New Directions: Catastrophe and the Katrina Effect

This year, in response to the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2015, a multitude of reissues and new works have appeared on the social, political, and economic effects of the disaster. Among these works is The Katrina Effect: On the Nature of Catastrophe (Bloomsbury, 2015), a volume of essays contemplating what the editors call the “Katrina effect” on the world’s thinking about disaster, public accountability, and the built environment. We invited two of the volume’s editors, William M. Taylor and Michael P. Levine, to adapt their introductory essay to highlight the Katrina effect on media representations and scholarship in disaster studies, sociology, and urban planning. We thank them for agreeing to adapt their essay for the Book Channel. --Caleb Owen, Editor, The H-Net Book Channel

Hurricane Katrina occurred just over ten years ago; however it is a disaster whose origins can and should be traced much earlier, and to a variety of sources. As an accumulating public record indicates, facts about Katrina do not speak for themselves. Central to their interpretation are details regarding circumstances before, during, and after the city’s storm defenses were breeched—circumstances that broaden awareness that the physical and social integrity of the city was threatened for years. Katrina’s landfall was not the first time New Orleans was so seriously threatened. Previous storms and historic river inundations, the corrupting influence of slavery and persistent racial tensions, civil war, and the slow decay of economic decline that began in the 1950s—each a “disaster” of a kind—made New Orleans into a city waiting for such an “accident” to happen. Nevertheless, Katrina was distinctive—perhaps the twenty-first century’s default setting and metaphor for “worst case” disastrous scenarios.

Beyond the particular details and forms of New Orleans’ vulnerability before Katrina—or those of any other twenty-first century city exposed to disaster—scholarship in the growing field of disaster studies provides conceptual frameworks for understanding catastrophe. Informing the subjects of a range of studies, including specialist disciplines like emergency management and more broadly-based fields in the humanities, scholarship is increasingly directed towards issues of ethics, social-inequality, and justice. The essays we collected in The "Katrina Effect" come from various fields. The contributors were asked to interpret the Katrina Effect from the perspectives of their own disciplines and to speculate on what Katrina holds for the future. Some essayists chose to focus on the details of Katrina and its impact on New Orleans. Others chose Katrina as a springboard to discuss what has happened more generally with regard to catastrophe, and some chose to discuss what could or should have been learned. Together, these essays raise important ethical issues about the failure to protect a great American city against catastrophe and the compounding failure to realize rebuilding plans for the public good in an equitable manner. This double failure, as articulated in the work of numerous scholars in the wake of Katrina, provides us with reasons to concern ourselves with the future of our societies and democracies, and that of our cities and ourselves in the face of catastrophes yet to come.

Inviting comparison to events like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 Haiti and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, or the infamous Mississippi River flood of 1927, the citizens of New Orleans were not subjected to a largely unforeseen and spontaneous natural disaster in August 2005. The record shows how their representatives in city, state, and national governments were informed of, but not sufficiently responsive to, the probability that a storm like Katrina would overwhelm the city’s defenses. Carefully contrived technological fixes were proposed but not implemented over the years. Officials anticipated but failed to act on the plight of residents following a catastrophic inundation. Given these circumstances before and after the fact, the city’s destruction acquires a complex character and prolonged duration, incorporating periods of growing risk, miscalculation, and ill preparedness.

The destruction and response affected the reputation and many of the self-conceptions of the United States, a nation long believed to be wealthy enough, capable enough, and willing to meet any such challenge. By some accounts Katrina submerged George W. Bush’s presidential legacy. Others, like sociologists Ruth Gordon and William Waugh, wondered if the United States was any longer able to call or conceive of itself as a “can-do” nation.

The hurricane’s immediate and longer-term consequences coalesced into a discourse, a problematic, and a lightning rod for social and political analyses and introspection not only within the United States, but also internationally. This became known as “the Katrina Effect.” As journalist Geoff Elliot wrote in The Australian in 2005, Katrina spun a “political storm,” and its impact on the social imaginary extended far beyond US shores. An editorial in the Melbourne Age argued that Katrina exposed the “catastrophic failure” and possibly “the end of the privatization experiment” following decades of neoliberal or “free-market” policies resulting in the neglect of public investment in infrastructure and privatization of the public sphere. An equally broad issue, global warming, which may have spawned so large a storm in the first place, furthered a sense of uncertainty and portent.

