Although there’s a raft of positive economic statistics about the recovery of the New Orleans metropolitan area since the dark days of Hurricane Katrina and its widespread flooding, the data simply do not always drive public perception.
According to a survey released 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. 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.”
Returning to one of America’s most distinctive cities was an emotional goal beyond economic measure for many people. The restoration of family homes often was impossible. 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. The LSU survey is particularly relevant in the life of the city after this important Katrina anniversary, but it is also important to a discussion of the larger economic and social future of Louisiana.
In a few weeks, the people of southwest Louisiana will mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Rita, an immense storm that had a substantial economic impact. Because of the embarrassments of Katrina, much more care was taken with evacuation, and the loss of life was minimal by comparison. The disruption Rita’s advent caused in the recovery process after Katrina had considerable impact across the state.
Yet it does not take events of those magnitudes to evoke the “tale of two cities” story line.
Survey participants had different perceptions of progress in the New Orleans 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. 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. Similar evaluations came from Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, which experienced near total inundation from the storm. Only 44 percent of those residents say the state has mostly recovered.
Overall, however, two-thirds of Louisiana residents say the state has mostly recovered from both Katrina and Rita, which made landfall in the southwest part of the state less than a month later. We do not doubt that the same gaps, maybe even more pronounced, could be found in a survey in other cities.
Because the spotlight has been on New Orleans and the anniversary of Katrina, the gaps between haves and have-nots that always existed in Louisiana may be perceived through the lens of return and recovery. But if a family in Baton Rouge or Lafayette or Shreveport today does not have the education or resources to get ahead, is ill-housed and ill-fed, then no amount of positive data about the “other side of the tracks” will make much difference in perceptions. The return story line is unique in American history. The underlying issues of race and class, the ill-starred destinies of those left behind, is part of a story line endlessly repeated by thousands displaced in place.