The Real Looting: Katrina Exposes a Legacy

Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Wright
Date Published: 
October 11, 2005

Katrina survivors have a right to self-
determination. All displaced persons should be allowed to return to their home and neighborhood and allowed to exercise their democratic rights guaranteed under our constitution.


BATON ROUGE, LA—As floodwaters recede in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, it is clear that the lethargic and inept emergency response after Hurricane Katrina is a disaster that overshadows the deadly storm itself. Questions linger: Is government equipped to plan for, mitigate against, respond to, and recover from natural and manmade disasters? Can the public trust government response to be fair? Does race matter?

Using case studies dating back more than seven decades, government response to Hurricane Katrina can be examined in a historical context of response to other public health emergencies, natural disasters, industrial accidents, toxic contamination, epidemics (natural and manmade), and terrorism threats in African Americans communities. Generally, emergency response reflects the pre-existing social and political stratification, with communities of color receiving less priority than White communities. Equity issues revolve around which community needs are addressed first and which community is forced to wait.

Blinded by Racism

Blacks and Whites see the world through different lenses. Whites are far more likely to reject the notion that racial inequality remains a major problem in America and that race plays a part in government response to emergencies. Although Black and White hurricane survivors find themselves in similar circumstances (displacement from their homes), because of institutional discrimination, Blacks may face different experiences and challenges than Whites in rebuilding their lives, homes, businesses, institutions, and communities.

Hurricane Katrina left a wide path of destruction and despair across Gulf Coast counties in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The powerful storm toppled offshore oil platforms and refineries sending shock waves throughout the economy with the most noticeable effects felt at the gas pump.

Thousands of Gulf Coast Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama residents lost their homes in the hurricane. The needs of many African Americans and low-income disaster survivors in Gulfport, Biloxi, and Mobile remain invisible to the relief and recovery process. African Americans in the region are "invisible" victims of Katrina and racism. At every class level, racial discrimination artificially limits opportunities and choices for African Americans. Unfortunately, this sad fact of American life is not wiped away by the floodwaters of Katrina.

Rebuilding Public Trust–A Matter of Homeland Security

Hurricane Katrina is the first major national catastrophe in the United States since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. As such, Katrina also created waves of a different sort. Millions of Americans now question the nation's emergency preparedness, capability, and commitment to address natural disasters in a fair and just way. The events unfolding in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have national implications for emergency preparedness and homeland security. Billions of dollars have been given to local, state, and federal government agencies for homeland security "toys" (equipment) and "training" (counter-terrorism) in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack—with little accountability or evaluation of program effectiveness.

Katrina did not discriminate in its devastation but numerous studies show that race and class factors play a role in disaster victims' ability to obtain loans, locate temporary and permanent housing, settle insurance claims, recoup losses and return and rebuild.

Level of public trust—and for good reasons—differs widely across racial and ethnic groups. A legacy of slavery, "Jim Crow" segregation, institutionalized discrimination, and unequal law enforcement has left Africans Americans displaying greater distrust of physicians, medical research, and the health care system compared with Whites. Distrust that many African Americans and other people of color feel toward the government in general is an issue of social justice and the government has an obligation to eliminate or mitigate it.

Differences in trust reflect divergent experiences of African Americans and Whites. The mistrust of the medical profession and biomedical community dates back to the antebellum period in our nation's history when slaves and freed blacks were used in nonconsensual experimentation. Successful public health response to epidemics and related health emergencies will depend heavily on overcoming the historical legacy of suspicion and distrust.

The sad legacy of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis "experiment," the failure to address childhood lead poisoning (a preventable disease), the handling of the 2001 anthrax terrorist attack in Washington, DC (different treatment of the mostly White U.S. Senates staffers and the mostly Black Brentwood postal workers), and differential treatment of Blacks in Superfund emergency clean-up, industrial accidents and natural disasters, with the most recent being Hurricane Katrina, are important reasons for a national agenda to rebuild public trust in our local, state, and federal institutions.

