JULY 10, 2020
IN JULY 2019, Tulane history professor Andy Horowitz put an old family photograph and some other precious items into a waterproof bag, tied them to a life preserver, and placed them in his attic. He and his family were fleeing their home in New Orleans, the water was coming, and these were things he couldn’t bear to lose. Hurricane Barry was about to make landfall, and the Army Corps of Engineers was predicting that the Mississippi River could surge over the levees and dump water into Horowitz’s neighborhood. In addition, Horowitz’s wife was well into her third trimester, and the drop in barometric pressure could send her into labor. They drove north.
Not even two months earlier, Horowitz had written an essay for The New York Times to coincide with the start of hurricane season, indicting New Orleans’s levee system as nearly obsolete. “One day soon, when the streets flood, as they do with ominous regularity here, the water will not recede,” he wrote. Just weeks later, Barry forced Horowitz to leave town.
In the end, with Horowitz and his family watching the news from a rented apartment in Mississippi, Barry swerved west and disaster was averted. They could return home. But that would not always be the case. In New Orleans, there is always another storm, and it is always only a matter of time until the “Big One” arrives to finish what Katrina started. In another essay for the Times, Horowitz compared living in New Orleans to “a late round in a national civic game of Russian roulette.”
This context is vital to understanding Horowitz’s brilliant new book, Katrina: A History, 1915–2015. Disaster is not merely academic for Horowitz — as a New Orleanian, he lives with it every summer.
Yet his book is more than just an indictment of the disaster readiness of his precarious hometown, or a meditation on what it’s like to live in constant fear of biblical catastrophe. More than just a recounting of the history and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is an argument for the relevance of history itself.
The waters are rising all across the country. As Horowitz writes, Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico demonstrate “what many Louisianians always understood: that New Orleans’s history is America’s history and that Katrina is America’s possible future.”
If you want to read only one book to better understand why people in positions of power in government and industry do so little to address climate change, even with wildfires burning and ice caps melting and extinctions becoming a daily occurrence, this is the one.
Horowitz begins his history of Katrina in 1915 — almost a century before it made landfall in 2005. That year, the most intense hurricane on record made landfall 100 miles downriver from New Orleans, bringing many feet of rain plummeting down on the “Big Easy.” Although it caused the modern equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars of damage — washing entire neighboring towns off the map — New Orleans survived, and it even celebrated. “Storm proof!” proclaimed one newspaper. The unnamed hurricane emboldened New Orleans to expand, which it did with abandon, sprawling well beyond its 19th-century boundaries and into low-lying, poorly protected land. This expansion “cast a century-long shadow,” Horowitz writes. A building’s age would come to predict its fate in 2005: “[M]ost houses built before 1915 did not flood, but most of the houses built after […] did.” In their quest for growth and profits, New Orleans officials would lay the groundwork for the transformation of their iconic hometown — long known for jazz and joy — into a national symbol of catastrophe.
In the chapters that follow, Horowitz shows — patiently and damningly — how the decisions made by Louisiana’s political and business elite systematically rendered the region vulnerable to disaster. In the early years of the 20th century, local political bosses, desperate to secure profits from the extraction of newfound oil reserves, deployed the rhetoric of “states’ rights” to obtain unprecedented powers to reshape the area’s delicate landscape. These bosses allowed oil companies to plow through Louisiana’s marshes, dredging dozens of miles of canals. This, in turn, allowed saltwater to intrude deep into the marsh, resulting in erosion and subsidence and the inexorable encroachment of the sea. In 1913, southeastern Louisiana began losing almost seven square miles of land a year; by 1946, it was losing 16 square miles annually; and by 1967, that number had climbed to 28. Jim Crow political bosses and oil men had made the area newly vulnerable to flooding from the Gulf of Mexico. “Every year, New Orleans slid nineteen feet closer to the sea.”
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy burst through the city’s floodwalls and dumped an “ocean of water” on New Orleanians. The very worst damage it wrought was on the Lower Ninth Ward, a 300-block area where 6,000 houses — most of them belonging to African Americans — flooded. As Horowitz details, the very existence of the Lower Ninth was the result of municipal officials deciding that water and swamps would no longer constrain the size of the city; federal subsidies and local policies had consigned the neighborhood’s growing black population to lower-lying, more vulnerable areas. When Betsy made landfall at the end of the summer, it thus disproportionately devastated these black residents. “In previous generations, thousands of acres of marsh might have helped to dampen the surge,” Horowitz writes, but the city had constructed a massive “Industrial Canal” to serve as a shortcut for ships traveling from the Gulf. This canal “funneled tides sixteen feet above normal directly into New Orleans.”
