Tribune Writer Says Chicago Needs a Hurricane Katrina, Sparks Outrage

By Sheryl Estrada

Houses in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Shutterstock.

In a column published on Thursday in the Chicago Tribune, editorial board member Kristen McQueary decided to use Hurricane Katrina as “a metaphor” for changes she thinks are needed in Chicago’s government and public school system.

In “Chicago, New Orleans, and rebirth” she writes:

Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops. That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the U.S. on Aug. 29, 2005, causing severe destruction.

In the aftermath, a storm surge resulted in multiple levee breaches in greater New Orleans, La. Eighty percent of the city was underwater, especially in low-lying areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly Black community.

More than 1,800 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, and of that total, 1,577 people in Louisiana perished. Hundreds of thousands of residents in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi were displaced from their homes.

In 2007, Harvard professor Patrick Sharkey published an article in the Journal of Black Studies titled “Survival and Death in New Orleans: An Empirical Look at the Human Impact of Katrina,” which concluded, “Data on the locations of recovered bodies also show that Katrina took its largest toll in New Orleans’ Black community. These findings confirm the impression that race was deeply implicated in the tragedy of Katrina.”

According to John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University, who conducted research on the demographic changein 2006,”The analysis in this report suggests that if the future city were limited to the population previously living in zones undamaged by Katrina it would risk losing about 50 percent of its white residents but more than 80 percent of its Black population. This is why the continuing question about the hurricane is this: whose city will be rebuilt”

Now, 10 years later, McQueary “StatehouseChick” writes:

I find myself praying for a storm. OK, a figurative storm, something that will prompt a rebirth in Chicago. I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.

There wasbacklashfor the column on Twitter, including tweets sent by actorWendell Pierceof TV shows “Treme,” “The Wire” and the film “Selma.” He is a native of New Orleans:

The original opinion piece was published with the headline, “In Chicago, wishing for a Hurricane Katrina.” Following the backlash, the headline was changed as well as some of the text.

McQueary seems to be envious of a perceived utopia that doesn’t currently exist in New Orleans.

According to statistics offered by The Urban League of Greater New Orleans, Black children living in povertyhas increased from 44 percent in 2005 to 50.5 percent in 2013.And a smaller percentage of Black men in New Orleans men hold bachelor’s degrees now than before the storm 13.7 percent in 2013, compared to 16.6 percent in 2005.

In her follow-up column, “Hurricane Katrina and what was in my heart,” McQueary acknowledged she offended the entire city of New Orleans and offered what might be a form of an apology and explanation.

“I wrote what I did not out of lack of empathy, or racism, but out of long-standing frustration with Chicago’s poorly managed finances Chicago needs urgent, revolutionary change. We can’t keep borrowing our way into bankruptcy. That’s what was in my heart.”

McQueary can have a political opinion on the management of the city’s funds (law enforcement practices may need more scrutiny). Perhaps what’s in the hearts of people offended by the column is the belief lives lost in Katrina shouldn’t be equaledto acity’s finances, even if metaphorically. There is really no comparison.

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