Hurricane Katrina Why Was Not a Natural Disaster
When we came home to New Orleans for the primary time after Hurricane Katrina, over Thanksgiving weekend of 2005, my then three-year-old son, searching the window on the drive in From the airport, he said, “You told me we were going to New Orleans, but now we are in Iraq.”
This was three months after the storm hit. The floodwaters had receded, the Superdome had emptied, the national press had left, and that we weren’t anywhere near the city’s most famous devastated neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward—but still what you saw was a landscape of abandoned buildings, moldy refrigerators began on sidewalks, downed trees and electrical wires, and a thick impasto of mud covering everything. Even now, fifteen years after hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has not fully recovered, in population and otherwise.
By the standards of one’s middle-school geography class, New Orleans need to be one among America’s most prosperous cities, rather than one among its poorest. it’s the natural port for the vast interior of the country, from the Rockies to the Appalachians. In the immediate vicinity there are many natural resources: rich soil for growing rice and sugarcane, many cotton, sulfur and seafood, and starting in the early twentieth century, oil.
Then there are the city’s celebrated charms—the food, the music, the widely soft, seductive atmosphere. But New Orleans, compared to other American cities, peaked in 1840, and it has lost ground since then. it’s today like an especially severe example of the resource curse, because its economy of extraction was based originally on slavery—antebellum New Orleans was the country’s leading marketplace for the buying and selling of humans—and then on Jim Crow, which generated a system of exploitation that pervades every local institution, also as a deep, evidently permanent mistrust between the races.
And then there’s New Orleans’s relationship to nature. half the town is below sea level; only a comparatively small portion, the section that was originally settled, is habitable by traditional definitions. the town is surrounded by an endless borderland that shifts between river, marsh, swamp, and ocean.Hurricane Katrina was just one of an extended series of hurricanes that have struck near the mouth of the Mississippi. In New Orleans, urbanism has always been linked to ethnicity – consider the Confederate statues the city built in the early 1900s, and only recently removed—but not every expression of it had been explicitly racial.
Another important project, from an equivalent period, was the creation of an elaborate system of drains and pumps, supervised by an engineer named A. Baldwin Wood, which was alleged to make the whole area within the good crescent bend of the river, all the thanks to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, permanently flood-proof. As Andy Horowitz, a young historian at Tulane University, writes in “hurricane Katrina,” his new history of the event, it had been twentieth-century New Orleans—the part built after the system was constructed—that flooded within the late summer of 2005.
If there’s a typical hurricane Katrina narrative among non-New Orleanians, it runs something like this: the storm was as devastating because it was due to real-time official incompetence, especially by the George W. Bush administration . Its main victims were poor African-Americans, particularly within the Lower Ninth Ward, and today, because of the indomitable spirit of the community, the town has vibrantly come to life.
By stretching the frame backward by 100 years, and forward by ten, Horowitz presents a strikingly different story, and a more depressing one. the most thrust of Horowitz’s account is to form us understand hurricane Katrina—the civic calamity, not the storm itself—as a consequence of decades of bad decisions by humans, not an unanticipated caprice of nature.
“Usually, we imagine disasters as exceptions,” he writes. “We describe them as external attacks, historical actions from God, and strikes from outside. that’s why most accounts of hurricane Katrina begin when the levees broke and conclude shortly after.
But these stories have a denuded sense of what happened, why, or what may need prevented the catastrophe. Somebody had to create the levees before they might break.” He leaves readers with a robust sense that it’s only a matter of your time before there’s an identical disaster in New Orleans , and that, in whatever lull there’s between now then , things aren’t great.
Horowitz’s story begins with oil, which appeared like a bonanza when it had been discovered in Louisiana, in 1901, but which set in motion two long-running problems. soon , the government realized it could finance itself by taxing the oil companies.
(As Horowitz points out, in those days, “states’ rights” may are primarily code for preserving segregation , but it also meant considering distant offshore rigs to get on Louisiana property.) it had been during the age when oil revenues were flowing freely that the state’s grandest public buildings—the vast Charity Hospital, in New Orleans , and therefore the refore the state Capitol and the campus of Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge—were built. In 1950, a landmark Supreme Court decision, which severely restricted the zone during which the state could tax offshore oil rigs, ended that party.
The state has never successfully developed differently of paying for a competent government. Oil companies have also destroyed the untraced freshwater swamps in southern Louisiana, by drilling and building access canals that allowed salt water from the Gulf of Mexico to flow into. The result was a relentless, yearly loss of land—or, to represent more accurately what it’s like, “land”—and greater vulnerability to hurricanes.
A combination of civic boosterism and excessive faith in engineered water-control systems led New Orleans to stay reclaiming swampland for housing, building canal systems for commercial ship traffic, and dredging spillways that were alleged to draw floodwater faraway from the town when the necessity arose. These systems all failed during hurricane Katrina. A severe hurricane in 1915, Horowitz reminds us, caused relatively little damage then enhanced New Orleans’s hubris. But in 1965 Hurricane Betsy—which I lived through as a boy, huddled next to my parents, as far as we could get from any windows which may blow in—was an indication of the folly of a half century’s worth of misguided building.
The storm caused massive, sustained flooding. 2 hundred and sixty thousand people had to go away their homes. Betsy coincided with the water line of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society; Johnson immediately came to New Orleans to point out his concern, and Louisiana’s leading politicians, then all still Democrats demanded, and often received, generous federal emergency aid. But it’s always easier to deal with a pressing crisis than to stop subsequent one, therefore the pattern of continued development without adequate flood protection continued.
