New Orleans 10 years after Katrina: an interview with Fred Kammer, S.J.

Fred Kammer, S.J., is a lawyer who directs the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans. A New Orleans native and former Jesuit provincial superior in that city when Hurricane Katrina struck, Father Kammer holds a J.D. from Yale University, an M.Div from Loyola University Chicago, and B.A. from Spring Hill College. From 1992 to 2001, he was the President and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, the nation's largest voluntary social services provider. He also served as a policy adviser on health and welfare issues to the U.S. Catholic bishops from 1990 to 1992.

Father Kammer is author of “Doing Faithjustice: An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought” (Paulist Press; third printing, 2005), “Salted with Fire: Spirituality for the Faithjustice Journey” (Paulist Press, 1995), and “Faith. Works. Wonders.—An Insider's Guide to Catholic Charities” (2009, Wipf and Stock Publishers) in addition to the research and writing he does as a Catholic lobbyist on social issues. He also works as a retreat director and sits on the board of the Ignatian Solidarity Network.

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Today, Aug. 29, is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. On Aug. 28, I interviewed Father Kammer by telephone about his perspective on how the city has fared in these past ten years. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.

What has changed in New Orleans over the past ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city?

There have been improvements in the criminal justice system. There’s an enormous experiment going on in public schools, with almost all of our public school students now in charter schools. There has been a major change in public housing, where we’ve torn down major housing projects which were there for decades and put back mixed-use housing complexes in their place. In the process, of course, we’ve destroyed more available housing for low-income families.

Demographically, the city is a hundred thousand people smaller. There has been a major investment in rebuilding the levees and rebuilding them better. A number of entrepreneurs have come to the city to do new things; for example, there are more restaurants in New Orleans than there were before Katrina, if you can believe it. There have been a whole array of public prosecutions of politicians which really started before Katrina. Over the last 15 years there have been a number of prosecutions of politicians—both black and white, state and local—who have been indicted, convicted, or pleaded guilty. We’ve had an enormous influx of Latino workers who came to rebuild the city and stayed, doubling our Hispanic population. And right now, in fact, there is construction occurring on many of the major cross-streets because there is still a couple billion dollars of infrastructure money that has not been spent yet. On Aug. 1, we opened a new hospital—the University Medical Center of New Orleans—to replace the old Charity Hospital that served the poor from the 1930s until it was destroyed in the storm.

Also, an enormous amount of private houses have been rebuilt and there’s much less available rental housing. Katrina destroyed about one-half of the available rental housing in New Orleans. Those are just some of the changes.

What has stayed the same in New Orleans?

While the numbers have changed, the percentages in terms of poverty have changed and even worsened. The number of children living in poverty before Katrina was 38 percent and that’s now 39 percent. And the income gap between white families and black families has widened. I would say that the racial perceptions of how things are going, between the white community and the black community, were different before Katrina and have remained different. According to various surveys, these perceptions of the city’s well-being diverge over the future of youth and the status of public schools. So the perceptions among the white and black population continue to be starkly different.

And the state of Louisiana has still failed to make a significant investment in wetlands. We continue to lose an enormous amount of our wetlands every day and every year, which is eroding away the city’s protection against future storms.

What can you tell us about poverty and jobs in the city right now?

The median household income between white and black has continued to grow in difference. Over the years since Katrina, white household income has grown by 22 percent and black household income has grown about 7 percent. And that continues the divide between white and black households, judging by median family income, and that’s despite the fact that we’ve spent an enormous amount of money statewide on Katrina recovery.

How is the city doing on affordable housing for low-income residents?

The big number is the loss of half of the rental property in the city. There was a lot of money after Katrina for homeowners, but there was not much money available for renters or rental properties. So we lost a tremendous amount of rental housing, especially in poorer and working class neighborhoods where rental housing was flooded and not replaced. We also tore down the major housing complexes—which is part of a national trend as well—and as a result there are a little over 3,000 fewer public housing units in New Orleans.

There are many more vouchers available within the metro area, but a number of people who use vouchers have found it hard to find housing in the city proper because of bias against voucher users and black renters. There’s been a lot of testing that compares what happens when black renters versus white renters try to rent the same apartment. We continue to suffer from the history and fact of racial discrimination in the city. Many more of the poor have been dispersed out into the metro region. Rents have skyrocketed for people in the city; rents for one-bedroom apartments have risen by 33 percent and for two-bedroom apartments by 41 percent. As a result, we have more of what HUD calls “severely cost-burden renters,” which are people who spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent and utilities. That’s risen from 24 percent to 37 percent within Orleans Parish, which is really the city proper. So now many of the metro poor live outside of New Orleans. It was 46 percent before Katrina and it is 58 percent now.

