Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The Horrible Blessing of Katrina

Hard to admit it, but for many poor New Orleanians, the hurricane made their lives better

Last week, a Chicago Tribune columnist made news for writing an incredibly stupid piece saying that her messed-up city needs a Hurricane Katrina to straighten it out. Excerpt from that column:

But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops.

That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.

Residents overthrew a corrupt government. A new mayor slashed the city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts. New Orleans’ City Hall got leaner and more efficient. Dilapidated buildings were torn down. Public housing got rebuilt. Governments were consolidated.

An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system.

You can imagine how well that went for her. It brought to mind the rhetorical beating former First Lady Barbara Bush took in 2005, for saying that Katrina evacuees living temporarily in the Houston Astrodome were “underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” It was hard to believe that she said something to insensitive, and everybody and his brother let her have it.

But what if both Mrs. Bush and Kristen McQueary, the Tribune columnist, were on to something? It’s almost too horrible to contemplate, but writing in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell says social science studies a decade after Katrina show that most people exiled from New Orleans after Katrina are doing much better than others. Excerpts:

African-Americans have become—to borrow the title of Sharkey’s recent book—“stuck in place.” Sharkey writes:

Over the past two generations, 48 percent of all African American families have lived in the poorest quarter of neighborhoods in each generation. The most common experience for black families since the 1970’s, by a wide margin, has been to live in the poorest American neighborhoods over consecutive generations. Only 7 percent of white families have experienced similar poverty in their neighborhood environments for consecutive generations.

If a group of poor Americans are stuck in a bad place, then either the place they are stuck in needs to be improved or they need to move to a better place. Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to advance the second of these approaches—experimental projects, government initiatives —but they have been hard to execute on a large scale. Then came the storm.

Gladwell points out that because of various factors, most of the displaced New Orleanians were black. A decade on, almost all of the whites driven out by Katrina have returned, but there are today about 80,000 fewer black people in New Orleans than were there before the storm.

This matters, Gladwell reports, because according to a major study of the economics of mobility, the most important factor in whether or not poor people are going to make it out of poverty is where they live. In other words, if you want your kids to make it out of the ghetto, figuratively, you need to leave the ghetto, literally. But poor people don’t typically have the resources to do that. Plus, for better or for worse, this is where their social networks are. If you tell a poor person she needs to get herself and her kids out of the ghetto if they’re going to have a decent chance of breaking out of poverty, you are telling her to pull this off without material resources, and telling her to leave behind all the people she knows, and that help her get by. No small wonder that few poor people do this.

Katrina launched the kind of experiment nobody would have done in real life. What social scientists know is that nothing changes for poor people if they move from one place compromised by poverty’s pathologies, to another one just as bad. But that’s not what happened with a lot of Katrina exiles:

“I think that what’s happening is that a whole new world is opening up to them,” Graif said. “If these people hadn’t moved out of the metro area, they would have done the regular move—cycling from one disadvantaged area to another. The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape.”

That is, more neighborhoods in better shape than those of New Orleans, which is a crucial fact. For reasons of geography, politics, and fate, Katrina also happened to hit one of the most dysfunctional urban areas in the country: violent, corrupt, and desperately poor. A few years after the hurricane, researchers at the University of Texas interviewed a group of New Orleans drug addicts who had made the move to Houston, and they found that Katrina did not seem to have left the group with any discernible level of trauma. That’s because, the researchers concluded, “they had seen it all before: the indifferent authorities, loss, violence, and feelings of hopelessness and abandonment that followed in the wake of this disaster,” all of which amounted to “a microcosm of what many had experienced throughout their lives.”

Katrina was a trauma. But so, for some people, was life in New Orleans before Katrina.

The piece goes on to cite data showing that there was no worse place in America to be black and poor than in New Orleans. You could go just about anywhere else in the country and improve your life.

To me, the most fascinating finding is the contrast it draws between whom Gladwell calls the “Healers,” and those he terms the “Fixers.” The Healers wanted to restore New Orleans to what it once was; the Fixers wanted to turn it into something different. Neither one was motivated by malice, Gladwell indicates; it just reveals a different way of dealing with the disaster.