An ambitious long-term hurricane-protection plan gone by Congress and signed into law by Johnson was never completed.
hurricane Katrina flooded out many White race also as Black people, and, within Black New Orleans , many working-class and middle-class people also as poor people. That was because the most important wiped-out neighborhoods—Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East—were places where New Orleanians of both races had moved to ascend the ladder by a step or two, often enabled by government-backed lending programs that didn’t sufficiently appreciate the danger of flooding. New Orleans’s extensive public-housing projects, all Black and every one poor, were in older parts of the town , and mostly didn’t flood.
But the dynamics of the recovery revolved around race. New Orleans may be a Black-majority city. Mayor Ray Nagin, a black businessman elected by more white than black votes in 2002, appointed an urban planning committee, chaired by a white property developer, to guide the city’s recovery. (Nagin was later convicted of taking bribes from city contractors.) The committee soon unveiled an idea that entailed not rebuilding a number of the Black neighborhoods that had flooded. Many residents were angry. On Luther King Jr.’s vacation in 2006, Nagen gives a speech disavowing the plan and committing himself to rebuilding “New Orleans chocolates”.
He was reëlected a couple of months later, this point with more Black than white votes, and therefore the idea of shrinking the residential footprint of latest Orleans to something It got closer to what it was in the last century Disreputable. Instead, the thought was that each homeowner should get prompt and generous help so as to return and rebuild.
But that didn’t happen, either. A series of measures that might have provided enough relief to rebuild New Orleans completely either wasn’t enacted or proceeded at the leisurely pace that’s customary in Louisiana. New Orleans has a large racial gap in resources – the poverty rate of blacks is three times that of whites – so whites were ready to withdraw more quickly and with less suffering. For a decade after hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a whiter city than it had been before.
That fed into a venerable tradition, in Black New Orleans , of suspicion of what white New Orleans could be up to. Back in 1927, when the Mississippi flooded disastrously (because of heavy spring rains, not a hurricane), New Orleans’s white city fathers ordered the dynamiting of the levee below the town , within the hope of preventing flooding. Since then, the belief that breaches within flood walls were not accidental was a common occurrence in Black New Orleans – in fact, Horowitz revealed some evidence that official decisions had been made. have contributed to at least one of the main breaches, within the Lower Ninth Ward, during Hurricane Betsy.
After Hurricane Katrina, the scene of black refugees inside the Superdome, combined with the short-term plan from Mayor’s Nagin Commission to eliminate some black neighborhoods, has revived these sentiments.
On the white side of town, horrific stories of black criminality, the age-old fear of white southerners, were widespread widely. So did wishful conversations about the likelihood of latest Orleans becoming a white-majority city again, because it hadn’t been since the nineteen-seventies.
Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans during what was, it’s now clear, the ultimate period of the New Deal political order. within the South, people still looked to government to unravel big problems, as long as racism wasn’t included on the list of massive problems, and therefore the Democrats, the party of state , still held power. By the time hurricane Katrina hit, the Democrats had moved left on race and right economics , and therefore the Republicans were in power nationally.
Three major public institutions, all serving mainly Black clienteles, withstood the storm physically but not politically: Charity Hospital, the large-scale housing projects, and therefore the unionized, government-managed public-school system. They have all been replaced by smaller, more privatized, and more advanced alternatives. rather than Charity, New Orleans has the new, lower-capacity University Medical Center; rather than the projects, lower-density, more middle-class housing developments; rather than the old public schools, the country’s The most comprehensive independent school system, with mainly black students and mainly white teachers.
One could see these changes as evidence of civic rebirth, but it might be fairer to mention that they represent a reordering of priorities, an embrace of a special political vision, and a racial recalibration. As Horowitz says scathingly, “has been referred to as the ‘recovery’ of New Orleans . . . a choice to evict people from their homes within the face of a homelessness crisis, a choice to shut the hospital within the midst of a plague of suicide, and a choice to assist children by firing their parents.”
New Orleans may be a little corner of another culture grafted onto the periphery of the us . Horowitz points out that the state of Louisiana, within the last census before hurricane Katrina, had rock bottom level of population mobility within the us . There are nearly ninety percent of blacks born in New Orleans, compared to sixty percent of black New Orleans. the quality American idea of leaving an impoverished, provincial place to seek out opportunity elsewhere just doesn’t play in New Orleans: people that prefer to make their lives elsewhere are the topic of hushed, sorrowful conversations, as if that they had been banished due to some quite disgrace.
almost everybody had to go away New Orleans for a minimum of a couple of weeks after hurricane Katrina. If New Orleanians had been cost-benefit-calculating androids, an excellent many of them would have realized that it made sense to create a replacement life elsewhere. But the preference to return was strong, for both whites and Blacks and altogether income categories. Did people imagine that they were returning to a special New Orleans , or did they understand the essential bargain? Dense family and neighborhood ties, and an upscale local culture unattainable elsewhere within the us , in exchange for a society that’s essentially premodern in what it offers many of its citizens?
It is impossible to form New Orleans completely hurricane- and flood-proof, but if one wanted to undertake there would be two over-all approaches. One would be to depopulate the town and deindustrialize southern Louisiana, creating a small-footprint eco-paradise—the New Orleans that nature seems to require .
This violates the strong preferences of residents and poor, money-hungry regions. the opposite option would be to take a position during a protective infrastructure so mighty that, a minimum of plausibly, New Orleans could survive anything.
After hurricane Katrina, as after Betsy, such plans were involved , but nobody wanted to buy them. New Orleans had to accept levee enhancements that fell far in need of providing invulnerability to a Category 5 hurricane, and aroused returning to something not too different from its pre-hurricane Katrina state. the town is an irresistibly alluring place that does much better by its white citizens than its Black ones. Life is nice when it isn’t tragic. Lodged somewhere in everyone’s consciousness is that the knowledge that what happened in 2005 goes to happen again.