Sitting in the Louisiana Senate chambers last week, Democratic Sen. Jimmy Harris received a text alert: A brewing storm heading toward his New Orleans district had prompted a flood advisory.
Moments later, the state’s all-male bond commission voted 7-6 to temporarily block a $39 million loan that New Orleans planned to use for a power station to operate drainage pumps that protect against flooding. The commission’s goal: pressure the city’s leaders to impose Louisiana’s strict abortion ban, which the mayor, City Council, sheriff, and district attorney have all vehemently vowed not to enforce.
The vote is the latest political strong-arm move in “post-Roe” America. This one poses a dual threat to Black Louisianans, who suffer disproportionately from the devastating consequences of flooding and power outages as well as the health implications of limited access to reproductive health care. Black Louisianans receive abortions at a rate five times higher than white people, according to data from the state’s Department of Health.
“It is evident that the rollback of Roe has little to do with preserving life. It has more to do with control,” said Andrea Boyles, an associate professor of sociology & Africana studies at Tulane University. “White men, particularly who are socially, economically, and politically privileged, are making decisions that will ultimately have the greatest impact and will be most devastating for Black women.”
Harris, who holds a temporary position on the commission and is its only non-white member, said that the loan would help protect nearly 400,000 people — many of whom were ravaged by hurricanes Katrina and Ida — from the worst effects that the storm-battered area faces. Yet, at the insistence of the state’s Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, seven of the commission’s 13 members leveraged their political power to withhold funding for flood protection from the city, which is expected to be the second-worst hit by floods in the country over the next three decades.
Following the bond commission’s vote on August 18, Landry took to Facebook to praise the decision, calling it a “step toward” ensuring all of Lousiana complies with the state’s abortion ban, which is among the strictest in the country. It outlaws all abortion procedures, including those for victims of rape and incest, unless the pregnant person’s life is in danger.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a Black woman, said in a statement that she is “disappointed, but not surprised, by the manufactured crisis of the attorney general, who has once again delayed critical infrastructure funding in the middle of hurricane season.”
Across the South and Midwest, conservative states have butted heads with liberal cities over enforcement of abortion bans. Prosecutors in cities, including Indianapolis and Atlanta, have committed to not chasing abortion providers.
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion this summer, New Orleans leaders pledged not to enforce the state’s ban. Tara Wicker, the state director of Louisiana Black Advocates For Life, said the city’s failure to impose the restrictions left state leaders little choice but to leverage their power to enforce the abortion restrictions.
“I’m hopeful that people wake up and respect and honor the voices of Louisiana citizens and do what’s right and let’s make sure that all the resources are there — the flood resources are there, the resources are there for moms to take care of their babies,” she said.
Wicker added: “It’s a matter of life; pro-life in its entirety.”
The inequities in access to health care and protections from environmental disaster — connected through a history of racist social, economic, and housing policies — give insight into how political leaders can wield power to disproportionately harm Black Americans.
Boyles pointed to the long legacy of medical racism in the United States, including the forced sterilization of Black women, as an example of the “catastrophic fallout of white men’s decisions” about Black Americans’ bodies. In the 1800s, Marion Sims — once known as the “father of modern gynecology” — conducted experiments on enslaved women without anesthesia.
“There’s a historic undertone, a very racist and classist undertone” to the commission’s decision to restrict flood funding, Boyles said. “It’s a vicious cycle. It’s become more brazen and more overt and apparent as time goes by.”
Louisiana’s state Senate is 76% white, compared to the total state population, which is 57% white. Less than 15% of the state’s senators are women, with only two of the state senators being Black women.
The commission, which is predominantly made up of state senators and representatives, will vote again next month. If approved in September, the funding will be made available to update power for pumps that ensure safe drinking water and sewer drainage in New Orleans. City officials hope that the project will be completed by 2024.
Last year, as Hurricane Ida wrecked poor Black and Native communities along the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans, more than 600,000 people in Louisiana lost access to clean water for more than a week. The biggest culprit behind the water woes was that water systems could not get the electricity needed to pump groundwater through treatment facilities. The city’s current Sewerage & Water Board facility is more than 100 years old. Only two of five turbines are in working order at the facility responsible for providing drinking water to thousands of homes and pumping out rain during storms.
The move by the state’s bond commission aligns with a history of neglect when New Orleans is in the face of imminent disaster, said Arthur Johnson, chief executive of Sustain the Nine, a nonprofit organization that supports the city’s predominately Black Lower 9th Ward.
“We’re already concerned. We’re still impacted by Hurricane Ida and the city always gets on edge around the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” said Johnson, whose nonprofit was formed after Hurricane Katrina to revitalize the badly damaged Lower 9th Ward. “When political issues are used in an objective to withhold funding that will be beneficial and necessary to protect communities, it should be a crime.”
It says a lot about race in Louisiana, said Johnson.
“This is a majority Black city, and we’ve historically seen how all the resources we need have been withheld from us.”
Following the local, state, and federal government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina, leaders were accused of “racial discrimination and ethnic cleansing” as an estimated 1,000 Black people lost their lives and 100,000 Black folks in Louisiana were displaced. Johnson co-founded Sustain the Nine with the late Pam Dashiell, a New Orleans native and activist on climate, health, and women rights who was one of the most notable voices in calling out government-caused engineering failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Beyond advocating to rebuild the physical infrastructure of the neighborhood, the group focuses on rebuilding community relationships. To Johnson, community — and teaching residents how to conserve the environment they occupy — is a climate solution.
The emphasis on rebuilding community connections has become hugely important as the region’s Black communities continue to reel from the especially traumatic 2020 and 2021 storm seasons. Discriminatory practices in disaster recovery programs have stifled recovery attempts in majority-Black areas.
The vote to delay critical funding “suggests that one way or the other, you’re going to be punished,” said Boyles, the Tulane professor.
“There seems to be no bottom or no low to how far people are willing to go in order to maintain absolute control,” she said. “We have a history that reflects that, and this is just another chapter that extends it.”