The Power of Race and Place

In pondering the question of how to measure the recovery of a city, we realize that one’s response depends upon one’s perspective. It is clear that race and place greatly determine personal ability to recover from Hurricane Katrina and color a personal view of recovery. Communities least affected by the storm tend to have larger percentages of white residents. These communities are also more likely to describe the recovery as satisfactory. While these areas received less damage, they have also benefited the most from federal dollars for recovery. Flood insurance claims were larger, leading to a large concentration of hazardous mitigation dollars flowing into these areas. Because of this, these areas are well on the way to a full recovery.

The Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East are further behind. Streetlights are not in service in all areas, and lights on Interstate 10 in some areas of these communities function only sporadically. Most schools remain closed three years after the storm, and supermarkets have not returned in adequate numbers to service these predominantly African-American areas.

The New Orleans East community, however, is vibrant and hopeful. Community and neighborhood meetings and meetings with state and federal officials are well attended. The number of returning residents increases daily. There are signs of work being done on increasing numbers of homes.

New Orleans East is home to seven exclusive subdivisions built on man-made lakes, two of which are gated communities—Eastover and McKendal Estates. There are playgrounds and green spaces as well as a very large park housing a wildlife preserve that were centers of community recreation and family activity before Katrina. Neighbors can now be seen once again walking in the mornings and evenings, tending their lawns and gardens. Children are playing more outdoors, and once again, family pets can be seen and heard throughout the neighborhoods.

Affluent black homeowners, including doctors, lawyers, insurance executives, and a few professional athletes and entertainers understand too well that that they are not immune to the slow pace of services returning to their exclusive neighborhoods. Black professionals in the East, like individuals in Section 8 rental units in the neighborhood, are forced to drive long distances to shop, eat at a sit-down restaurant, and take in a first-run movie. This reality cannot be reduced to a “poverty thing.”

While the government and its responses to Katrina related to rebuilding can and do determine the speed of recovery, what we have learned is that it is the people who will determine the city’s recovery. We know that race and place can influence how you live. We also know that people of color and residents of low-income communities are more affected by negative environmental factors and community disparities that impact health.

The neighborhoods in New Orleans most affected by the storm are segregated by race and income. Like other communities of color and low-income communities across the country, they were plagued with overwhelmingly high crime rates, underfunded and ineffective schools, insufficient essential services, poor transportation and housing options, as well as other factors that challenge individual and community health. Many residents have had little, if any, help from government. Some residents no longer even expect it. But they are determined to return home. Citizens in communities are leading all kinds of rebuilding projects. They are building eco-friendly houses, steel houses, and concrete houses instead of the traditional wood-frame houses we are used to seeing built in the city. There are communities that have decided to be carbon free and are installing solar panels and solar hot water heaters, in addition to using the latest in eco-friendly weatherization techniques and materials. There are neighborhoods fighting against the opening and locating of landfills and other disamenities in their communities and fighting for a fair share of the new green economy and green jobs that are beginning to take hold in the city (Bullard and Harden 2005; Bullard and Wright 2006).

There is no question that rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region should employ the best green and sustainable technology. However, it is imperative that rebuilding, green or otherwise, is fair, just, equitable, inclusive, and carried out in a nondiscriminatory way. Greenbuilding combats the use of environmentally unsustainable building materials. The rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast should include a concerted effort to bring together the predominantly white greenbuilding adherents and displaced African-American residents.

In moving New Orleans toward a greener, healthier, more sustainable, and more just reconstruction of New Orleans that protects the environment while respecting the city’s culture and the well-being of its residents, BuildingGreen (2005) offered a ten-point plan, which was developed with the help of experts in sustainable planning and design. The plan is summarized below:

1. Institute a Sustainable New Orleans planning task force. This task force, comprised of leading national experts in sustainable development and community leaders from the New Orleans area, should develop a series of neighborhood, community, city, and regional plans over the next six to twelve months.

2. Pursue coastal and floodplain restoration as the number-one priority in rebuilding New Orleans. Rebuilding without addressing the fundamental hydrologic forces that influence this region would be folly.

3. Immediately establish Sustainable New Orleans enterprise-zone businesses to salvage and warehouse building materials. Even as the planning gets underway for rebuilding New Orleans, locally owned businesses that employ residents should be set up to deconstruct damaged buildings and recover materials that can be used in rebuilding.

4. Rebuild a levee system around the city that is second to none. If New Orleans is to be maintained in its present location, a levee system able to withstand Category 5 hurricanes and storm surges is critical. Where possible, the levees should be integrated into a perimeter park, providing a new recreational amenity to the city.

5. Create Sustainable New Orleans overlay zoning for the city to ensure that the goals of sustainability, safety, and urban vitality will be followed in the city’s redevelopment. Emerging from the planning process outlined above, the zoning should provide for mixed uses, pedestrian access, energy efficiency, renewable energy systems that can help residents weather extended power outages, and a strong platform of building science for all construction.

6. Retain and restore those buildings that can be salvaged. While many of the buildings not leveled by the flooding will have to be demolished due to moisture, mold, and structural damage, those buildings that can be detoxified and renovated should be salvaged.

7. Mandate or incentivize greenbuilding. The city, state, and federal governments, as well as insurance companies and banks, should encourage going well beyond minimum standards in the reconstruction of the city. Affordable housing should be built at least to Enterprise Foundation Green Communities standards, and public buildings should be required to meet LEED(R) Gold standards.

8. Work with ecologists and fisheries biologists to create more sustainable fisheries for the Gulf Coast. Because seafood is such an important element of New Orleans’ economy and culture, and because local fisheries have suffered from heavy pollutant loadings, protecting and rebuilding those fisheries should be a high priority.

9. Clean up the new brownfields of New Orleans. The most ecologically responsible means, including bioremediation, phytoremediation, and ecological restoration, should be used to detoxify the pollutant-laden sediments left by the flooding.

10. Work with industry to clean up the factories along the Gulf Coast. As part of rebuilding efforts in the New Orleans region, partnerships should be forged among industry, government agencies, environmental organizations, and affected residents to find long-term solutions for greening the industries in this area, which is known as Cancer Alley.

New Orleans residents are engaged in collaboration with national organizations to green their public schools, universities, parks, hospitals, supermarkets, and churches. From our perspective in measuring the recovery of this city, significant progress is due in large measure not to government intervention but to the heart and soul of the city, its people, volunteers, and nongovernmental organizations that want to make a difference.

From the book Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina by Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright. Excerpted by arrangement with Westview Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009.