The Tragedy of Hurricane Katrina Began More Than 100 Years Ago

·13 min read
Mark Wilson/Getty
Mark Wilson/Getty

Upon moving to New Orleans after a lifetime spent in the frigid Northeast, one of the first things I noticed, amid the warmth and color and music, is that New Orleanians are talkers. This can be a surprise for a newcomer: The first time a stranger started amiably chatting with me at a bar, I assumed they were trying to sell me something. Another thing I quickly found out is that every local has a Hurricane Katrina story and they aren’t shy about sharing them.

Now that the coronavirus has rudely silenced this deeply musical city—temporarily, we hope—at least there is plenty of time to read about “The City That Care Forgot.”

That somewhat whimsical phrase resonates a little differently after reading Tulane history professor Andy Horowitz’s Katrina: A History, 1915-2015, which investigates the different social, political, and economic forces at work long before the levees broke.

Horowitz defines history as “telling other people’s stories” and New Orleanians have plenty. The city’s been in the midst of controversies and contradictions pretty much from its start: bohemian and genteel, racially diverse but segregated, flush with resources but perpetually broke, politically egalitarian but deeply corrupt, nurturing all kinds of artistic talent that often ends up leaving town. Many of the issues that have distressed NOLA’s modern history are reflected back in the infrastructure of American life. As Horowitz argues, human agency is part of it, but “people do not tend to find themselves living in risky places because of cosmic bad luck. Structures of power push them there.”

It Was New Orleans’ Musicians—Not Its Politicians—Who Saved the City Post-Katrina

You can see it in the differences between Mardi Gras krewes. The krewe of Rex is composed largely of the city’s white elite. They ride high above the street in brightly lit and elaborately designed floats, masked and dressed to resemble royalty, tossing plastic trinkets down to throngs who pack the streets.

In contrast, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are neighborhood-based and composed primarily of Black people, who were able to provide different social services, such as street parades and funeral processions—the origin of the famous New Orleans jazz funerals, which are both street parades and funeral processions, complete with brass bands and a “second line” of neighborhood participants who, on the way back from the graveyard, make their own joyful noise.

Every club leads a second-line parade once a year—and there are enough to have a second line nearly every Sunday. The second lines pass through the neighborhoods where members actually live. SAPC members do get dressed up, but they don’t wear masks; their parades are meant to celebrate who they are, not the fantasy of being someone else. There are no trinkets hurled from above—second lines proceed on foot, and rather than being pushed to the curb, everyone joins in and follows the band through the neighborhood.

Katrina’s wreckage, contrary to what those in power claimed at the time, was not unprecedented or an unpredictable “act of god.” In September 1965 Hurricane Betsy hit “like a sledgehammer” and was considered to be the worst natural disaster the country had ever seen. Collapsing floodwalls along the city’s industrial canal flooded the largely African-American Lower Ninth Ward. The progress that had recently been made on civil rights in Washington also helped establish communities of color in that area that made people feel they had a partnership in the federal government, which sadly responded by offering rebuilding loans that were the equivalent of a second mortgage on now ruined houses.

This bureaucratic bungling, among plenty of other factors, made many locals feel like they were victims not only of a natural disaster but of official state policy, a complaint which loudly reverberated a few decades later with Katrina. To his credit, then-President Lyndon Johnson did grab a lantern and go sloshing through the wreckage to inform people that their president was indeed with them. In some ways, it’s an amusing image, but in retrospect it seems almost heroic given that it’s hard to imagine either George W. Bush or Donald Trump doing anything remotely like it. In the wake of Hurricane Betsy, one local congressman callously announced to the Black community that “this was not the time for charges of any kind” or a time “to lean on others,” others in this context meaning the largely white political power structure. As usual, whether in a crisis or not, the mantra for American elites is socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor.

