The Long Hurricane

The New Orleans Catastrophe Predates Katrina

About Darwin BondGraham

Members of Survivors Village, an organization of displaced New Orleans public-housing tenants, and their supporters occupy the Columbia Parc rental office in June 2010.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina and the “federal flood,” as locals call the disaster, the new New Orleans is as much the product of decades of antiwelfare ideology in local and national governments as it is of the unique circumstances of the disaster. Since the storm, a resurgent racist business elite has gained power in the city and region, and instituted a new era of urban renewal—or, as community activists termed it the first time around, in the 1960s, “Negro removal.” Privatization of New Orleans’ public sector has proceeded to a degree that real estate, banking, and industry leaders in other regions only dream of. Federal disaster subsidies have enabled reinvestment in the state’s major economic sectors—oil and gas, shipping, military, and tourism. Characterized by low wages and ecocidal byproducts, these industries dominate state and city politics. Yet New Orleans is held up as a model of redevelopment, its innovations made possible by an unfortunate storm called Katrina.

Concurrent with this neoliberal economic project is a neoconservative cultural project, the goal of which is to remold impoverished Blacks and other underclass people—who are portrayed by the redevelopers as living in a pathological state of dependency, turned into irresponsible burdens on society by decades of failed big government—into “productive citizens.” Foundations both liberal and conservative have converged on New Orleans to experiment with housing, schools, parks, and economic development.

The results of the economic attacks and philanthropic experiments have been mixed. On balance, though, the urban poor have become more vulnerable and their lives more difficult as the prices of everything from housing to healthcare have increased, wages have stagnated, and the welfare state has been dismantled, replaced by a punitive police state riddled with corruption and violence.


New Orleans first became a majority Black city in the late 1970s. Driven from the agricultural economy by mechanization, sharecroppers left rural Louisiana and southern Mississippi by the thousands and headed for the Crescent City. This demographic shift coincided with a period of economic stagnation for New Orleans that reached its nadir in the mid-1980s with the bust of the oil industry. [1] The city’s White political and business elites eventually agreed that the source of their collective malaise was not a flawed economic development model that had bet first on shipping, oil, and gas, then on burlesque, alcohol-fueled tourism, and casino entertainment; rather, they decided, it must be all those poor Black people living in public housing, filling the public schools, and relying on the public hospital.

Under the logic of the free market and the political reality of enduring racism, concentrated Black poverty cannot be “solved” by establishing a more egalitarian economy and society. After all, that would undermine the sources of wealth upon which many urban regimes base their growth: rents and low-wage service workforces disciplined by the racial divide. Therefore, the problems must originate inside poor communities, with their “underclass” values. The solutions are always experimental and affect only the poor, never the middle class and the majority of Whites, who actively maintain segregation, nor the banking and real estate sectors of the economy, which exploit poor communities of color and exclude them from the wealth and social goods their labor produces [2]

Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike believe, to varying degrees, that the public sector has failed. The best the state can do is to yield to or stimulate the market, while forcing individuals to accept personal responsibility and a work ethic. Very much a southern city, New Orleans has always been averse to building up the public sector, defending workers, and leveling racial inequalities.


The privatization of public housing across the United States began in the 1990s. President Clinton embraced the recommendations of his predecessor George H. W. Bush’s National Commission on Severely Distressed Public Housing. The commission’s members had included real estate entrepreneurs such as Richard Baron, whose company, McCormack Baron and Associates, had created a business model that called for enclosing and privatizing urban public land and public housing; and political officials such as Alphonso Jackson, the industry-friendly head of the Dallas Housing Authority and a socially conservative darling of the Republican Party. Stacked with such “reformers,” the commission recommended various means of privatizing public housing. Their marquee program was Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE VI), which provided large federal investments in developer-owned and -managed homes built on the sites of demolished public housing projects. The commission also recommended the mass voucherization of housing assistance. New ventures led by urban redevelopers, banks, and landlords, some of them for-profit, others nonprofit, received large subsidies, as governments divested from traditional public housing. In all, these programs have constituted the transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars from the public to the private sector. Even though HOPE VI was supposed to create opportunities for poor families, studies show that it harmed them instead. [3]

