If you worked for a while in an oil refinery in Louisiana in, say, the mid-1980s (as I did), part of your orientation was hurricane training. The briefing I attended noted that there are two places on earth where the combination of low elevation, coastline shape, concentrated population, limited escape routes, location relative to wind circulation, and a broad stretch of shallow water combined to make a hurricane strike extraordinarily dangerous to human habitation. One is the coast of Bangladesh. The other is New Orleans. Which is why when then-President George W. Bush said that the effects of hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans couldn’t have been foreseen, everyone who knew the first thing about the city knew that that Connecticut Yankee was telling a Texas-sized lie.
Andy Horowitz knows far more than the first thing about New Orleans, and he uses that knowledge judiciously in Katrina: A History, 1915–2015 to tell not only the harrowing tale of the days in 2005 when the long-feared day finally arrived when a hurricane’s fury overpowered the city’s defenses, but also the long before of how those defenses came to be inadequate as well as a decade of partial reconstruction. He manages all of that in fewer than 200 pages of main text. Starting early gives him room to tell a story of construction as well as destruction, and how intimately both were tied to economic and political power.
He deals more kindly than I would have with people who asked, in the aftermath of Katrina, why the city of New Orleans even existed. The Mississippi River basin covers a vast swathe of the United States. As long as there is oceangoing trade, there will be a port at the first practical place where ships from the high seas can meet river traffic. That’s New Orleans. Such fundamental facts of geography open up basic questions that Horowitz examines in detail. And when disaster strikes, people “reckon with fundamental questions: what should they try to save, what should they try to leave behind, and who should decide? Who deserves help, why, what kind, and from whom? What caused the disaster in the first place? And what does this disaster mean for the next one?” (p. 12) As for distinguishing “natural” from “man-made” disasters, Horowitz takes the position that “there is no such thing as a natural disaster, because who is in harm’s way is the product of political decisions and social arrangements.” (p. 13) In other words, a product of history, and thus a proper subject for a historian.
“Rather than asking if a disaster was man-made, therefore, we ought to ask, how was it made?” (p. 13) That is what Horowitz sets out to explore in Katrina: A History. But that is not all “There remains a crucial caveat. During disasters, some people suffer more than others. Disasters, therefore, compel their observers to confront inequality.” (p. 13) Horowitz does that with care and nuance. I grew up in South Louisiana, though not in the New Orleans area, and Horowitz’s chronicling the distribution of suffering in Katrina’s aftermath challenged some of the things I thought I knew about race, wealth, and power in New Orleans.
Horowitz chose 1915 as his starting point because that September a hurricane swept in from the Gulf of Mexico. It brought winds of 140 miles per hours to the settlement of Burrwood, at the far southwest of the Mississippi’s delta. (Burrwood once had a population of as much as 1,000, and was a hurricane warning office through 1965. It’s now abandoned to coastal erosion and rising seas.) Tulane University’s weather station, in downtown New Orleans, recorded 8.36 inches of rain in less than a day. “East of New Orleans, in St. Bernard Parish, the settlement of Saint Malo [inhabited since the 1780s] was washed from the map entirely.” (p. 2) City leaders and engineers from the “New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, the agency charged with protecting the city from floods, concluded that the new drainage system had passed a defining test.” (p. 2) That can-do spirit, along with increasing trade and industrialization, set the tone for New Orleans over much of the twentieth century. As Horowitz writes:
Katrina’s causes and consequences reach across a century. The 1915 Sewerage and Water Board report shaped the rationale for developing the neighborhoods that flooded in 2005. Wrangling over fur trapping rights in the 1920s in St Bernard Parish shaped the legal struggle for offshore oil in the 1940s, which shaped Louisiana’s economy in the 1950s, the state’s coastline in the 1970s, and the state’s Coastal Master Plan to confront land loss in the 2010s. When the Industrial Canal, dredged for shipping interests in 1918, flooded the homes of veterans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the memory of sharecropping shaped how African Americans interpreted the Small Business Administration loans they were offered as disaster relief. The memory of Hurricane Betsy shaped how New Orleanians responded when the Industrial Canal broke again under the weight of Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge in 2005. The promise of the federal Housing Act of 1937 shaped the claims that residents made for a right of return to public housing in 2007. The Louisiana state engineers dynamited a levee in St. Bernard Parish in 1927, which shaped fears in 1965 and 2005 that politicians had lit another fuse.
Drawing on archival sources and many personal interviews, Horowitz shows how all of these connections shaped the effects of the 2005 storm, and how people reacted to it. He captures the complexities and ironies of New Orleans without ever becoming bogged down in minutiae. For example, in the middle of the twentieth century redlining by banks and federal mortgage insurers kept many Black residents in some of New Orleans’ oldest and poorest neighborhoods. But these areas, like the much whiter and much wealthier Garden District, had been settled so early precisely because they were on some of the highest ground available. On the other hand, the striving Black middle class that grew up in the post-WWII era — like their white counterpart — was often able to afford housing in areas that were supposed to be protected by the levees that the Army Corps of Engineers built. Exactly the levees that for a variety of reasons failed so catastrophically.
Though the book focuses on disasters, Horowitz manages to capture much of what make Louisiana and New Orleans special places. “Before Katrina, Louisiana had the most stable population of any state in the country. Eight out of ten people in Louisiana, in 2000, had been born there. Nearly nine out of ten African Americans who lived in New Orleans before the flood had been born in the city (in Atlanta, by comparison, the rate was fewer than six out of ten).” (p. 184) He shows the role key individuals — from Leander Perez to Bobby Jindal (who was two years behind me at my high school) — played in decisions about building, developing, and rebuilding; how ideology and corruption shaped the lay of the land; how actions to raise the level of development literally lowered the land itself. It’s not a flawless book — there is some repetition, a sign of chapters having been developed separately as academic articles — but it is a riveting one, connecting land, water and people, telling how disasters get created, and maybe suggesting how they can be mitigated.