New Orleans – The Crescent And The Shadow
As we approach the tenth anniversary of (take your pick of appellations) Hurricane Katrina/the federal flood, journalism rubs its hands together with anticipatory glee. No story is as easy to plan for, nor as likely to be filled with clichés, as the anniversary story. The saga of the New Orleans flood of 2005 is, unfortunately, filled way past the brim.
There's even a trickle of think pieces which attempt to examine, with a distant, ironic glint of amusement, the battle over the nomenclature of the event – as if the issue of whether the catastrophe was a natural disaster or a concatenation of frightful human errors is merely the stuff of idle wordsmithing.
So, an attempt at some factual clarity needs to come first. 'Katrina', as it happened on August 29, 2005, was two events: a powerful hurricane coming out of the superwarmed Gulf of Mexico and slamming into the Mississippi Gulf coast, and a flooding of 80 percent of New Orleans, caused by more than 50 levee breaches and failures, some of which occurred before the storm even made landfall.
The difference between the two events is visually obvious: on the coast, houses were flattened, literally horizontalized, by high winds; in the city, houses were smashed, moved blocks away from their foundations, and had cars impaled in their roofs, but still stood – wrecked, distorted, crazily vertical (you can see the result in Robert Polidori's beautiful but disturbing book of photographs, After the Flood).
The persistence of the 'natural disaster' explanation in the case of New Orleans has at least two causes. First, there's the nature of modern American journalism, in which news institutions have endured a progressive hollowing-out, leaving the front side – the well-paid anchor, the haughty front page – intact, supported by only a skeleton crew of reporters who parachute in and out of trouble spots, remaining only long enough to chat with cab drivers and stand in the wind/rain/gunfire for an institutional selfie. By the time separate forensic investigating teams at two universities had issued their detailed reports on the factors that caused the breaches and failures, the news caravan had long since packed up and moved on.
Second, the agency that built the protective system – ordered by Congress after Hurricane Betsy flooded 20 percent of New Orleans in 1965 – was busily retailing the "humungous hurricane, overwhelmed a system built to withstand the normally expected storm" story to the public and reporters alike. That agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers, exhibited a curious suite of behaviors for an organization whose handiwork had just succeeded in killing a couple of thousand Americans. It made early access to the breach sites difficult for the independent investigators, while it bankrolled its own investigation and even paid the American Society of Civil Engineers $2 million to lend its imprimatur to that study (a fact which led the ASCE in 2007 to change its rules for such participation); and the lead investigator for the Louisiana State University study was ultimately fired by his institution, on the grounds that his public criticism of the Corps was threatening the school's ability to get federal grants. And the Corps blamed local officials for stymieing its preferred design for a crucial part of the system, a claim that was authoritatively swatted away in a recent report by four of the academics involved in bird-dogging the agency's work.
Nonetheless, the two independent investigations – ILIT from UC Berkeley and Team Louisiana from LSU – stand unrebutted as the authoritative studies, as of 2006, of what went so horribly wrong. They're online.
When a major American city is almost totally inundated, everyone suffers – black, white, Latino, Asian, Other. Yet the public perception of the 2005 flood was dominated by the pictures – gut-wrenching, agonizing – of suffering black people, on the overpass, in the Dome, in the Convention Center. Not on television or on the front page were the thousands of working-class white people on their roofs in 100-degree-plus heat for days, no food, no water. They had the misfortune to be doing their suffering in St. Bernard Parish, the suburban county just east of New Orleans. Unlike the Dome and the Center, they were not conveniently located near an interstate off-ramp. The visiting journos probably didn't even know St. Bernard existed, let alone that it lost its entire housing stock in the flood. The event became racialized,.
Of course, it also became politicized. A Democratic Mayor (he had switched party affiliations just before running for the office in a heavily blue city) and a Democratic Governor trading potshots with a Republican President – why wouldn't the city become a political piñata?
The Mayor is now in prison, the Governor and President are retired. Yet the myths that battle generated persist: city below sea level (actually half the populated city is at or above sea level, and some of the most flooded areas were the highest), people waiting for the government to help (actually, most recovery was done house by house, business by business, by individuals and their support networks, with great help from volunteers). The week of the flood was a festival of lack of preparation: the city's buses, famously idled while people needed evacuation, less famously, the sandbags that weren't at the ready when breaches occurred. Even less famously, all of the finger-pointing levels of government had participated in Hurricane Pam, a tabletop exercise imagining the disaster that didn't happen, a direct hurricane hit on New Orleans, just a year before Katrina.
The city is back, welcoming conventioneers and tourists, and facing, not the problems of failure, but the problems of success – gentrification chief among them. A hundred thousand New Orleanians were evacuated by the government, and nobody bothered to keep track of how they're doing. But newcomers are attracted by the opportunities, by the relaxed way of life, by the sense of actual, not virtual, community, by the always amazing food, and the always evolving music.
Ten years ago, I never would have dreamed I'd be able to write those words.
Harry Shearer has recorded a special radio program, New Orleans – The Crescent and The Shadow, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of their Archive On Four strand on Saturday August 22, 2015, at 8pm.