As you mentioned, New Orleans has been famous in the past for its corruption, with even the former mayor at the time of Katrina (Ray Nagin) now serving a long-term jail sentence for bribery and other financial misdeeds. In the aftermath of Katrina, there were also reports of widespread abuses and mistakes committed by law enforcement officials. How is the city's criminal justice system doing right now?

We were the incarceration capital of the world; we incarcerated more people than any other state and of course the United States incarcerates more people than any other country. So we were the leaders, incarcerating people at a rate of five times the national average in the year before Katrina. But we’ve had a number of reform efforts take place on the part of citizens and citizen advocates—including two consent decrees, one affecting the police department and the other the jail. We’ve created an inspector general’s office that looks at criminal justice officials, including judges, and we have an independent police monitor as well.

We had an ethics board of independent college presidents—including our own president at Loyola, Father Kevin Wildes, S.J., who just finished his term as chair—who appointed the inspector general. So our prison population has dropped significantly in terms of the number of people in jail—not as much as the U.S. population, but it has dropped by two-thirds. That’s been very important and it’s the result of a lot of people pushing for a smaller jail. The sheriff was getting a per diem for prisoners—so the more he held people there, the more money flowed to him from the city—and I think that system was ended about a year ago.

So the numbers are coming down and there’s been a big fight to hold the new jail at 1,400 beds. The sheriff still wants to build something bigger, and so it’s a major battle between the mayor and the sheriff over the size of the jail, with a lot of citizen advocacy lobbying for the smaller jail. That means a greater availability of bail, letting people go on their own recognizance, to make that happen. The sheriff had also been holding a number of immigrant detainees and that practice has been sharply curtailed. So there’s a lot of reform going on, with a recent study saying it’s a work in progress that will require constant vigilance and leadership from public officials to continue the changes.

In the past year, racial issues have figured heavily in national media coverage of police actions in other parts of the United States. How have New Orleans racial dynamics changed since Katrina and how are they doing now?

I’m not sure the dynamics have changed a lot. When you do see a change, it’s where white and black together are working on a third problem. I’m not sure that addressing racism in itself has been that successful, but what has worked seems to be common efforts to improve the city. There was a group called Women of the Storm that involved African-American and white women lobbying together for assistance to the city. Or the people who have been working the jail, on reforms to the criminal justice system, tend to be both white and black. There seems to be more success when people work together in these ways. You see, Katrina rattled the cage of the whole city and made us look at problems which had been around for a long time. When folks get together to work on problems—white, black, female, brown—you begin to see some changes happening, but it’s a long-term process.

As an attorney, what are your biggest legal concerns in New Orleans right now?

Since I don’t practice law in the courts here, it’s hard for me to say. But I think the work going on in the criminal justice system is the most important work that’s going on right now. Loyola’s law clinic has been very active on issues like wage theft, a huge issue for immigrant workers. We have a number of immigrants who work for two weeks, follow instructions to show up to get their check, and then find the police or immigration service waiting. So the law clinic at Loyola has been working on wage theft—in fact, they have a wage theft division now—since Katrina. The availability of lawyers for immigrants is another important issue because the immigration system does not automatically provide an attorney. Getting volunteer attorneys to help with immigration matters has been a challenge.

How is New Orleans dealing with this increased number of Latin American immigrants, who came to help rebuild the city after Katrina?

As I said, the Latin American population has doubled, but the dilemma is that many of them are undocumented. A major study that was done by Tulane University in 2006 found that one-quarter of workers who were helping to gut and restore houses were undocumented. We know some of them personally—people who still do not have legal status after working 10 years to help the city recover. And they’re not going to get it unless we have comprehensive national immigration reform.

So they still live in the shadows. There’s been a lot of activity among undocumented workers and community leaders to try to get the police to back off, to not collaborate in deportations as actively as they once did with ICE. But many families still live in fear and there are still cases of family members being carried off, locked up, and deported. There’s a lot of advocacy going on around those cases, but it’s a constant problem and we have a significant number of the children who surged across the U.S. border last year.

Pope Francis will visit the United States in a few weeks. If you could tell him one thing about New Orleans today, 10 years after Katrina, what would it be?

Well, I just finished reading “Laudato Si’” and one thing I could say to him—other than the importance of race and poverty in the city—is that we are a picture of the environmental distress the world is experiencing. Especially in the marshlands, and in their impact on the future of this region, I would say to him: “Keep talking to us about these matters.” He’s really identified the problem of the poor with the problem of the environment and I would say: “Keep it going.” It’s important for us and for the rest of the country.

As former director of Catholic Charities U.S.A., you have personal experience in relief work. What’s your assessment of the recovery work that has been done over the past 10 years in New Orleans?

