when Katrina hit. Clearly, environmental justice is a prominent issue that needs to be given more consideration beginning today.


[1] Michael Henderson, et al., Views of Recovery Ten Years after Katrina and Rita, Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communications (2015), https://sites01.lsu.edu/wp/pprl/files/2012/07/Views-of-Recovery-August-2015.pdf

[2] Liz Hamel, et al., New Orleans Ten Years After the Storm: The Kaiser Family Foundation Katrina Survey, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation (Aug. 10, 2015),http://kff.org/report-section/new-orleans-ten-years-after-the-storm-section-2/

[3] Jane Kay & Cheryl Katz, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color: The factory on the hill, Environmental Health News (June 4, 2012), http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/2012/pollution-poverty-and-people-of-color-richmond-day-1

[4] Bay Area Census, http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/cities/Richmond.htm (last visited Aug. 26, 2015); Census Viewer, http://censusviewer.com/city/CA/North%20Richmond (last visited Aug. 26, 2015).

[5] Kay, supra note 3.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

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