One of the reasons why Bush botched Katrina so badly was because of the routine Washington pussyfooting around the exasperating question of whether a given disaster is ultimately a federal or state problem. This is a particularly timely issue, given how the Trump administration plays whack-a-mole with its pandemic response and its general callousness about Black suffering. This discriminatory opportunism also runs deep in NOLA history. Back in the 1920s, when oil was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico the sly, cynical, and overtly racist District Attorney Leander Perez maneuvered to privatize large amounts of public land, ruining the Louisiana wetlands that help offset hurricanes’ impacts and disenfranchising those who had lived and worked in the area for generations. Perez then used his massive profits to create a mini-fiefdom and support segregationists like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace in their presidential campaigns, which often used the rhetoric about state’s rights as cover for segregation.

Horowitz’s lucid, detailed, and balanced account of the long, crooked paths that led up to Katrina reinforces one of history’s most important lessons. Admirably, he also puts the post-Katrina conspiracy theory that the government intentionally blew up the levees in its proper context, as an expression of a wounded community’s undeniable pain. As he puts it, “for better or worse, things might have been different.” I emailed Horowitz about this very question and how New Orleans can rebuild once again.

Horowitz spoke to The Daily Beast in an email interview about Katrina: A History, 1915-2015.

What inspired you to write this book?

In 2005, I was a couple of years out of college and living in my hometown, New Haven, Connecticut. I remember watching the levee failures on television, seeing New Orleans fill with water. I went to bed that night comforting myself with the idea that, tomorrow I will get to see the most powerful country in the history of the world do something unambiguously right, and it will be amazing. The next day, things only got worse. In some ways, this book—and my career since then—has been focused on reckoning with the distance between the country I thought I lived in, and the one I really do.

What's the significance of treating Katrina's history as going back a whole century?

Most accounts of Katrina start with the arrival of the hurricane, or at the terrible moment when the levees broke. Doing so is consistent with how we imagine disasters in general: that they are catastrophes that come out of nowhere to upset the regular order of things. But I wanted to trace Katrina’s causes and consequences across time to pursue the idea that disasters are less discrete events than they are historical processes that unfold over time. I wanted to understand who built the levees, and why. I wanted to know who developed the neighborhoods that were most vulnerable, and why they were vulnerable, and who lived in those neighborhoods, and why. Answering these kinds of questions demanded looking further back in time.

Treating Katrina as history and placing it in the historical context of the development of metropolitan New Orleans unsettled many of my initial ideas about the disaster. For example, I was surprised to learn that neither the race nor the class of a building’s inhabitants was a particularly strong predictor of whether a home flooded in 2005; a building’s age, however, was a strong predictor. Most homes built in the 18th and 19th century did not flood, but most homes built in the 20th century did. As I write in the book, “it was not primarily poor New Orleans or rich New Orleans, nor was it white New Orleans or Black New Orleans that flooded during Katrina. It was 20th-century New Orleans.”

Disasters don’t come out of nowhere to upend history. Rather, they are products of the history they seem to upend.

One theme that comes up over and over again is the idea of corporations and politicians using rhetoric about "states’ rights" as a kind of an ideological fig leaf for pushing all kinds of very undemocratic stuff—oil domination, segregation, botching the federal response to Katrina.

People familiar with American history know that “states’ rights” is a frequent constitutional claim made by white racists seeking to protect slavery in the 19th century, or segregation in the 20th from federal oversight or intervention. I found that it was also used to defend against oversight of oil development, as you mention.

The centuries-long conservative effort to weaken the federal government under the banner of states’ rights has done unbelievable damage. A weaker state can offer fewer protections. I don’t want to be misunderstood here: White supremacy benefits white people and harms everyone else. But because states’ rights—which is to say, racism—undermines white people’s support for government to help any American, regardless of race, it can sometimes harm white people too.

The continuing U.S. failure to prevent mass death, suffering, and economic collapse during the pandemic offers a terrifying display of what I mean. This suffering disproportionately hurts non-white people, but white people are not immune from it. And stronger federal protections would have benefited everyone.

