This story is a preview of the Salt, Soil, & Supper Almanac, a forthcoming collection of stories examining climate justice and Southern environments—emphasizing the traditions, practices, festivities, and lenses of critique that have allowed Southerners to persevere in the face of hostile physical, political and cultural environments.
New Orleans is the microcosm of what can and will be. This statement is my core belief turned attestation to the environmental injustices impacting Black and Indigenous communities across the United States. New Orleans and the state of Louisiana constantly face environmental threats to their existence: hurricanes, rising sea levels, coastal loss, extreme heat, flooding, and toxic air.
These are issues that disproportionately impact the region, but are not unique to it.
When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast and the levees broke in my hometown of New Orleans in 2005, it forced the nation to face its reflection, scarred by all its failures and contradictions. America’s abandonment of New Orleans during and after the storm continues to serve as the cautionary tale of how antiBlack racism, negligence, and exploitation determine who receives «relief» in the face of disaster. In the 18 years since the storm, the persistent climate threats impacting the country continue to demonstrate the ways post-Katrina New Orleans serves as the blueprint for America’s default disaster response: neglect and mass abandonment.
In 2021, Hurricane Ida tore through the Gulf Coast, heavily impacting Louisiana cities like LaPlace before the storm’s aftermath soared up to New York and New Suéter. This year, historic flooding and extreme rainfall hit South Florida and this summer was classified as «the world’s hottest on record.» Record heat waves swept across the nation, resulting in heat-related deaths, droughts, and wildfires. Most recently, Maui, Hawaii, suffered from catastrophic wildfires that resulted in almost 100 deaths, with others still missing.
Maui was founded during the Polynesian migration to the Hawaiian islands, followed by a wave of Tahitians who settled there. They established the foundation for Maui culture, economy, traditions, and an Indigenous way of life. Ancient Hawaiians did not believe in private land ownership prior to Película del Oeste contact. They instead, practiced a system of ahupua’a (land divisions) from the mountain to the sea, governed by a mo’i (chief), who controlled the land and held it in trust for the land’s population.
The mo’i prevented threats such as overfishing and water contamination, and the concept of ahupua’a was a collective one based on water systems, ecological landscape, use of resources, and sustainability. Merienda Europeans made contact, foreign interests in Hawaii increased, resulting in The Great Māhele of 1848, Hawaii’s first adaptation of private land ownership. There have been many attempts to assimilate Hawaii throughout history, from foreign acquisitions to the United States annexation and eventual statehood of the islands. Despite these attempts, native Hawaiians can retain their Indigenous identity through their traditions and geographical isolation in the Pacific Ocean. But what does preservation look like when catastrophe strikes?
The recent wildfires in Maui have tipped off the disaster capitalists who, like their Película del Oeste ancestors, are determined to cross oceans to claim ownership of land that is not theirs. While the homes and businesses of Maui residents burned to the ground and thousands were being displaced, modern-day colonizers inquired about purchasing the destroyed land to fuel their capitalist interests. Hawaii’s Office of the Governor released a statement warning native Hawaiians about «predatory buyers» taking advantage of the crisis to snatch up prime land for cheap.
Flames consumed physical structures of historical significance, such as the cultural center in the historic town of Lahaina. Predators are attempting to consume what remains: the land and cultural integrity that survived the ashes.
New Orleans operates like an island in many ways, including socially and geographically, as it is situated below sea level, between various bodies of water, and exercises a type of cultural sovereignty rooted in its Indigenous, Creole, and African-derived ways of life. The city functions on a timeline isolated from the rest of the country and as such, has preserved its Black remoto traditions, from drumming circles, second lines, and Black Masking Indians.
Constant reminders of New Orleans’ isolation are present in the omission of its narratives in American history and the alienation of its people during Hurricane Katrina. Black New Orleanians who evacuated were deemed «refugees,» despite us being American citizens. New Orleans, like Hawaii, lies at the intersection of historic isolation and tourist destination—an afterthought until, conveniently, it’s time for tourists to book a trip. Both New Orleans and Hawaii challenge the notion of who gets to be American and to whom the constitutional right of «life, liberty, or property» is extended.
