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Katrina Plus Ten: A View from the Other End of the River

October 16, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: A View from the Other End of the River

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

Up here in Minnesota, near the headwaters of the Mississippi River, Hurricane Katrina could have been nothing more than a TV vision. We gasp in horror, maybe write a check to help the people who are displaced, and go on about our business. After all, it wasn’t the river itself that flooded, right?

Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Via

Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Via

I have friends and colleagues in New Orleans, so the storm was much more personal to me. I remained convinced that Katrina was a river story, and that the various stories arising from the tenth anniversary had something deeply to do with what River Life is, or should be, doing. I think there are four lessons from the storm and the aftermath that inform River Life’s work in particular substantive ways.

First, Katrina was about a storm and water inundation, but the impact of the storm lay not just in the material nature of the flood but was a combination of the fact that this was New Orleans being affected, one of the country’s iconic cities, and also the particular populations in the city that were most at risk. Our lesson: The sciences of rivers are necessary, but not sufficient knowledge when examining urban rivers.

Second, the storm’s impact on specific populations was driven by their location in the city—poor people, often communities of color, live at lower elevations—which is a spatial factor that is historical and structurally associated with patterns of inequities locally and nationally.  Our lesson: A historical understanding both of the material and spatial form of urban rivers, and of the social, political, and economic contexts shaping populations in and near the river corridor is necessary to understanding urban rivers.

Third, history matters in terms of who was affected most by the storm, and how cities have grown up along rivers. But we can’t just be bound by historical patterns; we have to “think forward” as well. Our lesson: History is important, but we also need perspectives that shape a vision of the river and community going forward.

Fourth, the ways the story of Katrina and the aftermath was told were significant. The best work that we have linked to in this series conveys the immediacy of the personal, a depth of analytical understanding that allows readers to recognize contexts around personal stories, and innovative representation that create new forms of knowledge and insight. Our lesson: Innovations in the forms by which knowledge is developed, thought through, and conveyed are important; it’s not just the “what” of knowledge sharing, but the “how,” and the “why.”

For us, the stories of Katrina and its aftermath allow us to locate our study thus: River Life explores the processes by which riparian systems are converted to urban water systems, locating key intersections of water, community, identity, and sense of place. Our work helps our communities, both on campus and off, move toward a more sustainable, inclusive relationship between the Mississippi River and the people that depend on its long-term health.

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