Trouble the Water: New Orleans 3 Years after Hurricane Katrina

Posted on September 10, 2008 by


3 years ago, I was entering my senior year of college, preparing for the year with my life-changing student organization. In my other ear, I was hearing all about the comments Kanye West made on national television.

A stuttered, nervous utterance of “George Bush doesn’t like black people!”

A clip plaid ad nauseum on the news.

With the swiftness of a Usain Bolt millisecond, NBC’s cameras cut away from him.

Sure I agreed with Kanye, and yes Hurricane Katrina was a tragedy.

But realistically I could not “feel” Katrina’s impact on the city of New Orleans. Emphasis on the word “feel.” I could not picture, imagine, grasp its impact on human lives. It was a disaster, and yeah, that’s always bad, but disasters happen. “Disasters” are an inescapable part of life.

I didn’t really feel the impact of Katrina on New Orleans’ residents till I read Mike Davis’ piece on the predators of New Orleans. “Predators” signifying those who almost willingly encouraged New Orleans to fall apart.

They wanted New Orleans to fall apart to shoot some more profits into big GOP donors, in the same way they used the war in Iraq to shoot profits to some more GOP donors.

Davis wrote a follow-up article on the lack of progress in New Orleans. The “lack of progress” meaning the dormancy of broken infrastructure, abandoned, un-fixed buildings, and outlying debris from Katrina, even a year after the flood.

In this environment of broken infrastructure and abandoned buildings, there has been an exacerbation of conditions:

an upswing in killings,

…an upsurge in homelessness

Meanwhile…contributing to those problems, ordinary citizens in New Orleans, particularly the black ones without the political connections, the money, seem to be railroaded and shot down at every turn.

demolitions of public, read affordable, housing…which would’ve cost less to repair than to demolish and rebuild.

Not surprisingly, some advocates of a whiter, safer city see a divine plan in Katrina. “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” a leading Louisiana Republican confined to Washington lobbyists. “We couldn’t do it, but God did” (13). Nagin boasted of his empty streets and ruined neighbourhoods: “This city is for the first time free of drugs and violence, and we intend to keep it that way.”

Privatized charter schooling…
which fired every teacher in New Orleans schools.

While the new charter schools are better funded, they are allowed flexibility in “weeding out” certain students.

Apparently 32000 students have not returned to the New Orleans public school sytem.

Local Businesses being snubbed by the Small Business Administration and not allowed to re-build.

And while the citizens see their opportunities deteriorate…

Republican Campaign Contributors are getting rich off the contracts to “rebuild” New Orleans earning rich contracts.

FEMA, for example, has paid the Shaw Group $175 per square (100 square feet) to install tarps on storm-damaged roofs in New Orleans. Yet the actual installers earn as little as $2 per square, and the tarps are provided by FEMA. Similarly, the Army Corps pays prime contractors about $20 per cubic yard of storm debris removed, yet some bulldozer operators receive only $1. Every level of the contracting food chain, in other words, is grotesquely overfed except the bottom rung, where the actual work is carried out. While the Friends of Bush mine gold from the wreckage of New Orleans, many disappointed recovery workers–often Mexican or Salvadoran immigrants camped out in city parks and derelict shopping centers–can barely make ends meet.

The concept of making money off of disaster is what Mike Davis called “catastrophy capitalism.” It is similar to what Naomi Klein describes as “disaster capitalism” in reference to US-waged war on Iraq: a war and disaster situation fabricated for profit-making purposes for campaign donors.

It was on this astonishing, yet not shocking neglect and exploitation of human needs that I hoped the movie/documentary Trouble the Water would further explore.

The most poignant line from this preview came from a woman who was reluctant to let her son fight in the army. She wouldn’t let her son fight for a country that didn’t care for him back.

That line,

…juxtaposed with the presenter’s line that Katrina was a disaster turning into a tragedy…

….juxtaposed with the fact that some people who worked on Fahrenheit 9/11 worked on this film

…filled me with lots of expectations.

I came into that 12:00 PM showing on a Friday in Hollywood with the expectation that they would talk about and show the politics of New Orleans and its effect on schools, jobs, and life overall.

With those expectations, I was somewhat let down by the movie.

Turns out that the documentary was a mostly first-person narrative of what happened during and after New Orleans. Seems like they should’ve waited a bit to glean deeper storylines and interview outside of the main person and the main person’s circle. Not bad and very important perspective, but I felt the producers could’ve done more with a platform affecting an entire city of people.

It’s one thing for them to have a Katrina story through the eyes of one individual’s experience. I think of Forrest Gump, Blair Witch, as popular examples of these individuals telling their own stories with their eyes.

Once they showed media coverage and footage aside than the subject’s own, then the producers could have and should have invested some time outside the family talking to people outside of the narrative story. They could have talked to those people who were out on the Superdome days after Katrina. They could have talked to the people still in the neighborhood post-Katrina. They could have talked to the superintendents of the school systems. They could have talked to the guards who were still lurking Katrina and told a more complete and filling story.

I wanted them to have discussions about the institutional inequalities in New Orleans. I wanted them to go in-depth about the money that was made by these corporations. I wanted them to talk about the effects of the hyper-privatized school system. I wanted to see more of how other people lived after Katrina.

It’s still a movie I recommend that people go out and see for both informational and holistic human-empowering reasons.

After 3 years New Orleans is stagnant in improvement, but nonetheless, an explosive environment in which to live.

The re-population numbers remain depressed and could remain that way after these battery of hurricanes and city-wide evacuations.

the Valassis data indicates New Orleans had 146,174 households receiving mail in June 2008, still down 28% from the 203,457 receiving mail in June 2005, two months before the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane and resulting flood.

A map of the repopulation of New Orleans via the Map Room

Despite the privatization of businesses and “economic development” thrown into New Orleans, incomes are sinking.

Fifty-three percent of low- income residents report that their financial situation is worse today than pre-Katrina.

Housing continues to become even more unaffordable…

Rents have raised by 46 percent citywide (much more in some neighborhoods)

All this while renters haven’t received any financial assistance (in comparison to the 116,708 Homeowners who have) nor have their been any new apartments built to replace the public housing that was demolished.

There have been 10,000 houses demolished in New Orleans since Katrina, and 12,000 homeless people in New Orleans, double pre-Katrina. And to top it off, housing law discrimination.

Public services continue to operate at a bare minimum…

City services remain very limited — for example, only 21 percent of public transit buses are running.

The percentage of residents who say they have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as depression has tripled since 2006.”>Fifty-three percent of low- income residents report that their financial situation is worse today than pre-Katrina. The percentage of residents who say they have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness such as depression has tripled since 2006.

I first thought the phrase “Trouble the Water” meant something dramatic and extreme. Something like “fire up a thunderstorm” and “make some noise.” Yeah, trouble the water! Fire up a thunderstorm about New Orleans! Make yourself heard about Katrina! Yeah!

In actuality, the phrase from Afro-American Christian lore symolizes something more more serene and something quite antonymical to what I thought the phrase meant: God’s healing. To “trouble the water” is essentially to give something healing properties.

It turns out the movie is about healing whatever’s left of New Orleans.

However, one thing I don’t understand is how one can “heal” if they keep getting plundered, depleted, whacked and broken.