When houses are flattened, towns submerged, and people stranded without electricity or even food, we attribute the suffering to “natural disasters” or “acts of God.” But what if they’re neither? What if we, as a society, are bringing these catastrophes on ourselves? That’s the provocative theory of Catastrophe in the Making, the first book to recognize Hurricane Katrina not as a “perfect storm,” but a tragedy of our own makingand one that could become commonplace. The authors, one a longtime New Orleans resident, argue that breached levees and sloppy emergency response are just the most obvious examples of government failure. The true problem is more deeply rooted and insidious, and stretches far beyond the Gulf Coast. Based on the false promise of widespread prosperity, communities across the U.S. have embraced all brands of “economic development” at all costs. In Louisiana, that meant development interests turning wetlands into shipping lanes. By replacing a natural buffer against storm surges with a 75-mile long, obsolete canal that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, they guided the hurricane into the heart of New Orleans and adjacent communities. The authors reveal why, despite their geographic differences, California and Missouri are buildingquite literallytoward similar destruction. Too often, the U.S. “growth machine” generates wealth for a few and misery for many. Drawing lessons from the most expensive “natural” disaster in American history, Catastrophe in the Making shows why thoughtless development comes at a price we can ill afford.
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About the Author
William R. Freudenburgwas professor of Environmental Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Robert Gramling is professor of Sociology and director of the Center for Socioeconomic Research at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Shirley Laska is a professor of Sociology at the University of New Orleans and director of the Center for Hazards, Assessment, Response and Technology (CHART). Kai Erikson is professor emeritus of Sociology and American Studies at Yale University.
Read an Excerpt
Catastrophe in the Making
The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow
By William R. Freudenburg, Robert B. Gramling, Shirley B. Laska, Kai T. Erikson
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2009 Willliam R. Freudenburg, Robert B. Gramling, Shirley B. Laska, and Kai T. Erikson
All rights reserved.
A Mighty Storm Hits the Shore
WE NOTED in the prologue that Katrina became an event in human history when it left the waters of the Gulf and began to hammer the land, affecting areas that had been both settled and shaped by people. The largest concentration of population in the region, of course, is to be found in New Orleans, and for the people who lived there in 2005, the term "Katrina" has come to refer to a reality that has little to do with storm systems forming out at sea or winds spiraling at terrifying speeds as they slammed into the coast.
In the aftermath of Katrina, any number of commentaries treated the destruction of New Orleans as a more or less inevitable consequence of the city's location—very close to sea level, along a stretch of coastline that is no stranger to hurricanes. According to one local account, 172 hurricanes have affected coastal Louisiana since 1559, and 38 of them have reached New Orleans. Katrina would be by far the most expensive of them—in fact, it would become the most expensive natural disaster in the history of the United States—but it was not quite the deadliest, even for hurricanes along the U.S. Gulf Coast. That distinction is reserved for a storm that struck just over a century earlier.
Columbus, of course, made his first journey in 1492, but even four hundred years later, only a few of the communities of the Gulf Coast had populations of more than a thousand souls. One of the largest was Cheniere Caminada, a thriving coastal fishing community 50 miles south of New Orleans, which by 1892 had become home to about 1500 citizens. By the next year, 1893, it would have less than half as many survivors. The other half lost their lives in a hurricane that not only destroyed their community but killed well over a thousand people in southern Louisiana. Just seven years later, an even deadlier hurricane would overwhelm what was at the time the largest of all cities along the Gulf—larger than nearby Houston—Galveston, Texas. The hapless citizens of that then-major city were not just surprised by a hurricane, but also helplessly unable to evacuate because they were living on an island. That storm set the all-time record for an American natural disaster, killing 6,000 people in Galveston alone, along with 2,000 more victims in the surrounding region.
