Just one month after over 100,000 homes in the city of New Orleans were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Representative Richard Baker was overheard telling lobbyists outside Congress, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Baker later tried to put a positive spin on his statement, saying that he simply hoped that the disaster would give the city a chance to construct cleaner and safer public housing. But regardless of what the Republican Congressman really meant, the city of New Orleans had been trying to decrease the number of public housing developments for decades. Katrina, a category 5 hurricane that many locals refer to as “The Lady,” left tens of thousands injured, homeless, or dead, and caused $108 billion in damages.
Thousands of the city’s poorest inhabitants were suddenly homeless, uprooted from residential areas that would later be repopulated by wealthier and whiter residents. “For years, the city and speculators have been trying to get the tenants out of these apartments,” author and investigative journalist Greg Palast said in an interview with Democracy Now. “Katrina, the perfect storm, was the perfect excuse.”
In the neighborhood of Hollygrove, a largely black community where Lil Wayne and Mack Maine grew up, there were only around 1,100 families left in 2010, compared to the 1,800 families living there before their homes were flooded. After the storm hit, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Alphonso Jackson said that post-Katrina New Orleans “is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”
Most of the city’s public housing survived the storm with minimal damage, but instead of rebuilding them, HUD chose to tear them down. MIT architecture professor John Fernandez inspected hundreds of the damaged housing units and found that “justifications for demolition on the grounds that these buildings can no longer function as safe and humane housing for the people of New Orleans are not credible.” Regardless, the city tore down more than 3,000 public housing developments on grounds that they were too badly damaged to rebuild. In place of public housing, mixed-income housing developments were constructed, allowing wealthier tenants the opportunity to gentrify traditionally black neighborhoods.
10 years after Katrina drowned 40 of the city’s neighborhoods under 10 feet of water, most of the city is in a state of recovery. Of the 72 neighborhoods in the city, 40 have regained more than 90 percent of their pre-Katrina population, and 15 neighborhoods are now more populated than they were before the storm. Violent crime rates have fallen, the entrepreneurship rate in the city is 64 percent higher than the national average, and efforts have been stepped up to convict corrupt politicians. Mayor Nagin, who presided over the lethally ineffective response to the storm, is now in jail for corruption. President George W. Bush, whom Kanye West famously blasted on live TV during a Katrina fundraiser, is now an amateur painter, specializing in portraits of world leaders.
Race and economic status had a huge influence in how city residents were affected by the hurricane. Out of the approximately 150,000 households that were damaged or destroyed, 79 percent of them were affordable housing. The Lower Ninth Ward, an impoverished and predominantly black neighborhood, suffered the most damage from the hurricane, which knocked entire houses off their foundations and flooded even the highest ground in the Ward. Much of the neighborhood is still in ruins, and less than 3,000 people lived there in 2010, considerably less than the 14,000 who lived there a decade earlier.
New Orleans officials reduced the number of units from over 13,000 in 1996 to around 5,000 in 2005. Only 7 percent of the families displaced by the city’s destruction of public housing units were able to return to the mixed-income housing that was constructed to replace them. Only around half of the people evicted from these public housing developments were even able to return to New Orleans at all.
The rebuilding of the city ushered in a new era of “disaster capitalism,” as major corporations received federal funds to rebuild the city. Former President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon minimum wage law for federal contracts, allowing contractors to bring in underpaid immigrants to rebuild the city. This influx of cheap labor deprived lower-income NOLA residents from an opportunity to be fairly paid to help rebuild their city. Residents of flooded neighborhoods with no homes and no jobs often had no choice but to leave the city entirely, while wealthier residents were able to stay and rebuild.
All told, there were 118,526 fewer African-Americans living in New Orleans in 2010 than in 2005. And as the number of affordable public housing units decreased, the number of homeless people in the city rose by 70% in the years following Katrina. Rebuilding of the city commenced almost immediately, but one of the highest priorities for city officials was the restoration of tourist destinations.
Tourism has always been one of the city’s largest sources of income, and today is no exception. Katrina struck a major blow against this industry, with only 3.7 million people visiting the city in 2006, compared to over 10 million in 2004. But by 2014, the number of tourists ramped back up to 9.5 million, and hotel occupancy rates finally surpassed their pre-2005 levels last year. New restaurants have begun to open, as well as new parks, bike paths, and docks for Mississippi cruises.
