As Hurricane Irene Hits the East Coast, Let's Not Forget the Lessons of the Last Big Storm to Shake America
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I can't help but think of Hurricane Katrina at this time of year.
It's been six years now since the levees failed, and yet as the end of August comes each year since 2005 I've felt the anniversary coming.
But right now it's particularly hard not to think about Katrina, as Hurricane Irene bears down on the East Coast, making a beeline for my new home in New York City.
Buying water and batteries and candles, making last-minute plans with friends before the subway shuts down, making sure I have enough dog food and nonperishable things to eat for a few days without power if necessary makes me think of the pre-Katrina hurricane scares I had in New Orleans, when I lived there from 1998 to 2002. We shrugged off danger then, and most of us didn't have cars or money or places to go anyway.
Katrina changed all of our minds, of course, we former and temporary New Orleanians watching in horror from televisions around the country and the world as the city we loved filled with water that had no way to flow back out. We were horrified at our former cavalier attitude to storms.
But now it's six years on and I live in another big city with a population that doesn't have cars ( 55 percent of New Yorkers, as opposed to 27 percent of New Orleanians). Evacuation isn't easy even if our billionaire mayor declares it mandatory, and with a citywide shutdown in public transit, New York will grind to a halt. I have a dog anyway, so without a car I can't leave. Time to hunker down and ride it out, but the thoughts on my mind morbidly keep returning to Katrina. To wondering who will be blamed if poor neighborhoods flood, if the power doesn't return for days and people grow desperate. To remembering who was accused of “looting” and who was given the benefit of the doubt.
John Seabrook at the New Yorker wrote:
“As blue staters, we have come to associate the death and devastation caused by Katrina more with failed political leadership than with the fury of a big storm. And since 9/11, hurricanes seem less threatening precisely because you can prepare for them. You can study their projected track, clock their wind speed, and predict the time of landfall—all from the comfort of your den. In an age of sudden events that change the world in an instant, the approach of a hurricane seems old-world stately, like a transatlantic crossing on an ocean liner. We prepare for the unthinkable (or think we do); and blithely shrug off the known. One day, although maybe not this Sunday, we’ll learn.”
Hurricane Katrina hit four years after 9/11, and brought a different kind of shock to the US. While 9/11 seemed to hit across class and racial lines, killing firefighters and executives at once, Katrina very clearly hit poor people of color the hardest. As we watched on TV we couldn't deny any longer the reality, that those with means fled the city, while those without were trapped without a plan. We saw that the neighborhoods hit the hardest were the poorest, those closest to the levees—while for years the homes on high ground had been passed down through wealthy families.
It helped change our politics for a bit, at least, until the economic crisis hit.
Class will make a difference in New York this week as well. Greg Palast writes that years ago he worked on an evacuation plan for the Hamptons, home to “sub-prime sharks, derivatives divas, media mavens and their hairdressers, their trophy wives and their trophies' personal trainers, the movers and shakers and money-makers,” at least for summer weekends. That hurricane plan is six volumes thick.