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Thursday, August 27, 2020

August 27, 2020: Katrina at 15: Three Hurricanes

[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 how three other historic storms help further contextualize Katrina.
1)      Hurricane Betsy (1965): Betsy is the historical hurricane most frequently referenced as a context for Katrina, and for good reasons: one of the deadliest tropical storms in US history, Betsy caused more than 150,000 New Orleans homes to flood, among many other effects that led to more than $1 billion in damages and the nickname “Billion Dollar Betsy”; and in response the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers created a new Hurricane Protection Program which built new levees in the city. That those levees failed so fully and spectacularly in August 2005 only adds one more layer of context, as well as dramatic and tragic irony, to this comparison.
2)      Hurricane Sandy (2012): There have been a few particularly bad hurricanes since Katrina (and the predictions are for a bad hurricane season this year; I’m drafting this in late May and I hope I won’t have to update it before it goes live), but only one to my knowledge has been called a “superstorm,” and that was Sandy. While the destruction caused by Sandy was certainly comparable to (and more widespread than) that of Katrina, however, the federal and governmental responses were far, far quicker and stronger. There are various possible factors in that difference, including of course having learned from Katrina’s many failures. But it’s difficult not to see the racial and economic demographics of the affected communities as having contributed to these contrasts as well.
3)      Galveston Hurricane of 1900: Betsy and Sandy are the two hurricanes I’ve seen most frequently compared to Katrina, and for all those good reasons. But neither of them, nor Katrina, is known as “the deadliest natural disaster in United States history”; that dubious honor goes to the Great Galveston hurricane or the Great Storm of 1900. Given that the storm landed in an era when there was no way of capturing video footage (and when even photography was a far more laborious and infrequent practice), it’s understandable that we don’t think or talk as much about this hurricane, either in relationship to Katrina or on its own terms. But of course many of the topics I cover in this space are in one way or another distant, and if anything that makes it more important to engage them and consider both their own stories and their potential connections to us. To cite two such compelling, American stories about this storm (and leave the connections for further thought): the job of loading the storm’s dead onto a barge to be dumped at sea was apparently given to 50 African American men recruited at gunpoint; and the city’s drastic population loss after the storm was countered by the Galveston Movement, a campaign to bring Jewish immigrants from East Coast communities to this Texas city.
Last KatrinaStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Katrina histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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