Nonprofit corporations and foundations proclaiming their interest in remolding the life chances of impoverished Blacks and other tenants of inner-city public housing paved the way for profit-driven companies to gentrify urban neighborhoods and to produce revenue streams that flowed from low-income renters and governments to corporations and banks. The sociology of scholars such as William Julius Wilson and Xavier Briggs was simplified and used to justify notions of deconcentrating poverty and transforming the poor with exposure to middle class norms. [4] Pseudoscientific theories of poverty and cultural capital identifying “pathological cycles” and “subcultures” were invoked to portray the whole exercise in mass displacement and gentrification as a gift to the poor. Thus began a now two-decades-long effort to disrupt, break apart, incarcerate, discipline, and finally purge majority working-class Black communities from cities.

In New Orleans, there were 6,000 public-housing apartments in the late 1990s, down from a high of 14,000 in the early 1980s. By 2004, only about 5,000 New Orleans families lived in public housing. [5] However, just prior to Katrina, the physical presence and political power of public housing residents prevented further mass demolitions. The controversial 2001 demolition of the St. Thomas development—at that time the city’s largest public housing community—had alienated residents as well as working-class Blacks across the city. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), real estate developers, the city council, the mayor, and nonprofit groups involved in privatization knew that any additional demolitions would be met with massive resistance. [6] The demolitionists had hit a wall, their previously effective system of undercutting resident and community resistance discredited and impotent. [7]

In contrast to the divestment from and disappearance of public housing during the 1980s and 1990s, the number of beds in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) grew by 1,000 percent. In 1974, when White voters, reacting to the militance of the New Orleans Black Panther Party and other Black power activists, elected Sheriff Charles Foti on a tough-on-crime platform, the population of OPP stood at about 800 prisoners. During Foti’s thirty-year tenure, which coincided with the decline of the Port of New Orleans and disappearance of other major industrial employers, as well as with White flight to the suburbs, OPP became the largest per-capita urban prison in the United States, with more than 8,500 prisoners. [8]

The cause and dynamics of the Katrina disaster must be understood in this context. When the hurricane hit, New Orleans’ political and business leaders, White and Black, saw it as an opportunity to purge the city of its most conspicuous concentrations of Black poverty, with the added benefit that they could redevelop these cleansed zones into highly profitable housing and tourist attractions.


The June 2010 issue of the National Apartment Association’s magazine Units carried a cover story entitled “Rebirth On the Bayou.” The feature waxed enthusiastic, declaring, “New Orleans’ Columbia Parc has revitalized a former public housing site destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, proving for some that you can go home again.” [9] This is false. In fact, tens of thousands of New Orleanians, most of them poor, have joined a permanent and involuntary Katrina diaspora. In the five years since the hurricane, the city’s population has shrunk by roughly 100,000, from its height of 455,000 one month before Katrina. [10]

Columbia Parc was conceived in the days after the storm, as a group of New Orleans business leaders and foundation executives gathered to take advantage of the opportunity inherent in the displacement of virtually the entire Black working class population of the city. They incorporated as the Bayou District Foundation, a private nonprofit redevelopment authority with a board of directors that included some of the region’s top real estate, tourism, and banking leaders, and patched together a plan to socially, economically, and geographically remake a large swath of the city’s 7th Ward.

The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) cooperated readily with the Bayou District Foundation and other developers interested in privatizing public housing. In June of 2006 HUD announced its decision to demolish the city’s Big Four public housing projects: the C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, and St. Bernard, which together comprised a total of more than 5,000 apartments. [11] Contracts were soon cut with developers to build mixed-income developments on the sites.

The contract for the 900-unit Columbia Parc, to be built on the site of the St. Bernard, was awarded to Columbia Residential, an Atlanta-based firm owned by the developer Thomas Cousins. Constructed immediately after World War II, the St. Bernard was a sprawling 1,464-unit apartment complex that was made up of dozens of two-story buildings interspersed with giant oak trees and lush lawns. Locals called it The Bricks. Like many public housing developments, it acquired a troubled reputation in the 1970s, due to White flight, capital flight, the dismantling of the welfare state, and other countermovements against the Black political and economic gains of the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, the St. Bernard community persevered through the disinvestment and reactionary politics—at least until the hurricane season of 2005.

