In the months following Hurricane Katrina, there had been enough evidence coming from within New Orleans for many exiled and returned African-Americans to sense a narrow re-assertion of racial interests from amongst the white community, and many feared the rolling back of the recent few decades of political progress and representation.
Following the devastation wrought by the failure of the federal levees, talk of a geographical and demographic “shrunken footprint” entered into the public discourse of those who had returned as well as within rebuilding plans such as the one espoused by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which provided little inclusion for the return of flooded neighborhoods that had been predominantly African-American.
This term – along with others such as the “right to return,” which referred to every citizens right to come home – became key components of a 2006 New Orleans electoral glossary. As it became apparent that many socially and economically-disadvantaged evacuees lacked the means to return – or neighborhoods to return to – a white minority become cognizant of itself as a determining and political force that had not been possible since African-Americans had attained a voting majority. It is significant that the rhetoric that reflected this realization, regardless of the degrees in which it was expressed, conspicuously bypassed the earlier paradigm of coalition building that had been either necessary – or politically expedient – between the races while New Orleans had been a majority African-American city.
As Ray Nagin’s first term drew to a close the recovery discourses continued, and New Orleans headed towards a contentious election. White conservatives’ sentiments concerning a “new” New Orleans, where rebuilding efforts might make use of a now desolate and largely de-populated landscape to pursue opportunities of changing the city, were then amalgamated by more white liberal interests, but still remained exclusionary in nature and were hardly focused on re-populating the city exactly as it had been pre-Katrina. When used in the context of rebuilding efforts, phrases such as a “new New Orleans” and words such as “opportunity” became racially charged in a manner not seen before the storm, and many displaced citizens felt somewhat justifiably that at their root lay ulterior motives for reconstructing a city that would exclude them.
White conservatives and white liberals had both rallied behind Nagin as a political newcomer in 2002, and the composition of the BNOBC, which was formed in the months following Katrina, largely reflected the interests of the more business-oriented amongst this support. Dr. Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research spoke of the nature of the BNOBC in relation to Nagin’s original political base, “Nagin appointed the BNOBC when I think that he was politically identified with and beholden to the wealthy white elite, and I think it was reflected by and large in the leadership of the Commission, and the Commission was not a democratic institution.” Nagin’s shifting relationship with the BNOBC plan, and his equivocation on the rebuilding permit moratorium subsequent to the plan’s unveiling was to prove significant in his ability to hold onto his white conservative electoral base.
Chaired by the Republican Real Estate developer Joe Canizaro, and supported by 2002 Nagin backer James Reiss, the BNOBC unveiled its first plan in early 2006. The plan advocated a reduction of the city’s footprint, and questioned the viability of restoring the most flooded neighborhoods, the majority of which had been predominantly African-American. The plan also promoted a moratorium on the issuing of building permits within these neighborhoods for the next four months during which time, still-displaced citizens were asked to gather together to prove the viability of their neighborhoods returning, also factoring in the long-awaited publication of FEMA flood-maps to gauge the necessity of raising the height of their homes.
This most controversial aspect of the BNOBC plan was the now infamous “green space map,” which appeared to propose that the most flooded residential areas return to swampland. Political observer and pollster Dr. Silas Lee noted the divisive nature of the proposed rebuilding strategy, “green space means elimination, because you’re replacing spaces and communities where people live which gave this city some unique character, with some open areas.” Others more involved in the BNOBC plan also expressed their reservations; Paul Rookwood, a principal of Wallace Roberts & Todd, the Philadelphia-based consulting firm charged with creating the BNOBC action plan for rebuilding the city of New Orleans, was quoted in an online interview:
Combined with the BNOBC’s advocation of a moratorium on issuing rebuilding permits in the most devastated areas, both of these issues created an enormous amount of fear and distrust between the communities that were already back, and those that were still attempting to return home.
We heard lots of ideas that didn't stand up to scrutiny. For example: that the deeply flooded areas should be transformed into wetlands. That doesn't make sense. The soil is compacted and contaminated, and you'd have to remove all the infrastructure — roads, buildings, and so on — and then attempt to recreate wetlands below sea level.
To add to this, Nagin’s white supporters had begun to abandon him between one of the closed-door meetings in Dallas shortly after the storm, and his January equivocation over those BNOBC recommendations that were unfriendly towards the African-American communities most devastated by the flood. This timing suggests that Nagin’s equivocation sent a final signal to those in the white New Orleans community who were advocating for a “smaller footprint” that he would no longer be representative of their newfound interests. The Mayor’s decision not to endorse wholeheartedly these more controversial recommendations of his own commission, while also advocating rebuilding “smartly,” reflected his uncertain position in the upcoming election, and this prevarication was further evidence of the political tightrope that he walked post-Katrina.
(You can read the complete essay online here.)
Born in the UK, and living in New Orleans since 2001, Katherine Cecil began her film career as a researcher and field producer. She formed her small company CecilFilm Productions shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and is currently working as a co-producer on a documentary looking into recent changes to the New Orleans public school system.