A photo of debris in front of damaged homes after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
A firefighter makes his way across debris to place a red sticker on a flood-damaged home in New Orleans, October 1, 2005. Charlie Riedel/AP

New Orleans neighborhoods that were damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 were more likely to gentrify over the following 10 years, researchers find.

Natural disasters are devastating events, and hurricanes, with their powerful winds and large-scale flooding, can literally flatten communities. Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in August 2005, left some people stranded on their roofs and drove others into the Superdome for shelter. All told, Katrina damaged 200,000 homes and displaced more than 800,000 residents of the region.

Now, a new paper in the journal Urban Studies examines the extent to which Katrina paved the way for gentrification in hurricane-damaged areas of New Orleans. To assess this, the authors, Eric Joseph van Holm of Arizona State University and Christopher Wyczalkowski of Georgia State University, look at the association between neighborhood damage inflicted by Katrina and gentrification. Their study uses data from the City of New Orleans to identify the level of physical damage to neighborhoods, then tracks gentrification in these neighborhoods before and after Katrina, using Census Bureau data for the period 2000 to 2015.

The authors also borrow a method pioneered by Lance Freeman of Columbia University, the author of several leading studies of gentrification and displacement. Freeman’s framework identifies a neighborhood as having the potential to gentrify if it: is located in the central city; has a median household income less than the 40th percentile for the metropolitan area; and has a housing stock that’s older than the region as a whole.

In 2000, roughly one-fifth of census tracts in New Orleans (101 of 504) met all three of these criteria, and thus could be said to have the potential to gentrify. Per Freeman (and the study), gentrification occurs when neighborhoods experience a significant real increase in housing prices and an increase in college-educated residents that is greater than that of the metropolitan area. The study controls for the share of population that is African American, since previous studies have found that mostly African-American neighborhoods are less likely to gentrify than neighborhoods with a lower percentage of black residents. But damage from a hurricane could alter a neighborhood’s demographics by displacing large numbers of residents.

The map below shows New Orleans neighborhoods that gentrified by 2015. (Dots are gentrified areas, while the shade of gray indicates probability of gentrifying.) More than half of the census tracts (62 of 101) that were “eligible to gentrify” in 2000 did so by 2015. That is a sizable share by any stretch.

map of gentrified neighborhoods in New Orleans
(Urban Studies)

Another map, below, shows damage from Katrina, with storm damage around Mid-City and stretching west, south, and east (that is, in places that gentrified), but also farther north in Lakeview and to the east (places that largely did not gentrify). Similarly, not every neighborhood that gentrified had weathered significant damage.

a map of damage from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans
(Urban Studies)

Overall, van Holm and Wyczalkowski conclude that hurricane damage is positively associated with the likelihood of a New Orleans neighborhood having gentrified in the 10 years after Katrina. And they write that gentrification was more likely in neighborhoods that had worse physical damage. With a “high degree of consistency across specifications,” they note, “our models suggest that those neighborhoods with a higher percentage of physical building damage were more likely to have gentrified one decade after the storm.” But the effect of storm damage on gentrification is not linear. As damage increases, the probability of gentrification increases too, but at a slower rate.

In line with previous research, the study also finds that gentrification was less likely in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of African Americans. This is a disturbing reflection on the persistence of racially-concentrated poverty, especially since the storm led to the mass displacement and relocation of so many of the city’s black, low-income residents.

Suffering a natural disaster is traumatic. We’d like to think that afterwards, people can go back to their original homes and neighborhoods. But that’s not what this study concludes at all. The reality is that the recovery from Katrina was terribly unequal, and disasters pave the way for the replacement of the poor by the much more affluent.

When we think about climate change and sea-level rise in cities, we might think about places that see their property values decline and where insurance and mortgages become harder and harder to get, so that eventually, large parts of cities become uninhabitable. But another outcome of climate change is more frequent and fiercer natural disasters, and these can change the racial and class composition of cities. Devastating physical damage pushes existing populations out. This makes it easier for developers to assemble large tracts of land that can be rebuilt, not just to higher standards, but for far more advantaged groups, paving the way for a kind of mass gentrification.

It’s high time we put equity and inclusion at the center of our disaster-recovery and rebuilding efforts.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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