In the aftermath of Betsy, government officials described the hurricane as natural, an act of God. But black residents of the Lower Ninth Ward saw it as a direct result of racist decision making. It was no coincidence that they lived in the lowest-lying houses. Further, in the hours after the floodwalls broke, government engineers used a siphon running under the Industrial Canal to trap as much of the flood as possible in the Lower Ninth. Just as the black residents suspected, officials “sacrificed them in order to protect the rest of the city.” These officials then posted National Guardsmen at the limits of the Lower Ninth, told to shoot suspected looters “on sight.” Residents had to produce a deed to reenter their homes, but that deed was all too likely to have been lost in the flood itself. In the months that followed, Congress passed a sizable disaster relief bill, and the press broadcasted a happy story of recovery. But this wasn’t true for blacks living in the Lower Ninth; most black homeowners made too little money to qualify for the federally subsidized loans, and there were no provisions at all for renters, even those who had lost possessions.
An unforeseen consequence of federal disaster aid in the wake of Betsy — and federal subsidies more broadly — was that they encouraged New Orleanians to rebuild their homes on flood-prone land. Starting in the 1930s, millions of dollars in federal incentives “directed Louisianans away from the high ground near the Mississippi River, and into drained swamps near Lake Pontchartrain.” But shortly after Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in the 1960s — which was initially designed to prevent people from building homes in flood-prone land — lawmakers loosened regulations, and the program ended up incentivizing and even subsidizing riskier construction. “Few New Orleanians lived in homes below sea level at the beginning of the twentieth century,” Horowitz writes, but “by the end of the century, the majority did.”
At the same time, local elites lobbied hard for the construction of a massive channel to enable ships to enter New Orleans directly, without passing through the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain. The Army Corps of Engineers studied this proposed construction in the 1930s, approved it in the 1940s, and began building in the 1950s. In spite of vocal opposition from local residents who feared greater vulnerability to hurricanes, the Corps carved a massive swath through the marshlands that had long shielded the city and neighboring St. Bernard Parish from flooding. This channel, the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO), opened in 1968. From the beginning, the Army Corps and other authorities cited cost to argue against flood protection measures. “Originally 650 feet wide, by the early 2000s, the MRGO’s eroding banks had spread to an average of nearly 2,000 feet.” As local residents had predicted, the MRGO would come to serve as a “funnel for hurricane surges.” Other shipping channels and oil canals further compromised the city’s flood protection system. Yet the Army Corps made little progress with the protection program approved after Betsy — basically a giant concrete wall encircling the city. By the end of 2004, almost five decades later, it was still incomplete. “I don’t mean to be an alarmist,” one hurricane expert testified that year, “but the doomsday scenario is going to happen eventually.”
In the last days of August 2005, it happened. A hurricane that had begun somewhere off the coast of the Bahamas began barreling toward Louisiana, picking up speed and ferocity. On August 28, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin warning that Hurricane Katrina was likely to cause “human suffering incredible by modern standards.” An hour later, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued the first mandatory evacuation order in the city’s history. More than a million Louisianians fled, with approximately 10,000 remaining in the Superdome as a “refuge of last resort.”
When Katrina made landfall at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, August 29, federal emergency officials initially believed that New Orleans had “dodged the bullet” — the storm was weaker than predicted and it had veered east, missing New Orleans by about 20 miles. “But the levee system crumbled,” Horowitz writes, and all hell broke loose. As predicted, the MRGO and other canals funneled Katrina’s storm surge directly into the eastern side of the city. Floodwalls failed. As many as 50 levees were breached. And 77 percent of New Orleans and almost all of St. Bernard Parish were under water. Three-quarters of the city’s population reported some water in their homes, and, factoring in the surrounding parishes, at least 800,000 people were displaced. While the homes of New Orleans’s wealthiest residents — in the French Quarter and the Garden District — remained dry, few others were spared, especially those living in low-lying, modern developments. “It was not primarily poor New Orleans or rich New Orleans, nor was it white New Orleans or black New Orleans, that flooded during Katrina,” Horowitz writes. “It was twentieth-century New Orleans.”
Yet even if the flooding were equitably distributed, the response to the hurricane was not. Media outlets “summoned stereotypes with deep cultural histories to imply that while white people faced the emergency as self-reliant, rugged individualists, black people were devolving into criminal, savage freeloaders.” Respected news sources claimed that black New Orleanians were raping infants and eating corpses. Even though such claims were clearly false, Louisiana’s governor responded by ordering the National Guard to “suspend their search and rescue mission and instead focus on restoring order in the city.” The police and National Guardsmen invaded the flooded city, determined to protect property but not people, and in the week after the storm shot at least nine people, most of them apparently unarmed.
Polls in the hurricane’s aftermath showed that most white people saw Katrina as a natural disaster — “bad luck, perhaps aggravated by the illegitimate actions of criminal African Americans” — while most black people “saw a racist country that had put people in harm’s way, refused to help them, and then criminalized their efforts to help themselves.” Summoning memories of Hurricane Betsy, black Louisianians described a disaster with deep historical roots, and a response that treated them as “disposable.”
