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Ten years after Hurricane Katrina: Changing hearts, minds and systems in New Orleans

La June Montgomery Tabron, America’s Wire Writers Group | 9/1/2015, 4:38 p.m.
Ten years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, it’s time for midcourse corrections in the restoration efforts.
La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation

— Ten years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, it’s time for midcourse corrections in the restoration efforts. The coalitions of foundations, nonprofits and government should pause to ensure that their investments will improve upon the pre-Katrina conditions in communities of color and that the racial and class inequities that existed prior to the storm are being adequately addressed.

Katrina was an awakening: the racial fault lines had been blurred in the city. Visits to Bourbon Street yielded fine food and music, but failed to paint a full picture of the city Their communities and their challenges were tucked away from view. But with Katrina, impressions of New Orleans changed dramatically.

When the hurricane struck on August 29, 2005, more than 80 percent of the residents had evacuated, leaving behind the most vulnerable – those with neither the means nor money to flee. New Orleans was predominantly African-American (67 percent) and 27.9 percent of the city’s households were in poverty, including nearly 40 percent of the city’s children. More than 1,800 people died because of the storm, 123,600 people left the city and never returned, and the black population dropped to 60 percent.

The chaos and devastation that unfolded as the surging gulf breached levees designed to protect the city vividly demonstrated the impact of the racial, housing, education and economic disparities. Many with access to information, transportation and funds for hotel rooms escaped; but those without resources were left behind -- some desperately seeking rescues from their rooftops -- to fend for themselves and depend upon badly flawed public services that failed them at this critical time.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, people had to reconcile our perception of New Orleans. How had we missed the racial inequities for so long? It was so clear that imbalance between haves and have-nots were a major factor in where the blunt of the devastation was felt. Many communities of color were more vulnerable and thus their residents suffered far more.

This fueled the passion within the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to address the inequities.

The Kellogg Foundation had worked with grantees in New Orleans since 1942. Given these longstanding relationships, the WKKF Board of Trustees was compelled to help the children, families and communities recover. The board immediately approved a $12 million appropriation to help provide food, clothing, shelter, rescue and relocation, though the board’s focus was also on long-term recovery. The swift grant making also helped attract other support, as WKKF funding was at times matched by other foundations, companies like Home Depot, Time Warner, AOL, Walmart, McDonalds, and by religious organizations and government agencies.

Since August 2005, the commitment to New Orleans has not wavered: 270 grants totaling $90.1 million have been approved in the last 10 years. Yet, we have learned that one foundation, nor a group of foundations, can successfully address these challenges alone; there must be partnerships that include all segments of the community, especially government, businesses and corporations committed to providing opportunities.

Working with partners and coalitions, our work in New Orleans and the region after Hurricane Katrina has sought to lift families and children, helping to provide opportunities for them to thrive and an environment that improves life outcomes and restores hope for the future. The number of coalitions and partnerships is unprecedented in our work; we are energized by so many disparate segments of society uniting and connecting towards the goal of helping these communities rebuild. The tragedy has ignited a true sense of togetherness in this work.