Katrina has exposed shortcomings in emergency preparedness, command and control, accountability, communication, and public trust. It is clear that if those directly affected by natural and manmade disasters don't have confidence in authorities, then it may be difficult in the future to convince the public to take proper preventive steps. In order for homeland security programs—and related emergency preparedness programs for that matter—to be effective, they must have the cooperation and trust of all Americans.

Exposing the Racial and Class Divide

Katrina exposed the racial and class divide that had been hidden from sight for decades. Because of the enormous human suffering and physical devastation, the response to Katrina (rescue, evacuation, clean-up, rebuilding, and recovery) will test the nation's commitment to address lingering social inequality and institutional barriers that created and maintained the racial divide of "two Americas," one Black and poor and the other White and affluent.

Katrina struck a region that has a disproportionately large share of African Americans and poor people. For example, though African Americans make up only twelve percent of the United States population, New Orleans is nearly 68 percent black. The African American population in the coastal Mississippi counties where Katrina struck ranged from 25 percent to 87 percent black. African Americans make up nearly half (46.3 percent) of the population of Mobile, Ala., while, in 2000, 28 percent of New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line. The poverty rate was 17.7 percent in Gulfport, Miss., 17.7 percent in Biloxi, Miss., and 21.2 percent in Mobile. Nationally, 11.3 percent of Americans and 22.1 percent of African Americans fell below the poverty line in 2000.

Displacement – Survivors, Evacuees, Not "Refugees"

More than a million Louisiana residents fled Hurricane Katrina of which an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 could end up permanently displaced. The powerful storm ravaged an eight-parish labor market that supported 617,300 jobs. Nearly 100,000 Katrina evacuees are in 1,042 shelters scattered across 26 states and the District of Columbia. Katrina has left environmental contamination in Gulf Coast neighborhoods that will need to be cleaned up before residents can return. An estimated 150,000 houses may be lost as a result of standing water from the storm.

FEMA's plan calls for housing evacuees in 125,000 trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama until they find permanent housing. However, the pace of getting evacuees out of shelters has been slow because few sites have been found with the necessary infrastructure—water, sewer, and electricity—to accommodate trailers. Some Louisiana parishes near New Orleans have adopted "emergency ordinances" and "NIMBY-ism" (Not in My Back Yard) limiting density of mobile-home parks.

Katrina did not discriminate in its devastation but numerous studies show that race and class factors play a role in disaster victims' ability to obtain loans, locate temporary and permanent housing, settle insurance claims, recoup losses and return and rebuild. If social equity is not addressed in post-hurricane recovery planning in the Gulf Coast, permanent displacement could become a major social, economic, political, and human rights issue of the day. The groups most vulnerable to permanent displacement include the poor, families with children, elderly, disabled, renters, and African Americans.

Mental Health and Post-Traumatic Stress

Thousands of hurricane survivors along the Gulf Coast must now cope with the loss of relatives and friends, homes, and businesses, and "loss of community." Katrina displaced just under 350,000 school children in the Gulf Coast. An estimated 187,000 school children have been displaced in Louisiana, 160,000 in Mississippi, and 3,118 in Alabama. Katrina closed the entire New Orleans school system. More than 125,000 New Orleans children alone are attending schools elsewhere. More than 93 percent of New Orleans schools are African American. Evacuated children are being enrolled in school districts from Arizona to Pennsylvania, including almost 19,000 who will be attending school in Texas.

For the survivors who lost everything, it involves coping with the stress of starting all over. Two weeks after Katrina first struck, more than 2,500 children were still separated from their families. One can only imagine the mental anguish these children and families are experiencing.

Past studies show that Black disaster victims are more likely to suffer from delayed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than Whites. Black disaster victims often receive less support, information, and emotional help than equally affected disaster victims who are White. Studies also show that Blacks are also mistrustful of agencies staffed largely by Whites and are less willing to turn for aid.