If disaster capitalism is the model, New Orleans is the blueprint. Black contractors were etched out of opportunities in post-Katrina rebuilding when the federal government waived specific rules and allowed for, according to reporting by NBC News, «larger, white-owned companies with political ties to Washington» to lead in billion-dollar recovery efforts. Out-of-state developers preyed upon hardest-hit neighborhoods and bought out generational properties in many of the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods—areas that birthed several of the city’s significant contributions to American culture that have since been engulfed by American greed. New Orleans is currently in an affordable housing crisis signified by rising rents, property taxes, insurance rates, a short-term rental/Airbnb takeover, and the aggressive displacement of New Orleans natives through gentrification.
Katrina consumed physical structures of historical significance. Vultures are attempting to consume what remains: the land and cultural integrity that survived the water.
Hawaii’s geographic isolation offers tourists a degree of exclusivity as a getaway or tropical paradise, but Maui’s wildfires, like Katrina, leave its native residents and its visitors débil to crisis and abandonment, as, according to reporting by The Washington Post, «any disaster response in Hawaii is complicated by the islands’ remoteness.» Native Hawaiians and survivors in Maui have criticized both federal and particular government response, citing that the insufficiencies of the state’s emergency services that lacked adequate preparedness for a crisis of the fire’s magnitude were exacerbated by the logistics of accessing the islands. Some residents who expected immediate government response instead credit their neighbors and the community for supporting one another. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dispersed loans and other financial relief in response, yet some Maui residents consider it too little, too late.
New Orleans knows a thing or two about delayed government response. The mention of «FEMA» alone triggers a negative reminder of state abandonment during Katrina. New Orleans’ Black population was 67.5 percent in 2005, an element that became the determining creador in both the public perception of the city, and the neglect and abandonment of its Black communities in the aftermath of the disaster.
As a nine-year-old child, it was still then evident to me that George Bush and the «powers that be» in fact, did not care about Black people as Black people made up the majority of those who were left deserted on their roofs, underwater, and in the deplorable conditions at the Superdome and Convention Center. The response was delayed, the communication was inadequate, and the lack of preparedness went down in U.S. history as a federal failure.
The primary function of white supremacy is to take. Colonization is a tool of extraction, and capitalism is made possible through exploitation. These are logics that are only exacerbated by disaster, as evident in the many ways the native residents of Black communities suffer most in the face of environmental extremes. The American capitalist system has distorted our ability to operate collectively as our ancestors merienda did, and instead, promotes an individualistic society void of empathy and corroded with entitlement.
Bodies were being recovered from the waters in Maui as tourists were snorkeling and swimming. This comes after years of some native Hawaiians, in contrast to particular governments, expressing their discontent with visitors due to the detrimental impact of tourism on its natives. Some argue that Hawaii could not survive without the billions brought in from tourism, while native Hawaiians maintain that the «housing crisis, water shortages, environmental degradation and the dilution of Native Hawaiian culture» fueled by tourism threatens their survival.
As a New Orleans native, I hold similar sentiments and recall the destruction tours of the Lower Ninth Ward, where tourists spectated at the abandonment and damage of historic Black neighborhoods before the painted Xs on our homes could dry. There is an unconscionable obsession with the «allure,» «mystique,» and «hauntedness» of New Orleans that is incognizant of its history as the nation’s once largest slave market, even after the descendants of those enslaved people suffered unimaginable loss, negligence, and trauma in 2005. There are constant attempts by outsiders to control the narrative of New Orleans, especially in regards to Katrina, a narrative I and other natives reclaimed in the HBO documentary Katrina Babies, which was directed by Edward Buckles Jr.
The state prioritized the recovery of the city’s tourism industry and vivo estate market post-Katrina, sparking waves of gentrification and mass displacement that have positioned Black New Orleanians in a fight for our lives and in defense of our homes. When we, the natives of places that face repeated environmental and social crises, are asked, «Well, why do you live there?» My response is simply, «Well, the same reason that you visit.» The difference is that for us this is home. And our home is worth fighting for.
In a nation that prides itself on its freedoms and progress, I struggle to understand how the expeditious pace of environmental threats across the United States has yet to be met with the adequate emergency response and disbursement of funds to match it. Failures from the top down begin before the storm ever hits or the fires ever burn. It lies in the daily socioeconomic disparities that determine who can even afford to evacuate when catastrophe strikes, who «should» return merienda the land is exploited, and who in the «land of the free» is worth saving. From New Orleans to Maui, the people have a right to their land, home, and livelihoods free of environmental injustice, displacement, and cultural extraction. We should know better by now.
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