Swans Commentary » swans.com October 5, 2009  



New Orleans And Katrina
Past Prediction, Future Dystopia


by Garry Potter





(Swans - October 5, 2009)  


"This is like déjà vu all over again."
—Yogi Berra

Two years ago I had a rather surreal experience. I was watching the National Geographic channel and was delighted to find that the program was to be on New Orleans, hurricane predictions, and hurricane preparedness. It proceeded to confirm a great deal that I already knew, as I was researching Katrina at the time. But there was a strange tone to the show. Katrina was never directly mentioned and the narration was couched mainly in the language of hypothetical possibilities and probabilities.

The program dealt with the engineering problems with the levees and that part of New Orleans known to locals, and now to many other people in the world, as "the bowl." It considered the problems of evacuation and poor emergency preparedness plans. I was puzzled for a time because I knew all about the problems the show depicted (as did probably half the world) but most of the events were presented not as past occurrences but as predictions. I suddenly realized that the show had been made some years before Katrina struck New Orleans. I would have picked up on this much earlier but the show's predictions were so startlingly accurate I thought they were reporting after the event.


Wind and Water: Different Kinds of Suffering

"Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well." —Michael Brown, FEMA Director, September 1, 2005

The whole world saw the dramatic images of storm and flood that was Katrina. The whole world saw the New Orleans images of flame and looting. We all heard innumerable hours of commentary concerning the failures of the relief effort. Leaving aside the human tragedies of loss and death for the moment (it is estimated that perhaps one thousand people died) we can assert an economic disaster for New Orleans (and other parts of the southern US) of colossal proportions. As of this time of writing, approximately half of New Orleans' population has yet to return. Not all of these people are suffering greatly of course. Some are fairly well off and are simply cutting their minimal losses and moving on with their lives. But most are truly suffering.

In New Orleans it was the poor who suffered the most. It was the poor who could not afford the transport necessary for early evacuation. It was their neighbourhoods that were among the most vulnerable to flooding. Thus, an extremely disproportionate number of them were among the seriously injured and dead. It was mostly them who were directly robbed and personally terrorized when all order broke down. Lack of knowledge has multiple causal dimensions and effects, but one such dimension is simply a lack of imaginative empathy. The average Canadian and American perhaps finds it hard to imagine lacking the bus or train fare to get out of town, even to avoid a hurricane. The average Canadian and American owns and drives a car.

I've asserted that it was the poor of New Orleans who were most affected by Katrina; and that is true in many respects but not all. As an economic disaster, it was the middle-class home owner or small business operator who has been most affected. The poor will move from one slum to another, one rented accommodation to another, one unskilled occupation to another; whether one is unemployed in New Orleans or Atlanta makes little difference. Your home was destroyed by a hurricane or you were evicted for failure to keep up with the rent; the small business you worked for was flooded or you simply got fired; one cause is far more dramatic than the other but if you are poor in America the result is all too familiar. As the saying goes: "if you ain't got nuthin', you ain't got nuthin' to lose." For the middle classes though, it was very different. They had equity in their homes.

The thousands of people who lost their homes in New Orleans had a wide variety of circumstances affecting them. Some had very little or no equity at all. Their situation in this regard sometimes turned out very similarly to that of the poor described above. It depended upon the detail of their mortgage arrangements and insurance policy. This is more generally true of those who lost their homes and much of their possessions. An awful lot depended upon their insurance policy. Some were mostly alright. Most were not. Percentage reimbursements, "acts of God clauses," specific circumstances disallowed, and many other of the technical details of home insurance, "ensured" that it was the homeowner that lost out rather than the insurance company.

The consumer protection group Americans for Insurance Reform produced a comprehensive report (1) detailing the industry's shameful response to the Katrina tragedy. The report highlighted the most common problems:

Companies attempting to avoid any liability under homeowners' policies declaring all damage to be flood-related, which insurers said was not covered, even though this position was not supported factually or legally. As one hotline caller who was told this said, "I'm basically going to be hung out to dry by my insurance company."

Incredibly slow response to policyholders, with two callers typifying the problem: "Our money is running out and our insurance companies can't tell us when or if any help is on the way," and, "I haven't paid premiums to two companies all these years to be starving, struggling, and homeless."

Insurance carriers unreachable or simply refusing to respond at all. "I'm a 70-year-old woman, I need to pay rent at the place I'm living and I just don't have any money," said one caller who could not get any response from her carrier.

Homes further damaged by Hurricane Rita when companies failed to send adjusters after Katrina, which would have allowed people to make repairs. "There wouldn't be half as much water damage if they had been able to get an adjuster out here in a reasonable amount of time," said one hotline caller.

Thus, it was the case that thousands who were middle class ceased to be so. All they had of value in the world was wiped out in an instant, including sometimes their job and career. Starting all over again was an option, indeed for many the only option, but though individual situations were quite diverse, it is safe to say that a very great many faced extreme hardship.