There are many examples of this process at work in the Katrina story. Here’s one: After Hurricane Katrina, nearly all New Orleanians wanted what was called a “Category 5 levee system”—a protection system that attempted to protect the region from very large hurricanes. But conservative resistance to federal spending in the public interest led Congress to approve only a comparatively modest hurricane protection system. I expect I will live to see it overwhelmed.

The national media outlets certainly hyped up the horror of Katrina. There were very hyperbolic references to atrocities in the Superdome that didn't actually take place. Why, do you think?

In a word? Racism. Evidently many white people were prepared to believe that in a matter of hours, African Americans would descend into an orgy of baby rape and cannibalism. These rumors did not emerge anew during Katrina, of course; they are among America’s oldest stereotypes, and they become activated during times of white anxiety.

If the federal government is no help, it doesn’t seem like the free market worked very well either. Privatization didn’t deliver. Lots of people got paid a lot of money, but most of the money didn’t trickle down to everyday people or build as much infrastructure as it was supposed to.

Perhaps the main reason we have a government is to regulate and mitigate the operation of the market. So I think it is fair to read the abuses of companies like ICF as government failures. ICF is the Virginia-based firm to which Louisiana contracted out the administration of its “Road Home” housing recovery program; it took ICF years to distribute most grants, leaving homeowners in purgatory, or maybe someplace worse. But the company’s primary purpose was not to aid anyone, it was to profit.

And profit they did, when the government neglected to create regulations that would have forced them to operate in the public interest. This failure was not inevitable—critics at the time warned what would happen and identified what was happening as it happened—which is what makes it shameful. The government was and remains capable of handling the problems Katrina posed. That it failed does not mean that it could not have succeeded.

You write that “advocating their commitment to home and to self-determination, an African-American and labor-led coalition of neighborhood-based groups forced City Hall to authorize and enable their vision of rebuilding the whole city. This was less disaster capitalism than democracy.” I’d love to hear more about this.

That passage refers specifically to what came to be called the “Green Dot Plan” for New Orleans: It was a plan to turn many of the city’s lowest lying areas into flood control infrastructure. Planners understood it as a humane, if technocratic, way to protect the city from future floods. But many residents of the neighborhoods that appeared to be under those green dots on the proposal—who were mostly African American—understood it as a gentrification scheme, an effort to dispossess them and prevent them from returning to New Orleans. So, they fought back, and were successful: The city abandoned the plan, and permitted rebuilding across the city. Many people have glossed the post-flood history of New Orleans as a process of disaster capitalism, but I don’t think that frame fits the picture I’ve just described very well.

Now to be sure, it may fit other policy changes that occurred after the flood, but nonetheless, I worry that while “disaster capitalism”—basically, the idea that profit-making firms seize on moments of upheaval to institute neoliberal or capitalist changes—has been used to great effect to call people’s attention to the imposition of sometimes dramatic policy changes, it can be misleading. As I sometimes see the term deployed, there is a whiff of inevitability about it. When in reality, there is no universal or inevitable response to disaster—floods don’t prompt people to enact a certain kind of politics. How people respond depends entirely on the political, cultural, and historical moment. I could cite examples of disaster socialism, disaster anarchism, and any other manner of political or ideological response to disaster.

A central argument of my book is that conceiving of certain times as “disasters” often does more to blind than to sharpen our vision. Rather than treating disasters as exceptional moments, events that happen outside the normal order of things, we should see disasters in history, and as history. They take place in time, and ultimately there is more to be gained by understanding them as part of our regular life than as deviations from it.

Certainly, I believe that has turned out to be the case with Katrina. Fifteen years ago, it was perhaps easy, or comforting, for Americans to look at New Orleans and see that kind of failure is an exception. But after Hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, and Maria, and in the midst of this pandemic, it no longer appears as an exception. Horrifying to realize, it seems that Katrina may have been heralding the shape of 21st-century America.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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