Today is Ash Wednesday, which means yesterday was Mardi Gras. Parishes all across Louisiana celebrated the eve of the Lenten season with masks, beads, and parades. It has been six years since Hurricane Katrina fell on New Orleans and the city is slowly coming back into its own.
It’s hard to believe that six years ago Billy Graham said of the disaster, “God has allowed it” or that GOP strategist Jack Burkman said, “I understand there are 10,000 people dead. It’s terrible. But in a democracy of 300 million people, over years and years and years, these things happen.” Let’s not forget Congressman Richard Baker (R., La.) who said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
In 2005, many Christian conservatives believed strongly that Hurricane Katrina was a direct result of years of deviance in New Orleans, and that the hurricane was somehow divinely inspired. We have learned so much since then: the real effects of climate change, for example, and the ways human beings directly affect nature’s response, not to mention how we respond to natural disasters, but we still have so far to go.
I do not celebrate the Lenten season, but I can appreciate the call for reflection, as it offers me some time to think about the six years since Hurricane Katrina hit and the ways we are still talking about it, writing about it, and comparing it to recent disasters.
This week, my students are making presentations and leading discussions on the book What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation (South End Press). Usually, at the beginning of the semester, when I assign the book, my students wonder what, if any relevance, Hurricane Katrina has on us several years after the disaster. They are right to ask this question, and the journey of our course design leads them to their own answers: the many issues brought up by Katrina are recurring issues that continue to get cited and referenced in our news and culture today.
Katrina has become a benchmark by which major disasters and government responses are measured. The U.S. response to the January 2010 earthquake that crumbled Port-au-Prince, Haiti drew immediate attention and criticism, criticism that was given through the lens of Katrina. The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that rattled Chile in February 2010 also drew quick comparisons. Of the Chilean earthquake response, economist Alberto Ramos said, “This could be the Katrina of President Pinera … in terms of how the population perceives the relief and reconstruction effort.” Ramos, of course, was referring to the slow relief effort by the Bush administration. Just last month, when an earthquake hit New Zealand, that country’s Prime Minister John Key said the impact of the earthquake on Christchurch was bigger than the economic toll that Hurricane Katrina had on New Orleans. Yes, we can certainly see Katrina’s influence in the current news, and my students quickly learn the relevance summer 2005 has on us today.
Perhaps most intriguing for me is how my students have responded to the text we are reading. They are split: some feel the government could not possibly have done enough (the disaster was too big and people should have gotten out) and others feel the government grossly neglected its own people (the response was too small and not everyone could have gotten out).
The discussions in my classrooms on Monday and today have been thought-provoking and insightful. Charles Ros, a student in my 11:00 a.m. class, said during his presentation, “Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster but it has human fingerprints all over it.” In my 1:00 p.m. class, when asked why the U.S. government and citizenry didn’t do more to prevent and then to rescue any victims in the water, Russell Chapin said, “We couldn’t point the finger at ourselves so we just looked away.”
Charles and Russell are right. Consumed with the sheer shock at the enormity of the flood aftermath, Americans that summer could do nothing more than stare at our television screens and wonder. We were too close to the disaster to admit the hurricane could have been an effect of climate change, and we were too stunned to admit that we could have done anything to help prevent it. All we could do was watch thousands of people suffer.
After the waters subsided, many Americans did help with the clean-up efforts. My friend Lindsay and a group of Georgetown students went to New Orleans for a few weeks to gut houses. It affected her so deeply that she wrote her masters thesis on Hurricane Katrina and has since committed her doctoral work to the language and rhetoric we use toward natural disasters and how that language determines action. A real example of measured language-use is former Department of Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff who took 36 hours after the storm hit to declare it “an incident of national significance.” His language didn’t begin to describe the situation or how systems should proceed to deal with it.
There are other issues with language, too. We give nature an adversarial character. One of the articles in What Lies Beneath is titled “Nature Fights Back,” which is akin to statements like Mother Nature is angry today. Such language creates in us a desire to fight, resist, quell, or control nature, without regard to how we are provoking and influencing her at all.
Katrina has seeped into our cultural consciousness as well. Chris Jordan created an artistic photography book called In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster (there are countless other titles). The Los Angeles based rock band Ozomatli wrote “Magnolia Soul” to commemorate the spirit of New Orleanians. Most recently, Bruno Mars and Travie McCoy wrote “Billionaire.” McCoy sings, “I’d probably visit where Katrina hit / and damn sure do a lot more than FEMA did / yeah can’t forget about me stupid.” The list of songs goes on.
Yesterday was Mardi Gras, another chance for New Orleans to reclaim a little bit more of the spirit that was washed away in the flood waters. Today is Ash Wednesday, a day when Christians — and perhaps all people — can reflect on life. The readings in my classrooms this week have been timely, and they have invited my students to reflect on the ways we show concern for one another. I hope that through thinking, talking, and writing about the issues related to the Katrina event my students will come up with a system that focuses less on divine intervention and more on human interaction.