by Tara Gulwell
(Content warnings for 2005 Katrina disaster, mentions of suicide, and PTSD).
I wanted a break from research. Spending an evening at a bookstore to clear my head seemed like a good idea. Living and studying in New Orleans can be exhausting. Researching a dissertation on the Katrina disaster of 2005 is a privilege – but also a daunting task. I walked around the shop happy to not think of anything for a while, but then I saw the heading ‘KATRINA’, and I couldn’t resist. The section consisted of only a few books, titles that I already knew, tucked away on a bottom shelf near the back. I was shocked by the lack of choice. This is New Orleans, after all. Even if I was in the gentrified, college-dominated Uptown, surely this area still had something to say on what happened. I ran to the store clerk and asked if they had any more books on Katrina, and he replied: “We used to have tonnes of them. But after time people forgot. People stopped caring.”
I stopped dead in my tracks. How, I wanted to say. Instances like this keep happening all over New Orleans. It has been eleven years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The gulf of distance between the ‘then’ and ‘now’ is becoming greater and greater. Commemoration has turned into anniversary. But the most important thing I have learnt from listening to Katrina survivors has been this: Katrina is not over.
Katrina is not a ‘natural’ disaster – it is the logical consequence of a capitalist and racist country.
We think disasters have a neat start date and a neat end date, with a neat body count number for in between, and everything that occurs after that is just simply an aftermath. And for someone like me, a white college kid not from New Orleans, of course Katrina would feel like an event we should discuss in the past tense.
We all know, or at least should know, how the narrative goes. The levees failed, and black and poor communities were terrorised in the wake of New Orleans drowning. But the disaster did not begin on 27th August 2005. Its beginnings are in a nation built on white supremacy and inequity. Its beginnings are in colonists creating a highly populated port city in a physically vulnerable location for the purpose of global trade. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failing to build adequate levees. And FEMA resources under the Bush administration directed towards terrorism. And corrupt Louisianan politicians. Katrina is not a ‘natural’ disaster – it is the logical consequence of a capitalist and racist country.
Katrina is still causing death and ruin for many New Orleanians to this day. Charity Hospital, a public hospital that mainly treated uninsured and mostly black patients in the lower-mid city area, was shut down permanently three weeks after New Orleans was flooded. The replacement hospital, University Medical Centre New Orleans, was only built last year. For a decade, returned uninsured New Orleans residents struggled to get medical help they needed, the consequences of which are innumerable. The official death toll due to the storm is at 1,833. This figure does not include the suicides rates following the initial trauma, which tripled in the months following the hurricane.
Those displaced by the storm, called refugees in their own countries, are still fighting to return and reclaim what was theirs.
Despite a surge in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, mental health resources remain low in New Orleans today. The official death toll figure also does not include those who died as a result of chronic conditions being exacerbated by stress. We cannot know how many people died, and are still dying, who would be alive if those levees did not break. Those displaced by the storm, called refugees in their own countries, are still fighting to return and reclaim what was theirs. While tourism has returned with a boom, those most harshly effected by the systematic failure of state and federal government are still struggling to get by in a city where rents have shot up and large parts are still left in rubble.
The examples (of which there are many more I cannot name here) of how Katrina is an on-going disaster are only a part of the story. The name ‘Katrina’ has been taken off the official list for suitable hurricane names, never to be used again. But make no mistake, particularly in the light of a Trump presidency, as long as the U.S. government doesn’t care about black lives and climate change, there will be other Katrinas.
Featured image: Vincent Laforet/The New York Times