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The effects of hurricanes and other natural disasters tend to linger after the debris is picked up. For New Orleans, the same bog has lasted for more than 16 years, since Katrina hit the city. My guest this week, Andy Horowitz, is an associate professor of history at Tulane University and the author of Katrina: A History, 1915–2015. He's getting into the weeds with me on the policy decisions and equality gulfs in the city that have kept New Orleans from ever truly bouncing back. We're also digging into how Ida has exacerbated some of the same inequalities, and what the future looks like. 

Xander Peters: Sixteen years later, has New Orleans truly recovered from Katrina? Can it ever? 

Andy Horowitz: The first question, no. I'm always inspired by the great New Orleans writer Kalamu ya Salaam. In 2006, he was asked if New Orleans could come back better after Katrina, and he said, no, that—and I'm paraphrasing—"better" would have to mean that everybody who was in the city before the flood was able to come back, and each of their lives got better. That is what better has to mean. And I think that was such an ethically clear principle that I have held on to it very strongly myself. Too many people died. Too many people suffered unnecessarily for us ever to describe a complete recovery. That is just, I think, such an insensitive slander against the people who couldn't come back at all, that I think we should abandon that goal. New Orleans is different now than it was before Katrina. In some ways, for some people, it's better, and in other ways, for other people, it's worse. This is just how history unfolds.

XP: We're a few months removed from Hurricane Ida. Are there any glaring examples of what the city obviously still hasn't learned, despite going through Katrina?

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AH: That's an interesting question. I think one thing that really stands out to me is that when talking about Katrina, we still sort of phrase our inquiries in terms of the city as a whole—how is New Orleans doing? Has New Orleans recovered? What has New Orleans learned? And the truth is that the population of our city is so fractured, particularly according to inequalities of class and race, and also neighborhood, that to generalize about the city as if it has one coherent or shared experience is really to obscure the ways that those inequalities of race and class define New Orleans for everybody. So, clearly for some wealthier people, New Orleans is doing much better there. The statistics suggest that most wealthier white people in New Orleans have only gotten much wealthier since Katrina. I believe that, comparatively, the income and wealth of Black New Orleans has fallen, relatively. So, even by the sort of crude economic metrics, life has gotten better for some, worse for others. The experience of Ida shows us that yet again: For some, it was a kind of exciting, nerve-wracking, and ultimately insignificant event; and for other people, it has just proven to be and continues to prove to be incredibly difficult. I think one thing we still haven't learned is that we have to attend to those inequalities. Rather than asking general questions about New Orleans, we have to ask specific questions about different New Orleans'. 

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XP: I know I'm lumping different parts of the city again, but what are your expectations for how inequality continues as more storms are surely bound to blow in?

AH: I think it's really important for us to know that racial and economic inequalities are constantly made and remade. They are not eternal, unchangeable facts. For example, if I could go back to the Katrina example for a second, I'll get down in the weeds a little bit with a specific policy that I think is really revealing. In the Road Home program, there was a provision that said the Road Home grants would be capped at one of two numbers—one was $150,000—that was the most money anyone could get. But the other cap was at the so-called market value of a home. In other words, what a real estate assessor would say that the house was worth. They chose that metric rather than another number they might have used called the replacement value, which is the cost of repair. So, what this meant was that two identical houses, with identical damage in different neighborhoods, had different maximum grant amounts. And because of historic racial discrimination in housing, it means that houses in white neighborhoods became eligible for larger grants than houses in Black neighborhoods. It actually had more to do with who your neighbors were. Careful study showed that in fact, this was born out across the city and that, on average, a majority of white homeowners were eligible for the full $150,000 grant, but a majority of Black homeowners were capped at a lower rate. This seemingly race-neutral provision in the Road Home program meant that white people were eligible for bigger Road Home grants than Black people. 

XP: That's crazy.

AH: It's insane. To be sure, in 2010, a federal judge found that this provision was unconstitutional. That's thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. But that was in 2010. That's five years after the flood, when it was really too late. Most of the money had already been spent—it was too late to make a significant difference in people's lives.

So, that gives you an example of how a seemingly obscure and seemingly race-neutral provision in the law can create profound racial disparities. I think the number that the Fair Housing Action Center came up with is that this discrepancy shortchanged Black homeowners by something like half a billion dollars compared to what they would have if the state had used the replacement value formula. So, it is true that we keep seeing, from afar, the same racial and economic inequalities, but it's important to remember that we could always change these policies. Because they're not natural, that means they have to constantly be created and recreated through policy and practice.

We could come up with fairer, more equitable policies, like using replacement values instead of fair market value, and all of a sudden you get another half billion dollars coming to Black homeowners in New Orleans after Katrina, and probably see a profound difference in who is able to come home. In some ways it can look inevitable to critics that say like, 'Oh, it makes sense that Black people wouldn't be able to come back as easily as white people, because that's just how American inequality operates.' But these [are] recent policy decisions. I think it's really important, as depressing and dispiriting and crushing as it can be, to observe how racial and economic inequality seems to be a constant in American life. We also need to keep track of the ways that it always has to be created and recreated through policy. And therefore, it is always something that is within our grasp, to address and to mitigate. 

XP: In our current political moment, as we see more attention finally being paid to racial and economic justice—among other factors, like environmental justice—if we were to put that same lens over the 2010 era, do you think we would still have the same result we're seeing today? 

AH: I think we should give a lot of credit to organizers and activists associated with Black Lives Matter for really explaining, and explaining so well, and putting at the forefront ideas of structural inequality. Because that's what we're talking about—we're talking about inequality becoming structured into American life and American policy. That is not a matter of personal differences. It's not a thing that sort of springs eternal, but actually is a product of our policy-making both in the present and in the past. 

So, I do think that many Americans have a clearer understanding of how structural racism and structural inequality works. Thanks to the work of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center this particular program I just described in the Road Home program, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it no longer does. So, during Hurricane Sandy, for example, HUD used replacement value rather than fair market value. It is possible to see these changes as a result of the relentless attention and scrutiny and advocacy and activism. These are things we can look to with hope and pride and it teaches us that change is possible. And we can also look to the countervailing movements in American life that seek to, quite literally, outlaw any discussion of structural racism in our classrooms, for example, and know that we have quite a struggle on our hands.

XP: I'll end on this. Knowing what you know, are you hopeful for the future? 

AH: It's such a hard question for me to answer. There's always hope, because history teaches us that change is always possible. But it's not the kind of naive hope that says things inevitably get better on their own. I think I have the hope of someone who knows that change only comes through struggle.

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Xander Peters

Xander Peters is a freelance writer living in New Orleans. His work appeared in Rolling Stone, Reason, and Earther, among others.