HURRICANE HARVEY: ANALYSIS

Errin Haines Whack, Associated Press | 9/8/2017, 11:26 a.m.
Harvey racial optics much different than Katrina.
People make their way out of a flooded neighborhood after Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The charges of racism that swirled after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans 12 years ago have yet to surface as Houston recovers from the floods unleashed by Harvey.

Houston was hit as the nation roiled from a white supremacist rally that turned deadly Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va. The violence left in its wake deep divisions primed by President Donald Trump’s assertion that “many sides” were to blame, producing heated debates about Confederate statues and whether they are important historical markers or symbols of hate that should be removed.

Those raw tensions didn’t boil over even as Trump provided another potential spark by pardoning Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of ignoring a judge’s order to stop targeting Latinos suspected of being in the country illegally. Trump made the move just as Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 and took aim at Houston, where Hispanics make up about 44 percent of the population.

When Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, New Orleans had 500,000 residents, nearly 70 percent of them black. Americans were horrified by images of people stranded on rooftops and scrounging for food and water. There were appalling conditions in the Superdome, the shelter of last resort for thousands and a hell-scape for those too poor to leave ahead of the storm.

The face of Katrina was largely black and poor. Within days, Katrina’s death toll was into the hundreds. By contrast, Harvey’s death toll hovered around 60, though it’s expected to rise as waters recede.

Many cited the heavy death toll following Katrina, and the slow, inadequate government response, as evidence that New Orleans’ poor, black residents were considered disposable. “I hate the way they portray us in the media,” rapper Kanye West declared during a Red Cross telethon, adding that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people,” a sentiment that resonated with many African-Americans.

By comparison, Houston — a sprawling city of more than 2.4 million — is more racially diverse, with blacks and whites each accounting for about a quarter of the population. Because there was no mandatory evacuation, people of all races and classes remained in the storm’s path, not just folks who couldn’t afford to leave.

That made for diverse images in the scenes of boat rescues and families huddling in shelters, said New Orleans native Mtangulizi Sanyika, a retired professor and social activist who left his New Orleans neighborhood the day before Katrina hit and now lives in Houston.

“In New Orleans, we had a human tragedy on our hands that obviously, black people were the primary victims,” Sanyika said. “The flood here ... was an equal opportunity flood.”

George Washington University sociologist Gregory Squires said “there’s no question the optics feel different” in Houston.

“What we’re not seeing in Houston are the hundreds of black people being stuck in a building or stopped on a highway and blocked from getting out of the city,” said Squires, co-editor of the book, “There Is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class and Katrina.” ‘’Nobody is saying that Donald Trump doesn’t like black people.”