August 27, 2015

Remembering Katrina: Wide racial divide over government’s response

A man pushes his bicycle through flood waters near the Superdome in New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005. Photo credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay.
A man pushes his bicycle through flood waters near the Superdome in New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2005. Photo credit: AP Photo/Eric Gay.

Ten years ago this weekend, Hurricane Katrina roared ashore on the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,000 people (the true death toll may never be known). From the start, the tragedy had a powerful racial component – images of poor, mostly black New Orleans residents stranded on rooftops and crowded amid fetid conditions in what was then the Louisiana Superdome.

Ten Years Later, a Look Back at the Racial Divide Over Government's Response to Hurricane KatrinaInitial reactions to the government’s response to the crisis were starkly divided along racial lines. In a national poll conducted Sept. 6-7, 2005, a week after the storm made landfall, African Americans delivered a scathing assessment of the federal government’s relief efforts. Two-thirds (66%) said that “the government’s response to the situation would have been faster if most of the victims had been white.” Just 17% of whites agreed – most whites (77%) said the race of the victims would not have made any difference.

Just 19% of blacks rated the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina as excellent or good, compared with 41% of whites. And nearly three times as many whites (31%) as blacks (11%) said then-President George W. Bush did all he could to get relief efforts going quickly.

Fully 74% of blacks said they felt depressed by what had happened to areas affected by the hurricane; nearly as many (71%) felt angry. Fewer whites experienced such strong emotions – 55% said they had been depressed and 46% angry.

Blacks and whites also drew very different lessons from the disaster: Most blacks (71%) said it showed that racial inequality remained a major problem in the United States; most whites (56%) said that this was not a particularly important lesson of Katrina.

A decade after the storm hit, racial differences in attitudes about the impact of Hurricane Katrina linger. Earlier this month, the Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR released their fourth post-hurricane survey of New Orleans residents. For the most part, both black and white New Orleans residents are optimistic about the city’s future. But while 70% of whites say the city has mostly recovered from Katrina, just 44% of African Americans agree.

Note: This is an update of a post originally published Aug. 28, 2013.

Topics: Race and Ethnicity, Federal Government, Disasters and Accidents

  1. Photo of Carroll Doherty

    is director of political research at Pew Research Center.


  1. petra2 years ago

    Most of the ‘Katrina people’ in LA had/have their hands out with the attitude of “what have you done for me lately?” Gimmee, gimmee. No sympathy here. Lose the misguided sense of entitlement and start taking responsibility for your own circumstances and quit looking for handouts!

  2. Paul Harris4 years ago

    Few American realize that they shut down the New Orleans Airport, Amtrak, and Greyhound PRIOR to the evacuation. Many of us could not get out in time. Many don’t know that right after Katrina President Bush was quoted as saying, “No one could have foreseen the breach of the levees.” Six months after Katrina video and transcripts were uncovered that clearly show him being warned prior to Katrina that this was a real possibility. Furthermore they quote Bush as saying, “Everything will be taken care of.” These are not my opinions of being a So. Calif. tourist who was stuck in the Superdome during Katrina and the flooding. These are irrefutable facts.

    As for racial differences think of how many times you heard during Katrina statements such as “those people chose to live there” or “those people chose to live below sea level” or “New Orleans is such a corrupt city that Katrina cleaned it up.” Or that black people taking food were labeled in much of the media as “looters” while white people were labeled as searching for food or survival needs. Nothing like those disparaging type of statements were made after Hurricane Sandy, the World Trade Center (which was previously attacked), wildfires in Colorado and California. Why the difference? On this 50th Anniversary of MLK’s most famous speech we all need to ponder such unconscious thoughts.

    Paul Harris
    Author, “Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina”