Monday, August 24, 2020
August 24, 2020: Katrina at 15: Nature or Nurture?
[I can’t quite believe it, but this week marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall in New Orleans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the hurricane, its even more devastating aftermaths, and a few other contexts for this tragic and telling 21st century story.]
On two distinct ways to frame a disaster, and what our current crisis helps us understand.
In the 15 years since Hurricane Katrina hit, meteorologists and other scientists have frequently used it as an example of a “perfect storm” (or at least the hurricane version of that concept, as opposed to the one that most fully entered our lexicon through the Gloucester-set book and film of the same name). A tropical depression meeting a tropical wave, and moving through warm water with no wind shear to help slow down or dissipate the building storm; intensity that didn’t seem to lessen much when the storm moved over land (which apparently is normally what happens); a particularly warm Gulf Loop current that sped up Katrina’s wind speeds by more than half (from 75 to 110 mph); and continued intensifications in the days leading up to the storm’s Louisiana landfall. From what I understand, many of those individual ingredients are present in any number of hurricanes or tropical storms each season that don’t turn out to be anything out of the ordinary (hence the repeated line in Treme’s depiction of the approaching storm, about which more later in the week, that the storm will veer off before it gets to New Orleans “as they always do”). But this time, they all came together and created what does indeed seem to be a perfect hurricane, in the worst sense of that phrase.
So that’s the more “natural” explanation for Katrina’s unprecedented levels of destruction and devastation, and to this non-scientist at least it makes sense. But there’s also an equally compelling argument for “nurture”—that it was decades of neglect and corruption and mismanagement and malfeasance, coupled with a truly horrific governmental response in August and September 2005 (“Heckuva job, Brownie”), which made Katrina’s effects on New Orleans and its vicinity so unusually extreme and awful. This is why, to cite another Treme line and perspective to which I’ll return in a couple days, John Goodman’s wonderful character Creighton Bernette insists on calling Katrina a “man-made disaster” (rather than the natural variety); or, as Bernette puts it so evocatively in that last hyperlinked clip (which you should really watch in its entirety, and especially through the end), while the storm itself was of course natural, “a hurricane, plain and simple, the flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions, and decades in the making.”
Obviously these two narratives can (and I would argue do) coexist in the overarching story of Katrina, but there is nonetheless a matter of emphasis, at least when it comes to the crucial question of why the storm hit New Orleans so potently. While the analogy is far from an exact one, I can’t help but think, here in 2020, about the clarity that our own currently unfolding disaster might provide. To put it bluntly: COVID-19 seems like a perfect storm of disease, in its originality, in how potently contagious and aggressive and destructive it is, even in its ability to evolve right before our eyes as we try to get a handle on it; but to my mind none of those aspects explain why the United States has been hit so horrifically hard (as I draft this in late May we are nearing 100,000 deaths in three months or so) while other nations have done so much better (most famously, South Korea, which saw its first diagnosed case on the same day as the US but remains well under 1000 deaths here in late May). Which is to say: natural disasters are gonna happen, all the more frequently as climate change continues to change our world in all the ways it has and will; but what those disasters do to us, and how we respond, are very open questions, and ones for which we now have all too clear examples of the worst versions, in 2005 and 2020 alike.
Next KatrinaStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Katrina histories or contexts you’d highlight?