Katrina and Class: A (Missed) Wake-up Call

by Benjamin Kilpatrick

Posted 7 January 2006 – Forthcoming in The Industrial Radical

According to an article published in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Katrina Killed Across Class Lines,”

The bodies of New Orleans residents killed by Hurricane Katrina were almost as likely to be recovered from middle-class neighborhoods as from the city’s poorer districts, such as the Lower 9th Ward, according to a Times analysis of data released by the state of Louisiana.

The analysis contradicts what swiftly became conventional wisdom in the days after the storm hit – that it was the city’s poorest African American residents who bore the brunt of the hurricane. Slightly more than half of the bodies were found in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, with the remainder scattered throughout middle-class and even some richer districts.
The article’s claim is that people were equally likely, regardless of income, to be killed by Hurricane Katrina. However, as the article notes a few lines down, “more than one in four residents [of New Orleans] lives below the poverty level.” Within the space of a few paragraphs, the article notes that half of the victims were found in impoverished neighborhoods, that the poverty rate in New Orleans was around twenty-five percent (in fact, it is twenty-eight percent), and leaps to the astonishing (to put it mildly) conclusion that Katrina hit the poor and the well-off equally hard. Let me restate this: in spite of the admission that the percentage of bodies found in poor neighborhoods is twice the poverty rate of the city, it claims “deaths citywide were distributed with only a slight bias for economic status.” (Italics mine.)

Numerous times in the article, the facts about the overwhelming toll on the poor are admitted, and immediately contrasted with anecdotal reports about well-off people suffering harm:

Of the 528 bodies recovered from identifiable addresses in city neighborhoods, 230 came from areas that had household incomes above the citywide median of $27,133. The poorer areas accounted for 298 bodies. The state official in charge of identifying Katrina’s victims, Dr. Louis Cataldie, said he was not surprised by the findings. “We went into $1-million and $2-million homes trying to retrieve people,” he said.
A few paragraphs later in the article, we see it again:

New Orleans was the site of most of Katrina’s fatalities; the state reported that 76% of storm deaths statewide occurred in the city. Of the 380 bodies from New Orleans that have been formally identified, a moderately disproportionate number are white. New Orleans’ population was 28% white, yet 33% of the identified victims in the city are white and 67% black.

“The affected population is more multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural than one might discern from national media reports, ” said Richard Campanella, a Tulane University geographer who has studied which parts of the city were hit the worst by flooding. His research showed that predominantly white districts in the city were almost as likely to flood as predominantly black ones.
As the article states, fewer than half of the bodies recovered have been identified, because most are in very advanced states of decomposition. Presumably, the races of these bodies were also impossible to determine. However, something more can be determined about this claim. Unfortunately, due to sample size, only poverty rates for the black and white communities in New Orleans were available. However, the available data indicates that more than eight times as many black people lived in poverty as did white people (88,000 to 10,750). This indicates that there is a good chance that any body found in a poor neighborhood was the body of a black person, and, by extension, that bodies are being found at a disproportionately high rate in poor neighborhoods, which were almost entirely black, that the majority of victims were black, even if the majority of bodies for whom race can be identified are white.

Once again, in this article, we see the admission of facts contradicting the premise of the article followed immediately by an attempt to indicate equivalent harm to white communities. In this case, we are told that white neighborhoods flooded just as much as black neighborhoods. This is likely true. However, it’s silly to equivocate between flooding as such and deaths caused by flooding – white neighborhoods may have flooded at equal rates, but black people died at far higher rates.

Immediately after Katrina, people everywhere were talking about how Katrina made obvious the previously hidden urban underclass that exists in every major city in the country. At the college that I attended for the semester, someone interviewing me for the student newspaper asked if these events had made me aware of the divide between rich and poor. All over the country, white, upper-middle class people were made aware that black people in inner cities live lives of desperation (what a shocker!) and instead of pursuing this new insight to its logical conclusion: that a system operates in this country which systematically operates to privilege certain people, largely older, white, and male, at the expense of other people, largely female and non-white, people almost immediately began spreading rumors about crime (most of the horrific stories coming out of New Orleans about killings and rapes were later found to be false; or, at the very least, the victims of these supposed crimes could not be located) or the supposed ingratitude of the refugees (contradicted by actual volunteers), or simply immediately forgot about the whole damned mess and went back to watching football or that imbecilic fathead Bill O’Reilly gripe about the White Christian Male’s perilously close position to no longer being King of the Universe.

Katrina should have served as a wake-up call to the fact that a large group of people in this country live lives of oppression and indignity. One can only hope that the next wake-up call of this nature will not be more severe.

The article can be found here:

Statistics on poverty in New Orleans can be found at the following sites:

Benjamin Kilpatrick is a native of New Orleans and is enrolled at the University of New Orleans. He can be reached at bkilpat01@yahoo.com. He blogs at paxetlibertas.blogspot.com.