International reaction to the plight of New Orleans highlighted the political significance of this event. Gerhard Schröder campaigned for reelection in Germany on a platform against further “American” economic reforms—a campaign that coincided with the cataclysm. Pictures of the flooded city, its failed infrastructure and burning buildings, its “floating bodies and gun-toting shopkeepers” were credited with his gaining a further 10% in the polls. Others sought their own political advantage. The storm coincided with US saber rattling over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It was not the time for America to display its vulnerabilities. An official of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards warned that “the mismanagement and the mishandling of the acute psychological problems brought about by Hurricane Katrina clearly showed that others can, at any given time, create a devastated war-zone in any part of the U.S.”

New Orleans residents lining up at the Superdome. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Media images of survivors scrambling for help on rooftops and of “refugees” in the Superdome—a building now as synonymous with America’s failings as the ruins of Detroit or Baghdad during the Iraq War—drew comment on the precarious state of racial and economic inequality in the country and the incompetence of its leaders. Gerard Wright of The Age wrote that: “Beyond the destruction of houses, lives and infrastructure, something disturbing has been revealed about the United States and its various levels of government. . .” He found them “disorganised and distracted, over budget and underfunded; unable to take care of their own, unwilling to make the most elementary preparations to protect a historic and beloved city.” Journalist Polly Toynbee of The Guardian voiced similar concerns, but warned her British readers and compatriots about their own nation’s lack of preparedness and economic stratification that would mean London’s poor would be hit hardest. A September 16, 2005 editorial in The Australian headlined “Disastrous Planning” observed how “for days governments in the richest, most powerful nation in the world left people in New Orleans in a Hobbesian horror of hunger and violence.” The editorial raised important questions for Australia’s own sense of preparedness for terror attacks, global pandemics, and natural disasters. 

The storm that struck New Orleans in 2005 and its aftermath prompted accusations at every level and from every direction. In press editorials and other media, “Katrina” became a byword, encompassing a wide-range of catastrophic failures—including failures of government and leadership—as well as a dubious source of justification for “reform” of various kinds. For example, Australian Prime Minister John Howard declared in 2007 that child sex abuse amongst the Indigenous community in the country’s Northern Territory was Australia’s “own Hurricane Katrina.”  As Joanne Faulkner persuasively argues, Howard’s rhetoric of catastrophe and response represented Aboriginal lives as separate from the fabric and relative privilege of “mainstream” Australian society. Reflections on the menace of one day having one’s “own Hurricane Katrina” appeared in wide-ranging quarters, including Ireland following the 2007/2008 Financial Crisis. The Irish press invoked the 2005 Gulf Coast storm to describe how the nation’s public service appeared under siege owing to diminishing tax revenues. “Katrina” swept through downtown Tulsa in 2008 when Oklahoma State University Medical Center faced closure owing to financial insolvency. It struck Las Vegas in 2007 when media reported on a congressional testimony forecast that Lake Mead, the main source of the city’s water supply, could run dry in ten years’ time.

Politicians have been victims of their own “Katrina moment,” whereby their credibility, competence, and possibly their prospects in office become undermined by unforeseen events and perceptions of a major disaster poorly handled. US President George W. Bush was, of course, the first and most infamous of these, the photograph of him looking out from the window of Air Force One onto the devastation of New Orleans became widely interpreted as an image of detached and incompetent leadership. President Barack Obama’s Katrina moment first arrived, by some estimates, when the American Internal Group (AIG) of companies, among the recipients of government bailout funds during the 2007/2008 financial crisis, paid out $165 million in bonuses to top company executives. Obama has endured—and worked to allay—several “Katrina moments” since then, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the botched rollout of the Healthcare.gov website, and most recently the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which has extended its reach to the United States. 

The stories told about Katrina across a wide range of media include many cautionary tales. More than stories about just Americans, they identify the interface between a problematic civil milieu on the one hand, and the built environment on the other—a connection especially evident in many liberal democracies. The Katrina Effect reflects ways in which the threat of a disaster can have a powerful effect on the social imaginary—where the “big lesson,” as journalist Timothy Ash put it, is one telling us “the crust of civilisation on which we tread is always wafer thin.”

