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Katrina Plus Ten: Lessons Learned?

October 15, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Lessons Learned?

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

Reading some of the tenth anniversary coverage of Hurricane Katrina, you can’t help the conclusion that, to a large degree, the interpretation of the storm’s meaning and what has happened since the fall of 2005 is a giant and ongoing Rorschach Test: what one sees and focuses on depends entirely on a host of conditions not directly attributable to the storm. Reading these materials, it may be that we learn more about the writers, and the platforms from which they write, than about the actual facts on the ground.

While this concept is hardly surprising, it does pose complications for the perhaps-inevitable question: After the storm and the aftermath, what has been learned? Here are three responses.

Downtown New Orleans and the Mississippi River, June 2015.  WILLIAM WIDMER via

Downtown New Orleans and the Mississippi River, June 2015. WILLIAM WIDMER via

Depressing as it may be, the title of Wired’s piece “No One Is Ready for the Next Katrina” may in fact be true. Yes, there is a multi- billion dollar new set of infrastructure around New Orleans, and yes, the city has largely repopulated pretty precisely on its old footprint, which is still largely below sea level. Yes the climate is still changing, and yes politicians still argue about this concept rather than take steps to alleviate its impact. No, it does not look as if we are ready for the next big storm that will hit New Orleans.

Writing in the journal Natural Hazard Science, Richard Campanella from Tulane suggests that vulnerability in New Orleans is as much about the future as the past.  This sketch, which is the abstract of a larger piece to come, suggests that lessons are still to be learned, and, once learned, still to be applied.

We began this series by referencing Campanella’s work exploring the “Katrina lexicon,” the terms we use to describe as colossal an event as the storm and aftermath. It seems appropriate that we should close with Campanella as well, this time from an article he wrote for Tulane Magazine. His piece “Once and Future Katrina’s”  looks to the city’s past as a settlement landscape designed and constructed for a wet environment. The city got away from some of the specific strategies formerly employed, and there is of course no way of knowing how much might have been saved by planning codes requiring houses in low lying areas to be built on elevated piers. Nevertheless, Campanella suggests that the city’s future should at least gesture to the past, as if people in this environment formerly knew how to live with water, and might learn again.

This completes the series of posts that report on the coverage of the storm’s tenth anniversary. The next, and final, post in the series will offer suggestions of what Katrina, its aftermath, and the coverage offer a program such as River Life.

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