The Bayou District Foundation and Columbia Residential’s redevelopment plan for St. Bernard included a promise that one-third of the units constructed would be public housing. Former residents of the St. Bernard are quick to point out, however, that there will be ten times fewer public housing units built on the site than the number in the original development. Fewer than 100 public-housing apartments are ready to be occupied, and only some of these will go to former residents.

In addition to tearing down the St. Bernard, the Bayou District Foundation drew up plans to privatize local schools, using charters, and to take over a portion of City Park and turn it into an eighteen-hole, PGA-level golf course and country club.

St. Bernard residents were locked out of their former homes between 2005 and 2007. In 2007 the St. Bernard’s bricks fell to a demolition company’s bulldozers. Columbia Parc’s first few apartments were not built and rented until late in 2009.


In March 2010, Warren Buffett, the world’s third-wealthiest man, arrived in New Orleans to join Thomas Cousins on a widely publicized tour of Columbia Parc. They were joined by Alex Robertson, the son and representative of Julian Robertson, a hedge-fund manager and the financial backer of Cousins’s philanthropic projects. Their visit was part of a public relations junket for another Cousins scheme, Purpose Built Communities. Cousins had founded Purpose Built Communities after his work during the 1990s on Atlanta’s East Lake Meadows public housing development, where he gentrified a mostly Black, low-income neighborhood into a de-densified, “planned community” of market-rate houses and apartments, a charter school, and a private golf course—all the while using a discourse of philanthropic assistance for the poor. In the organization’s own words, its mission is to: “help local lead organizations develop the strategies and partnerships they need to effectively address all issues that trap a neighborhood and its people in intergenerational poverty.” [12] Purpose Built Communities advises local developers on massive urban redevelopment schemes that go beyond housing or commercial real estate; its specialty is the master planning of entire districts using public subsides and private capital, keeping rents and land-use decisions in private hands.

Walking around the privatized, demolished, and freshly redeveloped St. Bernard, Buffett, Cousins, and Robertson extolled the new homes and the plans for the surrounding neighborhood, and explained their development strategy. Cousins remarked, “Children that grow up here are going to be good citizens—taxpayers not tax users.” Buffett added, “We are changing a lot of lives,” and predicted, “New Orleans is going to prove [Purpose Built Communities] can be replicated.” (Ironically, at the same time that the senior Robertson was lending his name and personal assets to Purpose Built Communities, ostensibly to provide housing and economic opportunity for the urban poor, his vast private wealth was invested in a series of hedge funds that were reaping enormous profits from the subprime mortgage meltdown by short selling mortgage-backed securities. [13])


“Mixed income” housing assemblages are a major aspect of pseudoscientific (and real-estate industry friendly) social engineering. Distributed among “normal” middle-class residents, the urban poor will supposedly alter their pathological behavior, and learn to accumulate wealth and obey the law. Rules for aspiring tenants are spelled out on the Columbia Residential website, whose “Frequently Asked Questions” section tells displaced residents:

No. Columbia Residential will NOT develop a new “housing project.” A new mixed-income apartment community will be built where people from a mixture of incomes will live in attractive and healthy neighborhoods.

The website goes on to tell applicants:

  • Unless disabled or elderly the head of household and co-head of household, if any, must be legally employed with verifiable income.
  • All adult residents in the new community who are not disabled, elderly or the primary care giver for minor children must be working, in school or in an approved training program.
  • All school-age children must attend school.
  • Drug use or drug dealing or a history of criminal activity can disqualify any applicant.
  • Every person in the household 18 years of age or older must have a clean criminal background. Each situation will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
  • There must be a good, verifiable landlord history and if you have received a subsidy in the past, you must be a “resident in good standing” with the Housing Authority of New Orleans. [14]

Stephanie Mingo, a former St. Bernard resident and mother of four who has led fellow residents in opposing Columbia Residential and the Bayou District Foundation’s plans for the 7th Ward, says that many in her community are choosing not to apply for a home in Columbia Parc because of objections to Columbia Residential’s rules and regulations. “They’re insulting, unfair, and probably not even legal,” Mingo says of the company’s work requirement, criminal background and credit checks, and behavioral rules that ban residents from having guests for extended stays, sitting on their porches at certain hours, or playing music.

