The occasion for this week’s briefing is the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating arrival upon the Gulf Coast. We offer here a curated set of pieces in multiple mediums—a radio episode, an essay from the immediate aftermath, a collection of photographs, and a recent piece on the realities of exile and return—that revisit the immediate realities of the storm and its aftermath, while also bringing us into the current day. But why Katrina?
There are two basic reasons. The first is that “Katrina” refers not merely to a storm but to a cultural phenomenon that has worked its way into our common vocabulary as a metaphor for incompetence and poor governance. The second is that a close look at this phenomenon shows the abiding value of an endowment-based model of civic assessment, which New City Commons is increasingly making use of in our description of civic flourishing.
Culturally speaking, “Katrina” is not just the eleventh named hurricane of 2005 that began over the Bahamas in the last week of August, strengthened to a Category Five mega-storm in the Gulf of Mexico, pummeled the Gulf Coast, exposed massive weaknesses in the infrastructure of New Orleans, flooded some of the city’s most economically disadvantaged wards with over ten feet of water, caused the deaths of an estimated 1,500 people, and displaced hundreds of thousands of American citizens for years on end. It is all that, most plainly; but, in our view, Katrina refers also to the widespread trauma many Americans experienced (and continue to experience) due to the ineptitude of our collective response. (As evidence of this cultural point, take a look at Jamie Fuller’s chronicle from January 2014 of twenty-three ways in which critics of President Obama have described perceived political missteps as “Obama’s Katrina.”)
When, after Katrina passed, the levees broke and the pumps failed, another essential part of at least this New Orleanian’s mind was activated: the part devoted to doubt about our competence to operate the purely human aspects of our society.
While Lemann was serving as dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism in 2005—at considerable geographic distance from the storm—his account of the recesses of what he calls the “New Orleans mind” captures what many felt in the immediate aftermath.
Sarah Broom’s gripping account of returning to her family home and battling with the mundane bureaucracy that continues to haunt victims like her further exemplifies how the wounds Katrina inflicted remain. As Broom says, “in the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, what has plagued me most is the unfinished business of it all.” “Why,” she asks, “is my brother Carl still babysitting ruins, sitting on the empty plot where our childhood home used to be? Why is my seventy-four-year-old mother, Ivory Mae, still unmoored, living in St. Rose, Louisiana, at Grandmother’s house?” This palpable sense of unfinished business, of being “unmoored,” is the subject of David Speilman’s “The Katrina Decade,” excerpted in the Fall 2015 edition of the Oxford American. As only photographs can, Speilman’s black and white images convey both the fragility and fortitude of a people and place that has experienced deep trauma.
Our final piece is a recent episode of This American Life that brings this fragility and fortitude forth in vivid color. In what the hosts describe as a “walking tour” of the Lower Ninth Ward, this hour-long radio program juxtaposes the firsthand testimony of current residents of New Orleans with detailed accounts of everyday life one decade after the storm. In so doing, the program highlights the fact that Katrina is still very much with us, so much so that one of the subjects has to be corrected when he asserts that the storm was only “five years ago.” In describing life in the Lower Ninth in exquisite detail—road conditions, parking, and the like—this “walking tour” exhibits all the virtues of the longform radio genre that is so obviously thriving in our day.
In their own ways, and with the tools of their particular mediums, each of these pieces points to the elements of civic thriving that we describe as civic endowments. Those endowments (theorized for the Thriving Cities Project at the University of Virginia) are: the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the Just & Well-Ordered, the Sustainable, and the Prosperous. These endowments are best understood as the underlying structure of social life, the channels through which particular goods (like educating children, providing emergency medical care, or preserving and maintaining public spaces) are mediated to individuals, families, and communities. At times, of course, we come to understand the value of these endowments more deeply when they are depleted—or, in the case of catastrophes like Katrina, fundamentally stripped away.