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Katrina Plus Ten: September 5, Landfall + 7 : Was the storm a “natural” disaster?

September 5, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: September 5, Landfall + 7 : Was the storm a “natural” disaster?

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 second of ten blog posts examining crucial facets of the online coverage a decade after the storm.

For a period of time after the full extent of the damage from Hurricane Katrina became evident, the question was hotly debated whether this was a “natural” disaster or not.

New Orleans, LA--Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005. This is one of the levee's that has been damaged by the hurricane. Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

New Orleans, LA–Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005. This is one of the levee’s that has been damaged by the hurricane.
Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA

Much was at stake in the controversy:  a “natural” disaster would seem to absolve individuals or organizations from certain kinds of blame, or responsibility.  The nation’s disaster-relief processes and policies are pretty well predicated on the concept of providing assistance in the face of “natural” disasters, as opposed, say, to a disaster caused through negligence or intention.

Despite protestations to the contrary–President Bush was widely quoted as saying “No one could have predicted that the levees would be overtopped.”–investigations quickly showed that levees had suffered catastrophic failure at multiple points around the city.  Ivor van Heerden, co-director of the Hurrican Research Center at Louisiana State University, was among the first to develop conclusive evidence that faulty engineering rather than “natural forces” had created levee failure.

Recognition that the flooding of New Orleans was substantially, if not completely, a failure of human engineering and institutions had many consequences, some of which will be explored in subsequent posts in this series.  Furthermore, the question as to whether disasters can properly be referred to as “natural” or otherwise hovers around discussions on the long term consequences of a changing climate as well as more immediate investigations into causes and remedies of Mississippi River floods.  For a brief exploration of the latter, take a look at this blog post, published here last October.

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