A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward

Tyrone Turner/National Geographic

A house damaged by Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005

“I ain’t proud to be American no more,” Dean Blanchard, a shrimp distributor, told a reporter in 2015.1 Ten years earlier, his business was nearly ruined when Katrina, one of the most ferocious hurricanes in American history, pummeled New Orleans, killing at least 1,440 people and causing $150–$200 billion in economic damage, including nearly $1.5 billion to the local seafood industry. Five years later, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana, spewing more than 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlands and decimating food populations. A lawsuit brought by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority to hold oil companies responsible for the environmental damage they had caused was opposed by the governor, then dismissed by a federal court. Blanchard became convinced that nothing—not government, not infrastructure, not the courts—was protecting him or his neighbors, that no one was fighting on their behalf.

Blanchard was not alone in this view. As Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, shows in his new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, “The experience of Katrina, compounded with the oil spill, increasingly served Louisianans as a metonym for federal illegitimacy.” He argues that while President Obama described the oil spill as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced,” and the media presented it as “an efficient drama” unfolding over the course of eighty-seven days, “few people on the coast experienced that tight narrative arc.”

Disaster histories are usually written for entertainment, not diagnosis. They tend to begin in a calm, tranquil moment. Suddenly, there is a disruption: water from a tsunami breaches the nuclear power plant; Patient Zero leaves the market; the levee breaks. When political leaders arrive on the scene, they attribute the damage to an “Act of God,” “Mother Nature,” an unforeseeable error. Horowitz argues that Hurricane Katrina obliterated this narrative. “The more I have thought about Katrina,” he writes, “the more uncomfortable I have become with the idea of ‘disaster’ altogether.” Disaster, Horowitz believes, is a political category—“at best an interpretive fiction, or at worst, an ideological script”—one that’s usually invoked to defend or maintain the status quo. His book asks a necessary question: What happens to the story of this one moment in time if we stretch it forward and back, looking for causes and consequences that reach beyond the storm?

New Orleans has always been a rich, divided, violent, and beautiful city. Set in a deep depression between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, it is surrounded by water on three sides, including Lake Pontchartrain. It’s a hotspot for hurricanes and tropical storms, and climate change makes it hotter still. So, too, does the steady erosion of its marshes and wetlands, natural resources that are capable of absorbing storm surges, unless development destroys them.

Starting in the eighteenth century, fishermen and trappers of European origin laid claim to the area’s rich coastal and riverfront territories, attracted by its unique ecology, which nourished shrimp, oysters, muskrats, and other aquatic life, and by its unparalleled access to other markets along the river and the sea. New Orleans was the largest slave market in the United States during the antebellum period, a place where human beings were trafficked citywide, from public plazas to private homes, hotels, and commercial arcades. It was, and remains, the capital of Creole culture, a place where people, languages, and customs mix promiscuously, and sometimes violently—where norms change with the tides.

The oil industry arrived in the early twentieth century, and when it came it transformed the land, the sea, and the marshes, swamps, and bayous that were a little of both. Big business, and the people it attracted, required infrastructure—roads, rail lines, and bridges, as well as deeper, wider shipping channels and larger ports. For decades, Louisiana residents watched federal agencies, local officials, and industry leaders attempt to tame nature with expensive, highly engineered water management systems. Each new project arrived with a promise of increased ecological security and prosperity, but also set up those in low-lying areas for the next collapse.

In 2005 President George W. Bush had just begun an ambitious second term in the White House with hopes of expanding the “war on terror,” deregulating the oil and banking industries, and beefing up his enormous new federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security. Then, in late August of that year, New Orleans was inundated by Hurricane Katrina. On television, the world watched as residents, mainly Black, were stranded on their rooftops, pleading for rescue; thousands more, sick, hungry, and also mainly Black, crowded into a convention center that, as Jesse Jackson put it, looked “like the hull of a slave ship”; an inept president failed to deliver basic goods and services; and a city drowned, and with it, a fantasy about what America means.

