Hurricane Katrina: America’s Unnatural Disaster by Jeremy I. Levitt and Matthew C. Whitaker

“History does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.”

Hurricane Katrina: America's Unnatural Disaster

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Length: 376 pages
Author: Jeremy I. Levitt, Matthew C. Whitaker
Price: $45.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-04

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?


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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