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Our February Series: Katrina and the birth of ColorOfChange

(image: mattewalt/flickr)

(image: mattewalt/flickr)

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in August and September of 2005, upending the lives of 1.5 million people and putting Black folks’ lack of political and social power front and center for all the world to see.

The storms magnified racial disparities in the U.S., and no place demonstrated this more clearly than New Orleans, where 80% of the city was submerged after Katrina. Out of this devastation, ColorOfChange was born.

When Katrina touched land on August 29, more than a third of all Black New Orleanians were living in poverty. As we know well from the televised accounts, these impoverished and largely Black neighborhoods bore the brunt of the disaster. And the lack of access to resources was one major reason why folks couldn’t simply leave when they got news of the coming storm.

Adding insult to injury, the federal government took its time responding once the levees and flood walls broke. We were heartbroken by the apathy of the Bush Administration and the failures of corporate media, some members of which depicted African-American survivors as “looters” and “refugees.” These characterizations had real consequences, as a groundbreaking investigation in The Nation magazine would later reveal.

Within a month of the organization’s launch, ColorOfChange had attracted its first 10,000 members. People who received our earliest emails in the aftermath of the storm passed them along to their family and riends, who in turn joined the cause. Following Katrina and Rita, our members raised their voices in support of Gulf Coast housing rightsvoting rights, and access to an intact safety net. Our campaigns represented everyday folks’ ability to amplify the demands of those affected by the storms. They represented the power of Black Americans and our allies to respond to the costliest national disaster in American history by building a network that could respond quickly and forcefully.

For victims of the storms, the battle for dignity and justice is far from over. As recently as last month, FEMA told Hurricane survivors to repay federal funds they’d received as part of the relief effort. And ColorOfChange has supported the local fight against the expansion of the Orleans Parish Prison, the same jail where inmates were left in their cells to fend for themselves as the floodwaters rose in the days following the storm.

So why point to Katrina during Black History Month?

Events that took place during and after the storms continue to shape thousands of lives. New Orleans in particular is struggling to rebuild in the face of sobering statistics. Just one example: 65% of Black children under the age of 5 in the city live in poverty. We’ve seen victories in the region, but progress has been slow.ColorOfChange remains committed to supporting Gulf Coast residents as they work to rebuild their communities. That’s Black history in the making.

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Rashad Robinson

Rashad Robinson