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This country’s great myths of exceptionalism have lost currency with many, and Americans who once viewed their homeland as “the shining city upon a hill” now feel themselves going under. This year, we are focused on the growing death count and economic crisis stemming from Covid-19 and the racially targeted police brutality that’s causing outrage and protest throughout the US. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the first wave of self-destruction that made people ask if this really was America had another name: Katrina. The catastrophe, Horowitz writes, “brings together several of the defining concerns of our time”: racial segregation, paramilitary governance, diminished public services, and indifference to the poor, among others.

Horowitz set out to tell a good story, but he also has another goal: to explain what made New Orleans so vulnerable before, during, and after Katrina. In the process, he calls attention to the policies that privileged economic development over human and environmental security; to the faith in the power of technology, engineering, and infrastructure to control nature, along with the failure to fully invest in the systems that experts designed; to a persistent commitment to racial segregation in city planning and a deep suspicion of federal authorities who challenged the established order; and to a local power elite that proved willing to tolerate and reproduce the everyday disasters—poverty, violence, insecurity of all kinds—that New Orleans generated, even on its finest days.

Horowitz’s account begins on September 29, 1915, when the most powerful American hurricane then recorded hit Louisiana, killing 275 and washing out entire settlements around New Orleans. Despite the damage, city leaders celebrated their resilience. “Storm proof!” the New Orleans Item proclaimed. The mayor rejected all outside offers of assistance. “It is safe to say that no city anywhere in the world could have withstood these conditions with less damage and less inconvenience,” boasted the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, which managed the city’s flood protection systems. It shared other good news, too. Since extreme weather is atypical, it reasoned, the recent hurricane “renders more remote the probability of a repetition of any of these things in the early future.” Such hubris was common in US cities at the time. But New Orleans was rising from an unusually precarious foundation, one where water and wetlands mingled freely with firm ground. It needed smart, careful planning. Instead, it expanded straight into harm’s way.

Horowitz does a masterful job of describing the public and private engineering projects that made possible real estate construction, oil exploration, and other forms of economic expansion in New Orleans during the twentieth century, building fortunes for a few while putting thousands in the path of the next big storm. Oil, the “black pearl in the oyster,” was first discovered over a salt dome in southwest Louisiana in 1901, and soon thereafter wildcatters rushed in to drill new wells. Suddenly, Horowitz writes, a booming market for Louisiana crude “transmuted worthless marsh into liquid wealth.” The state allowed local governments to lease land to fossil fuel companies, and they in turn reshaped marshes and wetlands, dredging new canals and developing “a massive new infrastructure for exploring, drilling, piping, shipping, and refining oil.” Roads, highways, housing, and power lines followed. Thousands of workers settled on the coastal floodplain. A sprawling urban agglomeration formed, and by the early 1930s the land began to sink.

Humanists often overlook the importance of infrastructure when they write social history, but Horowitz vividly illustrates how it shapes life and land around it, in both planned and unplanned ways. Consider canals: they are an essential means for transporting goods, equipment, and workers between inland areas and the coast. To enhance its industrial shipping system, New Orleans built the Industrial Canal through the Ninth Ward in 1923, and in 1933 the federal government linked it to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, which spanned the Gulf Coast. Horowitz documents the rapid construction of a dense network of smaller canals in the next three decades. Between 1939 and 1948, dredging companies dug out forty-six miles of canals in the Barataria, a land of bayous and swamps slightly south of the city, and another 156 miles of canals by 1962.

Canals are helpful to commerce but destructive to coastal ecosystems. They must be built by plowing, dredging, and moving massive quantities of earth, including in wetlands that provide habitats for a variety of animals and absorb salt water from the Gulf. Canals connected to the sea carry that salt water into the marshes, killing grasses, plants, and species of all kinds; they also allow sediment that formerly fed the swamplands and bayous to flow into the ocean basin, speeding coastal erosion. The first scientific study warning about the dangers of coastal erosion in Louisiana was published in 1936. Between 1932 and 1954, Horowitz reports, “the shoreline retreated an average of nearly nineteen feet per year.”

