It was 9 years ago today that Hurricane Katrina made landfall, going on to kill at least 1833 people in Gulf South and cause $108 billion in damage. She proved to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history and changed New Orleans forever.
You cannot be a person invested in New Orleans and not pause on this day, on this stretch of days, and think back to that August 2005. I am not a New Orleans native; I was outside the city that summer, ensconced in my parents’ house in Maryland, safely watching horror unfold on the television, sitting numbly next to my father, a sailor who knew New Orleans well, unable to look away. I was lucky, phenomenally lucky. I didn’t realise that day what the storm would mean to me years later. I just remember listening to my father argue with Brian Williams, I remember bristling when people suggested that New Orleans should be abandoned, that it was too expensive to rebuild, too expensive to protect, why did we need a city in a flood plain, anyway? (Newsflash: nearly every major port city in the US is in a flood plain, and 60% of the cargo leaving or entering the US goes through the New Orleans-Baton Rouge ports. That’s why we need it. Ignoring history, ignoring people, focusing solely on dollars, that’s why we need New Orleans and her flood plain.)
As a rule, I avoid disaster tourism. I think it shows the worst of human nature: our vulture-like tendency to stare at others’ personal horrors and feel relief that it is not us, all the while consuming their sorrow and loss and reducing it to a curiosity instead of a call to moral action. The HBO show Treme caught the tone of it rightly: As a group of Mardi Gras Indians gather in the rubble of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward to mourn one of their own, who perished in the storm. And in the middle of a spiritual, rousing moment as they sing Mardi Gras Indian songs in celebration and lament, a tour bus full of Wisconsin tourists pulls up, snapping pictures in clueless, viscerally awful fascination. The objectification and voyeurism cannot be made more clear.
And yet, two things come out of this: one, New Orleans is a city that runs on tourism and knows it, commodifying her food, heritage, history, and oddities in order to bring those tourists in; two, Katrina looms so large on the landscape that people who know nothing else about New Orleans save jazz, Bourbon Street, and Cajun food not only know about it but want to see what it meant.
When I first went down to New Orleans as an adult, it was December 2008, three years AK — after Katrina. I was working on the research for my first MA, a decision prompted in many ways by the storm. I knew my health didn’t permit me to do rescue work or rebuilding, and my financial situation didn’t leave me much room for charity. But I knew I could do a thing that was critical: preserving the history and culture of New Orleans, documenting it, and sharing it through my academic work as a topic worthy of serious study and engagement. So I set to work on my first love, the cemeteries of New Orleans. Yet whenever I mentioned my topic, everyone asked, “What about Katrina?”
So I got in touch with a contact, trying to avoid the Disaster Tourism angle, and asked if they knew some places out on Lake Ponchartrain where the levees had broke. And I tried not to feel like scum as I snapped pictures, trying to communicate something incommunicable to my audience back up on the East Coast: that the X of the search and rescue teams was a symbol, a monument, a marker of trauma so intense as to be nearly ineffable, an inbreaking of the sacred rendered mundane in spray paint. It was, in its way, the crucifix of the storm, marking sites of loss, death, martyrdom, and destruction so senseless, so needless that it has taken on proportions unimagined.
I don’t flatter myself by imagining my experiences in AK New Orleans are important. But for me, the storm marks a moment where I made the conscious choice to do academic work that had real world value and meaning. It marks the moment where academics had to be more than just feasible and fundable. It made me look at what I was doing and ask, how can I do more than just follow my own bliss? How can I reflect my values into the world and have a moral response to unimaginable tragedy? It marked the beginning of my nearly decade-long love affair with a city that’s easy to love and difficult to know. Katrina changed me, at a distance. Perhaps that’s what disaster and loss and suffering should do. It should change us, make us consider how to make our actions reflect the world that needs to be, rather than the world around us.
Nine years out, it’s easy to think this way, especially sitting comfortably in a climate-controlled student union in DC, far and away from the realities of recovery. It’s easy to trot out data and numbers (78% of the population returned, poverty level of nearly 25%, childhood poverty rate of 41%, increased disparity between rich and poor, lack of affordable housing in the city, etc). It’s easy to think of this as a continuum of disaster, disease, and death that has plagued New Orleans from her founding to today. It’s easy to ignore Katrina and her legacy up here. It’s easy to let it go. But I can’t. And as a society, as a country, we cannot. August 29th demands that we stop and think and remember all the human failure that created such unimaginable human loss, and remember how easy it is to let it happen again. All it takes is apathy.
Remember that all of this happened nine years ago, in the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world. Remember that we, as a country, watched this happen to our own people. Remember that this happened, that these 1800+ lives were lost. And remember that this, too, is New Orleans.