A decade later, counting Katrina’s dead remains an imperfect science at best _lowres

 

As the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, experts often turn to the phrase “tale of two cities” to describe New Orleans’ recovery.

For while some parts of town — especially those that didn’t flood after the levee failures, but also inundated areas that housed wealthier residents — have rebuilt and even thrived in the years since 2005, other neighborhoods — particularly poor ones — have struggled mightily.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when you ask how the recovery has gone, the answer you get varies, and it divides largely on racial lines.

According to a survey released Monday by the Manship School of Mass Communication’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs at LSU, nearly 80 percent of white residents in New Orleans think the state has mostly recovered.

But three in five black residents — 59 percent — say it hasn’t.

“White and African-American residents of New Orleans tend to see the past decade in very different ways,” said professor Michael Henderson, who directed the survey. “Most white residents think life in New Orleans is better today — not simply better than the toughest times that followed Hurricane Katrina, but better than it was before the storm even arrived. Most African-American residents do not feel that way.”

The answers likely differ because even though Katrina’s impact forced residents of all demographic and socioeconomic backgrounds out of the city, the process of return was far less egalitarian, according to the report.

Ten percent of residents were never able to return to their homes, even if they did make it back to the city. And statistics show that of those surveyed, about 70 percent of white people were able to get back home within a year. Only 42 percent of black residents were able to get back home in that time.

In addition to the return home, survey participants were asked to measure progress in the local economy, public schools, flood protection and quality of life in their community. The survey found that black residents were far less enamored with post-Katrina changes in these categories than white residents.

Some of the starkest racial divides could be seen when residents were asked to evaluate their communities. Half of white residents think their communities are better today than they were before the storm, while nearly half of black residents say they are worse.

It’s the same thing with the local economy: Most white residents think it’s better now, while most black residents think it’s worse.

The city’s changing demographics may have much to do with how residents feel about quality of life, according to the report. Census data show the city today has fewer black residents, and that the population is on average more highly educated and has higher household incomes than before the storm. There’s also been a large migration of new residents following the storm, and more than half of those who have moved to New Orleans are white.

New Orleanians weren’t the only ones to have negative views about Louisiana’s recovery after Katrina.

Similar evaluations came from Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, which experienced near total inundation from the storm. Only 44 percent of residents in those areas say the state has mostly recovered.

Overall, however, two-thirds of residents throughout Louisiana say the state has mostly recovered from both Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which made landfall in the southwest part of the state less than a month later.

According to Henderson, the fact that people in some areas of the state felt life was actually better after the storm spoke to the uneven way recovery happened.

“There are amazing things that have happened since Hurricane Katrina, and some people are seeing those,” he said, mentioning the overhaul of the New Orleans public school system as an example. “But some haven’t been touched by them at all, or in the same way.”

Regardless of how recovery happened, most Louisiana residents agree, however, that the process was unfair.

“Many residents in the city feel the rebuilding effort proceeded without their voice,” the survey says. “A majority (60 percent) agree with the statement: ‘People like me had no say in the rebuilding process.’ ”

Many residents also agree that the state received an unfair allocation of recovery dollars. Forty-five percent say Louisiana didn’t get enough federal money, compared with other states.

In New Orleans, that number jumps. Sixty-two percent say Louisiana did not get enough money.

Louisiana residents also think their government could have done a better job of helping them with the money that did come. Only 38 percent thought the government did all it could, while 77 percent felt the government had an obligation to help as much as possible.

Again, the disappointment in New Orleans was much greater, with 86 percent saying the government should have done all it could and only 27 percent who believe it did.

“I think that what we can take away from this is, however the process unfolded, people did not feel they were part of the process,” Henderson said. “You had people saying, ‘This is how you might envision a city moving forward.’ But other people were saying, ‘Wait, this is my home. This is where I live. So I need to have input.’ ”

Data came from 2,195 respondents throughout Louisiana, including 422 respondents in New Orleans.

According to Henderson, the center decided to publish the survey this week because of the spotlight the anniversary has brought.

“We thought it would be a good time to see what the perception of recovery was,” Henderson said. “We wanted to get a sense of that in New Orleans and in the state as a whole.”