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Instead of pausing to consider ways of restoring the wetlands, Louisiana’s growth machine—a network of builders, shippers, petrochemical businesses, and state officials aiming to boost the economy and increase tax revenues—advanced new development plans. The centerpiece, which Congress funded in 1956 and the Army Corps of Engineers began to build two years later, was the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, or MRGO (later referred to colloquially as “Mister Go”), a seventy-six-mile deep-draft channel designed to

enable ships to enter New Orleans without venturing into the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain at all, but rather by cutting across the wetlands…[and] heading straight into the Industrial Canal.

Residents of St. Bernard Parish, home to an expanding, white, middle-class community, protested that MRGO would do little to help the economy but would surely destroy wetlands and increase their vulnerability to floods. The corps plowed forward anyway, building the channel and making everyone who lived near it more likely to be deluged in a storm.

Neither the corps nor Louisiana’s political leaders denied the threat of major flooding. After all, about half of New Orleans, including much of the Lower Ninth and St. Bernard Parish, is below sea level, and storms both strong and mild inundated them often. In 1955, Horowitz writes, the corps had been directed by Congress to “consider the problem of hurricane protection in metropolitan New Orleans.” In July 1965 the corps delivered plans for the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project (LPVHPP), which Horowitz calls “a concrete wall around the metropolis.” On September 9, before the plan was approved or construction begun, Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans. “Looking back after Betsy,” Horowitz writes, the authors of the congressional report on the LPVHPP proposal

asserted that the levee system the Corps had proposed “would have eliminated the flooding of developed areas in the city of New Orleans [and] the Chalmette area of St. Bernard,” decreasing the cost of damages by $85 million and “greatly reduc[ing] the number of deaths.”

“This is what happened during Hurricane Betsy,” Sarah Broom writes in The Yellow House, her extraordinary recent memoir of life in New Orleans East2:

One-hundred-plus-mile-per-hour winds blew in from the east, pushing swollen Gulf waters across Lake Borgne, a vast lagoon surrounded by marshes and open to the Gulf. Water entered the funnel formed by the Intracoastal Waterway and MRGO. Within this network of man-made canals, the storm surge reached ten feet and topped the levees surrounding it, breaching some. This is how…water came to flood more than 160,000 homes, rising to eaves height in some.

It’s how New Orleans experienced $1.2 billion in damages, how more than 70,000 were left homeless, and how, according to Horowitz, at least fifty people drowned, many in the attics of their own homes.

People evacuating flooded areas after Hurricane Betsy, New Orleans

Bettmann/Getty Images

People evacuating flooded areas after Hurricane Betsy, New Orleans, September 1965

In Broom’s telling, locals believed that bad faith played as big a part as bad engineering in the destruction of poor sections of New Orleans. It’s an established fact that the federal government blew up levees to protect prosperous, mainly white neighborhoods during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, even though that meant flooding Black and poor communities that otherwise would have stayed dry. “The levees were blown on purpose” during Betsy, too, Broom’s brother and many others in the deluged areas of the city say. They “knew the sound of dynamite” from when the government blew up marshes to dredge MRGO, and they insist they heard it again during the storm. Broom doesn’t take a position on whether it really happened, but she draws attention to the fact that her neighbors told the same story after Katrina, when they tried to explain why their neighborhoods got inundated, why the levees broke.

President Lyndon Johnson gave a different account after Betsy. He lamented the “injury that has been done by nature,” as did local leaders. This had a clear political purpose. If it’s “an act of God that government had no role in causing,” Horowitz writes, then it’s a problem that the government has “no obligation to fix.” In a fine chapter on Hurricane Betsy, Horowitz argues that New Orleans residents had come to see the welfare state as being “like a levee: politicians could make cuts for some to give security to others.” He tells the story of Lucille Duminy, a Black woman whose house was one of some six thousand to be flooded in the Lower Ninth, most owned by African-Americans. She and her neighbors applied for disaster relief, only to be offered small amounts of charity or government loans. For Duminy, Horowitz explains, “The policy seemed perverse. The loans forced people into debt to the same government they believed responsible for their losses in the first place.” Rather than accept loans, Black residents joined with civil rights organizations and placed posters claiming “FORTY YEARS OF DEBT IS NOT FREEDOM!” throughout the Lower Ninth.