Just Transportation–Still Separate and Unequal

Transportation is a major component in any emergency preparedness and evacuation plan. However, unequal access to transportation alternatives in natural disasters heightens the vulnerability of the poor, elderly, disabled, and people of color. Individuals with private automobiles have a greater chance of "voting with their feet" and escaping from hurricanes than individuals who are dependent on government to provide emergency transportation. Too often buses (public transit and school buses), vans (para-transit), and trains do not come to the rescue of low-income, elderly, disabled, and sick people. As in the case of Hurricane Katrina, buses were not used in emergency evacuation. Many vulnerable people were left behind and many died.

Transportation apartheid is made clear in Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility and Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity, which illustrate how chronic inequality in transportation is firmly and nationally entrenched. American society is largely divided between those with cars and those without cars. The nation has been so preoccupied with building roads and highways, that we have neglected public transportation.

In urban areas, African Americans and Latinos comprise over 54 percent of transit users (62 percent of bus riders, 35 percent of subway riders, and 29 percent of commuter rail riders). Nationally, only about 5.3 percent of all Americans use public transit to get to work. African Americans are almost six times as likely as Whites to use transit to get around. Urban transit is especially important to African Americans. More than 88 percent of Blacks live in metropolitan areas and 53.1 percent live inside central cities. Nearly 60 percent of transit riders are served by the ten largest urban transit systems and the remaining 40 percent by the other 5,000 transit systems. In areas with populations of one million and below, more than half of all transit passengers have incomes of less than $15,000 per year.

The private automobile is still the most dominant travel mode of every segment of the American population, including the poor and people of color. Clearly, private automobiles provide enormous employment access advantages to their owners. Car ownership is almost universal in the United States with 91.7 percent of American households owning at least one motor vehicle. According to the 2001 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) released in 2003, 87.6 percent of whites, 83.1 percent of Asians and Hispanics, and 78.9 percent of blacks rely on the private car to get around.

Before Katrina, transit-dependent people and individuals who don't own cars were "invisible" Americans. Lack of car ownership and inadequate public transit service in many central cities and metropolitan regions with a high proportion of "captive" transit dependents exacerbate social, economic, and racial isolation—especially for disabled, elderly, low-income, and people of color residents. Nationally, only 7 percent of White households own no car, compared with 24 percent of African American households, 17 percent of Latino households, and 13 percent of Asian-American households. Two in ten households in the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama disaster area had no car. People in the hardest hit areas were twice as likely as most Americans to be poor and without a car. Over one-third of New Orleans' African Americans do not own a car. More than 15 percent of New Orleans residents rely on public transportation as their primary mode of travel.

The bill for replacing and repairing the roads and bridges destroyed by Hurricane Katrina could exceed $2.3 billion. Repairing damage to interstate highways and major state roads, such as I-10, alone cold cost $1.5 billion, to be paid with federal funds. An estimated $77 million in repairs are needed on another 9,000 miles of "off system roads" in the disaster area. These roads are not controlled by local government and are not repaired or maintained with federal dollars. The $2.3 billion price tag does not include damage to state ports, airports, levees or mass transit systems, or funds to relieve traffic-gridlock in Baton Rouge streets that are filled with vehicles from New Orleans evacuees.

Katrina exposed a major weakness in urban evacuation plans. The problem is not unique to New Orleans and Gulf Coast cities. The recent evacuation of 2.7 million people from Houston fleeing from Hurricane Rita shows that here is no way to evacuate a large U.S. city quickly and smoothly. Many motorists ran out of gas after spending more than fifteen hours stuck in traffic. The disastrous New Orleans emergency transportation plan should alert other cities to the complexities of mass evacuation. Emergency plans that do not provide alternative transportation (buses, vans, trains, etc.) as an integral part of disaster evacuation is destined to fail low-income, disabled, elderly, sick, people of color and others who do not to own cars and drivers licenses.

