Black Identity in Hurricane Katrina

This is a paper I wrote during my time at Spelman College.

The dam broke, and a rush of water flooded the city. Those who could escape did, but many couldn’t. Homes. Lives. Friends. Families. Identities. Much was lost, when the hurricane hit. Yet, the outcome was almost expected. Racism and the disparity against the black community was ever so clear prior to Hurricane Katrina, and even more prevalent after. Reading Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Natasha Trethewey, has given me a new insight and truth into the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and even a perspective of the layout of the land, before Hurricane Katrina. Compared to the book, my own review of Hurricane Katrina was slightly different, and a bit more personal.

August 23rd, 2005, the formation of Hurricane Katrina over the Bahamas became known. New Orleans was hit by August 29th, but had already been experiencing heavy rains. I find that it’s important to know that “during the past century, hurricanes have flooded New Orleans six times: in 1915, 1940, 1947, 1965, 1969, and 2005” (History.com). This knowledge may not have instilled fear within some of the occupants in New Orleans. Personally, I know that my three relatives that left New Orleans were not fearful because of their strong faith in God, “God had not given us the spirit of fear. That’s 2 Timothy 1:7,” (Cahee). Two aunts and a cousin evacuated prior to the storm hitting. They stayed with other relatives, and prayed. Fortunately, all three of my relatives could return to their homes after the storm, had they wanted to. Aunt Jean returned to find that her home had little water damaged, that was quickly fixed. Aunt Mat’s home was similar, but she found a better job elsewhere, and decided to move. Cousin Chad’s home was not bad, but “I can’t remember” (Cahee). He chose not to return either, due to his mom. He decided he would live close by to her. A strong sense of family remained within my relatives. No one’s life was lost, and we are fortunate for that. Both aunts had lived in Algiers, but my cousin had lived in the ninth ward. The fact that his home was still livable, is a miracle, but he didn’t go back.

A cleansing. That struck me while reading Beyond Katrina. When I think of my family members that were displaced, it angers me. As previously noted, the black community was plagued by disparities, more than I even was aware of. Before Katrina, Trethewey has a section that briefly explores the Gulfport prior to Hurricane Katrina hitting. Segregation and slave terms were still referenced and “low key” practiced:

The ordinary markers are there – in Gulfport, a neighborhood named the Car Line, so called because it was the last stop for the streetcar, the end of the line. Across the railroad tracks that separate the areas closest to the beach and the center of Gulfport from thee outlying areas is a community called The Quarters, so named, my grandmother tells me, for all the black residents, as if it were a slave quarters (Trethewey 34).

In this particular scene, race plays an important element in who lives where. “Slave quarters” is forcing the black community into a remembrance of when their ancestors once died due to harsh, laborious work for the white man. Again, the black communities’ lives depend on the white man’s society. Even work was sometimes hard to find. Prior to the importation of casinos, the primary income came from the seafood industry. “The coast’s seafood industry, which had been established when the first canning plant opened in the late nineteenth century, didn’t employ blacks” (Trethewey 35). For many blacks native to New Orleans and the Gulfport, poor, working, and low middle became the dominant classes for them. Segregation and lack of work opportunities, forced the black community into poor living conditions. So when people refer to Hurricane Katrina as a cleansing sent by God, I am disgusted.

The media casted a negative portrayal of African Americans. Rather than people out to survive, they became targets for crime and termed refugees. Many people across America, were outraged by such images. It seemed as though America did view Hurricane Katrina as some form of cleansing. A cleansing to return to the early 1900s, when blacks were still seen, heavily, as subordinate to whites.

The young waiter serving our table has been listening off and on to the story, and he has his ideas too, wants to share them – even gives me his card so that I won’t forget his name. He’s from Louisiana, and he moved to the coast for restaurant work in the casino. “What’s different now is that the new generation respects the hurricanes, unlike the folks before. It needed to happen.” When I ask him what he means, he replies vaguely: “to teach us something” and “a cleansing, that’s what it was.” When he turns to attend to another table, I feel uncomfortable thinking about what he might have meant, particularly after hearing some people opine about New Orleans and who was turned out: the poorer, working classes – overwhelmingly African Americans – all lumped together with supposed criminals that the city would rather not see return (Trethewey 27).

My family were innocent, human beings; who are loving and caring. Hurricane Katrina is, and was, a natural disaster that devastated numerous people across the country. It was no cleansing that can be correlated to Noah’s Ark. It was simply just, what happened. The continuous prejudice that plagued this horrific event, was only reinforced by the media. “CBS Radio News reports that New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas said people are too afraid of black people to go in and save them. He added that rumors of shootings and riots are making people afraid to take in people who are being portrayed as thugs and thieves” (Alfano). It’s sad to think that many suffered due to the negative portrayal of a certain group of people. What I learned from all of this, is that racism and prejudice played a key role in the outcome and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and yet is downplayed or ignored in the language referenced to Hurricane Katrina.

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