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RIVER LIFE

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 http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans. Via http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

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.

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 http://www.wired.com/2015/08/no-one-ready-next-katrina/

Downtown New Orleans and the Mississippi River, June 2015. WILLIAM WIDMER via http://www.wired.com/2015/08/no-one-ready-next-katrina/

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.

Katrina Plus Ten: How Can We Understand the Storm’s Impact? Let Me Count The Ways

October 14, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River MeaningComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: How Can We Understand the Storm’s Impact? Let Me Count The Ways

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

The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina brought forth a large number of written responses.  Some of the most vivid and thought-provoking analysis made its appearance in the form of infographics, or as lists of numbers.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has made its collected issues covering the storm available through a single site.  This “first draft of history,” edited and printed at an off-site plant while the city was submerged, earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize. The Hurricane Katrina Archive is sorted by topic, by date, and features some of the most gripping articles highlighted.

FEMA’s performance during the storm came under intense criticism, for all kinds of reasons.  One of the important functions of government agencies, though, is to compile the official record of major events such as Katrina.  FEMA’s “by the numbers” look at the storm and its aftermath is informative, if not exactly exciting reading.

(de)Constructing New Orleans: Visualizing a Post-Katrina Recovery Metric via http://www.landscapemetrics.com/blog/post/deconstructing-new-orleans-visualizing-a-post-katrina-recovery-metric

(de)Constructing New Orleans: Visualizing a Post-Katrina Recovery Metric via http://www.landscapemetrics.com/blog/post/deconstructing-new-orleans-visualizing-a-post-katrina-recovery-metric

There are lots of ways to “crunch the numbers” of course, and a website called Landscape Metrics has devised a complex way to visualize recovery after Katrina.  The map takes some playing with to really tell a story, but users can manipulate indicators such as demolition permits and new construction permits to trace when, and where, the city rebuilt itself.

Finally, the site Restore the Mississippi Delta has developed a more conventional infographic in order to represent the complex realities of the storm’s impact on the broader Louisiana Gulf Coast region.

Katrina Plus Ten: Art and History

October 9, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Art and History

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

New Orleans may have the liveliest arts community, as a percentage of the city’s population, in the country. Few cities in America have as complex a history as New Orleans. So it should not be surprising that, ten years after the watershed event that was Hurricane Katrina, the storm has embedded itself into art forms new and old. Collecting and preserving historical materials associated with the storm has been the province of both traditional museums and collections of new digital forms.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band may be the most iconic arts group in the city, at least as far as the world’s public is concerned. Ben Jaffe’s account on the program’s web site placed the storm in a context encompassing seven generations of one family involved in New Orleans jazz, the Lower 9th Ward as a long time home for many jazz musicians, and the city’s priorities being expressed in the relative strength of its levees.

Preservation Hall Jazz band plays on sidewalk in front of the Hall via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PresHallBandJaquesA.jpg

Preservation Hall Jazz band plays on sidewalk in front of the Hall via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PresHallBandJaquesA.jpg

At first glance, Gallery of the Streets might seem to be the opposite of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The jazz band is a global icon; Gallery is not well known outside its close circle of makers. Gallery is new, subversive, breaking forms as varied as opera and visual representation, and recombining them to express the city and its sensibilities through some of the most easily-overlooked citizens. But on the other hand, isn’t that what was said about New Orleans jazz a century ago? Gallery of the Streets’ project “ECOHYBRIDITY: LOVE SONG FOR NOLA” is “a visual [black] opera in 5 movements. A touring exhibit and movement-building project, ECOHYBRIDITY fuses public art and direct action organizing to confront power. In addition to exhibiting the art, we are also collecting solidarity statements and other messages to share with New Orleanians in preparation for the upcoming anniversary.”

In the face of a historic disaster such as Katrina, what are the appropriate materials to preserve in order to memorialize the storm and what followed? This question, which is never easily answered, is complicated by the veritable explosion of digital media through which voices, images and other forms of expression can be created.

Of course if something is “historic,” that means the History Channel is on it. The “Topics” page on Katrina  features a number of short audio and video pieces, including a diverse array of perspectives. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History blog “Oh Say Can You See?” includes a feature on the challenges and heartbreak of collecting artifacts after the storm. In some instances people gave up prized possessions that, though “ruined” for normal use would stand as stark evidence of the flood’s damage.

