Racism and Hurricane Katrina

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As Hurricane Katrina ravaged the South and drowned large parts of New Orleans this past September, the ugly reality of our nation's continuing problem with class, poverty, and race became apparent. Many Americans began to question the possibility of racism being a deciding factor in the fate of many New Orleans citizens who were black and who lived in the poorest, most low-lying portion of the city, the Ninth Ward. Many, including First Lady Laura Bush, denounce critics who say race played a role in the federal government's slow response to the victims of Katrina. While it is possible that the government's slow response to the disaster was not directly due to racism, there are many unanswered questions suggesting the protection of the city was ignored because the people who lived within it were poor and primarily black, thus having little political power. We may never know the true reason for the government's inexcusably slow response to the poorest, mainly black Katrina victims in New Orleans. Whether racism played a role or not, at the very least it exposed the fact that racism continues to be a major problem in our country. Understanding the history of this area can help us appreciate the perspective of the minorities who believe so strongly that the levees were destroyed and the Ninth Ward was flooded on purpose, for in fact something very similar did happen in 1927. In the spring of 1927, our country was devastated by one of its greatest natural disasters, known as the "fatal flood." After weeks of constant rain, the Mississippi River tore across the country. Beginning in Cairo, Illinois, it swept south and east, wiping out levee after levee. It destroyed thousands of farms and hundreds of towns, killed over a thousand people, and left almost a million homeless. In Mississippi, 13,000 African Americans lost their homes and were transported to dry land in Greenville. There they were left with nothing but blankets and makeshift tents for shelter. In an attempt to evacuate the victims to safer ground, authorities sent boats with room for every single refugee. However, only 33 white women and children were allowed to leave, because the southern planters feared they would have no labor to work the crops after the floods receded if the blacks left..

By the time the flood reached New Orleans, the river was almost at the levee tops. In an attempt to save the city and its half-million inhabitants, the Poydras levee south of the city was destroyed to direct the water away. As a result, New Orleans was spared, but thousands of acres of plantation land – where the black people lived – were destroyed, and many people died.

Knowing the history of this disaster, it is easy to understand why many blacks in New Orleans believe that the levee was destroyed on purpose. Many questions remain: Why did the floodwalls along the 17th Street Canal break only on the New Orleans side and remain intact on the side affecting the town of Metairie? Why was industrial land apparently protected by stronger levees than nearby residential neighborhoods? Even if the levees in the Ninth Ward weren't deliberately destroyed, were they neglected and poorly maintained by New Orleans authorities because the only people put at risk were poor blacks? While many people are quick to blame the levee failure and the poor response on incompetence or failure of leadership, locals who directly suffered from the disaster are more inclined to feel that the way it was handled was the result of planned neglect. Many New Orleans citizens saw racist gestures up close and personal, such as racial epithets and obscene language. The fact that the Red Cross turned away two black doctors who showed up to help only supports the contention that racism was involved. (The Red Cross claims it turned away the doctors because they could not provide proper Red Cross credentials.) Speaking to Essence magazine, Shelly Sorina, 31, recalls the moment when buses came to the...
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