Hurricane Katrina: Half of New Orleans still feels left out of recovery

It's been a decade since Hurricane Katrina, but in many neighbourhoods things are hardly back to normal. And in some ways, blacks in New Orleans are doing worse than they were before the storm.

In some ways, blacks in New Orleans doing worse a decade after Hurricane Katrina

Post-Katrina New Orleans boom and bust

8 years ago
Duration 1:46
Kim Brunhuber drives through the city where pockets of the city are experiencing a boom, while others are worse off than they were before the hurricane

You can hear the sound from two blocks away. A group of students in motley band uniforms parades down Flood Street wielding everything from drums to tubas, playing with frenetic energy despite the afternoon heat. 

This is what happens in New Orleans: walk down the street, you run into a band.

These kids go to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward, a largely African-American community that was practically erased by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Their school was the first in the ward to re-open.

But a decade later, things here are hardly back to normal. The band marches past broken-down cars, lots with weeds as tall as corn and an oddly common sight: the concrete remains of front stairs... to nowhere.

Floyd Track pulls back the weeds in his yard and shows me his stairs, all that remains from the house that floated away.

Students in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School marching band walk past abandoned cars and empty lots in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward. (Kim Brunhuber)

He rebuilt. No one else on his block has.

"This was the Douglas property," he says, pointing to an empty lot. "Over here, this is where the Browns stayed at." Another empty lot. It's like Track is giving me a ghost tour. The houses, his neighbours, all invisible.

Since Katrina, he's seen New Orleans rebuild. Just not here.

"It's like we're outcasts," Track says. "That's the bottom line. And probably because it's predominantly black."

Few places to shop

Down the road, Burnell Cotlon says his hotel-room-sized convenience store is a symbol of what's gone wrong here. The only other place to buy the basics is the nearest Walmart, which, if you don't own a car, is an hour away.

"This is 2015," Cotlon says. "You should not have to catch three buses just to get a loaf of bread."

He's among the many black residents of the city who feel left out of the economic boom that has transformed other, wealthier neighbourhoods in the decade since Katrina.

Burnell Cotlon runs the Lower Ninth Ward's only grocery store. The nearest Walmart is three bus rides away. (Kim Brunhuber)

"Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, the Saints – everybody knows that's what New Orleans is known for. It's not known for the Lower Ninth Ward. So I know they had to redevelop all that area first, because that's where the money is. So I hope it's about money and not about race. Because if it is, shame on them."

One recent survey found nearly four out of five white residents believe the city has mostly recovered. But nearly three out of five black people say it hasn't.

Another study by the Urban League's New Orleans Chapter found that since Katrina, the income gap between black and white residents has actually widened.

"The poverty numbers can't be masked, it can't be massaged. It can't be spun," says Marc Morial, New Orleans' former mayor and now president of the Urban League, a national organization that advocates for African-Americans.

"Black New Orleans remains with disparities compared to white New Orleanians when it comes to education, income, education and housing."

Disparities persist

Morial acknowledges that disparities have always existed, but says much of the recovery effort is going towards more affluent communities at the expense of traditionally black communities.

Floyd Track, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, points out all of the neighbours who lost their homes and haven't come back since Hurricane Katrina. (Kim Brunhuber)

"There is no doubt that in many respects, this city is where it was 10 years ago, and in some cases worse," he says.

In communities such as the Lower Ninth Ward, some roads are being fixed and houses are slowly being rebuilt.

Business leaders say more people are moving to the city now than at any time after Katrina. But there are still 100,000 fewer African-Americans living in New Orleans than there were 10 years ago, according to the latest census.

Many left during Katrina and its aftermath to live with relatives in cities across the U.S., and either decided not to return, or were financially unable to do so.

That's why Floyd Track is still alone on his block. His ghost tour continues: the Newmans, the Keeslings, the McFaddens – neighbours he says are all gone and aren't coming back.


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.