Climate Change, Environmental Justice, Sustainability, Water

Natural Disasters and the Environmental Policy Impact on Disadvantaged Communities in New Orleans

Tierra Bradford (she/her) 

Fordham Law ELR Staffer ’21 -’23
J.D. 2023

In the days following Hurricane Ida’s landfall, Jefferson Parish assessor Tom Capella compared its aftermath to his experience with Hurricane Katrina, saying (fortunately), “I do not see the complete and utter devastation of 6 feet of water in people’s houses as we had for Katrina.” Although there was not as much devastation as in 2005, Ida still brought about fears among those that experienced Katrina firsthand. Headlines saying New Orleans was without power following Ida’s landfall were eerily similar to the headlines of the city’s electrical failure following Katrina in 2005. Fortunately, communities devastated by the flooding from the failure of the levee system in 2005 were more confident in the new levee system completed in 2019. Still, New Orleans is a quintessential place to observe environmental policy impact on underprivileged communities. Climate change and rising sea levels have directly impacted marginalized coastal communities in the city, and the mismanagement of levee systems has affected how those communities respond to natural disasters. 

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina became a defining moment in American history as Katrina’s aftermath sparked much-needed conversations about race and class in relation to natural disasters. Environmental and public policies contributed to the disproportionate impact of Katrina on low-income communities. The percentages of Katrina’s victims who were African American, renters, poor, and/or unemployed were larger than the representation of these groups nationwide. Unsurprisingly, these marginalized communities have struggled with evacuation, disaster response, and recovery from natural disasters. For example, prior to Katrina, almost 60 percent of low-income Black households were without a vehicle, and because evacuation and disaster response are closely linked with transportation, this created yet another obstacle to evacuation for the non-white and poverty-level communities that Katrina hit the hardest. A transportation policy that “favors automobile and highways over public transit systems” places an unfair burden on disadvantaged people as the costs of personal transportation increase. In addition to the financial demand, an emphasis on personal transportation influences the environment, e.g., increased pollution, increased social and economic isolation, and decreased access to jobs, goods, and public services. One can see the intersection of transportation and environmental policies on disadvantaged communities and how, say, providing those communities with a public transit system can lead to a cleaner environment and give financial relief.

In 2021, Hurricane Ida shed light on how little things have changed for disadvantaged communities since 2005. In the decade following Katrina, the number of unhoused individuals, displaced disadvantaged people, and people of color in New Orleans increased. Fortunately, as referenced above, the city did take action to prevent the levee failures from Katrina, spending $14.5 billion on a new levee system to protect residents. 

However, environmental and public policy still affects the way in which underprivileged communities respond to natural disasters. Almost 16 years after Katrina’s landfall, Ida hit New Orleans, and the need to make evacuation decisions triggered old and painful feelings for residents. Even with a new layer of protection from flooding, low-income residents in New Orleans still struggled during Hurricane Ida in 2021 as the city was put on a flash-flood warning. Many residents were simply unable to follow evacuation notices due to financial reasons, so instead had to build flood protection barricades of sandbags around their homes. The new levee system, along with the sandbags, was certainly an acceptable defense against flooding this time, but some worry that the effects of climate change may still be an issue. And, only a year after the new system was complete, “the Army Corps warned of a need to reinforce the earthen levees, which have been losing height” due to rising sea levels and the collapse of wetlands.

Certainly, the management of the levee systems cannot revert to how it was pre-Katrina. However, it is also necessary to look at how climate change and environmental policies addressing it impact underprivileged communities. The new levee system prevented catastrophic flooding that devastated disadvantaged communities in 2005, but there is still much work to be done. It is important to rethink environmental policy, especially with the increased effects of climate change, in order to prevent a repeat of the levee failures during Katrina. Environmental policies have the power to improve the lives of residents in many different ways, but the need to provide a sturdy foundation by ensuring levee systems can adequately protect coastal communities against flooding is the most crucial.