Are Hurricanes to Blame for Massive Destruction in Black and Brown Neighborhoods?

NOLA! The place of culture, color, and festivities! Magical ambience on almost every corner! Your one stop destination for treating your palette to every flavor imaginable! Unfortunately, New Orleans was completely destroyed in more ways than one back in 2005.

August 2005’s Hurricane Katrina was blamed for catastrophic damage to New Orleans. Katrina was a Category 5 storm that allegedly killed 2,000 people and was responsible for billions in damage to New Orleans and other areas nearby. All of the damages, loss, and fatalities were attributed to this storm. But was Katrina the actual culprit?

Let’s think about it: Do hurricanes have purposes? According to science, hurricanes provide ecological benefits to tropical and sub-tropical environments. Rainfall gives a boost to wetlands and flushes out lagoons, removing waste and weeds. Hurricane winds and waves move sediment from bays into marsh areas, revitalizing nutrient supplies.

I also want to submit some other interesting things about these types of storms:

5 Things Hurricanes Can Do That Are Actually Good

  • Bring rainfall to areas that need it. (Tropical cyclones are extremely efficient at rainfall production, and thus, can also be efficient drought busters.)
  • Break up bacteria and red tide.
  • Provide a global heat balance.
  • Replenish barrier islands.
  • Replenish inland plant life.

So, if there are benefits from natural disasters, who’s the real enemy? Who is responsible for environmental damage? Who killed almost 2,000 people? (And please note: that was the number that was recorded! Many deaths were not and could not be counted.)

New Orleans was left to die years before Katrina arrived

Levees were only designed to protect New Orleans from a Category 3 storm, and the storm surge generated by Hurricane Katrina was simply too massive for the levees to handle, which caused them to break.

This was not a surprise. Per the History Channel: “Fears about flooding go all the way back to the founding of New Orleans on land in 1717 by the French-Canadian explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. Human intervention—including expansion onto drained swamplands surrounding the original city—and the erosion of coastal wetlands only made things worse over the centuries. By the time Katrina arrived, New Orleans lay at an average of six feet below sea level, with some neighborhoods even lower than that.”

Years before Hurricane Katrina, scientists, journalists, and emergency officials had been worrying about what could happen if a major hurricane were to hit New Orleans. During the Category 2 Hurricane Georges in 1998, waves on Lake Pontchartrain—north of the city—had reached within a foot of the top of the levees, reported local news.

“A stronger storm on a slightly different course […] could have realized emergency officials’ worst-case scenario: hundreds of billions of gallons of lake water pouring over the levees into an area averaging 5 feet below sea level with no natural means of drainage,” wrote the New Orleans Times Picayune three years before Katrina hit.

Similar stories, same heartache

Fast forward. Different year, different state: On September 30th, 2022, Hurricane Ian made its way to Florida. Ian was a large and destructive Category 4 Atlantic hurricane. This tropical system made its way to one particular area known as Orlo Vista, Florida. (Keep in mind this region had been visited 5 years ago by Hurricane Irma, which caused severe damage as well.)

Two retention ponds in Orlo Vista were pumped before Hurricane Irma hit and supposedly lowered to their lowest possible points. They were pumped again during and after the storm, but the efforts were no match for the storm water. The ponds overflowed, water rushed into residents’ homes and overwhelmed them severely. The National Guard was called in to rescue.

Many lost everything back in 2017. Victoria Siplin—then and current County Commissioner—was quoted during an interview promising these residents that they would not have to encounter this issue again: Mrs. Siplin said she “looks forward to learning more about the plan” for pump infrastructure and “discussing with staff, and putting all ideas together to see what are the long term goals so something like this won’t happen again.”

“This won’t happen again,” Siplin said, assuredly.

But 5 years later, Orlo Vista residents did encounter it AGAIN! This time, even worse. Ian rushed through Orlo Vista in September 2022. The water from the ponds devastated residents AGAIN. The smell of decay, rot, and sewer linger through Ronnie Circle, Hope Circle, and other nearby streets within the Orlo Vista neighborhood. Many residents have lost their homes, cars, life memories, and hope. It must be noted that after Hurricane Irma, this neighborhood was granted up to $11 million to rebuild its infrastructure. (In 2017!!!) Residents want to know where and how that money was allocated, because just as the levees failed the survivors and victims of Hurricane Katrina, so did the pumps of Orlo Vista—again!

A house ruined by flooding in Orlo Vista

In both scenarios, natural disasters have been blamed for horrific destruction. The storms Irma and Ian are convicted of crimes such as mass murder, property damage, trauma, and many other criminal charges. But the question is: if hurricanes are natural and serve their purpose, why do we blame storms and say what the storm did? Is that why they are really given names?

Who’s to blame?

The blame should be given to those who have the responsibility to protect and strengthen its most marginalized communities. In both these areas, Irma and Ian revealed a weakened infrastructure all across the globe. It shed light on intersectional and environmental racism. New Orleans, Orlo Vista and many other regions are comprised of working, underworked, poor, Black, and brown communities. These communities took the hit while other more affluent areas quickly recovered (if they suffered any damage at all).

Warnings had been given for years in each case. They were ignored. Again, if hurricanes are NATURAL occurrences, who is the real monster? Who should be held accountable for the fatalities? Whose names should be given as the killer? Who should restore property loss? Who should take responsibility for inadequate protection? Insert the names of elected officials anywhere you’d like.

Elected officials made promises that this type of event would NOT HAPPEN again. But it did and could have been prevented.

If Irma, Ian, and the storms that will continue to come are doing what they are supposed to do—to replenish the land—why aren’t elected officials and all of their structures doing what they have been tasked to do: “protect and serve”?

Robin Harris is a CFMLA organizer, Orlando Oasis collaborator, and Orlovista resident.

Donations at the fundraiser here support disaster recovery where Robin is working.

A resident in Orlo Vista drying out her belongings following flooding