This divide came up when social scientists interviewed a group of Katrina evacuees living in Houston. There was a group that missed New Orleans terribly, and what they missed more than anything were 1) the fact that for all its problems, it was home; and 2) its unique culture. The exile group that was happy to be in Houston said it preferred the better schools there, better economic prospects, lower crime, and so forth. Gladwell concludes:

In the past ten years, much has been said, rightly, about the resilience and the spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost. It is time to appreciate as well the courage of those who, faced with the same disaster, decided to make a fresh start.

Read the whole thing.

This resonates with me on several levels. For one, I appreciate the fearlessness of the essay’s premise. No sane person could possibly wish for a Katrina to hit a city. Just last week, I met one of my sick father’s old friends at my dad’s bedside (he is in home hospice care, a fact, by the way, that explains my light posting these days). The friends is a senior law enforcement official in Louisiana. We got to talking about Katrina, and he recalled rushing to New Orleans from his own city in the storm’s immediate aftermath, trying to help. Even ten years later, the shock was evident in his face. “I never thought I would ever see an American city in that condition,” he said. So let us stipulate that Katrina was, first and foremost, is to be despised.

That said, it’s fair, and even necessary, to consider the possibility that some good things might have emerged out of the catastrophe. Nobody can say World War II was justified, but the social and economic changes its aftermath caused in the United States — shaking up the role of women in economic and social life, starting the Civil Rights movement, beginning the great migration into the middle class — were, arguably, good things that came out of the disaster.

Reading the Gladwell piece made me think about how hard it is to quantify the value of community and culture. Working with Wendell Pierce on his upcoming Katrina memoir taught me a lot I didn’t know about the intensity of suffering the storm inflicted on New Orleans. It also taught me a lot about New Orleans culture and community, and community culture in general, and their role in making a people resilient, and giving life meaning. All of that is true. It’s why I came back to Louisiana after all this time. As I wrote in The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:

Ruthie never understood why any brother of hers would walk away from what she considered the greatest place on earth. That was a failure of empathy, and a failure of imagination. But here was my failure: I rarely considered with any degree of seriousness what pursuing my own dreams, and my own sense of personal autonomy, would cost my family and myself. I believed the American gospel of individual self-fulfillment, and accepted uncritically the idea that I should be prepared to move anywhere in the world chasing my own happiness. I honestly believe that God places a particular call on each and every life, and we must be ready and willing to follow Him, no matter what. The thing I had never seriously considered until Ruthie’s passing is that my place, in the end, and the fulfillment of the plan God set for my life before I was born might be found right where I began.

Sitting on my front porch on Fidelity Street one warm winter’s day, I asked Tim Lindsey, Ruthie’s physician, what the biggest lesson of her life was.

“That the American dream is a lie,” Tim said. “The pursuit of happiness doesn’t create happiness. You can’t work hard enough to defeat cancer. You can’t make enough money to save your own life. When you understand that life is really about understanding what our true condition is – how much we need other people, and need a Savior — then you’ll be wise.”

When you’re young, nobody tells you about limits. If you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us modern Americans, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a 42-year-old woman, a wife and mother and schoolteacher in good health and in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?

The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won’t come sit with you, and pray with you, and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace, if it comes to that, because it can assure you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.

Only your family and your community can do that.

This is the point of view of the Healers. I accept it, and I live by it. That said, the Gladwell piece forces me to realize that the choice I made to move back to a state that is relatively poor, and offers relatively fewer chances for material advancement than other places I have lived was a choice made possible by the fact that I was at the point in my career in which I had a choice, and because I was in a unique position to continue my career from here, and my wife is good at homeschooling. We were a family of poor people living in a part of Louisiana where there were few good jobs, and dismal public schools, the cost of holding on to culture and community would have been unimaginably higher. The very real cost of staying behind could have been so high that it made the cost of leaving acceptable. That’s simply a fact.

So, Gladwell is right: the people who stayed, or who returned, after Katrina likely made a brave choice. But so did those who never came home. It all depends.



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