Reconstructing the Story of the Storm: Hurricane Katrina at Five
Pieces of the Picture
After Hurricane Katrina, neoliberals and Bush provided a near-perfect example of Naomi Klein's theory of disaster capitalism. Everything from supplying buses for evacuation to tarps for torn-up roofs became an opportunity for Bush supporters to reap financial rewards. The city's public housing was torn down; the schools became charter schools, many along military lines. Told this way, what happened was pure loss, for the left as well as for the poor (though the schools before Katrina had been a mess). But that's not all that Katrina triggered.
During the storm and its aftermath, far more people did heroic things, and these, perhaps even more than the crimes Thompson reported on, are the key missing stories of the storm. Before he was shot, Herrington was one of hundreds who got into boats and commenced rescuing people stranded in the floodwater. Some in surrounding communities sneaked past authorities to start rescuing people in the drowned city. Young gang members kept mothers of small children and babies and elderly people provisioned. People banded together in schools and other surviving structures and formed improvisational communities whose members watched out for one another.
As days turned into weeks and then months, volunteers from around the country came to feed the displaced and rebuild the city. Others took evacuees into their homes and helped them start new lives. Middle-aged Mennonites, young anarchists, musicians, members of the Rainbow Family of hippie communards, environmentalists, Baptists, Catholics, college students on spring break, ex–Black Panthers, movie stars, Habitat for Humanity carpenters, nurses and nearly every other kind of citizen showed up to save New Orleans. The outpouring of generosity and empathy was extraordinary. New Orleans was saved by love.
I first visited the city post-Katrina six months after the storm, and it looked as though almost nothing had happened since. The place was wrecked. Houses were smashed or shoved by floodwater into the middle of the street; many had the spray-painted markings of search-and-rescue teams, some reporting bodies or pets found inside. Cars were flipped over or propped up on fences and trees. Whole neighborhoods were abandoned and pitch-black at night, because even the streetlights were dead; and in places like the Lower Ninth Ward, returning residents had to make street signs by hand.
The place could have died; its fate was up in the air. It still is—with coastal erosion and rising seas, the petroleum industry's poisons, the troubled economy and corroded political system that were the city's problems before Katrina hit. Crime has risen, and New Orleans is a violent place. But it's also a vibrant place again. By some estimates more than a million volunteers have come through the city. Some who intended to come for weeks found they couldn't leave: they'd fallen in love with the gregarious sweetness of so many Orleanians and with the chance to make a difference. They've added their commitment to altruism and civil society to the city's mix. New Orleans always had a flourishing public sphere of festivals and street life and a private sphere of social organizations, but there has been a rise in civic engagement, in public meetings, neighborhood groups and focused organizations dealing with housing, the environment, immigrants' rights and more. Housing is scarcer and more expensive, but wages have risen since the labor pool shrank. New environmental initiatives are on the table or being realized.
Then there's the catastrophe's impact on national politics. The Bush administration's outrageous incompetence and indifference prompted a hitherto intimidated press and nation to begin criticizing not just the failed response but the Iraq War and the administration overall. The levees broke and so did the bulwarks that protected the president. As Bush's own pollster put it, "Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public.... I knew when Katrina—I was like, Man, you know, this is it, man. We're done." The racism and poverty that the catastrophe revealed laid the groundwork for newcomer Barack Obama to ride to victory in 2008. Which is how we got Eric Holder, the attorney general who's taken a direct role in some of the federal indictments in New Orleans this summer.
The very subject of recovery is a complicated one for New Orleans. After 9/11 New York pretty much wanted to get back to where it had been—a thriving, functioning city (albeit one with plenty of poverty and injustice). No one thought New Orleans should get back to what it had been, and the disaster became an opportunity for the city to reinvent itself in various ways. That process continues, and where it goes is anyone's guess. It still depends on the dedication of volunteers and citizens, some of whom are returning, putting their lives back together in what may be, by some intangible measures of joy and belonging, America's richest city, even if it's the poorest by others.
A disaster unfolds a little like a revolution. No one is in charge, and anything is possible. The efforts of elites, often portrayed as rescue or protection, are often geared more toward preserving the status quo or seizing power. Sometimes they win; sometimes they don't. Katrina brought many kinds of destruction and a little rebirth, including the spread of green construction projects, new community organizations and perhaps soon, thanks to the work of Thompson and others, some long overdue justice for police crimes. It's too soon to tell what it will all mean in a hundred years, but it's high time to start telling the real story of what happened in those terrible first days and weeks.