Homeownership and Wealth Creation

Natural disasters often push poor people deeper into poverty, exacerbate crowding conditions especially among families with children, and deepen the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites. Katrina has intensified the competition for affordable housing. The hurricane made Baton Rouge the "fastest growing city in America,"with the East Baton Rouge Parish population doubling from 425,000 to 850,000. This unprecedented growth has strained the local apartment and home market. Housing prices in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area have risen by twenty percent since the hurricane. Before the storm, the area had 3,626 homes listed for sale. A week later, fewer than 2,500 homes were officially listed for sale, but 75 percent of those homes have been sold already.

Home ownership is still the cornerstone of the American Dream. It is the largest investment most families will make in their lifetime. Home ownership is a cushion against inflation, the cornerstone of wealth creation, and a long-term asset that can secure advantages and transfer across generations. Home ownership is a critical pathway for "transformative" assets—inherited wealth that lifts a family beyond their own achievement.

Ownership of property, land, and business is still a central part of the American dream of success—a dream that has eluded millions of Americans. The growing economic disparity between racial/ethnic groups has a direct correlation to institutional barriers in housing, lending, employment, education, health, and transportation. Housing discrimination denies a substantial segment of people of color communities a basic form of wealth accumulation and investment through home ownership. The average Black family holds only 10 cents of wealth for every dollar that Whites possess.

About 60 percent of America's middle-class families' wealth is derived from their homes. Much of the increase in Black wealth is due to rising home ownership, which increased from 42 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2003—still far behind the nationwide home-ownership rate of 68 percent. Addressing "wealth disparity" is one of the biggest issues facing urban, suburban, and rural areas for the next 50 years.

Insurance "Tug of War" in the Aftermath of Katrina

Damage from  Hurricane Katrina

Insured losses from Hurricane
Katrina could reach to between $40
and $60 billion.

After the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, insurance adjusters begin the arduous task of processing the mountain of insurance claims. The storm has set the stage for a monumental "tug of war" between insurers and the storm victims. The total economic losses from Katrina will likely exceed $125 billion, with insurance companies paying $40 to $60 billion.

Prices for home insurance in storm-ravaged Gulf Coast area of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama could easily jump an average of 15 percent to 30 percent due to Katrina. After the four hurricanes hit Florida in 2004, insurers began increasing the price for home insurance there by as much as 30 percent, with some homeowners hit with increases of more than 50 percent. For some homeowners in the most vulnerable areas, Katrina would push the price increases along the Gulf Coast even higher than in Florida.

A majority of households and businesses in the 12 counties most affected by the storm in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana do not have flood coverage. FEMA estimates that 12.7 percent of the households in Alabama, 15 percent in Mississippi, and 46 percent in Louisiana have flood insurance. Similarly, only 8 percent of the businesses in hurricane-affected counties in Alabama, 15 percent in Mississippi, and 30 percent in Louisiana have flood coverage.

Generally, people of color have higher levels of physical damage but lower estimated losses, than Whites largely due to segregated housing in older, poorly built homes. Black households are less likely to have insurance to cover storm losses and temporary living expenses. Because of racism and racial redlining, Blacks are more likely than whites to receive insufficient insurance settlement amounts. Blacks are less likely than Whites to have insurance with major companies as a result of decades of insurance redlining.

Because of the legacy of "Jim Crow" segregation, many African American consumers in the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama Gulf Coast region may be concentrated in the secondary insurance market—smaller and less well-known insurance firms. This could prove problematic for Katrina victims. For example, nearly a dozen small insurance companies collapsed after Hurricane Andrew, which cost the industry about $23 billion in today's dollars. Andrew was the most expensive single hurricane until Katrina. The same thing could happen after Katrina. Many, if not most, of Katrina’s low and moderate-income victims may not have resources to hire lawyers to fight the insurance companies.