Columbia Parc’s rules are not unique. At other redeveloped public housing sites in New Orleans, residents must sign leases that require them to work and prove an income, allow home inspections, and adhere to similar behavioral standards. Public housing in New Orleans had been known for its lively street life, socializing on stoops and porches, kids and teens playing in the commons, large picnics, and dance parties in the courts. Some of the developments, such as the Lafitte and C.J. Peete, were important parade sites for the Mardi Gras Indians on Fat Tuesday and St. Joseph’s Night. To the city’s politicians, business leaders, and White middle class, however, none of this mattered: the projects were frightening zones of drugs, mayhem, and murder. If the community itself could not be physically removed from the city, they reckoned, then its members could be alienated from themselves and from the vitality of their own culture, and its norms and values.


As a substitute for project-based public housing, HANO executives are now promoting landlords’ favorite housing subsidy: vouchers. Because vouchers do not interfere with the maintenance of high real-estate prices, they are popular with developers and property managers—unlike traditional public housing, which directly intervenes in the market and can reduce all rents in a given area. Vouchers are susceptible to all kinds of abuses, by everyone from slumlords who receive government funds but maintain run-down housing to HANO staff who have embezzled hundreds of thousands from the federal Section 8 voucher program. [15]

After Katrina, public housing residents who had lived in traditional project-based public housing were provided with emergency housing assistance through several disaster voucher programs administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and HUD. When their homes were condemned and demolished to accommodate schemes like Columbia Parc, many residents were either transferred to the Section 8 voucher assistance program or forced into the private market after slipping through the cracks of the HANO bureaucracy.

In addition to voucherization, two programs have exacerbated the New Orleans housing crisis. The first is the Road Home Program. Now mostly paid out, Road Home was a $10 billion fund for homeowners, who were given the choice of receiving a one-time lump sum either to rebuild their damaged houses or to move out and allow their houses to be demolished. Renters, who made up more than half of the New Orleans population in 2005, [16] received nothing under Road Home, and there was no comparable multibillion dollar commitment to rebuild affordable rental housing in the region. Furthermore, the Road Home Program was racially discriminatory. Remuneration was based on pre-Katrina home values. Homes of the same age and size, with the same yard space and amenities, were valued differently depending on whether they were located in a Black or a White neighborhood. The average claims paid out to Black homeowners were well-below the average claims paid to Whites. [17]

The Gulf Opportunity Zone Act of 2005 (GO-Zone) gave developers of privately owned rental housing tax credits they could use when assembling financing packages. Congress passed the legislation as a “market-based” approach to reconstruction, but only a fraction of the credits allocated to New Orleans for low-income housing have been used. Tax credits worth many millions, supposedly meant for low-income housing construction, languished as developers chose to invest instead in luxury condos and apartments in the expensive Warehouse District or avoided building in Orleans Parish entirely, focusing instead on the booming exurbs of St. Tammany and Jefferson Parishes. Ultimately the biggest benefactor of GO-Zone Act bonds could prove to be cancer-alley industry; the state now proposes subsidizing the construction of a pig-iron factory with $600 million in GO-Zone bonds, and another $30 million from the Louisiana State Bond Commission. [18]

With the onset of the financial crisis, the tax credits lost much of their value, so much so that the few projects utilizing them in New Orleans to build affordable housing became imperiled and required more straightforward infusions of taxpayer dollars, in effect nullifying the original “market-based” approach. Stalled projects quickly exceeded the statutory time limit for their construction. At the former public housing developments B.W. Cooper and Lafitte, which were privatized using low-income housing tax credits, millions were spent to keep the developers afloat. [19]


At the same time that New Orleans’ public housing was being privatized, nearly every school was placed in the hands of charter operators, many of which pay their executives hefty salaries. [20] The privatization of schools is the result of many converging forces, from the lobbying of for-profit charter operators who seek to open up new “markets” to the good intentions of neoliberal philanthropists who believe the best way to reform public schools is to abolish everything public about them except the income stream. Justifying the charter takeover were the stereotypes that impoverished Black children and their parents did not value education and that public schools were failing because of unmotivated, incompetent staff. The reformers entirely ignored the inequalities built into the divides between public and private parochial schools, and between the underfunded, urban, majority-Black Orleans Parish district and the wealthier, suburban, majority-White Jefferson Parish, St. Tammany, and other districts.