After Katrina, a new kind of tourist began to explore the city—one more interested in seeing the devastation and ruined houses than the bars on Bourbon Street. A permanent exhibit on Katrina opened at the Presbytère Museum, and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum was opened to tell the story of the neighborhood’s destruction. Disaster tourism, as it became known, began to flourish in the city shortly after the hurricane, and it didn’t take long for tour bus companies to offer tours with names like “Hurricane Katrina – America’s Greatest Catastrophe.”
As the Six Flags theme park destroyed by Katrina continued to lay dormant after attempts to rebuild it floundered, the Lower Ninth Ward became its own sort of theme park showcasing the destruction of the city. From dusk to dawn, buses rolled through the neighborhood on an hourly basis, full of tourists snapping photos of ruined buildings where residents drowned and livelihoods were destroyed. “I felt like an animal in a zoo,” one resident said. “Videos of me are all over YouTube.”
“They fixed everything that you want to go down there to see,” says New Orleans rapper Curren$y. “Some things they didn’t fix, so you could come down there and see them too. The Lower Ninth Ward’s a theme park now. They bring motherfuckers through there in a bus and show them, ‘This is what Katrina did,’ as opposed to fixing it and letting people live there again. That’s a theme park, essentially. Fucking KatrinaWorld. And Six Flags, they shooting a movie over there right now. But it would be cool if they made it a theme park again. It did give us something to do. It’s cool to shoot movies, that’s what’s up, but they just taking a big L on that, in my opinion.”
Responding to residents’ complaints, New Orleans officials began to crack down on the tours in 2012. Police began turning back tour buses, and began to fine the bus companies for trespassing in the neighborhood. Unwilling to completely cut off the income-generating tours, however, the City Council negotiated to allow smaller tours under more specific regulations. Tourists can still take the “America’s Worst Catastrophe” tour for $49 a head.
Despite the city’s efforts to limit the bus tours, technology has allowed disaster tourism to flourish on a smaller scale. For some visitors to the city, traditional tourist areas like Bourbon Street feel staged and inauthentic, driving them to seek out the “real” New Orleans. Savvy homeowners have started offering rentals through Airbnb which pander to tourists’ desires to have “an authentic-to-unpleasant experience” in “real, underground NOLA.”
One Lower Ninth resident renting a room of his shotgun house on Airbnb said that tourists love the chance to experience a night in his infamous neighborhood. “There’s broken down houses on either side of me,” he explained, and tourists “get to be like ‘I spent a night in the hood.’” A study by the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity found that around 100,000 tourists rented rooms via Airbnb or similar services in 2013 in New Orleans.
Similar to many other tourist cities, the increase in popularity of Airbnb has had the side effect of raising rents across the city, as homeowners decide to become B&B-operators rather than landlords. The percentage of renters paying more than a third of their pre-tax income on rent has increased from 43 percent to 51 percent between 2005 and 2013, while the percentage of homeowners paying unaffordable housing costs has remained stable at 27 percent. The increased scarcity of affordable housing has made it nearly impossible for lower-income residents displaced from the city to return. This, in turn, has allowed gentrification to thrive, giving wealthy investors the ability to pounce on properties that poorer residents have had to abandon.
Even the French Quarter, already one of the city’s most gentrified districts, has seen a transformation from a diverse middle-class neighborhood to a high-rent area packed with corporate tourist establishments. The city’s Faubourg Tremé neighborhood, popularized by the HBO drama Tremé, has also seen an increase of whiter and wealthier residents over the past decade. In the neighborhood of Bywater, the family-based black population that lived there in 2000 declined by 64 percent over the next decade, to be replaced by locavore restaurants, art lofts, coffee shops, and yoga studios.
Although there are definite signs of progress in the city’s reconstruction, the benefits of this success have not been distributed equally to its residents. Employment is on the rise, but only white males have seen this increase, while unemployment for black males remains stagnant. In 2013, black New Orleans households earned 54% less than comparable white households. The city’s public charter schools, whose students are primarily from black and economically disadvantaged families, enroll almost half as many students as they did before Katrina.
“This is the new New Orleans, stripped down, downsized, not too Black, just right for tourists,” Palast said. “You could call it Six Flags over Louisiana.”