Horowitz, Andy. “Katrina: A History, 1915–2015”, Harvard University Press, 2020.
The Definitive History
One of the defining moments of my life was is having been in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and I found myself stranded on the roof of my seven story building with nowhere to go. Now fifteen years later, with the help of Andy Horowitz’s “Katrina”, I look back at that time (as I do every year). This time it is different because Horowitz gives us the definitive history of the storm.
While Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, the entire United Sates was affected and the repercussions were felt across the twentieth century. New Orleans had dealt with another major hurricane in 1915 and the city’s Sewerage and Water Board believed that developers could safely build housing away from the high ground near the Mississippi. New Orleans grew in lowlands as she depended on significant government subsidies to stay dry. However, during Katrina, the levee system surrounding the city and its suburbs failed and these were the neighborhoods were extensively flooded. The flood knew no race, no financial conditions of those who lived there and social class.
Horowitz investigates the response to the flood, when policymakers studied and then reapportioned the challenges the water posed. They made it easier for white New Orleanians to return home than it was for African Americans. Profits and liabilities created by Louisiana’s oil industry had been unevenly distributed among the Louisianans for a century, giving rise to both abundance as well as a land loss crisis that still exists today.
We clearly see the relationship between structural inequality and physical infrastructure and get a look at what can happen with future disasters. Here are the ‘causes and consequences’ of Hurricane Katrina. Horowitz maintains that the combination of environmental challenges, structural racism, and governmental misjudgment brought about loss of life. The
destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina was not just a “meteorological event”, it was the result of many years of terrible political, environmental, economic, and cultural decisions.
When Katrina came on land, it carried a hundred years of poor decisions that both preceded and followed the disaster.
In New Orleans, there is always another storm, and it is always only a matter of time until the “Big One” finishes what Katrina began. In New Orleans there is that threat every summer. Horowitz argues that we must look at the relevance of history since these storms are not just about being ready or the fear of catastrophe.
“What many Louisianans always understood: that New Orleans’s history is America’s history and that Katrina is America’s possible future.” The history of Katrina began in 1915 when the most intense hurricane on record made landfall 100 miles downriver from New Orleans and brought tremendous amounts of rain to New Orleans. It caused what today would be hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and totally destroyed neighboring towns. New Orleans survived and there were celebrations. The storm which was not named allowed New Orleans to grow and she did. New Orleans officials put down the groundwork for the transformation of the city and made it “a national symbol of catastrophe.”
Those decisions that were brought into being by Louisiana’s political and business elite systematically made the area vulnerable to disaster. In the early years of the 20th century, local political bosses who were eager to gain from the extraction of newfound oil reserves, used the mantra of “states’ rights” in order to achieve unprecedented powers and change the landscape. They permitted oil companies to work through Louisiana’s marshes and dredge miles of canals. This caused saltwater to come into the marsh with the result of erosion and subsidence. The area was newly vulnerable to flooding from the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy flooded the city. The very worst damage was in the Lower Ninth Ward, a 300-block area where 6,000 houses — most of them belonging to African Americans were flooded. The existence of the Lower Ninth was the result of municipal officials deciding that water and swamps would no longer constrain the size of the city and federal subsidies and local policies pushed the neighborhood’s growing black population to these areas. When Betsy made landfall at the end of the summer, it thus devastated these black residents. New Orleans constructed a massive “Industrial Canal” to “funneled tides sixteen feet above normal directly into New Orleans” and to be a shortcut for ships traveling from the Gulf.
With Betsy, government officials claimed that the hurricane was a natural disaster and an act of God. Yet, black residents of the Lower Ninth Ward saw it as a direct result of racist decision making. After the floodwalls broke, government engineers used a siphon running under the Industrial Canal to trap as much of the flood as possible in the Lower Ninth. The truth is that city officials sacrificed black residents in order to protect the rest of the city. Then came the National Guard who was told to shoot suspected looters “on sight.” Residents were forced to show a deed to reenter their homes, but that deed had probably been lost in the flood itself. Then Congress passed a sizable disaster relief bill, and the press presented a happy story of recovery. This was not true for blacks living in the Lower Ninth; most black homeowners made too little money to qualify for the federally subsidized loans, and there were no provisions at all for renters, even for those who had lost their possessions.
The city was encouraged to rebuild homes on flood-prone land. Shortly after Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in the 1960s, lawmakers loosened regulations, and the program ended up giving incentives for riskier construction and went as far as to subsidize this. The local elite worked for the construction of a massive channel to enable ships to enter New Orleans directly, without passing through the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain. This was approved in the 1940s, and began building in the 1950s. Despite vocal opposition from local residents, a massive piece of land was carved through the marshlands that had long shielded the city and neighboring St. Bernard Parish from flooding. This opened in 1968 and the Army Corps and other authorities used cost to argue against flood protection measures. As local residents had predicted, the channel came to serve as a “funnel for hurricane surges.” Other shipping channels and oil canals further compromised the city’s flood protection system. Yet the Army Corps made little progress with a giant concrete wall encircling the city. By the end of 2004, almost fifty years later, it was still incomplete.
