Why Hurricane Katrina Was Not a Natural Disaster

Historians in the News
tags: climate change, environmental history, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina

When we came home to New Orleans for the first time after Hurricane Katrina, over Thanksgiving weekend of 2005, my then three-year-old son, looking out the window on the drive in from the airport, said, “You told me we were going to New Orleans, but now we’re in Iraq.” This was three months after the storm hit. The floodwaters had receded, the Superdome had emptied, the national press had left, and we weren’t anywhere near the city’s most famous devastated neighborhood, the Lower Ninth Ward—but still what you saw was a landscape of abandoned buildings, moldy refrigerators set out on sidewalks, downed trees and electrical wires, and a thick impasto of mud covering everything. Even now, fifteen years after Katrina, New Orleans has not fully recovered, in population and otherwise.

By the standards of one’s middle-school geography class, New Orleans ought to be one of America’s most prosperous cities, instead of one of its poorest. It is the natural port for the vast interior of the country, from the Rockies to the Appalachians. In its immediate vicinity are many natural resources: rich soil for growing rice and sugarcane, and plenty of cotton, sulfur, seafood, and, beginning in the early twentieth century, oil. Then there are the city’s celebrated charms—the food, the music, the generally soft, seductive atmosphere. But New Orleans peaked, relative to other American cities, back in 1840, and has been losing ground ever since. It looks today like an especially severe example of the resource curse, because its economy of extraction was based originally on slavery—antebellum New Orleans was the country’s leading marketplace for the buying and selling of humans—and then on Jim Crow, which generated a system of exploitation that pervades every local institution, as well as a deep, evidently permanent mistrust between the races.

And then there is New Orleans’s relationship to nature. Half of the city is below sea level; only a relatively small portion, the section that was originally settled, is habitable by traditional definitions. The city is surrounded by an endless borderland that shifts between river, marsh, swamp, and ocean. Katrina was only one of a long series of hurricanes that have struck near the mouth of the Mississippi. In New Orleans, civic monumentalism was always bound up in the racial order—consider the Confederate statues that the city built, in the early twentieth century, and only recently removed—but not every expression of it was explicitly racial. Another important project, from the same period, was the creation of an elaborate system of drains and pumps, supervised by an engineer named A. Baldwin Wood, which was supposed to make the entire area within the great crescent bend of the river, all the way to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, permanently flood-proof. As Andy Horowitz, a young historian at Tulane University, writes in “Katrina,” his new history of the event, it was twentieth-century New Orleans—the part built after the drainage system was constructed—that flooded in the late summer of 2005.

If there’s a standard Katrina narrative among non-New Orleanians, it runs something like this: the storm was as devastating as it was because of real-time official incompetence, especially by the George W. Bush Administration. Its main victims were poor African-Americans, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, and today, thanks to the indomitable spirit of the community, the city has vibrantly come back to life. By stretching the frame backward by a hundred years, and forward by ten, Horowitz presents a strikingly different story, and a more depressing one. The main thrust of Horowitz’s account is to make us understand Katrina—the civic calamity, not the storm itself—as a consequence of decades of bad decisions by humans, not an unanticipated caprice of nature. “Usually, we imagine disasters as exceptions,” he writes. “We describe them as external attacks, ahistorical acts of God, blows from without. That is why most accounts of Katrina begin when the levees broke and conclude not long after. But these stories have a denuded sense of what happened, why, or what might have prevented the catastrophe. Somebody had to build the levees before they could break.” He leaves readers with a strong sense that it’s only a matter of time before there is a similar disaster in New Orleans, and that, in whatever lull there is between now and then, things aren’t great.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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