In the Anglophone academic press, most clearly in the United States, one register of the Katrina Effect can be seen in the growth of disaster sociology and debates in scholarly literature establishing the emerging field’s themes, theories, and methods. Recent scholarship, including an edited collection by Rachel Dowty and Barbara Allen, and monographs by Mark Pelling, Peter Rogers, Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella, and others, offers analysis of Katrina’s impacts or cites these as a springboard for elaborating more universal concepts and terms, such as “risk,” “urban vulnerability,” and “resilience,” that have come to circulate within disaster studies generally. These concepts clearly overlap when it comes to describing the social contours and outcomes of disasters, so much of the scholarship is therefore fundamentally multi-disciplinary. Sociologist Rachel Luft observes how writing in the first two years after Katrina consisted mainly of reportage and critical essays framing the disaster with historical background and political commentary. These works were followed in subsequent years with more in-depth sociological analysis from Brunsma et al, Kristin Bates and Richelle S. Swan, and Hillary Potter. The treatment of race and social and economic inequality that feature in much of the sociology informed by Katrina has thus come to acquire a more systematic and theoretically-informed character.

Activist Naomi Klein’s writing on the effects of “disaster capitalism” significantly advanced scholarship on neoliberalism and the politics of disasters. It describes how communities around the world experiencing economic meltdowns, wars, and other traumas have been routinely subjected to further “shock” treatment by governments and their corporate allies from the 1970s onwards aiming to transform (Fordist-Keynesian) economies into laboratories for private entrepreneurship and free market forces. Her views appeared in The Nation only weeks before Katrina struck New Orleans. However, they attracted further notoriety afterwards, when published as a book including commentary on New Orleans and how it was subjected to “the shock doctrine.” According to urban theorist Mike Davis, this entailed a second wave of destruction that brought corporate profiteering, political opportunism, and further disabling of already marginalized citizens. 

Where disaster sociology meets studies of the material culture of rebuilding—disaster planning and architecture—parallel themes are found in commentary on New Urbanism’s foray into reconstruction. New Urbanists (there are varieties) hold the view that planning and design for pedestrian and “community-centered” neighborhoods can overcome the failings of suburban sprawl and automobile-dependent development. Critics of the movement, such as Catherine Michna and Nicolai Ouroussoff, point to the gap between what its proponents envision for recovery (mixed-income housing, mixed-use public spaces, and architecture for community) and what they actually build—residential developments more likely to work as walled and gated enclaves than diverse and inclusive neighborhoods. Prior to co-editing The "Katrina Effect," we have argued in our book Prospects for an Ethics of Architecture that this gap is primarily one between different value systems—it is about what communities should count as important—rather than the failure of the planning and architecture in technical or functional terms per se.

Much of the literature of disaster studies suggest there are significant historical and cultural circumstances that make each disastrous episode unique. Hence, Klein’s views have their detractors, some of whom see her criticisms as generalising, including Nicholas Phelps and his co-authors in their writing on “other economic-geographic imaginaries” impacting on post-disaster development in Aceh, Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami. Objections, whether or not justified, to neoliberal theory and concepts like “disaster capitalism” and the “shock doctrine” highlight the tensions and disciplinary boundaries erected when catastrophe is made subject to multiple fields of inquiry and analytical frameworks. Consequently one set of Katrina’s effects on the academy is to highlight these boundaries or, conversely, encourage renewed thinking on what a disaster might be, on the social, psychological, and material sites of impact, as well as the politics of catastrophe. While determining just what makes for a “catastrophe” or what distinguishes one from a “disaster” may be material for ongoing philosophical inquiry, questioning the Katrina Effect provides an opportunity to trace the currents of thoughts across a broad terrain.

William M. Taylor is Professor of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at University of Western Australia. Michael P. Levine is Professor of Philosophy also at the University of Western Australia.

Recommended Readings

Bates, Kristin A. and Richelle S. Swan, eds. Through the Eye of Katrina: Social Justice in the United States. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2007.

Brunsma, David L., David Overfelt and J. Steven Picous, eds. The Sociology of Katrina: Perspectives on a Modern Catastrophe. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Dowty, Rachel A. and Barbara L. Allen, eds. Dynamics of Disaster: Lessons on Risk, Response and RecoveryLondon and Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011.

Johnson, Cedric. The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Kelman, Ari. A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, with a New Preface. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007.

Pelling, Mark. Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation. London and New York: Routledge, 2011.

________. The Vulnerability of Cities: Natural Disasters and Social Resilience. London and Sterling: Earthscan Publications, 2003.

Powell, Lawrence N. The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012

Potter, Hillary, ed. Racing the Storm: Racial Implications and Lessons Learned from Hurricane Katrina. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2007.

Rogers, Peter. Resilience & the City: Change, (Dis)Order and Disaster. Burlington: Ashgate, 2012.

Taylor, William, M. and Michael P. Levine. Prospects for an Ethics of Architecture. London: Routledge, 2011.

Vale, Lawrence J. and Thomas J. Campanella, eds. The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.