By Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith
Afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will rebuild you with stones of turquoise…
— Isaiah 54:11 (NIV)
(Jesus) got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
— Mark 4:39-41 (NIV)
These Scriptures were shared at an interfaith prayer service at the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis in New Orleans, La., earlier this week in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
These verses invite us to ask important questions. Is New Orleans beyond the affliction of Hurricane Katrina? Are the people of New Orleans comforted by signs of progress? What about the rebuilding of the city? What about the faith of the people? Leaders from many sectors in New Orleans and nationally agree that New Orleanians have been a resilient people, both before and after the storm.
At a national forum in New Orleans this week, speakers pointed to the development of a regional economy that is more diverse and infused by an entrepreneurial spirit, confirmed by a recent report by The Data Center concerning New Orleans’ progress since the storm. There are other positive trends too, including better-quality public schools, the decline of incarceration rates by nearly half, and a surge in youth investments, according to those who spoke at the forum.
Still, racial disparities, poverty, and environmental trends continue to challenge the gains. The Data Center reports that poverty rates in New Orleans have risen to pre-Katrina levels at “a now crushingly high 27 percent.” The disparity in incomes between black and white households was 54 percent, compared to 40 percent nationally in 2013, with only 57 percent of black men employed in New Orleans.
But the most concerning issue that New Orleans faces is environmental in nature, specifically, coastal erosion and sea level rise. Since Katrina, four more hurricanes have hit New Orleans, causing extensive flooding and wind damage. “Since 1932, the New Orleans region has lost nearly 30 percent of the land that forms its protective buffer from hurricane storm surge, and saltwater is increasingly infiltrating groundwater within the levee walls,” according to a report by The Data Center.
While Hurricane Katrina occurred in a specific region, the lessons learned are for all of us today. Climate change is national and global. Our infrastructure, much of which was built 50 years ago, needs more systematic attention. Movements like Black Lives Matter point to the perpetual challenges of race, hunger, and poverty.
Nevertheless, New Orleanians have proven they are resilient. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is a rallying call to all of us to name the afflictions in our communities, comfort and encourage all of God’s people, identify and implement strategies of empowerment for all, and to be proactive about rebuilding our infrastructure to help protect our environment.
Doing this will require a spirit of resilience that leads us to step out in faith, engage our imagination, and thereby create new possibilities in the midst of challenges. New Orleanians are leading and teaching us anew about how to do this. May all of us find ways to do likewise.
Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is Bread for the World’s national senior associate for African-American and African church engagement.
Photo: The Lower Ninth Ward sustained catastrophic flooding following Hurricane Katrina. Ten years later, the neighborhood has not fully recovered. In the background are houses being built in the area by actor Brad Pitt’s nonprofit foundation. Wikimedia Commons.