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Why New Orleans’s Black Residents Are Still Underwater After Katrina

January 31, 2017

One black-owned bank helped build the city’s African-American middle class — until the hurricane destroyed much more than their homes.



By GARY RIVLIN for The New York Times - AUG. 18, 2015


"Bring a map of New Orleans.’’ That was all that Alden J. McDonald Jr., president and chief executive of Liberty Bank and Trust Company, said when I first asked to meet him. It was the summer of 2005, less than two weeks after the city’s flood-protection system failed to keep out the storm surge created by Hurricane Katrina, and I was reporting in Louisiana for this newspaper. The Gulf of Mexico was sitting in the lobby of his New Orleans headquarters. The flood had destroyed Liberty’s mainframe computer; a good many of the bank’s most essential documents — deeds for houses, titles for cars — were ruined as well. Six of Liberty’s eight branches were flooded and a seventh had been battered by looters. The bank’s central operations had to be moved to a branch office in Baton Rouge, 70 miles away.


McDonald started Liberty, one of the Deep South’s first black-owned banks, 33 years earlier. He was 29 then and a college dropout, but by the time of the flooding, the bank ranked as the country’s sixth-largest black-owned bank, with more than $350 million in assets, and he was chairman of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. Yet as we sat in a windowless conference room in Baton Rouge, he said that he wasn’t certain Liberty would survive long enough to celebrate its 34th anniversary. That’s when he asked me to take out the map I had brought.


McDonald picked up a black marker and drew a line down its middle. He pointed to the western half. ‘‘That’s the New Orleans you know,’’ he told me: the French Quarter, the Superdome, the Warehouse District, the Garden District, St. Charles Avenue. Those areas had largely remained dry. Then he pointed to the eastern half of the map. ‘‘Where you saw water up to the rooftops?’’ he said. ‘‘That’s where most of the city’s black people lived. That’s where my customer base lived. My employees lived out there.’’ McDonald, who was only a couple of weeks from turning 62, shook his head and gave a rueful laugh. ‘‘Hell, that’s where I lived.’’


What McDonald saw on the map scared him, and over the next five years, many of his fears were borne out. New Orleans would become home to a greater concentration of neglected properties than any city in the United States, Detroit included. One in every four residential properties across the city, more than 50,000 addresses, was categorized as blighted or vacant. The city had a population of 455,000 before the storm, two-thirds of whom were black; by 2010 there were 24,000 fewer whites and 118,000 fewer blacks. That year, the city elected its first white mayor in 32 years. A 5-2 white supermajority controlled the City Council, which had been majority black before the storm. Orleans Parish had a white district attorney; its Police Department, a white chief. White-majority boards ran most of the city’s schools and the housing authority. ‘‘The perception among most African-Americans,’’ Lance Hill, executive director of Tulane University’s Southern Institute for Education and Research, said in 2012, ‘‘is that they are living politically as a defeated group in their own city.’’


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