Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans 15 years ago last Saturday, destroying levees and floodwalls and submerging entire neighborhoods, from the poorer Lower Ninth Ward to the wealthier Lakeview district, for weeks. By some measures, New Orleans has made a remarkable recovery since the storm. Jobs, income, and educational attainment are up, and even the city’s population loss, though substantial, is not as dramatic as many, at the time, feared would happen. Strikingly, though, the city’s black population is down sharply.
When Katrina hit, New Orleans wasn’t in a strong position to survive and thrive after a historic catastrophe. The population of many cities, from Boston to Houston, grew between 1980 and 2000—the first, like many of its peers, reversing two decades of post-industrial decline, and the second continuing a mid-century surge. Yet New Orleans’s population had shrunk during those two decades, by nearly 100,000 people, or 13 percent, before Katrina. The city’s high poverty and crime rates drove the middle class and its employers away, leaving the economy dependent on tourism.
In the weeks after Katrina, New Orleans was nearly entirely depopulated. Most of its nearly half a million residents had fled in the days before the storm. At least 769 of those who remained behind—disproportionately poorer, sicker, and older—comprised the biggest share of Katrina’s 1,883 fatalities across the Gulf Coast.
The big question was: how many people—and who—would come back, or replace the people who stayed away? Today, New Orleans has a population of nearly 400,000—19.5 percent below the city’s 2000 population, but, considering the trajectory of the city in the half-century previously, the loss could have been far worse.
The people who live in New Orleans today, moreover, are largely thriving. A full 36.8 percent of adults hold college degrees—sharply above the 26 percent rate before Katrina, according to southeast Louisiana’s Data Center, and rivaling New York’s own 37.4 percent rate. Median household income is up, from $27,000 before the storm to nearly $40,000 today. Poverty is down, from 27.9 percent to 24.6 percent—still high, relative to the nation’s 11.8 percent rate.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, job opportunities across skill levels had risen, albeit modestly. In 2000, New Orleans and Metairie (a neighboring suburb) had 523,000 jobs. By 2019, the city and its much-smaller suburb offered 510,000 jobs—a fall, obviously, in raw numbers, but a huge improvement, relative to the population loss (Metairie, too, has shrunk in population since 2000).
Pre-Covid-19, New Orleans’s workforce-participation rate, at 61.1 percent, was close to the national average, far above its 57.8 percent rate before Katrina. Jobs in both the lower-wage tourist sector and the higher-wage professional and business-services sector increased in raw numbers, though tourism has been cratered by the pandemic.
No one would have called pre-pandemic New Orleans a beacon of opportunity, however. Anyone looking for aspirational employment prospects, whether in a restaurant or at a tech firm, likely would have migrated to New York or Houston or a similarly successful city. But a person committed to living in the Big Easy, and approaching the job market with some persistence, would not have had to leave the city just to find good employment, as previous generations of New Orleanians did. Except for one marked exception: African-Americans. Before Katrina, nearly 326,000 black people called New Orleans home, or 67 percent of the population. Today, the figure is just 233,000—a nearly 29 percent drop, far outpacing New Orleans’s overall drop in population, leaving the black share at just below 60 percent. The white population, by contrast, has remained steady, at nearly 133,000, almost even with the pre-Katrina level of 136,000.
Where did so many long-term black residents go? They didn’t flee to the nearby suburbs, or elsewhere within Louisiana, where the black population has remained flat. In Texas and Florida, though, the black population has soared, far exceeding population growth overall in the Sunshine State, and slightly exceeding it in the Lone Star state. On the tenth anniversary of Katrina, the Houston Chronicle estimated that 40,000 people who fled New Orleans for Houston just before or after the storm had stayed, many of them minorities. Decades ago, New Orleans suffered from “white flight,” as middle-class white people fled rising crime and business closures for better options. Now, the city is suffering from middle-class black flight.
The city’s inability to confront violent crime still afflicts the black community most acutely. Yes, last year, New Orleans enjoyed a record-low murder rate, with 120 homicides, far lower than the pre-Katrina level of 264. But the per-capita rate of 31 per 100,000 was far above that of any barely functional city—nearly twice that of Chicago, for example, another relative killing field. More than 90 percent of New Orleans murder victims were black, and 11 children were among the victims. Now, the recent decline to a still-catastrophic level is itself imperiled. The pandemic-ravaged city has already exceeded 100 murders this year.
A decade and a half ago, Katrina signaled a new stage in American decline. It was the first modern-day domestic disaster in the wake of which no level of government—local, state, or federal—rose to the occasion. Three years later, in 2008, came the failure of the nation’s financial system. New York City, despite its wealth, failed to manage the Covid-19 pandemic in March, April, and May of this year. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has performed just as poorly as Mayor Ray Nagin did in New Orleans 15 years ago. The Trump administration, too, has failed to lead the nation decisively and consistently through this far broader crisis.
Let’s hope that post-Katrina New Orleans doesn’t become a model for other American cities, in a post-policing era: that is, with a thriving white population, self-conscious about anti-racism and, for the most part, living in relative safety, staying silent about the violent crime ravaging young black men and children. Much of New Orleans’s resourceful black population has voted with its feet, in leaving. Too many others, with fewer resources with which to escape their bullet-ridden neighborhoods, end up in early graves.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images