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Katrina's Painful Legacy Regarding Equity, Climate, and Health

Katrina's Painful Legacy Regarding Equity, Climate, and Health

Ten years ago this weekend, the world watched as Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and laid bare the inequities that are deeply ingrained in American society. Perhaps no single event has ever highlighted the intersection between race, poverty, climate, and health as clearly as the devastation in New Orleans.

Katrina put a spotlight on an uncomfortable truth: that millions of people in this country live in abject poverty and that communities of color are far more likely to experience the consequences of the country’s entrenched inequality. In 2005, nearly 40 million Americans (roughly 1 in every 7) lived in poverty. A decade later, there has been hardly any change in the nation’s poverty rate. In Louisiana, 34% of Blacks live in poverty compared to 10% of Whites. High poverty rates have made housing less affordable, and as a result, low-income populations and communities of color often live in areas of concentrated poverty in substandard housing with the constant threat of eviction. Even though Katrina took place nearly 2,000 miles away from California, the underlying social factors that exacerbated the destruction experienced by low-income communities of color – particularly African Americans – are evident here and throughout the country. 

Katrina also showed the tremendous impact of environmental injustice on communities who are already struggling with housing, health, and their livelihood. Although strong storms had impacted the area in the past, the fact that so many in New Orleans were living in dilapidated housing below sea level shielded only by an aging levee system was a failure on every level. With climate change well documented and underway, we will continue to see more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and fires. Knowing that these events are on the horizon, it is up to all of us – advocates, policymakers, community members – to ensure that our most vulnerable communities are prepared and protected so we never again see another preventable catastrophe like we saw a decade ago.

The 10th anniversary of Katrina is a sobering reminder that too many in this country are living in desperate circumstances. We must continue our hard work to address systemic inequalities and work towards alleviating poverty, improving infrastructure in communities that need it the most, promoting economic opportunities, and empowering all our communities.  

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