In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest, large, and powerful hurricane, hit the United States. It physically and emotionally caused a lot of damages to the country. Casualty loss caused Americans billions and billions of dollars.
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Millions of the victims were left with no home, job, and money. The government seemed to be helpless to the victims in helping them start their new lives after losing everything they have built. A racial project has come to the result of this natural disaster. In analyzing a racial project, it is important to know who is behind it, how it costs so much for its citizens until today, and how it connects to social structure.
Omi and Winant are sociologists who developed the concept of racial formations and racial projects (Nicki Lisa Cole, PhD). Race is made up of physical attributes that make each person unique. Humans cannot help but notice them when they meet a person. However, politicians produce colorblind racial politics and policies that do not account for the ways in which race and racism still structure society (Nicki Lisa Cole, PhD, ThoughtCo). This is what Omi and Winant call racial projects. A racial project can be defined as racist if an only if it creates or reproduces structures of domination based on essentialist categories of race (Omi, Racial Formation, 71). Politicians do not directly attack people of color with their agendas, but they indirectly make it harder for people of color to be provided with the resources that they need. In the instance of Hurricane Katrina, it was blatantly obvious that a political project was at play.
There are many parties involved in racial projects in the case of Hurricane Katrina–some more than others. President George W. Bush commented on the poverty in the Gulf area where the brunt of the storm was, stating that this area was subjugated to racial inequality, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. (AP Archive). He goes on to say how he planned to implement a better emergency response in areas that need it. The emergency response was not implemented in order to help the victims of the current disaster. Another large influencer was the director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. In a interview with NPR’s Robert Siegal a few days after the initial hit from the hurricane, Siegal asks if everyone would be given food, water and medical supplies (From The Archives). Chertoff replies by saying that the main evacuation center (the superdome) is where everyone should go for accommodation. A reporter live at superdome stated that there were thousands of people denied treatment and sent away due to a lack of supplies. When asked to comment on this statement, Chertoff stated that it was rumours and that everything was fine. His lies led to his removal from office.
Arguably, the most important party in any racial project is the people being affected by it. Many African Americans living in the south were relocated to Houston, Texas and given a faulty debit card with 2,000 dollars. In an interview with a relocated civilian, he states that when he tried to contact the company to activate the card they gave him the runaround, not allowing him to access the money he was given to start his life in Texas. When he finally reached FEMA the organization giving the cards– he only had a balance of 750 dollars. He says, if we can’t depend on our own federal government for these situations who can we depend on (Gleeok2).
There is no doubt that Hurricane Katrina had disastrous effects on New Orleans in particular. Its destructive power being one of most devastating shows of force ever felt by the United States. With Hurricane Katrina being a category 5 hurricane, it has only been rivaled, according to Gordon Russell’s article Nagin orders first-ever mandatory evacuation of New Orleans, by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Camille in 1969, and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. With the destruction of the leeves, concrete flood walls ranging from 13′-16′ tall were only made to withstand category 3 hurricanes. Incidentally, Hurricane Katrina was a category 3 as it was approaching the Gulf of Mexico, but reached to a category 4 hurricane. The floodgates go as far back as the 1920s, making them relatively fragile and in desperate need of repair. Taking those two factors into consideration, it should come to no surprise that the floodgates were no match for Hurricane Katrina. They were destroyed, essentially resulting in the flooding of New Orleans.The severity of the flooding varied depending on the elevation of those neighborhoods. One of the lower altitude neighborhoods that was impacted the most was the Ninth Ward, a primarily African American community. Lower elevation homes were damaged much more severely than in other parts of New Orleans. City officials, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, built up areas in these districts, resulting in the gentrification of the African American community there. A portion of those districts still remains in ruins and many of its previous tenants were unable to return to their homes.
Hurricane Katrina was influenced by one’s socioeconomic status. To paraphrase the documentary Katrina, The New Orleans Nightmare : Documentary on the Devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans had a poverty rate of 23% during the events of Katrina, depending on welfare checks to get by, coinciding with thousands of citizens who were unable to evacuate due to lack of transportation either stranding in their homes, the New Orleans Convention Center, or any other buildings seized by the city for public use. These rumors coincided with a delayed aid reaction from the government and rescue teams.There was a considerable part of the population that didn’t own a vehicle which prompted the mayor to deploy public transportation outside of the city, which impacted minorities as they were less likely to own a car.
Is Hurricane Katrina a racial project and does it meet the definition of one according to Omi and Winant? Well, a racial project, in their definition, is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines (Omi and Winant 56). In other words, they basically serve as examples of racial formation in society that can used to study. Hurricane Katrina should be considered a racial project because of the racial problems that arose to the residents of low income, predominantly African American communities during and after the destruction the hurricane caused. Some of these problems were stated previously such as the poorly maintained and outdated flood gates and levees, the lack of timely mass transit systems for evacuation, and the delayed emergency response. Because of their socio-economic status and race, they were promptly not given the help and attention they needed. However, these racial problems were actually rooted in history way before the hurricane struck, and the problems that occured during Hurricane Katrina can be explained because of that.