Even a few miles of separation from the nearest salt water could have provided the unfortunate residents of Galveston with substantial protection from hurricanes. Part of the reason is that, although we tend to measure a hurricane's "strength" in terms of its wind speeds, most of the actual death and destruction from a hurricane comes instead from water, in the form of storm surges. A hurricane's winds push the water in front of the storm, and, as the storm nears shore, the water builds up even higher, much as snow piles up in front of a snow shovel. Even in a region where the surface of the land is almost as flat as the surface of a calm ocean, an inland location can derive a significant level of protection from the land that lies between that location and the sea, acting as a giant shock absorber against storm surges.
As we will discuss in the next chapter, however, New Orleans is one of those inland locations.
After the two killer storms of 1893 and 1900, the residents of Louisiana showed little inclination to move back to the edge of the salt water. By the 1980s, one analysis found that only about 12 percent of the Louisiana coastline could be accessed even by rudimentary roads, while comparable figures for California and Florida were 90 percent and 74 percent, respectively.
For most of southeastern Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina was a significant natural disaster. In southern portions of the jurisdiction that straddles the bottom 60 miles or so of the Mississippi River, namely Plaquemines Parish (a parish being the equivalent of a county in most other states) the storm surge was roughly 20 feet high, overtopping Mississippi River levees, destroying entire communities, stripping many buildings down to dirt and concrete slabs, and leading local authorities to declare martial law. A few weeks after the storm, three of the authors of this book drove a local official back to Plaquemines Parish, where she had lived for all of her life, and where she was able to identify the likely inhabitant of a casket that had been incongruously carried away from its resting place and into the middle of a marsh, simply by the markings on the outside of the casket. The damage to the landscape, on the other hand, was so substantial that, in many areas, she had difficulty orienting herself and identifying once-familiar landmarks from the few shreds that remained.
In Mississippi, most of the state's coast was battered by the hurricane's powerful northeast quadrant, where the right hook of Katrina's counterclockwise rotation produced a huge storm surge and severe levels of physical damage as the storm came ashore. CBS News quoted state officials as estimating that 90 percent of the structures within half of a mile of the coastline were swept off their foundations and demolished. In a cruel irony, the town of Waveland would be swamped by a storm surge that some would later speculate to have been as much as 40 feet high. An official count would later report that Katrina destroyed 68,729 homes in the state.
All told, Katrina-related federal disaster declarations covered 90,000 square miles, or an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom. Much of the coastal zone to the north and east of New Orleans—from Slidell, Louisiana, through all of Mississippi, and stretching into the Mobile Bay area of Alabama—was also heavily damaged. The storm killed 238 people in Mississippi alone, leaving roughly 3 million people without electricity. Katrina, in short, would be remembered as a significant natural disaster under any circumstances. Unfortunately, it was also accompanied by other disasters that were even more dramatic, particularly in and around the city of New Orleans.
Any hurricane can produce terrifying conditions. The winds roar, blowing so fiercely that large and ordinarily stationary objects—billboards, roofs, trucks, and more—can turn into deadly missiles. Water is everywhere, not just falling from the skies and driving painfully with the wind, but, even worse, rising from the seas, creating such chaos and destruction that even the most hardened of observers are often stunned by the storm's deadly power. Even by hurricane standards, however, Katrina was different. As Americans watched the mounting misery on their televisions, the customary missions of relief and rescue went nowhere. The failure of the levees was stunning enough. What was more disturbing was the fact that the "organized emergency response" of the federal government, as one Louisiana resident put it, "was none of the three."
By the time the eye of the hurricane was passing to the east of New Orleans, at roughly 9:00 a.m. on August 29, the city's physical protection structures had begun to fail—some catastrophically. Over the next several days, the organizational responses would show even greater failures. The flawed defense system—both in terms of its physical and of its human and organizational components—created enough of an "un-natural" catastrophe to qualify as a disaster in its own right, in some ways just as stunning as the physical destructiveness of the storm itself.
