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In this episode, Clint Smith details his experience as a teenager in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005. The widespread devastation of Hurricane Katrina was a result of faulty levees and a fumbled response by FEMA, and it hit Black residents the hardest. Today, we'll take a closer look at the structural racism that made this disaster so catastrophic.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Modern Racism and Modern Discrimination: The Effects of Race, Racial Attitudes, and Context on Simulated Hiring Decisions - John B. McConahay
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City (New York: Random House, 2006).
D’Ann R. Penner and Keith C. Ferdinand, Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond (London, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
Jeremy Levitt and Matthew Whitaker, Hurricane Katrina: America's Unnatural Disaster (Lincoln, N.E.: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

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CC Kids:
Hi I’m Clint Smith and this is Crash Course Black  American History.

As many of you know, I was born   and raised in New Orleans. New Orleans is in my  heart, in my soul, and every fiber of my being.   It’s the city that raised me and the  city that made me who I am today.

In 2005, when I was 17 years old, I was  excited to start my final year of high school.   I was excited for homecoming, for  prom, for Friday night football games,   for winning a state championship as the  captain of my school’s soccer team, and for celebrating college acceptances with all of my  friends. But it didn’t work out that way. On August 28, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall  in New Orleans, and I evacuated with my family   to Houston, TX.

I still remember how long it took  us to get there, how we were surrounded bumper to   bumper by cars filled with hundreds of thousands  of people trying to flee the city for safety. When we got to Houston, I sat on my aunt and  uncle’s couch and watched CNN as the grocery store   where we used to shop, the church we used  to attend, and the school I used to go to were all   submerged under water. We later got a call that  our home was submerged and destroyed as well.   It’s hard to express what that moment felt  like, and in many ways, more than 17 years later   I’m still trying to find the  right words to express it.

I say all of this because, this episode, and this  subject is very personal to me. Hurricane Katrina impacted my family, my friends, and me in profound ways. And it’s important to remember— as we always try to remind people—that this history is not  just an abstraction, or a scholarly exercise,   but something that impacted, and continues  to impact the lives of real people.

Hurricane Katrina was also a moment that further  demonstrated how racism is not just interpersonal,   but is systemic. It’s not just  someone using a racial slur,   it’s the failure of a government to invest in  and protect a community of disproportionately   poor and Black people who had been susceptible to  a disaster like this for decades. There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start the show.

INTRO On August 23, 2005, a tropical depression formed  over the Bahamas and before long it transformed   into a hurricane named Katrina, with a growing  strength and ferocity that began to really worry people. Government leaders across the Gulf  states began telling people that they needed to evacuate, and they needed to do it quickly. On August 28, many people had done so,   but for a range of reasons—because of a lack  of transportation, costs, illness, mobility,   and personal choice—at least one hundred  thousand people did not evacuate and were left stranded.  As the storm hit, the weather was rough, but there was a hope  that—at least in New Orleans— the worst of it   had been avoided.

But then the levees around the  city—and elsewhere across the Gulf region— began to fail and massive flooding began. Over  50 levees and flood walls were breached,   and there was more than $100  billion dollars in damage. And this is part of what left so many people  frustrated about what happened during Katrina,   that the flooding came not simply from  the storm but from the failure of human   engineering, a failure that had fatal consequences  for thousands, and impacted the lives of millions.   A June 2007 report by the American Society of  Civil Engineers indicated that two-thirds of   the flooding was caused by the multiple  failures of the city's flood walls.

Let's learn a little bit more about  levees - and how racism can turn an   engineering issue into something more  sinister - in the Thought Bubble. On a basic level, levees are supposed to hold  back water so it doesn’t flood communities.   Levees can be built with materials like soil,  sand, or rocks or with concrete, blocks of wood,   plastic, or metal. They can also help pump  water away from communities.

With a city   like New Orleans, where so much of the city  is below sea level, levees are essential. And people knew this. In 1965, Congress  authorized the “Lake Pontchartrain and   Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project” following  Hurricane Betsy, which was supposed to increase   New Orleans’ hurricane protection.

But  this project had not even been completed   by the time the storm hit in 2005. During Katrina, many of the communities   located at the lowest elevations and near the  most unstable parts of the levees ended up bearing   the brunt of the flooding. Due to racism that  started with historical segregation in the city,   those environments were often inhabited by Black  and lower income folks in New Orleans.

Housing segregation, racial and restrictive  covenants – other types of laws that encourage   housing segregation – and other measures had  been designed to keep Black Americans from   moving into safer, higher elevation areas.  And even though many of those measures were   illegal by the time Hurricane Katrina  happened, the effects still persisted.   Thanks Thought Bubble. So, the people who most needed to evacuate,   because they lived in the most vulnerable  areas to flooding, were often unable to do so.   Many of the poorest residents of New Orleans  did not have cars, money, or places to stay   anywhere outside of New Orleans. Much of their community was concentrated   where they lived.

The only way they could  possibly evacuate was by walking.   And even when they did try this—tried to find  safety for their children, their elders,   their neighbors, and themselves—they  were met with the threat of violence. Thousands of people tried to walk across the  Crescent City Connection bridge to the nearby   suburbs. But when they did, they were met by  armed police officers who stood on the bridge   to force people to turn back, sometimes they  even fired their weapons over their heads.   Elsewhere, at the Danziger Bridge, police  officers actually shot and killed two unarmed   civilians and seriously injured four others.  All of these factors left many of the poorest   residents stranded, at risk of death, and  traumatized by their experiences.