The charter takeover was the largest in U.S. history. [21] After Katrina, Louisiana’s Recovery School District (RSD) was empowered by the legislature to take over 107 Orleans Parish schools, which it then handed over to charter operators. The Orleans Parish School Board’s contract with the United Teachers of New Orleans was not renewed, in effect banning union teachers from the new schools. A cheap labor pool of new educators was readily available in the thousands of young, idealistic college graduates flocking to the city to help in its recovery, many of them volunteers with the New Teacher Project, Teach for America, and similar nonprofits.

After four years of operation, New Orleans’ experiment with charters has produced results roughly equivalent to those nationally, which were summed up recently in a report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (which included Louisiana schools in its survey data):

Seventeen percent provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options, and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. [22]

Even so, the New Orleans charter experiment shows no signs of abating. Schools continue to be consolidated around charter operators, and measures to increase competition between schools and to improve teacher performance with merit pay remain popular, as do demands that students and parents take greater responsibility for education.

The charter schools are maintaining the segregation of the pre-Katrina New Orleans school system, when public schools were virtually all Black and the majority of students came from low-income families. Whites and students from wealthier families overwhelmingly went to private schools or to a few select, suburban public schools. Although enrollment in the charter schools is, in theory, open, the charters find ways around this. Underperforming students, typically those from poor neighborhoods, are expelled for nonacademic behavior, such as tardiness, or “counseled out,” as the school argues that it cannot provide them with appropriate services. This selectivity has created a hierarchy among the charters. The sociologist Jay Arena summed up the charter system’s ability to reinforce pre-existing inequalities:

Lifting of local control allowed maybe the most blatant racist takeover of all: the chartering of the formerly all-black, low-income Fortier High School, located next to Tulane University, by the elite, “magnet,” selective-admission Robert Lusher [charter school], appropriately named after a post-Civil War-era segregationist. Fortier, taken over through collaboration with Tulane University, denies entry to the former students, while guaranteeing admission, in a typical phony “antiracist” neoliberal multicultural form, to students of full-time employees of the historically Black universities of Dillard and Xavier as well as Tulane and Loyola Universities. This school, which before Katrina regularly went without even toilet paper, now operates in a renovated facility, with plenty of amenities, and a “progressive” multicultural student body, which excludes, in a neo-apartheid manner, the former low income Black students, many of whom remain in the post-Katrina diaspora. [23]

The charter movement is linked both ideologically and practically to the privatization of public housing. Both movements have relied heavily on nonprofit corporations and foundations to support and execute their plans. Both have utilized the same neoconservative rhetoric of responsibility and accountability. At Columbia Parc the link is quite direct: the Bayou District Foundation has incorporated a charter school into its plans for the 7th Ward and intends for residents of Columbia Parc to send their children there. Whereas with housing the targets of the privatization efforts are primarily Black women (who are the majority of lease-holding tenants), in the schools the targets are children.


After Katrina, Louisiana State University (LSU), the administrator of the state’s Charity Hospital, the largest campus of which was located in downtown New Orleans, shuttered the building and moved to replace Charity Hospital with a new, LSU-administered hospital. Charity Hospital had become synonymous with the problems affecting other public-sector institutions. It was seen as the hospital of last resort, with poor services and long waits, its halls filled with the indigent uninsured.