At least until Katrina struck, however, it seemed as though residents of the region were about as well-prepared for the onslaught as might be hoped. Experts and officials were watching carefully as Katrina churned across the Gulf, particularly when projections began to indicate that the storm was headed directly toward New Orleans. The National Weather Service broadcast an ever-rising crescendo of alarms, warning that "devastating damage" was expected not only to private homes and industrial structures, but to all living things. "At least one-half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure," said one warning. Soon thereafter, another cautioned that "the majority of industrial buildings will become non-functional," that "all wood-framed low-rising apartment buildings will be destroyed," and that "high-rise office and apartment buildings will sway dangerously," some of them "to the point of total collapse. All windows will blow out."
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin would later come under heavy criticism, but as the hurricane came over the horizon, he did encourage residents to evacuate, and on August 28, the day before Katrina struck, he issued the first mandatory evacuation order in the long history of that storm-seasoned city. In her turn, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco arranged for regional roads to absorb that massive evacuation, reversing the flow for normally in-bound lanes of interstate highways. She joined in urging people to leave the city, later adding unmistakable emphasis by suggesting that those who refused to evacuate should write their social security numbers on their arms with indelible ink.
The initial encouragement and later mandatory order to leave persuaded many thousands of residents to escape before Katrina made its dramatic arrival on the scene. This was, in fact, the most successful rapid evacuation of a major city in human history—a fact that is easily overlooked in the context of a time when so much was going wrong for so many.
Disasters have a way of appearing to seek out the most vulnerable people in their paths, although that clearly says more about the vulnerabilities of those located in harm's way than it does about any motives one might be tempted to attribute to disasters. In New Orleans, the least-imperiled residents were those who were equipped with functioning automobiles, credit cards, experience of the road, and networks of friends elsewhere; the greatest dangers were reserved for those without transportation or other resources, those who had to care for ill or elderly kin, and those with the least experience of the world outside of the area. On first impressions, such a pattern can almost seem to be a grim kind of joke that disasters have a way of playing on the poor—although that is one of the reasons why it is important to seek more than just first impressions.
Still, while many of those who remained behind had little choice in the matter, many others reasoned that they could ride out the hurricane in their own homes. It is another easily overlooked fact that those people were, for the most part, quite right in their calculations. No one ever asked them to evacuate on the grounds that the levees and floodwalls were about to fail, and those who concluded that they could withstand the storm were essentially correct in their thinking. Unfortunately, they were struck low by events that had not been foretold in even the most desperate of warnings.
On the early morning of August 29, when Katrina first crashed ashore some miles from New Orleans itself, on-scene television reporters began to appear on the nation's screens. Most of them were enacting a now-familiar role—braced against the wind, trench coats flapping, hair twisting into snarls, shouting into hand-held microphones that the storm looked mean out here.
The winds, of course, were gusty enough to provide the familiar backdrop, but the news the reporters were broadcasting throughout that day and well into the next was implausibly good. To repeat an expression heard often that day, New Orleans looked as though it had "dodged another bullet." The storm that had battered so much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coastline was seemingly bypassing the city itself. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—often referred to simply as "the Corps"—issued what quickly proved to be a premature and embarrassing assessment, saying that the fact that Katrina had not caused more damage was "a testament to the structural integrity of the hurricane levee protection system."
And so, for a while, it seemed. A few city blocks east of the location where the reporters were being tousled by the winds of Katrina, though, floodwaters had already begun to surge over the floodwalls along the canals that slice through the city at such peculiar angles. And as the eye of the storm veered just to the east of New Orleans, other protective structures were beginning to fail completely.
* * *
Days earlier, while Katrina was still in the Gulf, bearing down on New Orleans, the disaster manager of adjacent Jefferson Parish, Walter Maestri, got a personal phone call from Max Mayfield of the National Hurricane Center: "Walter, get ready, this could be the one." In many senses, Maestri had been "ready" even before he got the call. His preparedness included his participation in an earlier exercise, commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which had focused on a hypothetical "Hurricane Pam." Emergency managers in that exercise had concluded that a direct hit to New Orleans could create massive flooding, killing tens of thousands of people, and potentially leaving the entire New Orleans metropolitan region paralyzed for months. Maestri even had 10,000 body bags in his parish, ready for a grim duty.
