Katrina, like the Louisiana flood of 1927, returns the poor of inner city to forefront





When ordering people to leave New Orleans while Hurricane Katrina lurked in the Gulf of Mexico, state and federal authorities apparently failed to consider that 27.9 percent of the city was below the poverty line and therefore unlikely to have transportation.
The oversight was perhaps more understandable given that society as a whole seemed to have tabled its debate over poor, largely black, inner-city neighborhoods somewhere around two decades ago.

The notion that a disaster offers a mirror to the country, forcing a bitter reconsideration of its own condition, should not be a surprise. It happened in the United States with the 1927 Louisiana flood, a catastrophe that shook American politics in its time.

Back in the Jazz Age, the America of Wall Street wealth and scientific advances paid little heed to the still-primitive conditions of the rural poor. While the lights of Times Square dazzled the world, most of the South still lacked electricity; while Charles Lindbergh stretched the bounds of what was humanly possible by flying nonstop across the Atlantic, families in the Mississippi Delta lacked even flat boats to carry them to safety in a flood.

Back then, it didn't take a hurricane to break the levees along the Mississippi. Heavy rains in the summer of 1926 left the river and many of its tributaries dangerously overswollen, and by the winter of 1926-1927 areas within 60 miles of the Mississippi basin began to fill up with water. Six states were affected, with Louisiana among the worst hit, even though the destruction of levees north of New Orleans spared the city at the expense of rural areas.

The death toll was 246, but 700,000 people -- half of them black -- were displaced. Then, as now, haunting pictures and descriptions of the devastation shocked the country. Many blacks were herded into unsanitary evacuation camps.

Amid rising public anger, Herbert Hoover -- then the secretary of commerce -- swept in to oversee relief efforts. Hoover won high marks for his take-charge attitude, though many scholars believe that black resentment over the way the Republican administration handled relief efforts caused the historic shift in black allegience from the Republican to Democratic Party.

The need for federal action challenged President Calvin Coolidge's belief in small government. Coolidge's lack of comprehension of the scope of the disaster was ridiculed in songs, and some historians now regard it as a symbol of Jazz Age indifference, a preview of the social disarray that would mark the Depression years.



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