In the late 1960s New Orleans communities made vulnerable by big engineering projects demanded better protection and more substantial relief. Instead, Congress gave them the LPVHPP, having approved it in October 1965, only after Hurricane Betsy. It was designed to keep more than 150 square miles of New Orleans dry in what the Weather Bureau referred to as a “Standard Project Hurricane” like the 1915 disaster, but not in a “Probable Maximum Hurricane.” The corps deemed this lower level of protection sufficient for the city, since a “maximum hurricane” seemed unlikely to arrive. It justified the federal investment with a controversial cost-benefit analysis that projected the population of the metropolitan area to double, economic activity to spike, and, because of its own engineering, flood damage to decline.

In 1968 Congress added one more layer of protection, the National Flood Insurance Program. Originally, this law provided subsidized insurance for homeowners living in identified flood-prone areas but not for new construction. Lobbyists pressured lawmakers to expand eligibility, however, and by the 1990s, Horowitz argues, the program became a system for encouraging and authorizing development in flood-prone areas, rather than preventing it. Americans, in Louisiana and beyond, settled where the water wanted to go.

In New Orleans, the most desirable land has always been on the higher elevations, and in the twentieth century the city’s mainly white economic elite established strongholds in dry neighborhoods, such as the Garden District and the French Quarter. Poor and working-class people were largely relegated to the swampy parts, including the Lower Ninth and Gentilly. As New Orleans expanded and more Black workers arrived for jobs in the booming oil and gas, shipping, and tourism industries, however, the pattern changed. Boosted by New Deal housing policies that subsidized new building projects and mortgages for people who lived in predominantly middle-class white communities (but not for those whose neighborhoods had been redlined), white residents began settling in flood-prone areas that had previously been undeveloped. Louisiana whites, Horowitz argues, were more concerned about racial integration than inundation.

When Hurricane Katrina arrives in August 2005, midway through Horowitz’s book, we see, as we did then, the city survive the initial downpour, only to drown when the floodwalls fail and the levees break. We see the abject suffering of thousands who were abandoned by government in the hour of their greatest need. We see battered Black people confined, without potable water, in the Superdome. We see dead Black bodies, face down, on water-logged streets. We see the media depict African-Americans as “looting” grocery stores and Whites “finding” food on the shelves. We see false reports of rampaging gangs, babies being raped, and, as The New York Times put it, “a total breakdown of organized society.” We see President Bush on Air Force One, flying over New Orleans for a photo op instead of sending millions of meals or hundreds of buses for evacuation. We see police and the National Guard treating city residents like refugees, criminals, animals, and worse. We see America as a failed state.

But Horowitz’s analysis of the storm’s impact also contains surprises. Were Black city residents more vulnerable to the hurricane? Yes, but not exactly as the early reporting suggested. Low-lying Black neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth were eviscerated during Katrina, but so were flood-prone white neighborhoods, such as St. Bernard Parish, located in marshlands or near doomed levees and canals. According to state statistics, Blacks accounted for 67 percent of New Orleans’s population in 2005 and 67 percent of the city’s flood fatalities. At least 800,000 people across Louisiana were displaced by the storm. “It was not primarily poor New Orleans or rich New Orleans, nor was it white New Orleans or black New Orleans, that flooded during Katrina,” Horowitz writes. “It was twentieth-century New Orleans”—by which he means the fantasy of a magical place, charmed by culture, safeguarded by engineers, always able to bounce back. In the twenty-first century, that idea would drown.

