Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) honors the residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Area who continue to work to reclaim and revitalize their communities, as well as those who have been permanently displaced and forced to rebuild their lives elsewhere. While Hurricane Katrina devastated communities throughout the Gulf Coast, it had a particularly adverse impact on poor, African-American, and elderly residents, many of whom are still recovering from its destruction and the deficient response to it. Historically and into the present, LDF has defended the rights of African-Americans living in vulnerable communities in Louisiana.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, LDF attorneys working in and around New Orleans were part of the critical process of local rebuilding. Days after Katrina’s landfall in August 2005, LDF attorneys were embedded in New Orleans and worked collaboratively for over two years in historically Black neighborhoods to assess local housing, employment and educational needs for displaced persons and to closely monitor the post-Katrina voting rights landscape for people of color. LDF conducted extensive outreach to increase and consolidate African-American voter access, coordinated attorneys to ensure voter protection, and fought in court to stop the potential disfranchisement of nearly 18,000 African-American residents who were returning to Louisiana in the first municipal elections after Katrina.
After Katrina, an estimated 310,000 Black people in Orleans Parish suffered a direct impact from the breaking of the levees and subsequent flooding, including 272,000 who were displaced from their homes. Federal and state partnerships such as the Road Home-Homeowner Assistance Program, an $11 billion home rebuilding program providing financial assistance to rebuild home and rental units, ultimately discriminated against African-American residents. Because of exclusionary housing patterns, white flight, depressed property values, program restrictions, and red tape, thousands of African-American residents were unable to recoup the cost of necessary home repairs. LDF and its local counsel filed and settled federal civil rights claims against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Louisiana Recovery Authority, forcing both entities to comply with civil rights laws and regulations. LDF also filed a successful education lawsuit, charging that hundreds of children in transitional living situations were refused enrollment, placed on waiting lists, and denied the right to be immediately enrolled in public school. The settlement with the Louisiana Recovery School District required the enrollment of every student in classes within two days of registration.
“Human failures – more than the disaster itself – caused immense suffering after Hurricane Katrina,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel at LDF. “African Americans were, and continue to be, particularly affected by the neglect of vulnerable communities and systemic failures of government. As we remember this travesty a decade later, we must insist on better and more equitable protections in the face of natural disaster.”
While some neighborhoods in New Orleans and its surrounding areas have rebounded since the devastation of Katrina, thousands of residents are still experiencing hardships. Despite the steadfast efforts of many social justice organizations to protect vulnerable and transient persons from victimization, living conditions have further deteriorated for many. The poverty rate of children has more than doubled since 2005, to 38%. Rising rents – up 41% for two bedroom apartments – threaten to relocate many African-American residents from their homes. There are more than 17,300 fewer children enrolled in school today in New Orleans than before Katrina, with enrollment of African-American students also in decline.
These conditions, as well as the legacy of voter disfranchisement that LDF fought to eradicate in post-Katrina New Orleans, extend throughout Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. In Terrebonne Parish, just 45 minutes from New Orleans and also on the Gulf, LDF is actively litigating the case of Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP, et al. v. Jindal, et al., a challenge to the parish’s discriminatory at-large voting scheme. Black voters in Terrebonne still do not have fair and equal access to the parish court of the 32nd Judicial District, because of an at-large voting system that has deprived African-American residents of the ability to elect a representative from their own community. These ongoing impediments to the exercise of full political rights threaten to further marginalize African American communities.
“LDF remains inspired by the resilience, vitality, and humanity of the victims of Hurricane Katrina,” said Janai Nelson, Assistant Director-Counsel of LDF. “We stand in solidarity with all those who work to ensure equality and equal opportunity in the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Area.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has long worked to build a more equitable Louisiana. It represented voters in the landmark cases of Chisom v. Roemer, and Louisiana House of Representatives et al. v. Ashcroft et al., prisoners in Williams v. McKeithen, and students in the recent case of Thomas v. St. Martin Parish School Board, among many others.
Although LDF was founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to racial justice, LDF has been a completely separate organization since 1957. Please refer to it in media attributions as the “NAACP Legal Defense Fund” or “LDF”.