The previous conflict of this racial project would be after the Civil War when affluent whites in the South deliberately selected areas with numerous disadvantages for African communities to build their communities on. These areas were plagued with air, noise, and water pollution, poor infrastructure, and most importantly were geographically put in a low altitude areas which were prone to floods (Adeola 234-235). What this shows is that the whites were well aware with what they were doing when choosing a place where African Americans would live. They would put them in the worst areas while they would stay in the much safer geographical areas because if something were to happen, like a hurricane, they would not face the full force of the destruction. Hurricane Katrina serves as the prime example of this intended outcome. To quote Omi and Winant, Racial projects are always concretely framed, and thus are always contested and unstable. The social structures they uphold or attack, and the representations they articulate, are never invented out of thin air, but exist in definitive historical context, having descend from previous conflicts (58). From the socially constructed racial problems in addition to this historical discrimination, it is not at all surprising the destruction those communities would face. Thus, Hurricane Katrina is definitely a racial project.
August 31, 2005 was the day hurricane Katrina made its final damages, leaving nothing but deaths, destroyed homes, the loss of necessary resources, and the debt of 125 billion dollars. This huge debt was covered by Private Insurance Companies, The National Flood Insurance Program and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With the help of these sources, a large majority of over one million affected victims were able to recover from this natural disaster. New Orleans, being the most affected, had 70 percent of its entire occupied homes damaged. (CNN) This was a huge impact to the city especially because it is a city which consists largely of minorities whose economic status is not as great.
Another affected place was the Orleans Parish Prison which held about 6,000 inmates mostly consisting of minorities. Months after the hurricane had hit, the number of inmates dropped down to about 1,900 due to the fact that most of them were either removed, escaped or died victims of the harsh treatment by the prison officers. (Neyfakh) The fact that a large majority of the prisoners had nonviolent charges makes it even more upsetting. It is almost as if they were victims of racism and not of a natural disaster. This comes to show that it is not entirely the natural disasters which affects victims, but it also has to do with the discriminating actions done against the minorities, in order to have them live a more miserable life.
After Hurricane Katrina, it was very hard for those affected by the natural disaster to rebuild their lives. Not only that, but minority groups were criminalized and displaced. There is a racist back history as to why minority groups–specifically African Americans– were affected by the hurricane the most. It is important to acknowledge that Hurricane Katrina was a racial project. Today, many of the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina still have not returned back to their homes. Many of them suffered at the expense of the government’s lack of empathy and precaution. Although it has been thirteen years since this devastating event took place, it is important to continue analyzing it and to recognize the elements of a racial project.
Katrina Refugee Interview;Gleeok2; 20 December 2007; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtJAYUyT5BM
President Bush speech on Hurricane Katrina;AP Archive; 21 July 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUyx-vBwcog
Hurricane Katrina;The Weather Channel; 27 August 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=5P6GjHQFGvI
Gura, David. From The Archives: Days After Katrina, Michael Chertoff Talks To Robert Siegel. NPR, NPR, 27 Aug. 2010,
Smith, Jason A. Racial Formation. GLOBAL SOCIAL THEORY, globalsocialtheory.org/topics/racial-formation/
US Department of Commerce, and NOAA. Hurricane Katrina – August 2005. National Weather Service, NOAA’s National Weather Service, 29 Nov. 2016
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1994. Chapter 4 in Racial Formation in the United States, 2nd Edition, New York: Routledge, 53-91
Cole, Nicki Lisa. Racial Projects and the Process of Racial Formation. ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 6 Mar. 2017
Adeola, Francis O., and J.Steven Picou. Hurricane Katrina-Linked Environmental Injustice: Race, Class, and Place Differentials in Attitudes. Disasters, vol. 41, no. 2, Apr. 2017, pp. 228“257. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/disa.12204.
Hurricane Katrina Statistics Fast Facts. CNN, Cable News Network, 30 Aug. 2018
Neyfakh, Leon. How Hurricane Katrina Helped New Orleans Reform Its Notoriously Overcrowded Jail. Slate Magazine, Slate, 19 June 2015,
ServickFeb, Kelly, et al. More than 12 Years after Hurricane Katrina, Scientists Are Learning What Makes Some Survivors More Resilient than Others. Science | AAAS, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1 Mar. 2018.
Neyfakh, Leon. How Hurricane Katrina Helped New Orleans Reform Its Notoriously Overcrowded Jail. Slate Magazine, Slate, 19 June 2015.
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