There have been amazing things in terms of the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who have come in to help—individual homeowners, churches, schools, etc.—and that work actually continues today. We still get groups coming in to help as volunteers; we see groups here at the Institute who come in from Jesuit schools and parishes to meet with us and talk about the social realities of working in New Orleans. So that’s a big part of the picture here that continues in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast, especially the Mississippi Gulf Coast that Katrina really decimated.

The other thing I can say, from my own past experience with Catholic Charities, is that recovery is slow. I used to talk about 5-10 years of recovery for New Orleans, but now it’s looking more like 15-20 years. There are still parts of this city that need rebuilding. And it should come as no surprise—even though Katrina was an equal-opportunity storm, destroying and flooding both millionaires’ homes and poor people’s homes—that the lower parts of the city tended to be occupied by poorer people when the hurricane came. And those lower-income families have tended to have less ability to rebuild their own homes—meaning less well-insured, but in some communities also problems of legal title where houses were handed down from grandparents to younger generations who didn’t have clear legal ownership of the properties. So the people living in some of the homes didn’t have clear title, as they hadn’t ever engaged in formal legal transactions to clear the property, and had trouble getting government assistance when Katrina happened. That’s also an issue that Loyola’s law clinic has been working on, especially in the years immediately after Katrina. As a result, the poorest neighborhoods are the slowest to bounce back, and that is the case now.

You became director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute in 2009, shortly after its founding. What is the goal of your work at this social center?

We work on the issues of race, poverty, and migration in the Gulf South—in the five states from Texas to Florida. Our vantage point is the lens of Catholic social thought and we do action research, education in the broad sense—some on campus, but mostly out in groups—on these issues and on specific legislative issues which arise out of them.

What people, living or dead, inspire you the most in your ministry?

The person who got me into this in the first place was probably Father Louis J. Twomey, S.J., who was one of the great labor priests of the United States dating back to the 40s and 50s. Lou influenced me when I was a high school student and next door to our office is the Twomey Center, which works on problems of New Orleans itself. He had worked on issues of race, poverty, and labor before I was born. He was a major influence on me as a high school boy and as a young Jesuit.

You have written several books on social justice. When someone asks you to define social justice and explain why Catholics should care about it, what do you say?

I now talk about five definitions of justice: biblical justice, commutative, distributive, contributive, and systemic or structural justice. Numbers two to four are the classical medieval definitions of justice. The fifth one is more out of the church’s teaching in the last half of the 20th century. The reason we work on it is because, if we love people and care about them, we will change the systems and structures that demean them and affect their lives and their families.

How does your identity as a Jesuit priest inform your approach to social justice?

Many people have talked about the “learned ministry” of Jesuits. Our whole history has been to blend the faith with knowledge. I think in terms of how it would shape my own approach to justice is that I work out an intellectual framework—what we call Catholic social thought—and try to bring it to bear on concrete problems. Also, the whole Jesuit focus on “a faith that does justice” helps to enliven my work for justice with the faith and gives me hope when circumstances seem hopeless.

What is your favorite scripture passage and why?

I think my favorite continues to be the breakfast on the beach in the twenty-first chapter of John, when Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and Peter that says he does. Jesus responds by saying feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my lambs. It just ties together the love of the Lord with our responsibility for other people. So it’s really been a longtime favorite passage for me.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

The first would be an awareness of the reality of social injustice and the reality of how it affects the poorest people among us. The second would be a determination to do something about it. In the Spiritual Exercises, in the last meditation, Ignatius says “love shows itself more in deeds than in words.” So it’s to be aware, to be determined to change things, and then to act on that determination.

What are your hopes for the future?

Ideally, I would put it in terms of the jubilee concepts from Leviticus and Pope Francis’s writings from “Laudato Si.’” It’s an awareness of our call to reconciliation with God, with one another, and with the earth—and that they are all part of one package. Pope Benedict XVI talked about our covenant with creation and Francis picks up the same language. We really are in a covenant, called to a covenantal relationship with God and each other and with the earth. This Sunday’s first reading from Deuteronomy talks about that covenant responsibility. And then in the second reading, James talks about being “doers of the word and not hearers only.” So my hope would be that more and more people would come to see their call to that covenant relationship, becoming doers and not just hearers.

Any final thoughts?

One thing that’s been said over and over again is that a lot of Catholic social teaching is our best-kept secret—and I think that continues to be one of our problems, that so many of our Catholics—even good and well-informed people—do not know our tradition about applying the gospel to the world. We’ve got to be much better about teaching it to people and preaching it. When I give talks to people around the country about social justice, someone will invariably stand up during questions and say: “Why don’t we hear about this in our parishes?” I know the bishops do speak out a lot as a body, but the Catholic in the pew is not hearing the message. And part of it is the media’s responsibility: They’re much more interested in sex and violence than in justice. It’s a major uphill battle for us to teach our people our own tradition.   

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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