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The very different depictions of Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina

Where Hurricane Katrina took place in New Orleans – exoticised, deprived – Texas stands at the centre of national narratives of rugged individualism and self-reliance, and coverage of Hurricane Harvey has overlooked race and class.

The National Guard responds to Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.“It happened to Texas and Texas can handle anything”, President Trump said last week, waving the flag of the Lone Star State to an approving crowd in Corpus Christi in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. “They represent truly the very best of America”, he added later. Trump’s characterization of Harvey as a trial to be met by Texan grit and an all-American resilience couldn’t be further from the portrait painted of those impacted by Hurricane Katrina by George W. Bush 12 years earlier. Following an aerial tour of New Orleans completed soon after Katrina, he remarked, “I’ve just completed a tour of some devastated country”. He also claimed to “know the people of this part of the world are suffering…” People “from this part of the world”, Bush insisted, would not be forgotten.

Bush’s disconnection from the region reflected a larger sense that post-Katrina New Orleans resembled a ‘Third World’ disaster zone.

Bush’s disconnection from the region reflected a larger sense that post-Katrina New Orleans resembled a ‘Third World’ disaster zone, a sense that also led to storm survivors being widely referred to as ‘refugees’, despite the fact that only a tiny minority were not US citizens. This feeling that the post-storm city was not quite American has a long history. It relates to the fact that New Orleans is a majority-black city, but is also connected to the city’s distinctive and pronounced relationship to its French and Spanish colonial past, its links to West Africa, and its apparent flouting of the Protestant work ethic as evidenced in its calendar of festivals, its rich parading and performance culture, and an economy dominated by tourism. New Orleans has thus come to stand out as a quaint relic amidst a relentlessly forward-looking national culture that dispenses with the past in favour of the future.

This stereotypical understanding of New Orleans culture made it into a New York Times piece written last week, which suggests that when "Katrina devastated New Orleans, the disaster played out in an eccentric anachronism, a city of modest economic heft proudly tethered to its exotic past. But Harvey has inundated a city perpetually looking to the future, a place built on boundless entrepreneurialism, the glories of air conditioning, a fierce aversion to regulation and a sense of limitless possibility."

Where New Orleans has long been cast as a disaster waiting to happen, Houston, the coverage seems to be suggesting, will triumph. It is a ‘muscular’, ‘resilient’ city, whereas New Orleans, long cast in literature as weak and effeminate, is imagined in very different terms. While both cities are situated in improbable locations, vulnerable to floods and storms, it is New Orleans and not Houston that is seen as somehow irresponsible for perpetuating its own existence. In the wake of Katrina, there were widespread calls for footprint shrinkage and some commentators went so far as to suggest that the city should not be rebuilt. Despite the rapid growth that has led to Houston becoming synonymous with unsustainable sprawl and concrete, the merits of rebuilding have not been challenged.

Where New Orleans has long been cast as a disaster waiting to happen, Houston, the coverage seems to be suggesting, will triumph.

Texas stands at the centre of national narratives of rugged individualism and self-reliance, and Houston in many ways represents the neoliberal expression of these values, a playground of unregulated physical and economic growth. So where the story about New Orleans after Katrina was dominated by a narrative about race and class, the racialised poverty that the Hurricane seemingly uncovered, the story about Houston in the wake of Harvey has been dominated by the image of the white, middle-class home owner. Where New Orleanians behaved badly after the storm, or so the grotesquely inaccurate and racist media coverage went, the best is being brought out in Texas. 

This is not another Katrina, the narrative insists. Disasters, in fact, are great social levellers. Another recent New York Times story captures the essence of this political and media messaging: "Storm With “No Boundaries” Took Aim at Rich and Poor Alike". Although this piece does acknowledge that once disaster has struck, the poor have fewer options, this is an enormous understatement. Where depictions of Katrina survivors were sensationalised and often overtly racist, those who will be hit hardest by Harvey have been rendered all but invisible.

What the very different characterisations of post-Katrina New Orleans as compared to post-Harvey Houston obscure is the very sizeable minority and low-income communities in Texas who did not own cars with which to evacuate or homes against which to claim insurance. 30% of Houston’s population live below the poverty line and more than 40% do not own their own homes. As the lessons of Katrina have shown, it is renters and those living in public housing who are most vulnerable to homelessness and displacement following a disaster of this kind. And just as poor black Americans in New Orleans were more likely to inhabit lower-lying and thus flood-prone land, communities of colour in Houston are similarly exposed to risk, living in close proximity to the oil refineries and chemical plants that in the wake of the storm are leaking dangerous levels of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Hypervisible in the case of Katrina and invisible in the case of Harvey, low-income communities of colour are on the front line of climate change in the United States, just as they are across the rest of the world. Stories about plucky Texans facing up to the storm, or indeed about looting in New Orleans, seek to suck us back into the ‘human interest’ narrative of the here and now, into the seductive rhetoric of everyday survival. Meanwhile the larger, deeply discomforting significance of storms like Harvey and Katrina, as signs of things to come, remain in shadow.

About the author

Anna Hartnell is senior lecturer in contemporary literature at Birkbeck, University of London. She is author of Rewriting Exodus: American Futures from Du Bois to Obama (2011) and After Katrina: Race, Neoliberalism, and the End of the American Century (2017).


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