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Failing Narratives, Initiating Technologies: Hurricane Katrina and the Production of a Weather Media Event

From: American Quarterly
Volume 58, Number 3, September 2006
pp. 767-789 | 10.1353/aq.2006.0058

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina show we are still an analog government in a digital age. We must recognize that we are woefully incapable of storing, moving, and accessing information—especially in times of crisis.

Many of the problems we have identified can be categorized as "information gaps"—or at least problems with information-related implications, or failures to act decisively because information was sketchy at best.

A Failure of Initiative

The Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina is a bold statement about the centrality of technology to securing the nation's population and its future. From the first page, the report frames the crisis resulting from the hurricane as a failure of individuals to access accurate information and to actualize proper technologies both prior to the hurricane's arrival and after New Orleans flooded. By staging the disaster in these terms at the outset, the Republican-led congressional committee displaces the privilege given in public culture to the media coverage of the disaster, in particular the media's focus on abandoned black residents in the city's floodwaters. In fact, the committee asserts that part of the disastrous consequences of Katrina resulted from the media's spreading unfounded information about the extent of the disaster and civil unrest, as opposed to the scientific accuracy of reports by the National Hurricane Center and the Army Corps of Engineers. In assigning accountability, the document states: "The media must share some of the blame here . . . its clear accurate reporting was among Katrina's many victims. If anyone rioted, it was the media." The Final Report is the federal government's attempt to be the authoritative voice through which the public understands the impact of Katrina. This is crucial given how the media's coverage has shaped the nation's understanding of what happened prior to and after the arrival of the hurricane. The congressional committee's report has the effect of shoring up the grand narrative evoked in the epigraphic quote. This narrative depends on technological determinism and scientific truth; and it reduces the Katrina event to the misdeeds of individuals, misinformation, and outdated technologies.

The term the "Katrina event" is one I will use throughout this essay to describe a host of activities and processes surrounding the hurricane and its aftermath, including the reportage during and afterward, the ensuing flooding of New Orleans, the displacement and evacuation of thousands of people stranded in the city, and the ongoing and contested reconstruction process. The Katrina event refers to the material and social impact of the storm, as well as the complex set of social, technological, and economic narratives and processes reported by the news media and through governmental reports. The committee's assertion that Katrina revealed the need for institutions to embrace the digital age relies on a belief in technology to decrease, if not overcome, human failure. As evidenced in this report and other post-Katrina efforts, the government invokes technological determinism—or technology as the central force behind progress and social development—as a response to the public's belief that the Katrina event represents a massive failure in governmental accountability and social and technological progress. At the same time, the Katrina event is the result of the success of other forms of technologies, that is, the power of meteorological technologies to predict disaster and that of news media technologies, as the privileged producers and disseminators of knowledge and as consumable goods for the national public. These two sets of technology were instrumental in producing Hurricane Katrina as a weather media event, what Marita Sturken describes as a convergence of news and meteorology, and as a national crisis. The application of these technologies constructed Hurricane Katrina as the national disaster that has been imprinted on the nation's psyche, especially through the images of suffering, emoting, and abandoned black bodies in the floodwaters of New Orleans. Turning attention to the importance of technological mediation and narratives in the production of the crisis and in devising its solution reveals a great deal about the operations of race, class, and risk in the United States. Technology...



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