Supporters of the plan, such as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, believe eliminating the hospital will also eliminate a drain on state coffers. Unlike Charity Hospital, the new hospital will supposedly attract insured, paying customers seeking the best medical care. Its boosters promote it as the catalyst for the rebirth of a two-and-a-half-square-mile section of the city, to be called the Greater New Orleans Biosciences Economic Development District (GNOBEDD). City leaders and real-estate speculators dreamed of a central business district filled with research institutions and small- and medium-sized biotechnology and medical companies, anchored around the new LSU and Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospitals.

One of the most serious consequences of closing the city’s main trauma unit and central source of healthcare for the uninsured was an increase in mortality rates in the area. Medical researchers have found that as many as several thousand people have died as a result of lack of care. One study concluded that:

A significant (47%) increase in proportion of deathswas seen compared with the known baseline population. From Januaryto June 2006, there were on average 1317 death notices permonth for a mortality rate of 91.37 deaths per 100,000 population,compared with a 2002–2004 average of 924 deaths per monthfor a mortality rate of 62.17 deaths per 100,000 population.[24]

Additionally, in order to build the new hospital, LSU and the VA gained permission to demolish an entire neighborhood, 27 square blocks containing 249 homes and dozens of businesses. Ironically these homeowners and businesses had struggled to come back after Katrina, received assistance from the state and federal governments through the Road Home Program and others, and were then told to vacate upon announcement of the biomedical district plan.

The leader of the GNOBEDD is a real estate executive, James P. McNamara. In anticipation of the new LSU and Veterans Administration hospitals, real-estate insiders bought up land throughout the GNOBEDD footprint, hoping to see hikes in value. McNamara has sold the GNOBEDD project to politicians and business leaders with the promise that it will generate 10,000 to 12,000 jobs, with salaries of $70,000 per year and above.[25] Most native New Orleanians are, unfortunately, ill-prepared for these kinds of positions, and it is unlikely that any but the most low-paying service jobs will be available to them, while the salaried scientific, technical, and medical jobs will go to highly educated newcomers. Instead, the project aims to attract young professional-class and “creative class” workers to the city.

Local activists and healthcare advocates have led an effort to reopen Charity Hospital but face the same argument that public housing residents confronted: LSU claims that the building was ruined in the hurricane and required replacement. Surprisingly, the Bush administration disagreed and refused to give Louisiana the hundreds of millions it asked from FEMA to build what critics had by then started calling the “Taj Ma-Hospital.” In the end, however, the Obama administration delivered the funds.


In addition to the GNOBEDD scheme, several other high-profile plans for economic development are taking shape in New Orleans that will drastically remake large sections of the city. The Benson family, which owns the Saints football team, is attempting to build a “sports entertainment” or “party” zone and shopping mall, adjacent to the GNOBEDD. It would be financed using state and city subsidies, in cooperation with the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, a state board operated by prominent real-estate investors.

Another tourism industry project is Reinventing the Crescent, a plan to build parks and entertainment facilities along a 4.5 mile stretch of the Mississippi River. Run by a City Council-created nonprofit called the New Orleans Building Corporation, the plan has sparked land speculation. The project’s head, Sean Cummings, claims that it “could trigger $3 billion in private investments, add 4,500 permanent jobs, and increase the city’s tax revenues by $40 million a year.”[26] Cummings and his family happen to own at least twenty properties within a stone’s throw of Reinventing the Crescent.[27]

Whether any of these schemes will come to fruition is anyone’s guess, because the fiscal situation is continually worsening, and because the city remains, even after Katrina, highly disorganized and corrupt at all levels.


At least one major public sector is receiving investments and rapidly expanding: the warfare or penal state.

The New Orleans Federal Alliance, a nonprofit corporation, secured agreements from the marine corps and the navy to locate two large military installations within Federal City, a large development in New Orleans’ Algiers neighborhood. The alliance claims the project will improve the economy of the entire city, even the country, saying, “Federal City offers an approach that could make it a National Model for the future configuration and operation of small- to mid-sized [Department of Defense] installations, the decommissioning of military installations, and large-scale urban development.” Project proponents claim that one of Federal City’s innovations is its incorporation of housing for military and civilian workers: “All tenants will share Federal City’s amenities and gain the advantages of the force protection features that will be provided,” says the project’s website. [28] Federal City’s 10,000 military, contractor, and civilian-support employees will work and live in a virtual Green Zone—only in New Orleans rather than Baghdad.

