IN LATE MARCH, New Orleans was declared a hotspot for the coronavirus. Theories pegged the city’s Mardi Gras celebration as the culprit, reframing the joyous finale to the weeks-long carnival season as a super-spreader event. Images of the French Quarter, boarded up and empty of people, harkened back to hurricanes, when people prepared homes and businesses for inclement weather by installing sheets of plywood over doors and windows. Of course, weather wasn’t the issue. Hurricane season was still months away; New Orleans was preparing for a different kind of disaster.
As medical facilities filled up with patients stricken by the pandemic, a 1,000-bed field hospital was opened in early April inside of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. This, too, recalled calamity. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches that flooded the city 15 years prior, the sprawling facility became an impromptu shelter for an estimated 20,000 refugees. By April’s end, the virus’s death toll in Louisiana surpassed that of Katrina, referred to by local reporter Gordon Russell as “southeastern Louisiana’s modern yardstick for misery.” In a city like New Orleans, it seems there is no way to confront the present moment without dredging up the past.
As Andy Horowitz posits in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015: “Vulnerability is socially constructed.” Just as the spread of the coronavirus has disproportionately affected New Orleans’s Black residents, who are dying at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts, the brunt of the city’s ecological precarity has historically been borne by its Black community. In truth, disasters portrayed as natural aren’t the result of viral spread or weather. Rather, they’re the consequence of deliberate decisions made by people in power isolated from the destructive outcomes of their bad judgment.
Detailing “one of the most horrific moments in modern American history,” Horowitz, a political and environmental historian, pushes back on decontextualized narratives. Not only are disasters events with intricate histories, he argues, “disasters come from within”:
Usually we imagine disasters as exceptions. We describe them as external attacks, ahistorical acts of God, blows from without. That is why most accounts of Katrina begin when the levees broke and conclude not long after. But these stories offer a denuded sense of what happened, why, or what might have prevented the catastrophe. Somebody had to build the levees before they could break.
Stressing the importance of what happened before and after the levee failures, Horowitz’s account begins over a century ago. Hurricane Katrina itself doesn’t appear until halfway through the book’s 200 pages, taking up a small portion of ink relative to the author’s chronicle of events leading up to and following the storm. Readers hoping to be immersed in tragedy or drama will be disappointed, as the author is primarily concerned with policies and practices, the causes and effects of the life-altering catastrophe popularly referred to as “Katrina.”
According to Horowitz, an informed redefinition of disaster requires an understanding of infrastructure and failure. In Louisiana, this more often than not means understanding oil. “The black pearl in the oyster” was first discovered in the state in 1901; it would come to define not only Louisiana, but the entire United States. Oil money built a medical school in Baton Rouge and a hospital in New Orleans, “and paved the road between the two,” writes Horowitz. “Not only did severance taxes on oil pay workers to pave the road, the oil comprised the asphalt itself.”
As Horowitz notes, “The American dream was fueled by oil, and a lot of it came from Louisiana.” The flip side of the state’s oil boom was environmental degradation. In a region formed over thousands of years by the Mississippi River’s alluvial deposits, the last century brought tremendous damage. The dredging of oil exploration canals wreaked havoc on a precarious habitat that serves as Louisiana’s first line of defense against storms. Climate change and oil spills further impacted the state, which has seen 2,000 square miles of its coastline disappear since the 1930s. And with the levees impeding the free flow of the Mississippi, the land-building sediment that seasonally spilled out of the river is now deposited into a 5,000-foot-deep abyss beneath the continental shelf.
In May, a peer-reviewed study of sea-level rise along Louisiana’s coast presented a grim outlook for the future of the region. Drawing from an 8,500-year-long marsh record of the Mississippi Delta, the report found that the formation of new marsh growth along the Louisiana coast could not keep up with sea-level rise, denoting the crossing of a tipping point and the ineluctable destruction of the state’s remaining wetlands. The continued loss of this ecosystem brings the Gulf of Mexico ever closer to New Orleans’s front door, carrying with it storm surge, saltwater intrusion, and the catastrophic threat of flooding.
