Hurricane Katrina, The Eye-opening Disaster
On the 7th of May 1718, New Orleans (La Nouvelle-Orléans) was founded by the French Mississippi Company, under the command of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. Not long before that date, Bienville, who was the Governor of Louisiana at the time, set out from Dauphin Island to select a place on the banks of the Mississippi River for a new settlement. Bienville and his people travelled for many days up the river before they found their ideal location. “The locale was wet, heavily forested and, even then, clouded by mosquitoes, but it had certain advantages over other possible sites. The terrain was generally higher than it was along most of the river and only a narrow strip of land, traversed part way by a bayou, separated the site from Lake Pontchartrain. Access to the spot – named New Orleans – from the Gulf was afforded by Lakes Borgne and Pontchatrain as well as by the river. Indeed, it was thought that the lake route would be paramount. Bienville left fifty men to clear the land and build some houses and returned temporarily to Dauphin Island.” (John Garretson Clark, New Orleans, 1718-1812: An Economic History)
From the moment of its founding well into the mid-nineteenth century, New Orleans had grown significantly, reaching the status of the fifth-largest American city in 1860, and by far the largest in the American South. Thereafter, expansive development of other American cities, such as Houston, Dallas, Miami or Atlanta, outstaged New Orleans in this ranking. Nevertheless, home to such artists as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, Fats Domino or Louis Prima, and famous for its extraordinary jazz scene and notorious nightlife, the city has always been a popular tourist destination, attracting eclectic art and music lovers.
The city has also been famous, or rather infamous, for the frequent natural disasters testing its local communities to their absolute limits. For example, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, called by Dr Raymond B. Seed “the worst engineering disaster in the world since Chernobyl” (Kevin Baker, The Future of New Orleans, American Heritage, April/May 2006), was the cause of 1,500 deaths in New Orleans and its vicinity. It seems that the biggest damage was caused not as much by the hurricane itself as by the failures of the city’s federal flood protection which could not prevent subsequent flooding of the city.
The hurricane and its aftermath brought to light serious social problems which New Orleans, home to one of the largest black communities in the US, had not properly addressed before. It provoked an open debate on “a public reconsideration of the role of race in the nation’s social structures. …As the extent of damage to buildings, streets, schools, churches, public institutions, and even nature became clear, locals experienced a crisis in their race- and class-inflected cognitive maps of home and community. The spatial shifts that resulted from the disaster challenged how New Orleans thought of themselves, their neighbourhoods, and their relationships with their neighbours.” (John O’Neal, Carol Bebelle, Nicholas Slie, Catherine Michna, John Grimsley and Raymond “Moose” Jackson, Performance and Cross-Racial Storytelling in Post-Katrina New Orleans: Interviews with John O’Neal, Carol Bebelle, and Nicholas Slie, TDR (1988-), Vol.57, No.1, Spring 2013)
In her article New Orleans’ Racial Divide: An Unnatural Disaster, Emma Dixon stated: “When Hurricane Katrina tore up the roof of my house, it didn’t care that I’m black. My white neighbors, like my black neighbors, saw trees fall on their homes and saw their refrigerators rot and mold. They, like I, lived without electricity or phone for over a week after that color-blind natural disaster. But an unnatural disaster hit us as well, the institutionalized racism that began centuries ago. The flooded areas of New Orleans were three-quarters black, while in dry areas, African Americans were a minority. Over the years, many well-off white people have left the city for gated suburban communities. The remaining whites tend to live on higher ground. …A Time Magazine poll taken in September found that while three quarters of blacks believe race and income level played a role in the government response to Hurricane Katrina, only 29 percent of whites felt the same.”
As painful as they are, disasters such as Hurricane Katrina often shake up public awareness and bring to the surface dormant social issues. They put people to the test not only as individuals but as members of bigger communities, making them gain a completely new perspective on their environment. But there are also certain positive outcomes to such situations. For example, Felice Batlan claimed that Hurricane Katrina provoked bonding among the local community members, that manifested itself via the medium of storytelling: “For months in New Orleans following the storm, all that we ever spoke about was how we survived the aftermath of Katrina. It became commonplace to say that there were as many Katrina stories as people. Yet like New Orleans’ most treasured places and customs, the ones off the tourist maps, these stories were for the natives, as we felt that others simply could not understand. We told our stories, or at least pieces of them, over and over as if through repetition, like prayer itself, we might actually come to believe what seemed so unbelievable and inexpressible.” (John O’Neal…) Whether the mouth-to-mouth accounts of the disaster were sufficient to bury the existing social divisions is debatable…