Race, Poverty and Katrina

Craig E. Colten, professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University, says race played a role in the New Orleans' level of preparedness for Hurricane Katrina.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

African-American leaders around the country are pointing to race and class as one big reason most of the desperate people now suffering in New Orleans are black and poor. Most live in some of the city's lowest-lying neighborhoods, now flooded, some up to the rooftops. When authorities ordered everyone out of the city before Katrina hit, many didn't have the cars or money to leave. For Craig Colten, this isn't a new issue. He's a professor of geography at Louisiana State, and he's written about disparities in hurricane preparedness in his book, "Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature." Professor Colten says that in the 19th century, New Orleans was actually one of the country's most racially integrated cities.

Professor CRAIG COLTEN (Louisiana State University): But as the 20th century progressed, segregation has become much more pronounced. And over the years, not just African-Americans, but low income people in general, have been more susceptible to flooding. They lived in the lowest lying areas.

MONTAGNE: So, obviously, because they found themselves always stuck in these areas, they're the ones that are the most vulnerable.

Prof. COLTEN: Absolutely. Not just in terms of being exposed to high water, but they're oftentimes more vulnerable as well because they depend on public transit. And without public transit operating during a hurricane event, they're somewhat stranded.

MONTAGNE: You know, I gather that there were proposals to use trains to do mass evacuations of people who couldn't get out on their own. What happened to those plans?

Prof. COLTEN: The railroads sit on some of the highest grounds so it makes some sense to use them for evacuation routes and the river, of course, provides access to places like Baton Rouge. And there were proposals as part of ...(unintelligible) of flood response to put people on trains or on barges or on other kind of watercraft, but the basic engineering of evacuation was based on the model that people would have their own personal transportation.

MONTAGNE: Now how does this compare to previous natural disasters?

Prof. COLTEN: The history of natural disasters in New Orleans has been somewhat consistent in that the most vulnerable typically have been impacted the most. And there's been considerable white flight in the last 40 years or so, so that racial composition of the city has changed considerably from a 70 percent majority white to now about the inverse of that with a African-American majority.

MONTAGNE: Well, you talk about white flight, but how precisely did that impact the city's ability to prepare itself for a hurricane?

Prof. COLTEN: In part, with white flight, there has been a considerable exodus of people with the highest income to adjoining parishes. So there's been a tremendous drain on the tax base of the city. And that means the overall maintenance of the infrastructure has declined somewhat. Now granted New Orleans and Louisiana have been able to enlist federal support for the levee system, which does provide funds a bit more equitably, but still, that cannot overcome the inertia of low places or where water will collect. And low income people have found themselves in those areas. Out West, they have a saying that water flows towards money. In New Orleans, it's just the opposite, water flows away from money. The wealthiest people have oftentimes lived on the highest areas in town, which are, in many cases, only 15 feet or so above sea level. And that has left the least desirable locations to the people with the least means.

MONTAGNE: So is this, in its heart, a question of class? Is it about poor people? Is it racist?

Prof. COLTEN: The city administration is now largely African-American and one could not say that there's a race or bias there. And they've made vigorous efforts to make sure all citizens have been protected, but there is a bias built in in the human mobility. Many whites moved first to Jefferson Parish, the immediately upstream suburban parish during the '50s and '60s. They've been able to develop a fairly secure drainage system for themselves and levee protection system. So there is--class and wealth do play a big part of people's ability to respond. And certainly, those people with the least means lose everything.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. COLTEN: Well, it's been a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Craig Colten wrote about the disparities in hurricane preparedness in his book, "An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature." He spoke to us from Baton Rouge.

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