When the Levee Breaks: From Katrina to COVID-19, there are reasons why the impacts of catastrophes fall disproportionately on the poor and the powerless.

AuthorMcQuaid, John

Katrina: A History, 1915-2015

Harvard University Press, 296 pp.

by Andy Horowitz

The lampposts along New Orleans's Canal and Rampart Streets have plaques commemorating the phases of the city's history: "French Domination, 1718-1769," "Spanish Domination, 1769-1803," "Confederate Domination, 1861-1865," and "American Domination, 1803-1861, 1865 to Date." It's a poignant example of the city's exoticism and cultural distinctiveness, its sense of standing apart. Other American cities, even elsewhere in the former Confederacy, don't suggest that the United States was a kind of foreign power whose rule was likely to be temporary.

This cultural and geographical otherness makes it easy for many Americans to shrug off New Orleans's climate change predicament. It's why, since Hurricane Katrina, you hear arguments that those crazy people living in the path of disaster should just pack up and move elsewhere. (It's never clear where they should go. Baton Rouge?) Yet the "otherness" view of New Orleans--appealing as it is, in different ways, to both residents and outsiders--is highly misleading. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, echoes Katrina in many ways. It shows how vulnerable we all are to catastrophes, how their impacts fall disproportionately on the poor and people of color, and how Donald Trump's incompetence and hostility to expertise are just the latest steps in the generational Republican Party project of weakening government.

The pandemic gives the national tragedy of the Katrina disaster and its aftermath a jolt of renewed relevance. But revisiting it is a more difficult task than you might think. While Katrina has been explored by a platoon of journalists, historians, memoirists, fiction writers, and makers of films and television shows, genuine insights into the "Why did this happen in America?" question are a little harder to come by. What made a U.S. city so vulnerable to collapse when faced with a "natural" catastrophe?

In Katrina, Andy Horowitz, a historian at Tulane University, answers this question by tracing more than a century of local and national political and economic decision making, shaping where and how people lived in and around metro New Orleans, who won and who lost. It's a revealing way to frame the Katrina story. In a brief, bracing 200 pages, Horowitz chronicles an endless hustle in which governments and wealthy developers seize landscapes and mold them without regard to long-term consequences, and in which white people and moneyed interests have fixed advantages. Inequities and outrages, from stolen tribal lands to the splintered homes of Katrina refugees, are papered over again and again by layers of myth and self-delusion. It was these forces...

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