Then August 2005, a hurricane that began somewhere off the coast of the Bahamas and headed toward Louisiana. On August 28, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin warning that Hurricane Katrina was likely to cause “human suffering incredible by modern standards.” An hour later, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued the first mandatory evacuation order in the city’s history. More than a million Louisianans fled, while about 10,000 remaining in the Superdome as a “refuge of last resort.”
When Katrina made landfall at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, August 29, federal emergency officials initially believed that New Orleans had “dodged the bullet” Katrina was weaker than predicted and it had turned east, missing New Orleans by about 20 miles. Then the levee system crumbled and the channel and other canals brought the storm surge to the eastern side of the city. Floodwalls failed and as many as 50 levees were breached. Seventy-seven percent of New Orleans and almost all of neighboring St. Bernard Parish were under water. Some 800,000 people were displaced yet the homes of New Orleans’s wealthiest residents (in the French Quarter and the Garden District) were dry. Very few others were spared, especially those in low-lying, developments. Twentieth-century New Orleans was devastated.
The media used stereotypes with deep cultural histories to imply that “while white people faced the emergency as self-reliant, rugged individualists, black people were devolving into criminal, savage freeloaders.” News sources claimed that black New Orleanians were raping infants and eating corpses. These claims were false yet Louisiana’s governor, Katherine Blanco ordered the National Guard to “suspend their search and rescue mission and instead focus on restoring order in the city.” The police and National Guardsmen came into the city with the determination of protecting property but not people, and in the week after the storm they shot at least nine people, most of them apparently unarmed.
According to polls taken after the storm, most white people saw Katrina as a natural disaster while most black people saw racism that put people in danger and help was refused. They were also criminalized in their efforts to help themselves.” Black Louisianans saw Katrina as a disaster with deep historical roots and with a response that saw them as expendable.
The process of rebuilding the city further sunk into inequality along race and class lines. Some felt that abandoning New Orleans outright; others felt that New Orleanians should have a right of return and some wanted the status quo to be restored as others wanted the construction of a more equal city. In the end, Mayor Nagin appointed a “Bring New Orleans Back” Commission to decide about recovery composed of seventeen members included seven CEOs and three bank presidents. They adopted a plan to shrink the city prioritizing saving predominantly white neighborhoods. Soon afterwards there was a rise of black activism that convinced Nagin to abandon that plan and commit to rebuild the whole city. Municipal officials wagered that a stronger levee system could protect them in the future and so they began encouraging displaced New Orleanians to return and rebuild in flood-prone areas.
At the same time, some members of Congress called for hundreds of billions of dollars to launch a New Deal–scale transformation program and proposed the beginning of a sustained effort to erase poverty nationwide. This never came up for a vote and instead Congress allotted just a fraction of the money to rebuild the affected areas. Once again, in order to qualify for federal money, homeowners had to show clear title to their properties and here impacted black and poor homeowners most likely lost these documents in the flood. Renters suffered. Today, New Orleans’s white population is essentially back to where it was before Katrina, but there are 100,000 fewer black people living in the city.
A lot of the city’s public housing survived the flood but not the recovery. Officials demolished much of the city’s public housing. After the demolition, New Orleans had what “was probably the highest homelessness rate recorded in modern American history. The city’s primary hospital, Charity Hospital, likewise survived the flood but not the recovery. After Louisiana State University refused to reopen the hospital and furloughed most of its staff, there was less health care in the city, even as the rate of serious mental illness doubled and the rate of suicide tripled. Local and state officials used Katrina as an excuse to destroy the city’s public schools, transforming it into an almost entirely charter system. The new school regime fired thousands of teachers and staff and this was a system that had previously been one of the city’s largest employers of black professionals. The percentage of black teachers in the city dropped from 71 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in 2013 and has kept falling. This also destroyed the teachers’ union.
“Horowitz uses evidence to argue that the “pain” that came from Katrina was not “fair, or natural, or inevitable,” or the “consequence of some external disaster. It is the disaster itself.”” The storm did not make New Orleans police officers shoot citizens. The flood did not force officials to demolish the city’s public housing or destroy its public hospital, and turn its public school system into what it is. These were decisions made by individuals and not by nature.
The region is vulnerable to another Katrina. The city swapped the idea of stronger levees for the promise of more flood insurance and this puts more people at risk. The Bush administration opted to fund deeply inadequate barriers while fossil fuel extraction continues. Katrina was “neither a natural nor inevitable catastrophe. It was the result of “deliberate choices made by greedy people.”