Soon after Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans’s failed levees displaced 400,000 of the city’s residents, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made a move that would dramatically reduce the availability of public housing in the city. The plan, announced in early 2006, involved the demolition of the city’s four major public housing complexes, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, Lafitte, and St. Bernard, known collectively as the Big Four.
The hurricane hadn’t rendered the brick buildings uninhabitable. HUD determined that they were structurally sound and would be fine after a good cleaning. But the forced removal of residents caused by the storm coincided with a desire on the part of the agencies and local business interests to replace the projects with mixed-income development. Of the just more than 4,500 units that were demolished beginning in 2008, only 700 public housing apartments are included in the mixed-income redevelopment.
Barred from their pre-Katrina homes, where did the rest of those families go? A new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research attempts to find out. It argues that black women bore the brunt of this aspect of the disaster, since the vast majority of lease holders in public housing are women. In the four projects, upwards of 75 percent of families had female heads of households with children under 18. The report, called “Get to the Bricks: the Experiences of Black Women from New Orleans Public Housing after Hurricane Katrina,” also argues that these women’s experiences and demands have largely been left out of the rebuilding process. It tries to correct the record by gathering their stories.
Over the course of two years, from 2008 to 2010, researchers interviewed 184 black women who had lived in the Big Four at the time of the hurricane. They were now in Baton Rouge, Houston, or back in New Orleans. Taken together, their words paint a picture of the horrors and disruptions that these women and their families have experienced. After managing to survive the rising floodwaters in their homes, days-long waits for help, and chaotic conditions in the Superdome, they were bused to unfamiliar places where they had to determine how, when, and whether to go home.
The report describes the effect of displacement on these women’s economic conditions. At the time of the hurricane, 53 of the 184 interviewed were unemployed and not in school. But at the time of the interviews, that number had doubled. Three years after the disaster, 105 were neither in jobs nor enrolled in school. About half of the interviewees said they were less concerned about getting back into public housing than they were about finding an income. But the barriers to securing work after the storm were many.