A “correctional complex” proposed for the current Orleans Parish Prison and Criminal Court area has been linked to the GNOBEDD and framed as yet another anchor around which the city’s new economy can take shape. [29] Companies building large apartment complexes in Mid-City are advertising their proximity to the correctional complex, hoping to lure in the prison, court, and police workforces as tenants. The New Orleans City Council has already approved a significant expansion of the jail, which is operated by the Orleans Parish sheriff. The number of beds in the jail will be increased by 5,832, which will solidify OPP’s status as the largest per-capita jail in the nation. Before Katrina, the jail had 7,500 beds but regularly housed more than this number of inmates. The sheriff’s office receives $22.39 per day per prisoner from the city, and in 2010 the city paid OPP more than $20 million to lock up mostly young Black men for nonviolent offenses. [30]

Expansion of the city’s prison is poised to happen just as the New Orleans Police Department is under investigation by the Department of Justice for brutal murders and cover-ups during the weeks after Katrina. [31] But despite the thoroughly corrupt police force, many developers and economic strategists are hoping the militarization of New Orleans will accomplish two goals: it will serve as an economic base around which to build housing and amenities for police officers and corrections staff; and it will lock up the city’s surplus population, including those who returned home despite policies designed to force their chronic displacement.


One journalist recently noted that “There Was Nothing Good About Katrina,” and advised policy makers to “stop suggesting that Hurricane Katrina provided an opportunity to improve New Orleans.” [32] Government officials and business leaders, however, seized on the storm as an opportunity.

The sudden disappearance of the city’s poor provided city officials and business elites—who had decided decades before to purge the city of poor people, particularly working class Blacks in and around public housing—with an unprecedented opportunity. Whether it involved urban planning, reductions in public housing, closure of the public health system, privatization of the schools, or other plans to transform New Orleans into a lean, neoliberal metropolis, mass displacement worked in the favor of privatizers and the White middle class.

If five years have proven anything, it is that the Katrina story is about development, in the broadest sense of the term. The storm only intensified a conflict over the role of government and the shape of the region’s economy. And while the picture looks bleak, the story is by no means over. New Orleans remains a Black majority city, and tens of thousands of its working-class citizens have returned, in spite of all the exclusionary obstacles and dangers. Movements to re-establish the public schools, health system, and affordable housing are opposing privatization and continuing to organize. But the city also remains terribly imperiled, as the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster reminds us.


