Darryl Delatte, 57 years old and 22 months shy of retiring as a mechanic, was rescued from his flooded New Orleans home after Hurricane Katrina and dropped on an interstate. There, he watched people die — and wondered why no help came.
“Everybody kept passing you by,” he says.
Now, at a cavernous disaster relief center in Houston, he ponders the promises made by government officials — of land and jobs for evacuees back home, of a rebirth of the city’s essential, vibrant black community.
He has doubts, real and hardened.
It is not difficult to find other black New Orleanians who share those doubts — forged in an era of slavery, cemented by floods and hurricanes past and decades of political and social disappointment. And those doubts have profound implications for the very much uncertain prospect of rebuilding New Orleans.
Delatte, for example, does not believe the government will help blacks return to their homes or even give them a chance at buying them back, or offer assistance when mortgages and credit-card bills come due.
He concludes: “A lot of people ain’t going to come back.”
Beneath the shattered, condemned homes of the poorest and blackest sections of New Orleans, lodged in the dank, toxic soil left behind by Katrina, are deep roots of distrust for the government.
That distrust is fully evident eight weeks after Katrina drowned the city. Many its black residents are stuck in a tragic limbo, a mix of questions and conspiracies. Most immediately, they wonder how they could have been left behind so egregiously in a disaster foreseen for decades.
Layman Thomas, 47, who works for the New Orleans parks department, still seethes over what he saw at the infamous convention center: “No response, no security, no food or water. We were back there on our own. Nobody to help us, direct us or nothing.”
“I think they played race on our entire state,” he says. “We had people from all different cities who wanted to come get us. But the president and the governor had to release all that. But it took them all days to sign the papers.”
The notion that blacks were intentionally left behind — to suffer, to starve, to drown — is not new in New Orleans. The predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward suffered heavy damage from Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and speculation has lingered for decades that it was sacrificed so that whiter parts of the city would survive.
“Communities of color have always favored urban legends, because all too often they have corresponded to reality,” says Mike Davis, a San Diego historian and writer who spent a week in New Orleans in September.
In an article in The Nation, Davis and New Orleans architect Anthony Fontenot drew up a list of 25 questions — many of them provided by furious black New Orleans residents — about failures during the evacuation of the city.
“Locals are more inclined to discern deliberate design and planned neglect — the murder, not the accidental death, of a great city,” they wrote.
Among the questions: Was the Superdome purposely stocked with not enough food, to force poorer residents to flee the city? And why did officials let food stocked in restaurants in the dry French Quarter spoil while the stranded starved?
More to the point, there is unmistakable suspicion that the Industrial Canal levee was somehow deliberately broken during Katrina in order to flood the heavily impoverished Lower Ninth Ward and save whiter parts of the city.
“I really don’t believe it was Mother Nature’s doing,” says Michelle Bailey, a Ninth Ward evacuee in Houston who was rescued off her rooftop.
Those sentiments have been echoed by others — notably Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has speculated that the levees were bombed from underwater to flood out black neighborhoods.
Ninth Ward, the orphan
The very construction of the Industrial Canal in 1922 helped to choke off poorer New Orleans blacks, historians say.
“Ever since then, that part of the Ninth Ward has been orphaned,” says John M. Barry, author of “Rising Tide,” an acclaimed account of the devastating 1927 Mississippi River flood.
“That canal is a manmade body of water that’s separated from the rest of the city. They’ve gotten no services ever since. Part of that is because they’re poor and black. Nobody cared. Some of that area was developed, but a lot of it wasn’t.”
After the 1927 flood, hundreds of thousands of blacks along the Mississippi delta were forced into filthy refugee camps, often without food or water, sometimes ordered at gunpoint to work on levees and relief projects.
Historians have said the response of Republican President Calvin Coolidge — who was criticized in the press as failing to grasp the enormity of the crisis — helped spur the seismic shift of black voters to the Democratic Party.
But in 2005, many poor black New Orleanians are disappointed in all public officials — Republican and Democrat, white and black.
Hal Clark, who hosts “Sunday Journal” on New Orleans’ WYLD-FM, a show with a strong African-American audience, recalls the election of Ernest Morial, the city’s first black mayor, in the late 1970s.
“There was a lot of hope, or what have you, that we would get a piece of the pie,” Clark says. “But that hasn’t happened.”
‘Zero belief in the political system’
Even today, Davis says, poorer New Orleans blacks hold deep resentment for Mayor Ray Nagin, himself an African-American, seen by many as favoring elite business owners — and as likely to favor them again in the rebuilding.
“There’s zero belief in the political system,” Davis says. “The mayor is not a popular black figure.”
Delatte, the mechanic, figures the racial dynamics of the city will change drastically after a rebuilding led by Nagin.
“It’s going to be a whiter city. It’s 70 percent black and it’s going to change, probably flip over to 70 percent white,” he says. Blacks who evacuated to Houston, he says, are likely to stay: “They have money here. They have a job here.”
So what can be done to restore trust damaged so deeply?
Some evacuees say they would like ironclad assurances that the people who lived in the neighborhoods that bore the worst flooding, like the Ninth Ward, would have the first rights to live there after the massive piles of debris are cleared.
Still, “If a developer goes in there, who’s going to argue that it’s going to be affordable housing?” says Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.
“They didn’t have a voice to get out of the city. How are they going to have a voice to get back in?”
President Bush has proposed that the New Orleans poor be given slices of federally owned land along the Gulf Coast in exchange for pledges that they will build homes on it. He has promised that flood protection will be made stronger.
And the acting chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency has pledged that millions of dollars of government contracts initially awarded without bids will be reopened for bidding.
But there has been no guarantee those contract reconstruction jobs will go to New Orleanians who desperately need the work and money.
“People we talked to down there said jobs, jobs, jobs,” Davis says. “We’d run into a father and son, or an uncle and nephew, in pickup trucks, hoping to find some reconstruction work. They’re baffled that a month later, there are no real jobs.”
Davis also said a full-fledged government inquiry into the disaster, at all levels, might help restore trust. But such an inquiry appears to be far down the road, if it happens at all.
Lack of faith
“I have a funny feeling that after this we’re not going to have very much faith in any authority, all the way up to the White House,” says Charles Siler, curator of the Louisiana State Museum, who is black and made it out of New Orleans before Katrina struck. “Everybody’s passing blame. It’s going to take 100 years to sift out those things.”
Back at the disaster relief center in Houston, no investigation, no matter how thorough, is likely to win over Landis Tuckson, 31, who worked as a forklift operator in a New Orleans warehouse.
He believes the mandatory evacuation should have begun days earlier, and he believes the Ninth Ward was probably deliberately flooded to save the elegant neighborhoods of the city’s Uptown — “white and rich people,” as he puts it.
The government “can’t win my trust back,” he says. “Because this already happened.”