“Our roof fell in, then the water came up. It stayed up for a very long time.”
Jacquelyn Davillier was 21 and living in Slidell, Louisiana, just outside her hometown of New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the region and killed an estimated 1,800 people in 2005. Her father, a sergeant with the New Orleans Police Department, urged her to evacuate, but she had just started a job doing retail at Target, hadn’t even gotten her first paycheck yet, and felt like she needed to stay for her shift. So she stayed.
Davillier’s memories of the storm are almost impressionistic as she tells them: She stayed in her building until the roof collapsed and the floor disappeared into the water. She moved to higher ground, a bridge nearby, and waited. She watched people clinging to trees and listened to the silence that came after the storm had passed but everything was still submerged. “No birds, no insects chirping,” she tells me.
It took about a week until she could get out of the city, but eventually boarded a bus headed toward Houston, joining thousands of other evacuees who had made the same journey under the same desperate circumstances.
“You’re starting with nothing. We had nothing,” Davillier, now 33, recalls of her early days in the city. Houston had been generous and she was grateful she says, but navigating the infrastructure of the city’s generosity was itself daunting after being uprooted from your life. “There was a station for everything, but then you got these directions to go find it,” she says. “I don’t have a car, so how am I supposed to get to the Salvation Army on the other side of Houston?”
There were lines for everything, just need piled on top of need. She waited for toothpaste, towels, water, and food. Davillier spent hours in one line for a $300 gift card from the Red Cross, but they had run out by the time she made it to the front. “We got a bottle of water and a T-shirt,” she says, her voice sharp with disbelief even 12 years later.
Right now, nearly 35,000 people have been forced out of their homes by Harvey, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. They are, like Davillier was, standing in lines, sleeping in shelters, and waiting to hear what kind of home awaits them if they can go back at all. Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long has said that the state is about to undergo “one of the largest recovery-housing missions that the nation has ever seen” and warned that “housing is going to be very frustrating.”
If Katrina is any indication, without public policy intervention to correct it, that process is also going to be a re-entrenchment of the inequities that make catastrophe that much more destabilizing for low-income and poor people who were already just barely getting by.
“I have analyzed this over and over again. On every level, at every aspect, they failed people,” Davillier, who is Native American, says of the long-term government response to Katrina. “They knew the massive amount of people who were homeless, jobless, had financial losses that left them with nothing.”
A storm of this scale is a crisis of nature (and, increasingly, human activity). The scale of the devastation and what comes next—whether or not survivors have the material supports they need to rebuild their lives, and whether those resources are distributed equitably—is a crisis of politics. Katrina taught us that.
Recovery comes in stages, a marathon of uneven progress. After first arriving in Houston, Davillier stayed with the family of the man she was dating at the time, living alongside 12 other people in a three bedroom house. Soon she went back to work at a Target in Houston and used a housing voucher to start renting her own place. She had no savings from before the storm, so that meant “going check by check” to cover basic necessities, bills, and the slow process of buying back the contents of a home. She couldn’t afford a bed at first, so she slept on the floor. It was a life built back in pieces. It would be a year before she returned to Louisiana, because of a death in the family but also because it was home, where the fraught process of rebuilding would start all over again.
“Wages were low and jobs were scarce,” Davillier says of going back. “But rent went up. Sky high.” It was the same story for thousands of other people who returned to New Orleans—where more than half of city residents rent their homes—to find a changed city.
“About 50 percent of the housing stock in New Orleans was very badly damaged and taken completely offline,” Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, tells me. In the years after Katrina, average rents in the city jumped around 40 percent while household income stagnated. Public housing units were demolished, but not built back at the same rate, pushing former residents into the same private rental market with housing vouchers. “There really was no plan at the city level about how to address the realities of the new housing market,” Hill says.
This disproportionately affected low-income black renters, but the lopsided recovery also extended to black homeowners. In 2008, Hill’s organization filed a lawsuit against the state of Louisiana and the Department of Housing and Urban Development over the design and implementation of a housing recovery program called The Road Home. Black homeowners were being given considerably smaller grants to rebuild their homes than white homeowners, even when the houses were virtually identical and equally damaged.
“The grants were based on the pre-storm value of the home instead of the cost to actually repair the home,” Hill explains. “That formula failed to take into account the history of racially segregated neighborhoods and racist housing policy that led to the disparate valuing of homes in black and white neighborhoods.” The case was settled in 2011 after a judge agreed the formula discriminated against black homeowners, and additional funds were made available. It was a necessary but long-delayed correction, Hill says.
Davillier observed the same dynamics, anecdotally, among her neighbors and family. Back in Slidell, her rent had gone from $895 to $1,300. She watched as family members back in New Orleans struggled to repair their homes while wealthier neighborhoods were quickly rebuilt. “I was back and forth helping family gut their houses, paint them once the walls went up,” Davillier remembers of that year. “There was just the rot smell everywhere, but the French Quarter was nice, which was absolutely asinine to me.” The city wanted to “get the tourism back up and running rather than get the people back up and running.”
More than a decade after the storm, New Orleans remains a deeply unequal city. That is both in perception and in fact. As the Washington Post reported in 2015, a National Urban League study found that the “gap between the median income of African Americans and whites grew by 18 percent after the storm, and the number of black children living in poverty jumped from 44 percent to more than 51 percent.”
These are political crises, with political solutions. And as catastrophic storms like Katrina and Harvey become a more common occurrence, cities are beginning to learn from one another. Hill tells me that lessons learned in New Orleans were applied to New York in its recovery from Superstorm Sandy, and she points to the work of local Texas organizations like the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service as doing the work of fighting for more just housing. But knowing how to push back against massive inequality is different than state officials, and our pro-austerity, pro-privatization federal government, mustering the political will to do it.
Twelve years on, Davillier feels settled in a way that seemed impossible immediately following Katrina. She is still in Slidell, recently started a family, and feels emotionally stronger than in those early months and years. “If you had tried to talk to me a couple of years ago, I would have said ‘no’” to an interview, Davillier says. “Even now, with the anniversary, I don’t celebrate it. I don’t want to imagine it, relive it.”
But she knows that the ordeal she lived through is just beginning for the thousands of people displaced by Harvey. The question now is whether those in power will make the same mistakes this time around. Given the current political landscape, it’s hard to imagine they won’t.