Insurance "Looting" and Redlining

The insurance industry, like its housing industry counterpart, has long used race as a factor in appraising and underwriting property. Insurance redlining is not isolated to an individual insurance agent. The practice is widespread among big and small companies. The premium differentials between Black and White neighborhoods cannot be explained solely by loss data, i.e., theft, vandalism, fire, and larceny crimes.

Studies over the past three decades clearly document the relationship between redlining and disinvestment decisions and neighborhood decline. Redlining accelerates the flight of full-service banks, food stores, restaurants, and other shopping centers from black neighborhoods. It is not uncommon to find African Americans who live in majority black zip codes paying twice the insurance premium that whites pay for comparable housing in mostly White suburban zip codes.

Katrina no doubt will expose the unequal treatment of African Americans and intensify the long-running disputes between insurance companies and consumers after hurricane and floods—disputes that revolve around where standard homeowner's insurance coverage end and flood insurance begin. For decades, consumers, Black and White, have complained about insurance companies denying their claims on the basis that damage was not wind-related but flood-related. Flood damage or rising water is covered only by government-backed flood insurance. Because of the enormity of the damage in the wake of Katrina, insurance companies may try to categorize a lot of legitimate wind claims as flood-related. This problem of insurance "looting" will likely hit low-income, elderly, disabled, and people of color consumers hardest.

Fair Housing, Fair Lending, and the Color of Credit

Disasters place a special burden on Black renters and homebuyers seeking replacement housing. Many real estate and insurance agents respond to the fears and biases of Whites. The result is a "discrimination tax" that ends up costing Black renters and homebuyers more than Whites for comparable housing. Predatory lending also hits Blacks especially hard. Predatory lending creates separate and unequal housing opportunities for Black and white homebuyers.

Existing fair housing and fair lending laws need to be enforced to prevent discrimination against Hurricane Katrina victims. Because of the national implications of the problem along the hurricane-impacted counties in the Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana Gulf Coast region, immediate federal intervention is needed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) investigates individual cases of discrimination in housing.

Under the Fair Housing Act, the Department of Justice may start a lawsuit where it has reason to believe that a person or entity is engaged in a "pattern or practice" of discrimination or where a denial of rights to a group of persons raises an issue of general public importance. In cases involving discrimination in home mortgage loans or home improvement loans, the Department of Justice may file suit under both the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

Small and Minority Businesses–Getting a Piece of the Pie

Small businesses provide the backbone of the U.S. economy. Most minority-owned firms are small businesses. The number of minority-owned businesses increased 31 percent to more than four million from 1997 to 2002, according to the Census Bureau. The survey is conducted every seven years. Overall, the number of U.S. businesses grew 10 percent in the period, to 23 million. Minorities owned 18 percent of those 23 million, up from 15 percent in 1997. The survey is conducted every seven years.

Disasters hit small and minority-owned businesses hardest because they are often undercapitalized, vulnerable, and sensitive to even small market shifts. The annual payroll alone in the metropolitan area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina—New Orleans, La., Biloxi, Miss. and Mobile, Ala.— exceeded $11.7 billion in 2002. Small businesses employed 273,651 workers in New Orleans, 54,029 in Biloxi, and 107,586 in Mobile.

African Americans comprise the largest share of minority-owned businesses in the hurricane-affected area in the Gulf Coast. The U.S. Census Bureau reported in 1997 that New Orleans had 9,747 black-owned firms, 4,202 Hispanic-owned firms and 3,210 Asian-owned firms. Minority-owned firms in the Biloxi-Gulfport area included 1,305 black-owned firms, 273 Hispanic-owned firms and 1,063 Asian-owned firms. Mobile, Ala. had 2,770 black-owned businesses, 478 Hispanic-owned businesses and 549 Asian-owned firms.

Black business entrepreneurs are still significantly more likely to be denied bank credit and, even when their loan application successful, they receive smaller loans relative to comparable non-minority businesses. This is the case before and after disasters. Katrina devastated New Orleans small and minority-owned businesses.