This kind of individualized collective hardship is not such to be very much affected by donations of canned goods or emergency temporary housing. America's self-congratulatory media portrayal of the various celebrity charity efforts is a case in point. Such are a part of dystopia, not steps toward overcoming it. Most Americans cannot even begin to understand that charity is barbarism. If, as a reader of this article, you are among that number you need seriously think about this. Charity applies Band-Aids to serious wounds. It does little to solve or even very seriously ameliorate the suffering it addresses. Its principal function is to allow those unaffected by the problem to sleep well at night, while maintaining the conditions that led to the problem in the first place.

The reader unhappy by the explicit and implicit criticism in the preceding paragraph might at this point object, "but the problem in this case was caused by a hurricane." A hurricane, if one is religiously inclined, certainly qualifies as an act of God if anything does. True, there was real suffering; true we could have done more for the victims; true the government's response was wholly inadequate; but it was a hurricane! The hurricane was the ultimate cause of the death and destruction and the later individual financial disasters. Well, yes and no. The hurricane was, of course, the immediately proximate cause. But what caused the hurricane? Why did the levees fail? Why was the public evacuation such a dismal failure? Why have the victims of the disaster seen so little of the billions in aid that were promised? Why when all house mortgages have compulsory insurance coverage as part of the contract, is payment to the Katrina victims such a legally contentious issue in so many cases? (2) Why does so much of New Orleans today look so exactly much like it did three days after the hurricane?

The Independent Levee Investigation Team's report (3) concluded that there were three main reasons for the flood damage, of which the hurricane is given only as the proximate cause:

(1) a major natural disaster (the Hurricane itself),

(2) the poor performance of the flood protection system, due to localized engineering failures, questionable judgments, errors, etc. involved in the detailed design, construction, operation and maintenance of the system, and,

(3) more global "organizational" and institutional problems associated with the governmental and local organizations responsible for the design, construction, operation, maintenance and funding of the overall flood protection system.

Knowledge, Prediction, and Action

"The future ain't what it used to be."
—Yogi Berra

While Katrina's effects upon New Orleans was a past and present calamity, rather than a future ill, the present illustrates many aspects of dystopian horror that are likely to come. Let us first consider first knowledge and prediction.

There were several predictions that were made with respect to this disaster that bode very ill for the future. First, and perhaps most importantly, is global warming. It is still a debated concept. No, it is not debated very much in scientific circles any longer; the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth report in the spring of 2007 (4) has perhaps put the final nail in the coffins of both the reasonable scientific questioning and the intentionally mystifying scientific disputation. The widespread and deep public misunderstandings of science's cautious qualifications on the one hand, the mass media's false portrayals of "objectivity" with respect to dissent from scientific consensus on the other, assures considerable public uncertainty with respect to the phenomenon for some years to come.

But let me simply say here that there is a trend toward an increase in average hurricane intensity levels. The so difficult (but possible) to measure incremental warming of the planet produces effects considerably easier to measure: the frequency and force of storms. Average hurricane intensity has increased by fifty percent since the seventies. (5) All such extreme weather events -- storms, floods, droughts, etc. -- are predicted to greatly increase in intensity and frequency with global warming. It is widely believed by the scientific community that such is already underway. Thus, while we cannot know for sure that global warming played any causal role in the formation and intensity of Hurricane Katrina, we can reasonably assume that it is likely to have done so.

No matter about global warming increasing their frequency and intensity; hurricanes have always formed in the warm Caribbean waters and every year some will hit the American coast, with varying degrees of force. People knew for years that eventually, simply by the law of averages, a hurricane would hit New Orleans and that there would very likely be powerful flood surges to go along with it. Flood protection is why the New Orleans levees were built in the first place. However, we now know a great many things about this "risk amelioration" effort. First of all, that is exactly what it was designed to do -- ameliorate the risk, not eliminate it. Thus, a probabilistic calculation was involved in the levee design in the first place. They were designed to be able to completely protect the city in the teeth of some levels of hurricane intensity and expected flood surge but not others more powerful.

Secondly, there was shoddy workmanship involved in the levee construction; there was under-funding and disorganization at the different levels of government agencies, as well as incompetence and corruption connected with their maintenance. (6) Thus, the levees proved wholly incapable of doing even the job they were intended to do. All of this received considerable media attention in the immediate aftermath of the storm. There was an orgy of finger pointing and buck passing that they facilitated. But one might be tempted to engage in some issuance of blame to the media themselves. Why, when all the preceding issues were well known long before the hurricane, did the media not engage in some "investigative journalism" and critical analysis and do some finger pointing before the hurricane struck? It might then have done some good.

