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Katrina Plus Ten: Race, the City and the Storm

September 21, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Race, the City and the Storm

Ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana Gulf Coast.  What followed was a disaster of unparalleled magnitude in recent United States history, an event and its aftermath that forever changed ideas about urban resilience, the relationships between cities and the water bodies on which they are located, the roles of race and class in disaster response, even whether some cities in vulnerable locations should even be restored after disaster struck.  The Mississippi River was almost an afterthought during and immediately after the storm; the river itself did not flood the city and the most damaging levee breaches occurred in other locations.  Nevertheless, we feel that serious, sustained examination of the relationships between communities, water systems, urban space, and lived experience in the 21st century should start with at least a rudimentary examination of Katrina and its aftermath.

This is the fourth of ten blog posts examining crucial facets of the online coverage a decade after the storm.

Images of people struggling to survive in the immediate aftermath of the storm, people who were overwhelmingly poor and almost all people of color, elicited a collective gasp from viewers across the country and around the world: “Surely these pictures couldn’t be from the United States?” people seemed to say. But they were, indeed, from the United States, and from one of the best-known, if most poorly-understood cities in the country: New Orleans. In many respects the hurricane forced Americans to get past the images of New Orleans as a party and convention center, known for the blowout called Mardis Gras, and confront stark questions of who lived in the city, how did they fashion lives there, and what was to become of them after the storm.

Photo from the lower ninth ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. Represents FEMA's search marking system.

Photo from the lower ninth ward in New Orleans, Louisiana. Represents FEMA’s search marking system.

By far the greatest amount of “Katrina Plus Ten” online coverage in fall 2015 took up issues of race and class in the aftermath of the storm. This post links to some of the most powerful, thoughtful, and perhaps durable coverage. It is by no means a complete assessment; that task awaits future scholars who work at the intersections of issues of race, identity, place, class, and urban futures.

Two stories (among several) highlight racial disparities in how New Orleans residents feel the city has recovered from the storm. Surveys described in both the Washington Post and New York Times found that, while white residents thought the city had been strengthened by recovery efforts, black residents by a substantial margin did not share this view. Furthermore, it is very likely a significant factor that blacks were disproportionally affected by the flooding in the first place, living in lower-lying areas of the city that saw deeper floods that lasted for longer periods of time. As a headline pointed out, “It’s not mother nature that’s racist”; the storm and its aftermath highlighted inequities that were well known patterns to those who lived with them.

The hurricane and its aftermath were political events, of course, in addition to being environmental, urban, and humanitarian disasters. The awkward reaction of the federal government, and unseemly bouts of finger-pointing between the federal and state agencies, along with almost universal scorn for the city’s response, kept political commenters busy for months. It is perhaps no surprise that similar patterns emerged during the anniversary coverage. Slate magazine took pains to debunk some of the most egregiously racist myths that emerged from Katrina  and made a direct connection between what the public saw in fall of 2005 and scenes that have become all too common in 2015, namely black suffering.  Bill Moyers traced a different thread from Katrina to current politics,  landing at the Bernie Sanders-led calls for “political revolution.”

If you have time to read only one piece on this subject, though, perhaps that one should be Jelani Cobb’s “Race and the Storm”  in the August 24 issue of The New Yorker. Most of the issue is devoted to Katrina-related coverage, and Cobb’s piece starts by setting a historical context for discussion of race, the Mississippi Delta, and expressions such as blue music. His conclusion? “Katrina didn’t usher in a new narrative about race in America as much as it confirmed an old one.”

Whether these analyses are satisfactory to individual readers or not, they point to important ways the storm and its aftermath revealed deep fissures in American society. As the headline of another Washington Post article put it “Katrina may be a metaphor to some, but it’s still reality” to people living in New Orleans, literally “ground zero” in a storm that killed nearly 2,000 people.

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