Katrina as a Domestic Phenomenon

The Chinese port city of Tianjin is reeling following devastating explosions. It is a human-caused disaster that has authorities seeking answers and a proper response to Tianjin residents. It brought a rapid response.

The response to the Tianjin explosions stands in stark similarity and contrast to the response accorded the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in the southeastern United States. Hurricane Katrina was a force of nature (a force that may well have been exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change), but much of the blame for destruction as a result of the winds and flooding lies with humans: extirpation of natural barriers that provide a modicum of protection for catastrophic weather events such drainage of the wetlands and the gross negligence of the US Army Corps of Engineers in maintaining levees in New Orleans.

The Lower 9th Ward as it looked about 10 days after Hurricane Katrina hit in September 2005. Times Picayune archive

The Lower 9th Ward as it looked about 10 days after Hurricane Katrina hit in September 2005. Times Picayune archive

Katrina 10 years later: what does it signify? Is Katrina a singularly devastating disaster that outstrips other disasters worldwide? Of course not, but it is understandable that Americans would be primarily focused on a disaster that happened on US territory. ((What the colonialists and their progeny would claim as US territory. There is no disputing the fact the US was formed through violently dispossing the Indigenous inhabitants of the territory. See David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (London: Oxford University Press, 1992). “The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world.” (p. x) After 1492, 95 percent of the Indigenous people were wiped out; maybe 100 million (p. 151).))

Author Gary Rivlin examines Katrina and its aftermath in his book Katrina: After the Flood (Simon & Schuster, August 11, 2015).

Kat_DVRivlin’s book focuses on Katrina exclusively as a domestic phenomenon. The role of the city, state, and federal governments are examined. The book also follows various personalities and how they coped during the recovery post-Katrina. Politicians, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, bankers, citizens, etc. US president George W. Bush also appears but his role in the book is marginal – seemingly, as was Bush’s response to the disaster (especially contrasted to Chinese officials’ response to the Tianjin explosions).

The Black-White racial divide comes across forcefully in Katrina: After the Flood. That such a fixation on skin pigmentation exists is not a revelation, but it imbues this reviewer with many feelings: sad, absurd, and disgusting are among them. As Rivlin depicts events, in too many cases solidarizing around concern for fellow humans was shunted aside by in-out groupings determined by racist sentiment (along with political infighting, corruption, self-aggrandizement, etc.). Katrina: After the Flood deserves plaudits for exposing the widespread racism that affects American society – at least in the Southeast. ((And racism is likeliest symptomatic of US society as a whole. As linguist Noam Chomsky stated, “… there is a racist element to U.S. foreign policy, of course…,” but Chomsky identified the basic motivation as “maintaining obedience” in client states. Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, ed. Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel (New York: New Press, 2002): 155.))

What about …?

Rivlin captures the domestic divisions, but he does not deal with how this exclusionary mindset manifests itself beyond US borders. The overwhelming international response to aid victims of Katrina was unmentioned. Also unmentioned was that GW Bush’s administration played politics rather than accept aid from Cuba. The US government rejected Cuba’s offer to send some 1,600 medics, field hospitals, and 83 tons of medical supplies to help Katrina’s victims.

Venezuela offered 1 million barrels of gasoline, $5 million in disaster aid, and 200 humanitarian workers to assist. Bush rejected such aid.

Comparing the response of the US to a disaster on its soil to how other countries respond is revelatory. For example, author Wei Ling Chua compared disaster responses of western governments to the Chinese government: the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, Australia; Hurricane Katrina; the 2011 Christchurch earthquake in Aotearoa; and the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan. ((Wei Ling Chua,  Democracy: What the West Can Learn from China, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013: 17% to 22%. Read review here.)) Wrote Chua:

The speed and quality of the reconstruction [in Sichuan] has put to shame those western governments who relentlessly demonise China over the issue of human rights year on year. ((Chua, location 1019.))

Final Words

Rivlin presents a domestic scope on the disaster. That is a strength, but for this reviewer, it was also an annoyance. Disasters and the response to disasters don’t happen in isolation from the world.

Katrina: After the Flood delves into racism, rebuilding New Orleans, corruption, fear, classism, media bias (p. 99, 130), ((Pages noted as they appeared in review copy.)) questionable police conduct, (p.180) and what a dick Dick Cheney truly is (p. 88), but at the end of the book, this reviewer was left wanting more. For instance, what role did US democracy play in the mishandled crisis? What role did the economic system play in Katrina?

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.