The critical accusations directed at the media within the preceding paragraph apply to the emergency evacuation "plan" as well. It was well known to people within a number of government agencies that many thousands of people would lack the means to get out of New Orleans. The "plan" was for them to go to the Superdome. The inadequacy of this arrangement was apparent to a great many experts long before the hurricane actually hit. It was pre-decided that a total evacuation would be beyond available resources. This is an interesting conclusion to be made in one of the richest countries of the world when we have poor Cuba to consider in comparison. Faced with their own probable hurricane disaster Cuba managed to evacuate to safety one and a half million people (a much greater number than the New Orleans situation) apparently without serious difficulty or any loss of life. (7)


The Future: Rich Man, Poor Man, First World, Third World

The preparedness for possible future hurricanes in the year following Hurricane Katrina mirrors that prior to the disaster to an amazing degree. Hurricane season "officially" begins in June and one might think that a year later all emergency preparedness would have been completed. But no, the pumping system was still in a dire state of damage and disrepair; many emergency communication centers were (and still are!) in trailers (just about the worst place for them in the event of a storm emergency situation) with the 911 emergency lines still dependent upon highly vulnerable land lines. There is now only one hospital emergency room open in New Orleans. It has only a seventeen bed capacity. (8) It is already the case that people cannot get proper emergency treatment let alone the other deficiencies in the hospital and health care system as a whole. But what if there were to be a multiple car crash with multiple victims and injuries? This is the Third World reality living within the United States.

Repair of the New Orleans levees was completed in 2006, but though they were known before Katrina to be inadequate in design (9) this has not been rectified. In theory, they should be fully able to handle tropical storms and hurricanes below a category three. Probably the system would be adequate for a fast moving category three, but if a hurricane of that strength was actually slow moving, Katrina's devastation or worse would likely be the result. The "bet" is that such-like or worse weather events won't happen for quite some time.

The damage and suffering of New Orleans gives us our "First World" dystopian vision of the future and its lessons for how it will affect ordinary middle-class people. There will be physical suffering and injury for large numbers of poor people as a result of disasters even if they are predicted long in advance. The necessary safety measures simply will not be invested in. There will be property damage sufficient to financially ruin the middle-class people hit by such extreme weather events because of a number of conjoined factors.

First, there will be an economic infrastructure collapse owing not only to the engineering difficulties of repair and rebuilding but because of the under-financing of this effort; thus jobs will vanish. Second, there are two virtual certainties with respect to property damage and insurance: 1) that lawyers will do very well in the lawsuits that will go on for years; and 2) that huge numbers of people will find themselves waiting forever for their claims to be settled or will be inadequately reimbursed. This last may well be such a financial blow for many middle-class homeowners that they will move from "middle class" to the "under class" very quickly; that is, the losses will be a disaster from which they will never recover but instead will find their world permanently altered in very unpleasant ways.

Safety precautions in the face of known risks, the welfare state "safety net" and other costly expenditures for government, ultimately depend upon some level of taxation upon capital and the affluent. This has been eroded by neo-liberal capitalist reform. New Orleans is the future in the present; it is the future in which everywhere disaster strikes people are left to suffer and die on their own. If we look at New Orleans as any kind of model for the future we can conclude that neither government nor big business will be much help to ordinary people. All that will be left in a world full of much greater levels of suffering will be charity. And even in this, Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans demonstrate a "First World/Third World" pattern of response to disasters.

Extravagant promises are made by First World governments. Yet most often, for most wealthy counties, and almost always in the case of the United States, such promises are not kept. For example: "nearly 96,000 people in Louisiana have applied for the Road Home federal grants of up to $150,000, but the money has only reached about 100 applicants so far." (10) The billion and a half dollars promised by the Bush administration to revamp and improve the southern levee defences was rescinded before the next year's hurricane season. The justification for this reneging on the promises made during the media frenzy of disaster coverage: The area was declared to be simply not viable...an apt description for the dystopian realities already found in much of the Third World and now begun to visit the First.




1.  The Americans for Insurance Reform report, "Insurance Industry's Troubling Response To Hurricane Katrina," was released to the media on January 11, 2006.  (back)

2.  ibid.  (back)

3.  Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, Independent Levee Investigation Team commissioned by The University of California, Berkeley and the National Science Foundation published July 31, 2006.  (back)

4.  "Climate Change 2007," 4th Assessment Report Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  (back)

5.  National Science Foundation, "Hurricanes Growing More Fierce Over Past 30 Years," Press Release 05-128, July 31, 2005, http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=104325  (back)

6.  Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, Independent Levee Investigation Team commissioned by The University of California, Berkeley and the National Science Foundation published July 31, 2006.  (back)

7.  CNN Student Reports "Hurricane Rita: Lessons from Cuba," September 20, 2005, http://www.cnn.com/2005/EDUCATION/09/20/transcript.wed/  (back)

8.  As of time of writing April 2007.  (back)

9.  Investigation of the Performance of the New Orleans Flood Protection Systems in Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, Independent Levee Investigation Team press release May 23, 2006.  (back)

10.  New America Media, "Katrina Relief Funds: What happened to the money?" January 28, 2007,
http://news.ncmonline.com/news/view_article.html?article_id=990d6322afec4e8a001f82f2a81fb200  (back)


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About the Author

Garry Potter is the director of graduate studies in the department of sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of The Bet: Truth in Science, Literature and Everyday Knowledges and The Philosophy of Social Science: New Perspectives and co-editor of After Postmodernism. He is currently completing Dystopia: the Present and Future Human Condition, a grim analysis of the inter-linkages between the various serious problems humanity either faces now or soon will.



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Published October 5, 2009