Finally two newer collection programs have created extensive Katrina collections. A search of the Digital Public Library of America for “Hurricane Katrina” reveals over 4,000 entries. The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media collaborated with a number of regional and national organizations to create the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, a community- and crowd-sourced archive that allowed anyone to document their stories, images, and recollections of the storm.

Writing in Slate, Amanda Hess describes the book “Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina.” In 2005, the year of the storm, internet access was relatively widespread, but smartphones were not. This gap in technology left bloggers as the most immediate writers able to bear witness to the storm and its aftermath. By contrast, less than six years later, during the 2011 Mississippi River flood in Memphis, Twitter was a platform allowing real time, synchronous communication among besieged residents, emergency workers, and volunteers. It seems clear that artistic responses to Katrina will continue long after the tenth anniversary recognitions have faded. Indeed, as the 90th anniversary of the 1927 Mississippi Delta flood approaches in 2017, that earlier catastrophe, which coast far more lives and damaged a much wider area of the country, serves as a reminder that these powerful disasters become indelible parts of the multiple dimensions of human experience in place.

Katrina Plus Ten: Perspectives from Science Labs

October 7, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Perspectives from Science Labs

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

While the social and economic issues exposed by the hurricane were the primary subjects of the tenth anniversary coverage, popular scientific journalists on the internet made important contributions to the reflections as well. Significant explanations of the effects of soil subsidence, like this article from Climate Central, add a great deal to the more broad-based “wind and water” narrative of the storm’s damaging influences. This piece from Discovery.com also discusses the centrality of land subsidence in assessing the region’s vulnerability to future storms.

This map shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones in the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. The points show the location of each storm at 6-hour intervals.

This map shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones in the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. The points show the location of each storm at 6-hour intervals. via https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2005_Atlantic_hurricane_season_summary_map.png

If science, generally speaking, is a way of getting to fairly precise explanations of how the “natural” world works, then this piece from Buzzfeed certainly qualifies. In particular, I think the animation on the second visualization, showing storm tracks crossing the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico, conveys just how volatile the oceans were during the warm-water year of 2005.

Science is also, notoriously, regarded as a source of predictive power; just think of all the folks who say “wait for the science to come in” before taking a policy course of action. Science News has this front covered, and in a more or less hopeful vein, with its story  on how hurricane predictive models have improved in the ten years since Katrina struck. While the Gulf Coast remains vulnerable, and the climate is certainly volatile, better predictions offer hope that damage from “future Katrinas” might be morders of magnitude less than the 2005 storm.

The Huffington Post’s contribution to the discussion received a lot of attention, partly due to the reach of the platform. The subtitle, with its implicit “time to move on” message, is unfortunate, but the article itself is a reasonably straightforward effort to explain that officials in and around New Orleans have made substantial efforts to learn from Katrina and to build more resilient protections for the city and the coast. This article, if read carefully, illustrates how inseparable are the realms of scientific knowledge, cultural practice and belief, and engineering and policy governance.

Katrina Plus Ten: Connecting City and Coast

October 5, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Connecting City and Coast

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

In the fall of 2005, after Katrina struck Louisiana and Mississippi, most of the media attention was focused on New Orleans. Some coverage addresses Mississippi communities such as Biloxi, but there was little attention to the coast itself and virtually no connection in the media between the coast and the Mississippi River.

Conversely, the tenth anniversary analyses regularly connected the cities and the coast, with one (now not available) story speaking about climate change and rising seas as a “new normal” for the south Mississippi coastline. Another, from The Guardian, shows a series of sobering graphics about potential land loss in the next few decades.

Lower Mississippi River land loss over time. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lower_Mississippi_River_landloss_over_time.jpg

Lower Mississippi River land loss over time. via  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lower_Mississippi_River_landloss_over_time.jpg

 

In the context of coastal land loss, a process that is exacerbated by storms such as Katrina, The Guardian’s question is striking: Will New Orleans become a modern-day Atlantis?

With that question hovering, perhaps it is not surprising that there remains for some at least a belief that engineers can solve the physical problems besetting New Orleans and the coast. In one case, this article from Scientific American, the future of the Mississippi River is explicitly connected to the future of the coast. Another considers an array of proposals to simultaneously arrest land loss and “save” New Orleans.

Whether or not you think the problem can be solved through engineering, it would seem that after Katrina it is no longer possible to separate the fate of New Orleans from the fate of the lower Mississippi River and from the fate of the Gulf Coast.