As the water levels of the Mississippi River  and Lake Pontchartrain rose, the streets became   even more flooded. There were parts of the city  that were flowing with water up to 20 feet deep,   and within days up to 85% of  the city was underwater. People were waiting on the roofs of their  homes, hoping for rescue.

People lost   everything that they had. Many survivors had to  take boats or helicopters to evacuation sites   at the Superdome or Convention Center in New  Orleans. The Coast Guard rescued 34,000 people   and ordinary citizens organized to provide food  and shelter for anybody that they could find.

Even still, it's estimated that between  1,000 and 4,000 people lost their lives,   most to drowning. It is considered the deadliest  hurricane since 1928. Many survivors ended up   permanently displaced and moved to cities like  Mobile, Alabama; Houston, Texas; Baton Rouge,  Louisiana; and Chicago, Illinois.

I have friends and family who left when they   evacuated from the storm, and then never came  back. Over one million people across the Gulf Coast were displaced and resettled elsewhere. For many, the narrative around Hurricane Katrina   was that New Orleans, and Louisiana as a whole,  were unprepared for this disaster.

And there was   a lot of finger pointing. Some people blamed Mayor  Ray Nagin for not evacuating the city earlier,   for the lack of a clear plan, or for not anticipating  the obstacles that existed for low-income people   who wanted to evacuate but couldn’t. Mayor Nagin pointed his finger at the federal government for designing the levees so  poorly.

He also said that the government was   very slow to respond and was incompetent  in helping New Orleans residents. For others, it reflected how the wars in the  Middle East were taking up too much time,   energy, and focus—and distracted the federal  government from solving important problems   right here in the United States. Almost immediately after the storm ended,   it started to become very clear that the  federal government, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA for short,  along with President George W.

Bush, did not understand how bad things were in New Orleans  and across the rest of the Gulf Coast. FEMA was criticized by many for being slow to  respond and uncoordinated in their efforts.   Many attributed this lack of urgency to the fact that  the victims of the storm were largely poor and Black. New Orleans was a majority Black city  and nearly 30% of the city lived in poverty.

Many African American political leaders  stated that when hurricanes have hit   predominantly white cities, like Palm  Beach Florida, the federal government   moves extremely quickly in its response. Whereas in New Orleans, even a year-and-a-half   after the hurricane, much of the city had not  been rebuilt, and many neighborhoods –   like the predominantly Black Ninth Ward – were still in ruins for years. Even when help with finding shelter did  come, it came in the form of unstable   government trailers that were often filled  with toxic levels of formaldehyde.

Ultimately, the debacle had a range of  political consequences. The Director of FEMA,   Michael D. Brown, was viewed by many as unsuited  for his duties and he was forced to resign.

The New Orleans Police Department  superintendent was also forced to resign.   Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco did  not run for re-election in 2007. And Mayor Ray Nagin left office in 2010  and was later convicted of bribery, fraud,   and money laundering during  his tenure as mayor. In November 2009, a federal judge ruled that the  Army Corp of Engineers were infrastructurally   irresponsible and to blame for most of  the flooding during the hurricane.

This was the first time that a specific  government agency was held liable for   Hurricane Katrina flooding, but the judge limited  liability to the worst parts of the damage in   the lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Thousands of Black Americans were left destitute,   displaced, and dead in the wake of this  catastrophe.

The demographic landscape of   the city was forever changed as well. In the years following the storm,   many of the Black families who had  lived in the city for generations,   could not afford to move back and rebuild. Oftentimes, the people who came in their place   were younger white Americans who had the means  that many Black New Orleans families did not.   Some communities that were once all-Black,  now have few Black people left in them.

Gentrification is something that  almost every urban city experiences,   but in New Orleans the process was supercharged  by the devastation wrought by Katrina. Over the course of the past 17 years, I have  replayed the events of those days following   Katrina over and over and over again in my head. I  think about the people in the Superdome forced   to sleep in a place where they were subjected  to violence, hunger, neglect, and fear.

I think about the homes that families in  New Orleans—and across the Gulf Coast—  lived in for generations and how those homes  were completely destroyed along with   generations of memories inside of them. I think about the Black people wading through   water filled with sewage and death in order  to search for food and shelter and help. And I think, most of all, about how it is almost  impossible for me to imagine that the response to   Katrina would have been the same if the people  in the Superdome, or on top of their roofs,   or wading through sewage water were affluent  and white, rather than poor and Black.

In fact it’s hard for me to imagine white  affluent people would have ever been left   in the conditions like those that were  present in the Superdome at all. Also, we can’t talk about this storm, without  also talking about climate change. Many leaders   on the national and international stage have  argued that Black and Brown folks are usually   pushed to parts of the world where the effects  of climate change are the most vicious.

The Army Corps of Engineers even stated that  the impact of climate change is impairing their   ability to produce safe environments for  residents of places like New Orleans. And, obviously, this doesn’t  just impact the United States.   Leaders like Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister  of Barbados, have been very vocal about getting   the western world to understand that it will  largely be smaller previously colonized islands,   as well as low lying coastal regions, that will  be disproportionately impacted by the increasing   frequency and ferocity of these storms. It is something that all of us need to worry about, and we need to think collectively about  what is owed to the countries most at risk.

Hurricane Katrina was a devastating  moment in American history,   and one that I’ll remember for the rest of my  life. But it was also a warning of what can   result from the dangerous cocktail of racism,  economic inequality, and climate change. All of these problems are still urgent  and pervasive in the United States today,   and while awareness of these challenges  seems to be on the rise, it is rare   that we consider them in tandem.

Katrina made  clear the interconnectedness of these issues,   a lesson still relevant nearly  two decades later. Thanks for watching! I’ll see you next time.

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