"Katrina: A History, 1915–2015" details the long story leading up to the storm — the development plans, federal assistance programs, politics, and environmental racism — to show that what happened during Hurricane Katrina shouldn't have been shocking at all.
Ahead of the 15th anniversary of the storm, New Orleans Public Radio talked with author and Tulane University history professor, Andy Horowitz, about his new book.
Tegan Wendland: You’re not the first person to write about Hurricane Katrina, and you really tried to tell the story through the lens of environmental racism. What did you feel was missing from the history books?
I don’t feel like Katrina was really in the history books. We have the benefit of brilliant writing about Katrina, much of it comes from 2005, 2006, 2007, when in meaningful ways Katrina was still happening. It was impossible to know what the consequences of the flood and the policy responses to the flood were going to be. Fifteen years after the flood, we’re able to see Katrina as something more like a whole. And as a historian, I’m able to try to distinguish what the most significant causes and consequences were and put them in a much broader context.
You detail again and again how rebuilding and investment decisions have been made along color lines. The example of Lakeview vs. the Lower 9th Ward being one of the starkest. Lakeview was quick to rebuild while people in the 9th Ward struggled. What can we learn from the past about what we stand to lose if we let these same interests dictate how we manage the threats of climate change, like flooding and, eventually, relocation?
One of the real challenges of writing about Katrina and talking about Katrina with people is that you really have to disaggregate what you mean by just that word — Katrina. Turns out that the storm and the flood are not responsible for many of the changes that we associate with that word Katrina. So let me talk specifically about Lakeview and the Lower 9th. Were you to look at either of those neighborhoods on Aug. 30 or in early September 2005, they would have looked very similar. They were both underwater. Going back today, Lakeview is pretty populated and the Lower 9th remains at a rather small percentage of what it had been before 2005. Understanding that it’s the inequalities that existed before the flood and the policy response to the flood that had the determining factor in who could come home and who could not could be really empowering and really dispiriting.
So much of this story is about how much people do or don’t trust the government, and the implications of that. You argue that the culture of not drawing down on federal aid before Hurricane Betsy weakened the overall support system and contributed to the devastating lack of response. This tension seems especially salient in this moment. What lessons can we take from this story and apply to the way this pandemic is playing out in America?
One of Katrina’s lessons for the pandemic is that we all need the federal government. We need a strong, competent and humane federal government. It’s the only force in American life that’s powerful enough to help address a problem like a flood that overwhelms a major metropolitan area, or the sort of public health emergency that spreads across the country and the world. And the history of racism and conservative resistance to federal government has hobbled the federal government and has undermined its ability to help anybody. Certainly — I don’t want to be misunderstood — white supremacy benefits white people and harms non-white people. We saw that during Hurricane Katrina and we see it now. But it’s also the case that once the levee breaks or once the virus spreads, it’s really hard for anyone to be totally protected.
Reading about how history has repeated itself again and again after every flood, with racist policies and moneyed interests always shaping outcomes, is really depressing. Your description of Hurricane Betsy is exactly the description of Katrina, it seems like nothing changes. Poor people are forced to live in the most vulnerable areas, and then when disaster strikes they receive the least help. So is there anything that makes you hopeful right now?
I think when you see common patterns repeating, it’s less that history is repeating itself, it’s that the structures that cause those consequences remain constant and unchanged. So racism and racial inequality and economic inequality remain constants in American life, over the course of the 20th Century — with important variations and changes over time. But race and class still matter in major ways. But I agree that it can be really dispiriting and frustrating to see how intractable those inequalities can be and remain. One thing that gives me hope from Katrina’s history is that many of the people who were hardest hit by the disaster came out of it with the most ambitious ideas about how the future could be different from the past. On the one hand that’s a terribly unfair thing to ask of them — to ask people at their most difficult moments to be the ones that have to carry the burden, not just of propping themselves up but of imagining a different future, and yet I think we can still draw some inspiration. What I think it falls on the rest of us to do, who are in comparatively privileged circumstances, is to try to support their visions for how things could have been better.
If New Orleans is really a model for how the nation might manage disasters to come, as you quoted Barack Obama as having said, how does that bode, given the Katrina story you paint of injustices and inequalities?
Americans often want their stories to end on a hopeful note and to have an arc of progress. I think that, while that’s a totally understandable psychological response, and I hope for a better future too, we should recognize that our history does not bend inevitably towards progress and that sometimes things do get worse. And being desperate to fit Katrina into a kind of progressive shape can blind us — particularly people who don’t know the story intimately, who didn’t lose a member of their family, who didn’t lose their home. To constantly be looking for the cloud’s silver lining can make it hard to see that Katrina was basically a terrible story. It was a preventable catastrophe defined by hundreds of needless deaths and years of suffering that, first of all, people saw coming before, and America was powerful enough to forestall. And basically people with power chose not to, and chose rather to, reapportion its pain and its hurt on a few. And that model, the Katrina model of balancing our most pressing challenges on the backs of people who are already disadvantaged by structural inequalities in America is something that our society is set up to do very efficiently. And then we call the results ‘progress.’
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.