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Katrina exposes New Orleans’ deep poverty

The horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has exposed the divide in New Orleans between the haves and the have-nots — whites and blacks. NBC's Bob Faw reports.

Americans, watching from afar, have been stunned. Some have been sickened by the looting, random and indiscriminate. Basics and luxuries — anything not nailed down — are hauled off.

But don’t act surprised, some argue. 

“There are always people who are going to be opportunistic when they see situations unfolding the way that they are in New Orleans,” says Jeffrey Robinson, a professor of urban economic studies at New York University.

But why are so many of those so-called “opportunists” — on TV, at least — black?

The answer? Sixty-seven percent of New Orleans' residents are black. And huge numbers of them are poor. Nearly 30 percent of people in New Orleans live below the poverty line, and only a handful of large American cities have lower household incomes than the Big Easy.

For young, distressed Katrina victims, it’s even worse: Only Mississippi next door has a higher child poverty rate than Louisiana. According to estimates, half of all children in Louisiana live in poverty.

It was already bad before Katrina — most of the poor didn’t have insurance. Some needed to wait for their government checks, due the first of the month, three days after Katrina hit. Some 134,000 people couldn’t leave because they couldn't afford transportation.

This natural disaster illustrates what experts have known all along — disasters do not treat everyone alike. Surviving is easier for whites who have than for blacks who don’t.  And when push comes to shove, it’s every man, woman and child for himself.

Katrina is, in its aftermath, exposing a part of the Big Easy overlooked in all that hype about Mardi Gras, jasmine and flaming desserts — the catastrophe has shed light on misery and provided an unfortunate commentary on race and class.