Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina could prompt new black "great migration"


Katrina could prompt new black "great migration"

By Adam Tanner

HOUSTON (Reuters) - If refugees end up building new lives away from New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina may prompt the largest U.S. black resettlement since the 20th century's Great Migration lured southern blacks to the North in a search for jobs and better lives.

Interviews with refugees in Houston, which is expecting many thousands of evacuees to remain, suggest that thousands of blacks who lost everything and had no insurance will end up living in Texas or other U.S. states.

Officials say it will take many months and maybe even years before the birthplace of jazz is rebuilt.

"We advise people that this city has been destroyed," New Orleans Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley told reporters on Monday. "We are simply asking people not to come back to this city right now."

Many evacuees like Percy Molere, 26, who worked in a hotel in New Orleans' famed French quarter, say they cannot keep their lives on hold for very long.

"If it took a month, I'd go back, but a year, I don't want to wait that long," said Molere. "Hopefully we're going to stay in Houston just to stay out of New Orleans" for the time being.

Experts caution that it is too soon to clearly predict the long-term impact of the devastation of New Orleans, a city of less than half a million people more than two-thirds of whom are black. But one scenario would be massive resettlement elsewhere.

"You've got 300,000, 400,000 people, many of them low income without a lot of means, who are not going to have the ability to wait out a year or two or three years for the region to rebuild," said Barack Obama, the only black member of the U.S. Senate.

"They are going to have to find immediate work, immediate housing, immediately get their kids into school and that probably will change the demographics of the region," he told Reuters on Monday during a visit to Houston, the largest single gathering point for the refugees.

Because of the legacy of slavery, southern states including Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina have historically been home to the greatest concentration of U.S. blacks. In 1900, 85 percent of U.S. blacks lived in the South and as early as 1830, more than 58 percent of Louisiana's population was black.

Between 1940 and 1970 economic changes prompted 5 million blacks to quit the south for cities across the North including Chicago, Detroit and New York, marking one of the nation's largest internal migrations.

"It could have potentially that kind of effect," said Obama, whose father immigrated from Kenya.


New Orleans did not always follow the trend. Historically, far fewer residents have moved from New Orleans than from most American cities, despite its high poverty and crime rates.

Nicholas Lemann, author of "The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America," was wary of predicting that Katrina would prompt major resettlement.

"It is kind of early to tell," he said.

But he said as officials elsewhere accommodate large numbers of blacks, they should avoid putting them in confined areas as Chicago did in the past, which created new urban woes. "They should think carefully on how to avoid the sort of ghetto phenomenon," he said.

Part of the migration trend will be set by what federal, state and local agencies do to help refugees rebuild their lives.

"What I do think should be focused on now is what is the Congress is going to do when they get back," former President Bill Clinton said in Houston on Monday. "How are we going to find jobs for these people, where are they really going to live, do they need some cash right away?"

"They feel lost."