What neither he nor almost anyone else could have been ready for was the stunning absence of a federal response. What made the subsequent suffering even worse was the fact that, in a country as rich and technologically advanced as the United States—able to deliver astonishing quantities of food and medical supplies, seemingly within a matter of hours, to almost any location on earth—the help somehow failed to arrive within our own borders, day after day, even as the agony continued to grow. As the nation watched the live television coverage of the unfolding tragedy, attention turned to this second set of failures—involving not just the physical floodwalls, but the relevant "emergency response" organizations as well. In the case of the levees and floodwalls, a relatively small number of failures were sufficient to drown most of the city, just as a single hole can be enough to sink a ship. Even the Corps of Engineers would later admit that its protection system failed to function "as a system." The failures of the human and organizational emergency responses, by contrast, were stunningly systematic, involving all levels of government.
In fairness, there were also some noteworthy exceptions to the general pattern—responses that were effective and even heroic. As has been pointed out by analysts who are thoroughly familiar with disasters and emergency management, however, the most effective responses often come from ordinary citizens whose primary job responsibilities do not include "disaster preparedness." As has happened so often in the past, even some of the most destitute and distressed citizens of New Orleans performed remarkable acts of civic heroism, providing spontaneous help to their fellow citizens.
Particularly in light of media reports of racism in predominantly white areas of rural Louisiana, it is also worth noting that untold hundreds of rural white Louisianans came to New Orleans almost immediately, simply to help. They managed to get their boats to the city even before dawn on August 30—some four days before the National Guard appeared on the scene. With no military chain of command, they were simply offering spontaneous, humanitarian responses to a politician's request, bringing their own hunting and fishing boats to help rescue survivors, in an operation that came to be known locally as "the Cajun Flotilla." These ordinary citizens even had the presence of mind to reserve two open lanes of freeway for emergency vehicles—although some of them later noted that no such vehicles appeared during the entire time that they were engaged in rescue operations themselves. Instead, when they did see an official presence, it came two full days later, on the morning of September 1—at which time police officers managed to accomplish little except to prevent the helpful citizens from continuing their rescue efforts.
In fairness to those police officers, they apparently believed the reports of nearly unimaginable social chaos that were by then becoming widespread. As has usually been the case with disasters, however, more careful assessments would later make it clear that most of those initial, horrifying reports were almost completely unrelated to reality.
Despite widespread reports of anarchy, moreover, the much-maligned citizens who were caught in the Superdome and the Convention Center—the majority of them poor and black—also managed to be much more resourceful than was commonly recognized at the time. One particularly gripping firsthand account was posted online by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, a pair of paramedics from California who happened to be attending a convention in New Orleans when the hurricane hit, and who argued that the real heroes of the relief effort were the ordinary working people of New Orleans.
Excerpted from Catastrophe in the Making by William R. Freudenburg, Robert B. Gramling, Shirley B. Laska, Kai T. Erikson. Copyright © 2009 Willliam R. Freudenburg, Robert B. Gramling, Shirley B. Laska, and Kai T. Erikson. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: The First Days of Katrina 3
Chapter 1 A Mighty Storm Hits the Shore 15
Chapter 2 The Setting 31
Chapter 3 Slicing Through the Swamps 45
Chapter 4 The Growth Machine Comes to New Orleans 55
Chapter 5 A "Helpful Explosion" 67
Chapter 6 The Collapse of Engineered Systems 91
Chapter 7 The Loss of Natural Defenses 111
Chapter 8 Critical for Economic Survival? 135
Chapter 9 The Axe in the Attic 147
Chapter 10 The End of an Error? 163