Thursday, August 30, 2012

Seven Years After Katrina, A Divided City

 Hi. Right after Katrina I asked author Mike Davis how to get the real story on the disaster. He
immediately suggested Jordan Flaherty, whom I then contacted and wound up exchanging
email send-outs with him.  He's a terrific writer, knowledgeable about and with many contacts
throughout his native NOLA.  Literally nothing I've read or heard matches the dimension
and depth of this article.  Read on...

From: jordan flaherty
Sent: Thursday, August 30, 2012 4:38 AM
Dear friends,

Like many of you, I am thinking about New Orleans and the surrounding areas as they begin to recover from Hurricane Isaac. Below is my most recent article, looking at the state of the city seven years after Hurricane Katrina.

I also recent contributed a very short story about my Katrina experience to, a new storytelling website. You can see it here:

And here's a short update on the story of New York City police conducting spying operations in New Orleans:

Finally, for those who still do not have a copy of Floodlines, Haymarket books is offering a 40% discount in honor of the anniversary of Katrina. Just enter the coupon code"FLOODLINES" when ordering on the Haymarket site. And if you are with an organization that could use free copies to support your work, let me know, and I may be able to help you out. You can email me at

best wishes,


Seven Years After Katrina, A Divided City

By Jordan Flaherty
A version of this article originally appeared on -

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a national laboratory for government reforms. But the process through which those experiments have been carried out rarely has been transparent or democratic. The results have been divisive, pitting new residents against those who grew up here, rich against poor, and white against Black.

Education, housing, criminal justice, health care, urban planning, even our media; systemic changes have touched every aspect life in New Orleans, often creating a template used in other cities. A few examples:

- In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, more than 7,500 employees in city’s public school system were fired, despite the protection of union membership and a contract. Thousands of young teachers, many affiliated with programs like Teach For America, filled the empty slots. As charters took over from traditional public schools, the city became what then-superintendent Paul Vallas called the first 100% free market public school system in the US. A judge recently found that the mass firings were illegal, but any resolution will likely be tied up in appeals for years.

- Every public housing development has either been partially or entirely torn down. The housing authority now administers more than 17,000 vouchers – nearly double the pre-Katrina amount –a massive privatization of a formerly public system. During this period, rents have risen dramatically across the city.

- The US Department of Justice spent three years in negotiations with city government over reform of the police department. The historic consent decree that came out of these negotiations mandates vast changes in nearly every aspect of the NOPD and some aspects could serve as a model for departments across the US. But organizations that deal with police violence, as well as the city’s independent police monitor, have filed legal challenges to the agreement, stating that they were left out of the negotiations and that as a result, the final document lacks community oversight.

- As the city loses its daily paper, an influx of funding has arrived to support various online media projects – including $880,000 from George Soros to one website. In a city that is still majority African-American, the staff of these new media ventures is almost entirely white, and often politically conservative. These funders – many of whom consider themselves progressive - have mostly ignored the city’s Black media, which have a proud history of centuries of local resistance to the dominant narrative. Publications like Louisiana Weekly covered police violence and institutional racism when the daily paper was not interested. Wealthy liberal foundations are apparently still not interested.

There is wide agreement that most of our government services have long deep, systemic problems. But in rebuilding New Orleans, the key question is not only how much change is needed, but more crucially, who should dictate that change.

New Orleans has become a destination for a new class of residents drawn by the allure of being able to conduct these experiments. For a while, they self-identified as YURPs (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals).  Now they are frequently known as “social entrepreneurs,” and they have wealthy and powerful allies. Warren Buffet has invested in the redevelopment of public housing. Oprah Winfrey and the Walton family have donated to the charter schools.

Many residents – especially in the Black community – have felt disenfranchised in the new New Orleans. They see the influx of college graduates who have come to start nonprofits and run our schools and redesign our neighborhoods as disaster profiteers, not saviors. You can hear it every day on WBOK, the city’s only Black-owned talk radio station, and read about it in the Louisiana Weekly, Data News, and New Orleans Tribune, the city’s Black newspapers. This new rebuilding class is seen as working in alliance with white elites to disenfranchise a shrinking Black majority. Callers and guests on WBOK point to the rapid change in political representation: Among the political offices that have shifted to white after a generation in Black hands are the mayor, police chief, district attorney, and majorities on the school board and city council.

In a recent cover story in the Tribune, journalist Lovell Beaulieu compares the new rebuilding class to the genocide of Native Americans. “520 years after the Indians discovered Columbus, a similar story is unfolding,” writes Beaulieu. “New arrivals from around the United States and the world are landing here to get a piece of the action that is lucrative post-Katrina New Orleans…Black people are merely pawns in a game with little clout and few voices. Their primary role is to be the ones who get pushed out, disregarded and forgotten.”

People hear the term “blank slate,” a term often used to describe post-Katrina New Orleans – as a way of erasing the city’s long history of Black-led resistance to white supremacy. As New Orleans poet and educator Kalamu Ya Salaam has said, “it wasn’t a blank slate, it was a cemetery.” Where some new arrivals see opportunity, many residents see grave robbers.  In response, those who find anything to praise in the old ways are often accused of being stuck in the past or embracing corruption.

Hurricane Isaac has demonstrated that New Orleans is still at risk from storms – although the flood protection system around the city seems to be more reliable than it was before the levees failed and eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater. But have the systemic problems that were displayed to the world seven years ago been fixed by the radical changes the city has seen? Is reform possible without the consent of those most affected by those changes? These are polarizing questions in the new New Orleans.

Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based journalist, and the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can be reached at


For regular updates from social justice struggles in New Orleans, see:

Recent Reporting:

TV Reporting


Part One, History of an Occupation:
Part Two, Surviving the Winter:

Print Reporting:

Did New Orleans Media Contribute to Police Violence After Hurricane Katrina?

NYPD Spying on New Orleans:

FLOODLINES: Community & Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six
ISBN: 9781608460656   - Trade paper  - 320 pages

FLOODLINES: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six is a firsthand account of community, culture, and  resistance in New Orleans. The book weaves together the stories of  gay rappers, Mardi Gras Indians, Arab and Latino immigrants, public housing residents, and grassroots activists in the years before and after Katrina. From post-Katrina evacuee camps to torture testimony at Angola Prison to organizing with the family members of the Jena Six, FLOODLINES tells the stories behind the headlines from an unforgettable time and place in history.

As the floodwaters rose in New Orleans, Jordan Flaherty began to write, rescuing precious truths about the reality of racism and solidarity in his city that risked being washed away in the tide of formulaic corporate journalism. I can think of no journalist that writes with deeper knowledge or more love about this highly contested part of the United States. These remarkable stories of injustice and resistance must be heard.
– Naomi Klein, author “The Shock Doctrine”

This is the most important book I’ve read about Katrina and what came after. In the tradition of Howard Zinn this could be called “The People’s History of the Storm.” Jordan Flaherty was there on the front lines. He compellingly documents the racism, poverty, and neglect at the core of this national failure and the brave, generous, grassroots revolutionaries who saved and continue to save a city and a people. It is my favorite kind of book – great storytelling, accurate accounting, a call for engagement and change.
-Eve Ensler, playwright, The Vagina Monologues, activist and founder of V-Day

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