As Hurricane Irene Hits the East Coast, Let's Not Forget the Lessons of the Last Big Storm to Shake America

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.

New Orleans, Palast reported, had no such plan before Katrina.

“Long after 2,000 drowned, I found the "plan": no provision at all for the 27,000 residents without cars. That's not surprising: the hurricane evacuation contractor had zero experience in hurricane evacuation. Rather, IEM's chief did have lots of experience in donating to the Republican Party.”

And, of course, thousands of public housing units were later bulldozed and replaced with luxury condos.


Mayor Bloomberg wants New Yorkers to know this is serious—so his office has taken to tweeting admonishments to citizens like “If you are in Zone A, prepare to evacuate asap. Don’t be complacent. Even though the sun is shining now, don’t be fooled.” New Yorkers on Twitter are presumably meant to be reassured by “We’ve never done a mandatory evacuation before – and we wouldn’t be doing this now if we didn’t think this was serious.”

But in all the press announcements of mandatory evacuation, nowhere were there instructions on how to evacuate without transport. The city's evacuation brochure lists helpful things like what you should pack, but not how you should get there. And as for prisoners, well, they're stuck: Rikers Island will not be evacuated.

FEMA may have learned something from Katrina at least, tweeting “#Hurricane #Irene: Text SHELTER + ZIP code to 43362 (4FEMA) to find nearest shelter in ur area (example: shelter 12345).”

Nona Willis Aronowitz makes the point, though, that:

“. . . in a place like New York, where hurricanes happen approximately never, your safety depends on your access to information. People in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida know to keep their ears to the ground, but how do you get the word out in a place where the last serious hurricane happened in 1938? I live in a pretty low-income building in a low-income area, and I'm willing to bet that many of my neighbors don't have Internet access. If they choose not to turn on the news that day, they might be shit out of luck when their power goes off.”

The Northeast already faced one unusual natural disaster this week. The brief rumble felt across several states from Virginia's 5.8 earthquake should have reminded New Yorkers that anything can happen, but it almost seemed to reinforce our feeling of invincibility instead, as sarcastic jokes took over Twitter almost immediately.


Meanwhile, six years on, New Orleans is still rebuilding. It's a smaller city and a whiter one since the storm, but even neighborhoods like the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward are coming back, albeit slowly. The city just announced $45 million in federal funds to repair streets in that neighborhood that are still flood-damaged.

"Eric and I are buying a house during hurricane season, it is still so present in everyone's mind. It's an unspoken worry on all of our faces," said Courtney Bayer, a longtime New Orleans resident who, like many in the city, works in the service and tourism industry. "And it is a fact of life that the city is divided and will remain divided between the People Who Were Here and the People Who Were Not Here. They are like two different races of people, with different histories." 

Organizing among residents helped with rebuilding, according to one USA Today article. "When you have solidarity of people of different economic groups, there's a power to that and that can make a big difference," Allison Plyer of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center told reporter Rick Jervis. But some neighborhoods remain empty, with boarded-up homes and the few residents left without services.

A federally-funded program to help elevate homes above flood height has been plagued by fraud, and crime remains a problem for a city with little reason to trust its police department even before the storm. The conviction of four police officers in the shooting deaths of two African-American men in the days following the hurricane was a start, but also a painful reminder of the different ways people were treated in the storm's aftermath.


Caroline Sinders, a photographer who divides her time between New York and New Orleans, told me that she's thinking of “so many things, thoughts of Irene and people evacuating, of a hurricane maybe hitting New York--seems like something out of a bad action movie--and how stunned we were during and post Katrina. It was like something of an apocalypse, something of biblical proportions, and I say this as an agnostic.” 

She continued, “But the only thing on my mind is. . . do the levees work now?”

Harry Shearer, the actor perhaps best known for his role in Spinal Tap or his voice on The Simpsons, has a new documentary out,The Big Uneasy, that hammers home the point: Katrina was not a natural disaster, not on its own. Instead, it was a disaster that happened because the levees failed, because they were neither created nor maintained well enough to stop the floodwaters from getting into the city. And once the bowl that is New Orleans filled up, the system failed as well at pumping water out.

Discussing his film, Shearer said, “People sometimes make reference to the levee failure in passing, as if it’s a natural result of a storm like Katrina. But there still seems to be quite low awareness of the conclusion of the two independent investigations that, absent a badly-designed and -built 'protection system,' the worst Katrina would have inflicted on New Orleans would have been wet ankles.”

Hurricane Irene is taking aim at the East Coast, not New Orleans. But hurricane season isn't over, and as we prepare for and clean up after Irene, we should remember that there are still questions about the levees' ability to hold up to storms. We should be aware of our own cities' disaster plans and take note of how and where they break down.

We should remember, most of all, that disasters don't fall on everyone equally. That our safety might not be in question, but that of others may well be. 


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