When the Levee Breaks, Mama, You Got to Move
Hurricane Katrina: America's Unnatural Disaster
(University of Nebraska Press)
US: Apr 2009
When Thomas Hobbes wrote the Leviathan in the 17th century, the inspiration for his treatise on social contracts was all around him. The English Civil War had raged from 1642 to 1651 and split the country apart. And yet Hobbes realized that although the war was detrimental to the lives of the people, it was in fact essential because its end result was a stable government. Hobbes astutely stated that without government there would be a state of “war of all against all” and the lives of the people would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
Those five adjectives perfectly described the 2005 survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the American Gulf Coast. As picture after picture became public, the rest of the country and world stood by in mute horror and incredulity as we saw beautiful New Orleans turn into an utter state of anarchy or “war of all against all”. Where was the government while dead bodies floated around? Where was the government as mobs looted and shot at will? Where was the government as the residents of New Orleans were, as Michael Eric Dyson wrote, “Bathed in a brutal wash of dredge and sickening pollutants that choked the air with ungodly stench”?
According to Professors Jeremy Levitt and Matthew Whitaker, “History does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.” That is certainly true, especially in light of the many times the poorest communities in America have suffered the most after natural disasters. But what happened when a specific community was targeted? What happened when the government not only did not help the targeted community, but also allowed them to fail? That is the central argument behind Hurricane Katrina: An Unnatural Tragedy, a volume of contributions on the African-American perspective to the tragedy and edited by Levitt and Whitaker.
The material contained in this book is revelatory on many counts because of the sheer evidence to the institutional racism that existed in New Orleans before 2005 and the factors that allowed it [racism] to fester afterward. Not only was the city overwhelmingly black, but it was also overwhelmingly poor – a part of NOLA that must of us have never seen because we are too romanticized with visions of A Streetcar Named Desire, Café du Monde and Fats Domino.
Hurricane Katrina: An Unnatural Tragedy addresses the grievances of the African-American community from a multitude of angles. This is perhaps the first time a book has been published to respond to the omnipotent effects of the hurricanes on many aspects of life for African-Americans. For example, how many of us thought about the effects the hurricanes would have on the Louisiana penal system? This is addressed very thoroughly in the chapter by Phyllis Kotey who alleges that not only was nothing done to take care of the several thousand prisoners after the hurricanes hit, but even afterward, no one believed they had done anything wrong or that the prisoners deserved any special attention.
Another provocative argument is presented by Kenneth Nunn and Linda Greene who discuss victimology and government liability, respectively, in successive chapters. Using the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s judgment in Commonwealth v. Welansky (1944), the authors argue that federal and state officials were criminally culpable of what transpired in New Orleans after the hurricanes. While Nunn refers to it as “murder by FEMA bureaucracy”, Greene goes so far as to term it “genocide”; he argues that what is needed is a “transitional justice” system set up like the war crime tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia to bring those responsible to task.
Yet despite the myriad of views, the book suffers from the malaise for which it was originally written – racism. The problem with “frank” discussions of racism is that they can never fully be honest because of racial biases, whether actual or imagined. So although the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have generated a lot of scholarship, much of it has been rejected by the African-American community for not being “race conscious”. Thus, we have this collection of various perspectives on Katrina – economic, legal, political and racial – by only African-American authors. But is that necessarily the most egalitarian approach?
Not in this case. Hurricane Katrina: An Unnatural Tragedy fails to be fair because the overwhelming theme of the book is that only African-Americans were affected by the hurricanes. But we know that was not true as many communities of every possibly race, ethnicity and social class were wiped out in the Gulf Coast and not just in New Orleans, either.
The book also reeks of passive aggression, which forces the reader to feel like he or she is being emotionally blackmailed and shortchanged just a little bit in the pursuit of “fair” scholarship. One aspect of this is how several authors, including Kotey, Bryan Fair, Mitchell Crusto and the co-editors, have this habit of slightly suggesting that African-Americans themselves might have been partly responsible for the disaster that was about to unfold, but then just as quickly, they all retract that argument and plunge directly into the institutional racism argument.
I also found myself on more than one occasion alarmed by how several of the authors present contradicting evidence within the same chapters after making a specific point. In her chapter on public health, Alyssa Robillard does this twice. First she suggest that although African-Americans have higher rates of medical problems and that black women are more likely to die of cancer, “this difference is primarily because they see medical professionals at later stages of the disease, which severely impacts the likelihood of effective treatment.”
She employs this kind of tactic again in her chapter by first suggesting that although local, state and federal workers should have done more to transport African-Americans from New Orleans, many black residents did not want to leave. Besides the 28 percent who underestimated the storm, many African-Americans believed if God wanted to take them away, it was divine will and nothing else.
This anthology also smarts for what it lacks. If, as Levitt and Whitaker contend, “Katrina’s floodwater exposed as much as it covered”, then the authors presented here are guilty of the same crime. Why is it that despite assigning blame for the proven “toxic” FEMA trailers, weak levees and approximately $81.2 billion in damages, there is not a single mention of the “proven” fact that many African-Americans abused their government benefits to buy luxuries like flat screen TVs and rims for their cars? Why is it that one contributor questions why the US government does not do enough to encourage African-American home ownership, but doesn’t mention predatory lending and borrowing and sub-prime rates?
And finally, for all the talk of Katrina being a self-described “African-American” issue, why do most of the authors never once introduce the concept of blacks taking care of their own? If Katrina was a “black” issue, then shouldn’t the black elites take on the responsibility of ameliorating the situation?
There is no question that Hurricane Katrina exposed a side of American that most Americans had never seen or never wanted to confront. But instead of scholars killing trees by writing tomes on issues like what is justice and who is a refugee, Americans, need to come together and push the debate towards not what they did wrong, but what they can do to make things right. Hurricane Katrina: An Unnatural Tragedy is an important book. But when the question posed is left unanswered, was justice really served?