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.

Katrina Plus Ten: September 12, Landfall + 14 : What Kind of City Will New Orleans Become?

September 12, 2015Patrick NunnallyFeatured, River Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: September 12, Landfall + 14 : What Kind of City Will New Orleans Become?

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

By this point, two weeks after Katrina made landfall in southern Louisiana, the immediate humanitarian emergency had largely receded from the headlines. The people sheltered in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center had been moved to other locations. Reports of shots being fired all over the city had dwindled, and people, from whatever vantage point their circumstances could allow, could ask themselves “Now what?”

050830-C-3721C-032 New Orleans (Aug. 30, 2005) Ð U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Beaty of Long Island, N.Y., looks for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as he flies in a HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter over New Orleans. Petty Officer Beaty is a member of an HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter rescue crew sent from Clearwater, Fla., to assist in search and rescue efforts. Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, came ashore at approximately 7:10 a.m. EST near the Louisiana bayou town of Buras. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi (RELEASED)

Looking for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class NyxoLyno Cangemi

An estimated 40% of the city remained underwater, a reminder to many that, whatever else happened, there needed to be some reckoning with the city’s location. The city was founded in 1718 along the lower Mississippi River, and for decades natural levees kept the water more or less at bay. Geographer Richard Campanella writes that city leaders and engineers consistently saw the city’s survival as a battle with water, both from the river and from Lake Pontchartrain to the north. Essentially, the city was treated as a giant bowl, higher ground closer to the water and reclaimed swamp land forming lower neighborhoods established more recently. The priority was to keep water out, necessitating a vast and complex system of levees, gates, and canals.

It was this system that broke during Katrina, leading to a reconsideration of how to rebuild to protect a city, much of which lay below sea level.

A number of articles associated with the storm’s tenth anniversary have pointed out the change in urban philosophy that is embodied in the city’s new water plan. Called “Living With Water,” and highlighting the changed relationship signified by the preposition “with,” the plan was developed in close consultation with Dutch engineers and urban planners and designers, many of whom have decades of experience at designing human landscapes that take the presence of water for granted. It’s still too early to tell exactly how the plan will shape the future footprint of the city, but its very existence points to one of the enduring “positive” legacies of Katrina: if New Orleans truly can come to terms with its proximity to water, those lessons may well be very important models for other coastal cities as a changing climate causes seas to rise.

Innovations in urban design are one thing; characterizing the rebuilding of a city and the systems that make up the structure of daily life as an “experiment” is quite another. There was a lot of talk after the storm about New Orleans becoming a “laboratory” for rebuilding school systems, transportation systems, political and community engagement systems, and on and on. The pushback was immediate from black and poor residents who pointed out the long sordid history of “experimentation” on the poor and people of color. A well-detailed story from CityLab, the Atlantic’s urban-oriented site details how the city was, and remains, an “experimental site” to many reformers, well-meaning and otherwise.

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.

Katrina Plus Ten: Ten Years Ago Disaster Brought World’s Attention to New Orleans

August 29, 2015Patrick NunnallyRiver Meaning, RiversComments Off on Katrina Plus Ten: Ten Years Ago Disaster Brought World’s Attention to New Orleans

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

Ten years ago, at about 9:45 am CDT on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana.  The state, the region, the Mississippi River, indeed the nation will never be the same.

Hundreds of articles, blog posts, newspaper and television stories are marking the 10 year anniversary of the storm.  For the next 2-4 weeks, this blog will make note of some of the key themes, arguments, perspectives and voices being heard.  What have we learned? What has changed? For whom?  The responses get at the heart of contemporary understandings of community, water, people, and the relations among those components of our world.

To begin, we link to an article by Richard Campanella, a geographer, author, and teacher whose work really should be the starting point for any exploration of New Orleans that encompasses needing to know the physical dimensions of the city. Campanella’s web page includes his Twitter name (follow him–he’s fantastically thoughtful and well informed) and generously includes downloadable copies of much of his writing.

Here is Campanella’s exploration of the “Katrina lexicon,” “how we talk about a disaster so monumental we can’t agree on what to call it.”  As usual, he gets to the heart of the matter–Katrina and its impact are so enormous that we can’t decide what it really is, was, or means.

In a series of posts over the next few weeks, though, we’ll share some of the stronger efforts to understand Katrina with you.  The storm and its aftermath are simply too important not to explore, however challenging and painful said exploration may be.

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