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New Orleans trip is eye-opening experience for students

Damaged house in New Orleans
June 21, 2011

The term “environmental justice” recently came into sharp and shocking focus for a group of Arizona State University graduate students who traveled to New Orleans.

“Around the city we could see the scars of Hurricane Katrina, especially represented by the spray-painted ‘X’s on the houses that had been searched,” said Stephen Marotta, a student in the master of arts in social justice and human rights (MASJHR) program offered by ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. “But in the Ninth Ward, more specifically the western part of the neighborhood closest to the floodwall that failed, the houses were just gone. The whole time we drove the virtually empty streets of the Ninth Ward, I was conscious of the fact that this was a place where many of New Orleans’ poorest residents had lost their lives, and that at least part of the blame belongs to deeper structural factors that have isolated the city’s poor and Black.”

That type of reaction was what Monica Casper, who teaches the “Environmental Justice, Body Politics and Human Rights” course that prompted the trip, was hoping to inspire by taking students to a city that is a focal point for the politics of environmental justice. The course is cross-listed for students in the MASJHR program as well as New College’s master of arts in interdisciplinary studies (MAIS) program. Both degrees are offered on ASU’s West campus.

“I wanted the students to have some hands-on experience,” Casper said. “What I hoped is that students would get to see, up close and personal, some of the devastated areas, and that we could have an informed discussion about environmental justice before, during and after catastrophe.

“It’s one thing to read an article about environmental justice theory, and quite another to see abandoned houses with painted numbers on the façade indicating bodies found, toxicity, and the agency that searched the home. That it is more than five years later, and the devastation is still so present in parts of the city, was heartbreaking.”

The students stayed with ASU alumna Ella “Ellie” McCulloch, went on tours provided by the nonprofit organization Rebuilding Together New Orleans, attended a seminar at Tulane University, toured a levee construction site with a guide from the Army Corps of Engineers, and also found time to get a taste of the local culture and cuisine.

“The touristy parts of New Orleans – Bourbon Street, the French Quarter – were pretty much what I expected,” said Chelsey Dawes, another student participant. “What I found shocking was the lack of infrastructure that has been rebuilt since Katrina.

“I didn’t expect to see a lot of the original damage,” Dawes said. “To my surprise, and despite the difficulty of deciphering between urban decay and flood damage, there were entire neighborhoods that still had abandoned houses, houses with flood markings, and flood debris including downed trees and abandoned cars. I was also saddened to see the hospitals and health facilities that have not reopened.”

Casper said the students learned about some of the bureaucratic politics impeding progress, including jurisdictional battles. “And we got a sense of what could work and what isn’t working with respect to rebuilding,” she added.

Marotta and Casper both pointed to the well-publicized rebuilding project led by the actor Brad Pitt as an example of good intentions that aren’t necessarily having the most appropriate results.

“I had originally been a champion of Brad Pitt’s efforts,” Marotta said. “But after seeing his project, I’m not sure. He is building some bizarre anti-vernacular eco-houses that are apparently pricing many Ninth Ward residents out of their neighborhood.”

According to Marotta, this effort is in contrast to the work being done by Rebuilding Together New Orleans, a program of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. “RTNO is helping people get back into their homes without doing all the Brad Pitt modifications.”

RTNO’s Kate Cutrer served as tour guide for much of the visit. “She gave us copies of the book ‘How to Rebuild a City,’ which she contributed to,” said Marotta. “It is easily one of my favorite books. It reflects New Orleans’ general aura of both acceptance and playfulness; it is nostalgic, cathartic, painful and optimistic all at once.”

The disparity in publicity afforded to the efforts of Pitt and RTNO is just one example of how a multitude of factors can affect outcomes in a disaster zone.

“New Orleans was a particularly meaningful place for the students to visit because it is a central location for environmental justice politics, and many of this country’s key figures in the field of environmental justice are located in southern cities like New Orleans and Atlanta,” Casper said. “Given that race and racial politics, along with class, have so much to do with environmental injustice, it makes sense for these areas to be hotbeds of activity and politics. Post-Katrina New Orleans offers an ideal laboratory to study the devastating effects of a ‘natural’ disaster that has so many social and economic components.”

The students’ New Orleans experiences were enriched by their interactions with their host family. “Ellie took us to an awesome jazz show in Merigny – the locals’ alternative to the French Quarter – and took us sailing on Lake Pontchartrain. She and her mother, Betty, were amazing hosts,” Marotta said.

Added Dawes, “Betty showed us all of her belongings, everything she owned for 80 years. She showed us some of the things she kept that were destroyed in Katrina, and she cried when she showed us the pictures that she was able to save. That moment will be forever in my heart.”

While the students would have liked to depart New Orleans with a feeling of hope, it wasn’t easy to do so, according to Marotta.

“Someone said to me while I was there that the storm certainly had a serious impact on New Orleans, but it also exposed the city’s deeper problems,” he said. “I left the city unsure of whether these problems, particularly of racial and economic inequality, would be addressed in New Orleans’ rebuilding efforts.”