Flooding, though, was just one of Katrina’s many plagues. The others—including illnesses (from interrupted cancer care to acute stress and PTSD), uninsured damage (at least $45 billion), economic losses (roughly $250 billion), missed education (in 2006 20 percent of New Orleans children either left school after the hurricane or missed more than ten days per month), and permanent displacement—took a greater toll on African-Americans.3

Most American disaster policies aim “to return things as they were before,” Horowitz writes, and in an unequal society, that means restoring inequalities—through disparate insurance payouts or medical care, for example—instead of alleviating them. Political opportunists, particularly libertarian champions of market-based programs, routinely exploit crises to advance their preexisting goals. After Katrina, critics of public housing successfully lobbied to demolish public housing stock that could have been restored quickly, effectively forcing thousands of residents out of the city for good; charter school advocates pushed to dissolve the Orleans Parish public school system, leading to privatization and the termination of unionized teachers; the state university system closed Charity Hospital, an essential public health facility in Mid-City that had served poor people in New Orleans since 1736.

The effects of these policy changes are fully apparent in contemporary New Orleans, where out-migration of Blacks and gentrification have made the city smaller, whiter, and durably unequal. “Katrina Washed Away New Orleans’s Black Middle Class,” the website FiveThirtyEight reported on the storm’s tenth anniversary. “More than 175,000 black residents left New Orleans in the year after the storm; more than 75,000 never came back.” Those who remain are far more likely than whites to say that their community has not yet recovered. In 2015, Horowitz notes, nearly 40 percent of the city’s children lived in poverty; 40 percent had witnessed a shooting, stabbing, or beating; 16 percent worried about having enough food to eat or a place to stay; and 12 percent were clinically depressed. That was a relatively prosperous time in New Orleans. Today, as the Covid-19 pandemic rages, these numbers are likely to get significantly worse.

Covid-19 and climate change are drastically intensifying insecurity in New Orleans. The “Great Wall”—the local name for the enormous, $14.5 billion “Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk-Reduction System” that the Army Corps of Engineers designed after Katrina and completed in 2018—is hardly sufficient to safeguard the city from future hurricanes. Despite warnings from climate scientists, urban planners, and anxious residents, the wall was built to protect New Orleans only from a “hundred year” flood event—a flood with a one percent chance of happening each year under climate conditions at the time of construction, but a higher chance as the planet warms. (For perspective, the Netherlands, where about half the land is below sea level, designs its flood protection systems for a ten-thousand-year storm event.) The corps has hardly hidden the shortcomings of its project: note that it calls the wall a “risk reduction system” rather than a flood protection project. Here, as in so many other fundamental areas of human security, the US government has considered the costs of protecting its citizens from twenty-first-century hazards, and decided against the investment.

This year is the fifteenth anniversary of Katrina, and we’re so immersed in the current disaster, a pandemic whose name, Covid-19, once again fixes our attention on an exogenous threat rather than on the true source of our fragility, that it’s hard to focus on what happened years ago. In New Orleans, the social fault lines that make hurricanes so unequal have shaped the course of Covid-19 as well. In June researchers at the Data Center reported that Blacks accounted for 77 percent of the city’s coronavirus deaths, and, even more disturbingly, 88 percent of deaths outside long-term care facilities.4 The authors of the study told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the pattern “reveals that racial disparities are even greater than previously thought.”

Disasters have the power to reveal who we are, what we value, what we’re willing—and unwilling—to protect. They can shame us, incite outrage, inspire protest, and make transformation seem necessary, if not inevitable. It’s tempting to believe that the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s complete failure to manage it have opened the country’s eyes to its own systemic vulnerabilities and to the urgency of what progressives call “structural change.” It’s possible that we’ll get it, but disaster guarantees nothing.

  1. 1

    Julie Dermansky, “Five Years After the BP Oil Spill, Gulf Coast Residents Say ‘BP Hasn’t Made Things Right,’” DeSmog, April 21, 2015. 

  2. 2

    Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House (Grove, 2019).  

  3. 3

    See Lisa Wade, “The Devastating Effect Hurricane Katrina Had on Education,” The Pacific Standard, September 1, 2015. 

  4. 4

    See Rachel Weinstein and Allison Plyer, “Detailed Data Sheds New Light on Racial Disparities in Covid-19 Deaths,” The Data Center, June 25, 2020.