New Orleans African American business entrepreneurs date back to before the civil war. Many survived "Jim Crow" segregation and other barriers (social and physical) placed in their path. They serve as a tangible reminder of how Black people throughout the city’s history have adapted to forces that stymied Black community economic development. Historically, Black-owned banks have provided loans and other services to Black communities that were redlined by White banks and mortgage companies.

Cleanup-up Standards and "Dumping Grounds"

Hurricane Katrina has left environmental contamination in Gulf Coast communities that will have to be cleaned up. In the New Orleans area alone, an estimated 22 million tons of debris must be cleaned up and 145,000 cars ruined by hurricane floodwater will need to be disposed of. How, when, and to what extent contaminated neighborhoods are cleaned up is a major environmental justice concern for African American communities.

Where hurricane debris and waste ends up is another issue that causes concern because of pre-existing power arrangements and the historical legacy of differential treatment provided to communities of color. It is important that government officials not repeat the mistakes made in 1965 with debris from Hurricane Betsy that was disposed in an African American area, which later became the Agricultural Street Landfill Superfund site community. Black communities in the South, as documented in “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality,” are dotted with landfills, toxic waste dumps and hazardous waste disposal sites.

Disaster Capitalism

Katrina has created a New Orleans "government in exile." The city's elected officials, a majority of whom are African Americans, including the mayor, city council, school board, and judges, are scattered in Baton Rouge and surrounding parishes and its citizenry who elected them are scattered from Maine to Utah with no idea when they can return home. Clean-up contracts and rebuilding decisions are being made without the input, advise, or vote from duly elected New Orleans officials and citizens.

Hurricane Katrina has opened the floodgate of land speculation and redevelopment scenarios that plan "for" rather than plan "with" the storm victims. What gets built and redeveloped (and for whom) and who participates in the re-building process are major economic justice issues. A small group of private companies, nongovernmental organizations and members of think tanks have divided up "pre-completed" no-bid contracts. A predatory form of "disaster capitalism" exploits the desperation and fear created by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering.

The reconstruction industry works so quickly and efficiently that the privatizations and land grabs are usually completed before the local population knows what hit them. Katrina has also allowed government to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act, passed in 1931 during the Great Depression, which sets a minimum pay scale for workers on federal contracts by requiring contractors to pay the prevailing or average pay in the region.

The New Orleans case presents some important political and human rights implications involving American citizens "right to govern," "right to rebuild," and "right to return" to their homes after a disaster. It also poses voting challenges regarding registration, redistricting, access to polls for the disabled, and the homeless. Identification is required at the polls and returning residents may not have access to traditional identification papers (birth certificates, drivers licenses etc.) destroyed by the hurricane.

New Orleans' repopulation and redevelopment plans also have Voting Rights Act implications, especially proposals that may decrease the number of African American elected officials as well as decrease the voting strength of African Americans.

Rebuilding New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina exposed the systematic weakness of the nation's emergency preparedness and response. If Katrina is the best emergency response that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could muster, then the United States is in trouble. There can be no homeland security if people do not have homes to go to and if they lose trust in government to respond to an emergency in an effective, fair, and just way. No Americans, Black or White, rich or poor, young or old, sick or healthy should have to endure needless suffering from a disaster.

Clearly, Hurricane Katrina exposed the limitation of local, state and federal government operations to implement an effective emergency preparedness and response plan. Lines of authority and responsibility between the city of New Orleans (mayor), the state of Louisiana (governor), and the federal government appear to have been blurred. Clearly, the response that followed Katrina heightened the level of mistrust African Americans have toward local, state, and federal government—making it difficult for some displaced residents to take proper preventive steps against environmental and health threats left by the storm. For example, Black New Orleanians see "Jump Start Jefferson" and other mostly White residents in neighboring communities returning home, while they linger in shelters or in places far from home. It appears that some Black New Orleanians may be willing to return to the city and take unnecessary health risks to fend off what they perceive as a "land-grab" plot by government and developers.

