Another Katrina Anniversary, Another Storm

Writing something on the Katrina anniversary or in response to floods and storms has become  somewhat commonplace for me. What I wrote below this morning, in many ways goes over ground I’ve covered before.[1] But still, I found myself writing some of the same story again and figured it wouldn’t hurt to share.

On this rainy 12th anniversary of Katrina and the levee breaks in New Orleans, I am at home with my car on higher ground a mile away[2], in an eerily quiet city that has been overwhelmingly shut down on the possibility that we will get flooding from the Harvey rains that are all-too reminiscent of twelve years ago.

If the streets do flood a foot, or two, or three, as they have twice already this summer, it will not be due to chance but due to the predicable realities of a mayoral administration that has prioritized marshalling his resources towards tourist development, policing, and trying to win favor with the DNC over championing any true investment in flood-protection infrastructure. At the end of Mitch Landrieu’s tenure as the neoliberal white tourists’ mayor of New Orleans, the realities of such priorities came crashing down on residents after flooding at the beginning of this month. Learning the extent to which disinvestment in and mismanagement by the notoriously incompetent Sewage and Water Board (S&WB) has led to our pumping station system to be significantly under capacity for weeks, if not months or weeks, countless New Orleans residents bailed out their homes and towed away their totaled cars as we watched officials lie, lie again, and then be forced to come clean about our manufactured flooding vulnerability.[3] And, in the perfectly scripted line, Landrieu soon offered the solution of privatizing S&WB as our fix to precarity.

I say this not to place all the blame on the Landrieu administration. I am clear on the extent to which the continued susceptibility of not only New Orleans but also Houston, Miami, and scores of other places to the realities of climate change storms and flooding are at the scale of state and federal governments – bodies with exponentially more resources to direct towards the necessary infrastructure the climate change era demands. Yet, it requires us to move beyond narrow conceptions of what places and people we are committed to and why. At this point, it feels tired and trite to hear senators, congress people, and governors of the newly-made disaster zone argue for resources at the national level and have their counterparts of the last disaster call out their hypocrisy given their previous opposition to supporting those people and places that were not their constituents. Yet, it keeps happening and this thinking – this I don’t want too many tax dollars that came from my people to go to your people – continues to shape the discourses of how we approach these acute periods of unmitigated disaster.

This thinking has become commonsense. A few years ago I was teaching about hurricanes Katrina and Rita and their long aftermaths at Brooklyn College. My classroom of 19 and 20 year old honors students, who were in elementary school when Katrina hit, included a number of individuals who asked me why the people of New Orleans didn’t care enough to invest in their infrastructure to protect themselves better.  Not knowing how easily they were falling into the neoliberal racial capitalist rhetoric that saturated the national debates immediately following the storm, it was difficult to budge their thinking when I explained how much of the levee system was under federal jurisdictions and attempted to draw parallels to their recent experiences with Super Storm Sandy. Rerouting such entrenched ideologies towards more expansive investments to people we both know and don’t know is the precondition for fostering the types of movements we so deeply need to confront these ongoing crises.

And with the massive flooding of Houston serving as an all to prescient reminder that the dystopia of climate change is not a future event to theorize but has been a material reality for years, it is critical to remember that the way out of this mess for Houston and beyond is through building up social movements that have the capacity to demand that the government enact just reconstructions for spaces of unnatural disaster. Movements that have the capacity to not only undermine the implementation of racist, sexist disaster capitalism but that have the capacity to make the question of whether or not we should invest state resources to responding and preventing the devastation of such disasters unthinkable. The losses of the last dozen years in New Orleans continue to be painful and palpable but there is still so much wisdom to be gained from what our movements could and couldn’t do. Remembering and sharing them needs to find outlets other than on this anniversary or whenever a new storm strikes.

 

NOTES

[1] Like this piece after Superstorm Sandy, this piece on the 10th anniversary of Katrina, and this piece after last summer’s flooding in Baton Rouge.

[2] Not wanting to tempt the odds of it flooding a third time in less than six weeks.

[3] This is not to say that there are physical geography factors that lead to the levels of flooding in New Orleans, namely that much of the city is below sea level and that in general the city is shaped like a bowl, easily pooling water in low-lying areas. However, the much greater threats to our city are those created by humans – whether it be our faulty levee system or the lack of natural protection from hurricanes due to wetlands erosion from the oil industry.

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