While Louisiana vanishes, New Orleans grows increasingly vulnerable. The levee failures of August 29, 2005, were representative of this existential threat. But as Horowitz makes clear, “A series of spectacular government failures defined the catastrophe.” In many ways, understanding the disaster requires examining the response. Horowitz’s book extends into 2015 to tell the story of how the hurricane dramatically reshaped New Orleans. As Katrina makes clear, who was able to return to the city and what their lives would look like depended on a series of political decisions that prioritized the creation of a whiter, wealthier city. From this vantage point, Katrina was the precipitating event and the decade that followed it was the disaster.
Horowitz writes that “the hurricane called Katrina did not cause many of the effects commonly attributed to it.” Disaster relief programs and the policies formed in the name of recovery were, at best, meant to return things to the way they were, “to restore inequalities, not mitigate them.” More often than not, these efforts framed as relief and recovery have made people’s lives worse. As Horowitz writes,
Racial and economic inequalities, endemic in Louisiana before the flood, widened after — but not because of some inexorable implications of where the water settled. Rather, social arrangements before the flood and policy decisions after created possibilities for some and foreclosed them for others.
While New Orleans’s post-storm transformation is commonly ascribed to disaster capitalism, Horowitz challenges this framework, asserting that it “too readily discount[s] the enduring power of government.” Instead, he says that government at all levels shaped New Orleans after the flood “and not in ways that are reducible to market capture on the part of some industry.” He points to the demolition of the city’s public housing and health-care system as detrimental consequences of federal and state objectives that predate the storm. Yet Horowitz writes that the dismantling of New Orleans’s public school system is a more clear-cut example of individuals capitalizing on disaster, as the charter school system did not become a bona fide political agenda until after Katrina.
“A disaster is at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script,” Horowitz writes. Whether Katrina serves as a redefinition of American crisis or a clarification of the term depends on perspective. While the title of Horowitz’s book implies the existence of a definitive account, ascribing nonpareil authority to a single narrative is a flawed construct. The desire for a conclusive exposition of catastrophe comes from the impulse to comprehend what is impossible to grasp in aggregate.
This is not to say that the author’s work isn’t exhaustive. Calling upon a century of history to tell the story of what many Americans limit to a span of days or weeks, Horowitz’s Katrina is a devastating and important text for understanding the deep-seated inequality, infrastructure failure, and government carelessness that led to one of America’s worst disasters.
“A place known widely but not well,” New Orleans is a city that is sometimes viewed as outside America. It’s a romanticized view often attributed to the distinctive cultural heritage of the city, which seemingly has its own set of customs and traditions. What this interpretation often overlooks is the city’s long and ugly history of racism, neglect, and oppression, definitive features of the American experiment. The horrors of Katrina aren’t unique to the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, or the American South. Instead, as Horowitz writes, “they define the United States in the twenty-first century.”
The creation of catastrophic vulnerability and the political will to let people die from a preventable disaster is the exact reality the United States finds itself in now. Reading Horowitz in the age of COVID-19, as the powerful determine who and what are expendable, feels especially instructive. Here, yet again, certain people are protected while others find themselves involuntarily in harm’s way, not with “competing interpretations of the same picture so much as […] different experiences of the same country.”
“New Orleans’s history is America’s history and […] Katrina is America’s possible future,” Horowitz writes. He’s referring to Sandy, Harvey, and Maria, a trio of more recent hurricanes that reaffirmed the danger of a changing climate. Images of a roller coaster drawn into the ocean, an interstate submerged in floodwaters nearly as high as its freeway signs, and windswept homes converted into piles of debris speak to our collective prospects. With the world warming and sea levels rising, anomalies will become the norm. As Laura and Sally recently demonstrated, this future is inevitable. But much like our current catastrophe, how severely people will be impacted is variable.