“Hurricane Katrina in Transatlantic Perspective” edited by Romain Huret and Randy J. Sparks. LSU Press, 2014. $29.95.
Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina pushed a wall of water into New Orleans that, in many ways, is still receding.
LSU Press’ “Hurricane Katrina in Transatlantic Perspective,” edited by Romain Huret and Randy J. Sparks, is the product of a decade of scholarship and has roots in the Crescent City’s special relationship with France.
In December 2005, Sara Le Menestrel organized a Paris conference of French and American scholars. It was followed by gathering in the Crescent City for the storm’s fifth anniversary. What resulted is this collection of essays that looks both forward and backward, turning the storm over and over like a Rubik’s cube.
The city — and really south Louisiana — is no stranger to this duality of living a present life and planning a future amid nearly constant reminders of the past. Streets and places are generations older than the United States. Even the trees are ancient.
After Katrina hit, levee failures drowned the city, laying bare the crackling, brittle networks of community, memory, space and home. This collection of essays, fascinating but not at all light reading, plucks out threads of life, suffering and recovery in an effort to understand those networks, their development and their postdiluvian metamorphosis.
One essay is Huret’s “Explaining the Unexplainable: Hurricane Katrina, FEMA, and the Bush Administration.” He argues, successfully, that a perfect storm of bureaucracy and public opinion sank a timely, helpful government response — at all levels — to Katrina.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Huret says, FEMA became a reworked cog in a massive bureaucracy that doomed New Orleans long before Katrina even formed. It was the reconfigured, newly centralized system, not individuals like Mayor Ray Nagin, Gov. Blanco or even FEMA Director Michael Brown, that failed New Orleans.
“Responsibility and authority … were unclear,” Huret writes. “The secretary of homeland security was in charge, but FEMA’s director was supposed to run operations with the Homeland Security Operations Center.
However, FEMA’s officials were still second-hand players, subordinated to military command.
The new chain of command was largely unknown by Americans and especially people from New Orleans who waited in vain for FEMA’s buses and rescuers.”
Huret’s essay works particularly well with the next one, Jean Kempf’s “Picturing the Catastrophe: News Photographs in the First Weeks After Katrina.”
A catastrophic storm striking in the era of 24-hour cable news, Katrina blew into homes across America like no other storm. Kempf traces the coverage, proving that even though the storm received unprecedented coverage, it fit our social constructs for catastrophe.
“Despite the difference in the particulars, the visual rendering of Katrina, both of the hurricane and the flood, bears a striking resemblence to previous treatments of catastrophes,” Kempf argues.
“The awe that nature inspires — from giant trees or geysers to tornadoes and hurricanes — has blended with the romantic sensibility as well as the more pragmatic, positive, can-do mentality that became a landmark of the famous ‘pioneer spirit’ and part and parcel of the American experience.”
The photographs that came out of the flooded city fit into ready-made frames that evolve out of our American existence.
But Americans were unused to this type of disaster washing up on our own shores. We are much more accustomed to watching disasters in Haiti, south Asia, the Middle East and other places — to other people. New Orleans, a Caribbean city in America, was also snared in this framework, Kempf writes.
“New Orleans thus became actually caught up in its very image: with its exotic flavor in American culture, the city that is a little of the Caribbean culture on American soil — and is marketed as such — was made a real third-world city by Katrina and thus severed from the mainland, as it were.”
As it were, indeed.
The days after Katrina, for those in New Orleans and across South Louisiana, were lonely ones.
Floodwaters marooned New Orleans.
Even cities farther afield, like Baton Rouge and Lafayette, were cut off from normal deliveries of things like groceries and gas.
This book, with its familiar ties to France and global worldview, reminds us that we were never alone and aren’t likely to be again.