The multiple spotlights on New Orleans during the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina missed some meaningful—and moving—events of the whirlwind week.
Even before the week started, the Community Voices Project brought together a group of residents—the true rebuilders of the city—to discuss the good and bad of the last 10 years, articulating many of the concerns that would be muted during the recovery hoopla and boosterism to follow: the unjust rules applied by government contractors who profited handsomely while citizens suffered; the extraordinary community engagement that for the first 10 years had real influence on the political leadership but now seems to be waning; the recovery’s raised standard of living out of reach of so many.
During the anniversary week, the Creative Alliance of New Orleans, which has been working tirelessly for years to nurture the cultural economy, presented the 9th Ward Improv Opera. In a once-grand church that welcomed a thriving neighborhood before the storm, the opera told the story of the shock, despair, and determination of the past 10 years through song, poetry, and dance. The music was optimistic, triumphant, and celebratory. Locally written and performed, the opera reflected both the perseverance and the continued pain that only squeaked through the big events of the week.
A film, Slavery By Another Name, shown in a neighborhood church, focused on one of the most painful occurrences in the post–Civil War South that reverberates today in the injustices of the state’s nationally shameful prison system.
The Atlantic staged a day-long program that gave the mayor and his administration the opportunity to trumpet the official narrative that “we’re back, we’re recovered,” and “we’re growing for the first time in 40 years,” a message that only resonates with the people who celebrate the tsunami of tourists changing the city and those who can afford the doubled rents and increased cost of living that has followed.
At one panel discussion of that day, Lolis Eric Elie, a celebrated New Orleans writer, noted: “My community does not fit any of the narratives of today.” Many in that African-American community, he noted, “are still traumatized and can’t get access to decent paying jobs, so they say ‘why bother?’”
At a panel on the makeover of the school system, the debate over the virtues of the now almost-total charter system—probably the city’s most contentious issue—continued with one former student asserting: “Who runs the school doesn’t matter; what matters are teachers who care.”
Unquestionably, long-neglected school buildings have seen extraordinary upgrades and some new schools have also been built. However, Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance released a report indicating that public school teachers are more likely to be from outside New Orleans, mostly white, inexperienced, and without formal training. After the storm, all the experienced teachers—black and white—were inexplicably dismissed and the union disbanded. The percentage of black teachers is now 49 percent, down from 71 before the storm; 54 percent of the teachers have less than five years experience, up from 33 percent before the storm; and the number of teachers leaving at the end of a school year has increased. Despite this, the report notes, academic achievements are considerable and teacher quality is not always reflected in formal certification.