In late August 2005, 1,833 people died and more than 1 million were displaced in the Gulf region when Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, devastating Southeast Louisiana and Mississippi. When it was all said and done, the storm caused an estimated $125 billion in damage.
More than 50 levee failures contributed to the disaster on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005. These natural or artificial walls were supposed to block water but 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded. It was later learned that the levees failed due to negligent maintenance by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In the national and international response efforts that followed, the federal government was slow and unorganized.
The emergency response from federal, state, and local governments was widely criticized and blamed on then-President George W. Bush.
An ABC News poll conducted on Sept. 2, 2005, found that 44 percent of respondents blamed Bush’s leadership directly.
Criticism was propelled by televised images of residents who remained stranded by floodwaters without water, food, or shelter. Then the death toll grew not only from the flood but from violence. Some charged that race, class, and other factors contributed to delays in the government response, The Washington Post reported.
Black residents were disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina: 51 percent of victims were Black. In the Orleans Parish — one of eight parishes in the New Orleans metro area — the mortality rate among Blacks was 1.7 to four times higher than among whites for all people 18 years old and older, according to Louisiana State data.
The state of Black people after Hurricane Katrina promoted hip-hop artist Ye (formerly known as Kayne West) to go off-script fundraiser during a live TV for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he said.
Bush never recovered politically from Katrina. He was blamed for the federal government’s failure to respond adequately and it didn’t help that he remained on vacation in Texas as Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
Some declared the Bush administration’s response as nothing short of criminal.
While some disaster relief responses to Katrina began before the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) preparations turned out to be lacking.
Supplies and available resources failed to go to the victims. Even though FEMA provided housing assistance (rental assistance and trailers) processed more than 700,000 applicants, only a fifth of trailers requested in Orleans Parish were supplied, resulting in an enormous housing shortage in the city of New Orleans.
Large numbers of the trailers were found to have elevated levels of formaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen. This later led to lawsuits by some Katrina victims and a class-action settlement with manufacturers and some contractors who installed or maintained the trailers, USA Today reported.
Those in New Orleans without shelter or access to trailers were evacuated to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Between 20,000 and 30,000 people endured a nightmare there for about a week, Grunge reported. Facilities were inadequate, and there were reports of rapes and violence in the arena. There were six deaths, one by suicide, one by overdose, and four from natural causes.
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Many Black Katrina victims blamed racism for the slow response, and they said so in congressional testimony in 2006.
Six out of every 10 Black New Orleans residents who responded to a Gallup poll said that if most of Katrina’s victims had been white, relief would have arrived sooner, Slate reported.
“No one is going to tell me it wasn’t a race issue,” said New Orleans evacuee Patricia in an NBC interview. “Yes, it was an issue of race. Because of one thing: when the city had pretty much been evacuated, the people that were left there mostly was Black.” Thompson moved to College Station, Texas.
While Bush hasn’t conceded that racism played a part in the failures in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katina, he does take some of the blame. In his 2010 memoir, “Decision Points,” he said, “in a national catastrophe, the easiest person to blame is the president,” and “Katrina presented a political opportunity that some critics exploited for years.”
Bush acknowledged he should have acted sooner and more decisively, NoLa reported. “I should have recognized the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions; it was that I took too long to decide.”
Photo: New Orleans community leader Dyan “Mama D” French testifies on Capitol Hill Dec. 6, 2006 before the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)