The process of rebuilding the city further entrenched inequality along race and class lines. Some argued for abandoning New Orleans outright; others felt that New Orleanians should have a right of return. Some wanted the status quo to be restored; others called for the construction of a fairer, more equal city. In the end, Mayor Nagin appointed a “Bring New Orleans Back” Commission to figure out the recovery — its 17 members included seven CEOs and three bank presidents. Adopting a plan to shrink the city, it prioritized saving predominantly white neighborhoods — but then a groundswell of black activism convinced Nagin to abandon that plan and commit to rebuilding the whole city. Instead of opting for a centrally redesigned city, however, municipal officials wagered that a stronger levee system could protect them in the future and so they began encouraging displaced New Orleanians to return and rebuild in flood-prone areas.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress called for hundreds of billions of dollars to launch a New Deal–scale transformation program, proposing the beginning of a sustained effort to eradicate poverty nationwide. Their bill never came up for a vote. Instead, Congress allotted just a fraction of the money to rebuild affected parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. To qualify for federal money, homeowners had to show clear title to their properties, which disproportionately impacted black and poor homeowners, since they were the ones most likely to have lost documents in the flood. The federal system for determining the pre-flood value of homes further discriminated against black homeowners. Renters in particular suffered. Today, New Orleans’s white population is essentially back to where it was before Katrina, but there are 100,000 fewer black people living in the city.
Much of the city’s public housing survived the flood but not the recovery. In spite of determined protests from residents and a lawsuit demanding a right of return, officials demolished much of the city’s public housing. After the demolition, New Orleans had what “might have been the highest homelessness rate recorded in modern American history.” The city’s primary hospital, Charity Hospital, likewise survived the flood but not the recovery. After Louisiana State University refused to reopen the hospital and furloughed most of its staff, there were fewer options for health care in the city, even as the rate of serious mental illness doubled and the rate of suicide tripled. Perhaps most famously, local and state officials used Katrina as an excuse to destroy the city’s public schools, transforming it into an almost entirely charter system. The new school regime fired thousands of teachers and staff — from a system that had previously been one of the city’s largest employers of black professionals — and rehired very few. The percentage of black teachers in the city dropped from 71 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in 2013 and has kept falling. Not coincidentally, this transformation destroyed the teachers’ union.
In times of disaster, the activist Naomi Klein has argued, proponents of unregulated capitalism exploit the trauma and accompanying distraction to replace public services with free market alternatives. In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans has exemplified this opportunistic transformation. None of it had to happen this way.
Horowitz’s publisher is promoting his book as the “definitive history of Katrina,” but that doesn’t feel quite right. Only one chapter of Katrina — barely 20 pages — is devoted to the storm itself. And Horowitz does not delve deeply into the profound moral conundrums laid bare by Katrina, as Sheri Fink did in her magisterial epic, Five Days at Memorial. Nor does Horowitz depict in detail the family bonds torn asunder and the intergenerational trauma wrought by the storm and its aftermath, as Sarah Broom did in her National Book Award–winning memoir, The Yellow House.
What Horowitz does do, however, is muster considerable evidence to argue that the “pain” that came from Katrina was not “fair, or natural, or inevitable,” or the “consequence of some external disaster. It is the disaster itself.” Neither rain nor wind compelled authorities to carve away the region’s protective marshes and neglect to put in place hurricane protection systems. The storm did not make New Orleans police officers shoot unarmed citizens. The flood did not compel officials to demolish the city’s public housing, destroy its public hospital, and turn its public school system into “a confederacy of charter schools.” These were the decisions of individuals, not nature.
For generations, Louisiana’s politicians have been held captive by the oil and gas industries, and it’s no coincidence that the region remains startlingly vulnerable to another Katrina. In the hurricane’s aftermath, the city traded the idea of stronger levees for the promise of more flood insurance, which only puts more people at risk. Balking at the cost of proper flood protection, the Bush administration opted instead to fund deeply inadequate barriers. Meanwhile, fossil fuel extraction continues.
“One of America’s most closely held myths is that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” Horowitz writes in the book’s epilogue, invoking a quotation often ascribed to Martin Luther King Jr. (it was actually coined by an abolitionist minister a century before). Yet the history of New Orleans is not one bending “inexorably toward progress,” Horowitz continues. It is bending toward more storms, more flooding. And the climate is changing.
Horowitz’s invocation of this famous quotation brings to mind a variation from the environmental activist Bill McKibben. “The arc of the physical universe appears to be short,” he has written, “and it bends toward heat.”
We are running out of time to mitigate the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. Katrina-as-catastrophe was neither natural nor inevitable, but rather the result of deliberate choices made by greedy people. Whether the entire country — indeed, the entire world — goes the way of New Orleans depends on our learning from this past and demanding a safer and more just future, committed to protecting people and not profits.
Scott W. Stern is a lawyer and historian, originally from Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Trials of Nina McCall: Sex, Surveillance, and the Decades-Long Government Plan to Imprison “Promiscuous” Women (2018).