Hurricane Katrina was a large, strong but not exceptional Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall in New Orleans in 2005. Moreover, unlike the Indian Ocean tsunamis, Katrina could hardly be considered unexpected. Hurricane early warning systems have existed in the Atlantic Basin since the nineteenth century.
There are many reasons why the federal, state and city authorities, faced with a predictable hazard event and identified risks, failed to respond effectively and why so many people were left behind. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had been weakened as priority shifted from natural hazards like hurricanes to other threats in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Emergency management organizations at all levels were reportedly understaffed and under-resourced. But over and above institutional weaknesses and administrative failures, the disaster unveiled a history of social and racial inequality and exclusion that configured the city’s vulnerability to the hurricane as well as the authorities’ response to it. In some ways, that history seems to have continued unchanged in the recovery of New Orleans, reproducing and rebuilding new vulnerabilities.
In 2011, six years after the disaster, the average wage in New Orleans was 6% lower than the US average and poverty stood at 29%,, almost double the US average of 15.9% (Bishaw, 2012; GNOCDC, 2013). Recent data shows that New Orleans ranks second among all major US cities in terms of inequality. Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, poverty has increased significantly among African-Americans in New Orleans, who today represent more than 70% of the city’s poor (Jenkins et al., 2012).
The reconstruction process and within it the construction sector were key drivers in the reproduction of social and racial inequality. Employment regulations, including sanctions against employers who hired immigrants without work permits, were relaxed or put on hold (Sisk and Bankston, 2014). An influx of Latin American immigrants brought down wages in the construction industry, which in turn increased the unemployment rate amongst African-American males, of whom little more than half were employed (GNOCDC, 2013). At the same time, some reconstruction programs benefited large private contractors rather than small businesses and local contractors, potentially limiting local economic opportunity and further magnifying inequality (Amnesty International, 2010; Jenkins et al., 2012).