  1. Fussel, Elizabeth.  “Constructing New Orleans, Constructing Race: A Population History of New Orleans.”  Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 846–55.
  2. Wyly, Elvin K. et al. “American home: Predatory mortgage capital and neighbourhood spaces of race and class exploitation in the United States.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, Volume 88, Issue 1.
  3. Popkin et al. “A Decade of HOPE VI: Research Findings and Policy Challenges.”  The Urban Institute, 2004; Wilen, William and Rajesh Nayak.  “Relocated Public Housing Residents Have Little Hope of Returning: Work Requirements for Mixed-Income Public Housing Developments,” inWhere Are Poor People to Live? (Eds. Bennet, Larry, Janet Smith and Patricia Wright).  ME Sharpe, 2006; Greenbaum, Susan.  “Report from the Field: Social Capital and Deconcentration: Theoretical and Policy Paradoxes of the HOPE VI Program.  North American Dialogue.  Vol. 5, Issue 1 (Sept. 2002).
  4. Wilson, William Julius.  The Declining Significance of Race : Blacks and Changing American Institutions. University of Chicago Press, 1980; Xavier de Souza Briggs, Susan J. Popkin and John Goering. Moving to Opportunity: The Story of an American Experiment to Fight Ghetto Poverty. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  5. HANO.  “Housing Authority of New Orleans Pre-Katrina Resident Survey.”
  6. Harrist, Eileen.  “The Challenger: Pres Kabacoff calls him dangerous. But so far, Brod Bagert Jr.’s organizing efforts, family name and master’s thesis haven’t been enough to derail the Wal-Mart/St. Thomas development.”  New Orleans Gambit, December 3, 2002.
  7. Arena, John David.  Winds of change before Katrina : New Orleans’ public housing struggles within a race, class, and gender dialectic.  Dissertation, Tulane University, 2007.
  8. National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.  “Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prison in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina.”  August 10, 2006.
  9. Boston, Laura.  “Rebirth On the Bayou.”  Units, Volume 34, Issue 6.
  10. U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division. County total population and estimated components of population change: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2009. From a compilation by the GNO Community Data Center.
  11. HUD.  “HUD Outlines Aggressive Plan to Bring Families Back to New Orleans’ Public Housing.” Plan includes having 2,000 units opened by August, raising voucher values to expand rental opportunities.”  Press release, June, 2006.
  12. Purpose Built Communities
  13. O’Keefe, Brian.  “Tiger’s Julian Robertson roars again.”  Fortune, January 29, 2008; Mallaby, Sebastian.  More Money Than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite.  Penguin Press, 2010.
  14. Columbia Residential.  “Frequently Asked Questions: For Former Residents of the St. Bernard Projects.”
  15. FBI.  “Former HANO Official Sentenced for Theft of Funds from Section-8 Voucher Program.”  Press Release, March 10, 2010.
  16. Luft, Rachel, with Shana Griffin.  “A Status Report on Housing in New Orleans after Katrina: An Intersectional Analysis,” in Katrina and the Women of New Orleans.  Newcomb College Center for Research on Women.  December, 2008.
  17. Kennedy, Henry H. Jr.  “Memorandum Opinion.”  Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, et al. Plaintiffs, v.United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and Robin Keegan, Executive Director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Defendants. Civil Action 08-01938  (HHK).(PDF).
  18. Sayre, Alan.  “Jindal: Nucor picks Louisiana site for $3.5B iron plant project to be built in 5 phases.”  Associated Press.  September 15, 2010.
  19. Alpert, Bruce.  “GO Zone housing tax-credit extension endorsed by U.S. Senate.”  New Orleans Times-Picayune.  March 5, 2010.
  20. Holley-Walker, Danielle.  “The Accountability Cycle: The Recovery School District Act and New Orleans’ Charter Schools.”  Connecticut Law Review, Vol. 40, No. 1 (November 2007).
  21. Adamo, Ralph.  “NOLA’s Failed Education Experiment.”  The American Prospect, August 15, 2007.; Saltman, Kenneth.  Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools.  Paradigm Publishers, 2007.
  22. “Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States.”  Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2009; also see PBS Newshour. “New Orleans Charter Schools Produce Mixed Results.”
  23. Arena, Jay.  “Has Change Come to Post-Katrina New Orleans? Bush, Obama, and the First 100 Days.”  MR Zine, May 26, 2009.
  24. Stephens Sr, Kevin U. MD, JD, et al.  “Excess Mortality in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: A Preliminary Report.” Disaster Med Public Health Prep. Vol. 1 No. 1, 2007.
  25. McNamara, James.  Comments on WWL TV, “N.O. biomedical corridor continues to move forward.”  July 17, 2010.
  26. Kennedy, Shawn.  “New Orleans Waterfront Plan Takes Shape.” Architectural Record.  December 19, 2007.
  27. Styborski, M.  “Reinventing Conflict Of Interest.”  Humid City, July 26, 2009.
  29. Moran, Kate.  “Apartment buildings could spell renaissance of Tulane Avenue.”  New Orleans Times-Picayune.  January 12, 2009.
  30. Eggler, Bruce.  “New prison complex plan approved by New Orleans City Council.”  New Orleans Times-Picayune.  July 1, 2010.
  31. Bond-Graham, Darwin.  “New Orleans Police Corruption and Repression: Under federal investigation into civil rights violations and police murders of civilians.” Z Magazine.  June, 2010.
  32. Mock, Brentin.  “There Was Nothing Good About Katrina.”  The Root.  August 29, 2010.

Darwin BondGraham is a an ethnographer and historian with a Ph.D. in sociology. His book about New Orleans is entitled Bounce Back: Struggles Against Displacement and Dispossession After Hurricane Katrina.