Congress is debating proposed legislation to allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to waive environmental regulations for 120 days if it "is necessary to respond, in a timely and effective manner, to a situation or damage related to Hurricane Katrina." Allowing waivers of environmental standards could compound the harms already caused by Katrina and undermine health protection.

There is a racial divide in the way the U.S. government cleans up toxic waste sites in the country. White communities see faster action and better results than communities where Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. This unequal protection often occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should use uniform clean-up standards to ensure equal protection of public health and environmental justice. What gets cleaned up and where the waste is disposed are key equity issues. It is important that the government officials not repeat the mistakes made in 1965 with debris from Hurricane Betsy disposed in an African American area—later to become the Agricultural Street Landfill Superfund site community.

Dozens of toxic "time bombs" are ticking away in the Katrina-affect region and other communities around the country where African Americans and other people of color are fighting against environmental racism, and demanding protection of public health and relocation from toxic "hot spots."

Pollution from chemical plants located in populated areas pose a health threat to nearby residents. The plant themselves also pose a threat as possible targets for terrorism. While the Department of Homeland Security has spent billions of dollars shoring up plant security, little attention has been given to reducing elevated health threats to "fenceline" communities—communities that are disproportionately poor and people of color. These "environmental justice communities" also have a disproportionately large share of sick people. Residents in environmental justice communities are the most vulnerable populations in mass evacuations from natural and manmade disasters.

The "Rebuild New Orleans" logo is beginning to show up on ball caps, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters. Rebuilding New Orleans will be one of the largest urban reconstruction programs in the country. Reconstruction must include rebuilding and restoring Black cultural and education institutions, including the historically Black colleges and universities (Dillard University, Xavier University, and Southern University in New Orleans) that have produced Black leaders for more than a century.

Katrina survivors, who make up the large "African American Diaspora," are dispersed across the nation. Physically and emotionally battered (but not broken), with homes, jobs, and neighborhoods destroyed, many evacuees in the Houston Astrodome have vowed not to return. A recent survey by The Washington Post found that 43 percent of these evacuees in Houston plan on returning to New Orleans, 44 percent plan on settling somewhere else and thirteen percent were not sure.

Houston and Atlanta were prime benefactors of the New Orleans' "brain drain" before Katrina. Hurricane evacuees, whether they are in private homes, hotels, or shelters need to know that they have a place in the "new" New Orleans. Black teachers, students, business entrepreneurs, postal workers, doctors, lawyers, cooks, maids, musicians, and others need to know they have a role in the rebuilding and governance of their city.

Since Katrina, the African American Leadership Project, though scattered across the country, developed its own response to the disaster. This plan, presented to the Congressional Black Caucus 2005 Annual Legislative Conference held in Washington, DC, recommends that the hundreds of billions in federal resources be targeted to improve human development and capacity, rebuild the physical infrastructure, and rebuild the institutional systems. The group outlined some broad principles, framework, value orientation, and "Citizen Bill of Rights" that they would like to see used to guide the Rebuilding, Reconstruction and Recovery process in New Orleans. Katrina survivors are fighting for equal treatment and equal protection of their right to clean air, clean land, and clean water.

Finally, Katrina survivors have a right to self-determination. All displaced persons should be allowed to return to their home and neighborhood and allowed to exercise their democratic rights guaranteed under our constitution. It is imperative that evacuees from hurricane-damaged areas, who are scattered across the United Stated, be allowed to vote in elections and participate in decision-making that affects their communities.

Robert D. Bullard directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. His most recent book is The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (Sierra Club Books, 2005). Beverly Wright directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. She is a Hurricane Katrina survivor. For more information on environmental racism visit, where a version of this article first appeared.

— October 11, 2005