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Bloated corpses bobbing in the streets. Entire communities scoured down to the sand, scarcely one brick atop another. The Superdome and Convention Center, proud monuments of urban ambition, bursting with human misery. Police taking aim at desperate survivors. Veteran newscasters visibly enraged by officials' smug incompetence. And over everything, the appalling power of man-made inequality to compound natural disaster. [End Page 1]
Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural calamity in American history. A year after it struck, the authorities counted 1,836 deaths and 705 people still missing. At least $81.3 billion in property had been lost. The New Orleans levees had broken in fifty-three places, and officials blamed their own flawed designs. Eighty percent of the city was flooded, and hospitals, nursing homes, police departments, bureaucracies, and elected officials at every level had buckled under the strain. And the federal government, which posed as a model to the world, had utterly failed its obligations and stammered in naked ineptitude.
In many ways, Hurricane Katrina brought out the best in people. Neighbors struggled to help each other, risking their lives to save others. Private boats darted everywhere in the aftermath, plucking survivors from attics, trees and housetops. Across the country and the world, volunteers rushed to collect and send out aid, to house evacuees, to rebuild as soon as they could. Churches and civic groups are still at work, and will be for years to come. But heroic as they are, these individual exertions only seemed to highlight the gross inability of the larger entire society to cope with overwhelming destruction. Whatever else it taught, Katrina carried a heavy lesson in the costs of pride, the virtues of humility.
August 29, 2008, marks the third anniversary of Katrina's Gulf Coast landfall, and we are still struggling to sort out the multiple meanings of the storm. The people of New Orleans are still scattered, and many will never come back. About a year ago, the estimated population of New Orleans was still only seventy percent of its pre-storm level, and the proportion for neighboring St. Bernard Parish had not reached forty percent.1 Reconstruction efforts have been hobbled by every impediment imaginable, from physical realities to red tape, from lack of money to lack of vision, from racial animosity to political paralysis. The future of New Orleans is especially uncertain, though the city that brought us jazz and Mardi Gras and po' boys and Louis Armstrong will never be exactly the same.
Surely a third anniversary is a fitting time to remember and reflect on Katrina's multiple meanings. Foremost in our thoughts is that Katrina, whatever else it was, was a profoundly southern tragedy. The storm struck at one of the South's poorest economic regions and richest cultural centers. In its aftermath, no one could miss how historic poverty had made its fury worse, while the Gulf Coast's cultural richness only amplified the magnitude of our sense of loss. Most painfully obvious, a veneer of progress was ripped away, and the South's heritage of racial injustice paraded once more before the world. Katrina was an American disaster, a world disaster, but especially a southern disaster that demands a southern reflection.
The authors in this issue all remember Katrina from different perspectives. At the most concrete, practical level, Karen O'Neill asks how the disastrous flooding of New Orleans could have actually happened. Tracing federal flood control policy to its antebellum origins, she finds that public safety was never its primary purpose. Early in American history, a few visionaries longed for a nationally-planned [End Page 2] system of "internal improvements," including river and harbor projects, that would create a comprehensive system of transportation for the young republic, but their plans collapsed before a barrage of regional jealousies and political bickering. Instead, federal officials scattered pork barrel projects across the landscape in response to political pressures for local economic development. The pumps, canals, and levees that are supposed to protect the lower Mississippi from floods and hurricanes have grown up helter-skelter, with no...