Blame It on the Rain


The cover of Katrina: A History, 1915–2015

EVERY SPRING FOR MILLENNIA, snow in the Rockies and Appalachians has melted, carrying silt to the Mississippi River. From Minneapolis to Natchez, the river has bulged with the mountains’ sediment and whatever soil it pulled from the banks. Near its mouth, the Mississippi widens. Its height drops and its pace slows, allowing millions of metric tons of sediment to settle. Over time, the continent’s profit has expanded the state of Louisiana.

But over the last one hundred years, Louisiana has shrunk. The Mississippi River has washed more soil into the Gulf of Mexico than it carried from the north. The phenomenon, known as land loss, has led scientists to predict the gulf will submerge Louisiana in years to come. Flooding from hurricane-fueled storm surges has hastened the land’s subsidence. New Orleans is especially vulnerable because much of it lies below sea level; once the gulf crests the hill, it will drown the city like a castle in a fishbowl.

In recent years, armchair urban planners have claimed that settling in New Orleans was foolish. According to them, it is unnatural to live in a city just one natural disaster away from destruction. But as Andy Horowitz argues in Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, neither location nor natural processes destined New Orleans for destruction. Rather, corporations, politicians, and the Army Corps of Engineers endangered the city and its inhabitants. Their choices exposed New Orleans to storm surges and paved the way for the flooding of the city during and after Hurricane Katrina.

In his history of why New Orleans became so vulnerable to storms, Horowitz joins a bevy of scholars aiming to untangle the relationship between race, the climate, and urban spaces. “Local disasters,” writes the literary scholar Wai Chee Dimock in an essay on Katrina, are “the almost predictable side effects of global geopolitics.” Politicians and corporations, among others, have made poor communities of color vulnerable to climate disasters. As Katrina: A History demonstrates, political and economic choices traded the present and future lives of Louisiana’s poor (and especially poor Black) people for unevenly distributed short-term gain.

Horowitz’s history begins in 1915, when an unnamed hurricane hit Louisiana’s coast, striking down all but four houses in nearby Empire, wiping away Saint Malo, and leaving a foot of standing water in New Orleans. In its report on the hurricane, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board claimed “that no city anywhere in the world could have withstood these conditions with less damage and less inconvenience than has New Orleans.” Their foolhardiness spurred new construction. Over the next decade, the local government oversaw the dredging of the Industrial Canal, which bisected the city’s Ninth Ward, and drained wetlands to build new neighborhoods that would, in 2005, drown in floodwater.

A century of misguided attempts to protect New Orleans from storm surges worsened this damage. After many floods, levees were built, either by local actors or the Army Corps of Engineers. Those levees straightened the Mississippi, aiming the river directly at the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of this process, the river began sweeping the sediment that normally contributed to Louisiana’s geological growth into the gulf. By the middle of the century, the region was losing about sixteen square miles of land a year. In 1927, the state flooded sections of Plaquemines and Saint Bernard parishes to create the Bohemia Spillway, which they hoped would create an outlet for flooding water before it reached the city. That spillway displaced some ten thousand people and destroyed the wetlands that served as natural flood barriers.

Looking Glass Beauty Salon, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, May 2006.
Looking Glass Beauty Salon, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, May 2006. Maura Fitzgerald

Local officials opened up the sacrificed region to resource extraction. In 1936, Leander Perez, district attorney of Plaquemines and Saint Bernard Parish, supervised the leasing and selling of oil-rich marshland at low prices to the Delta Development Corporation, a shell corporation that he owned. The DDC then subleased those same mineral rights to other companies, netting Perez—the “swampland Caesar,” as Fortune dubbed him—a huge profit. With their new leases, oil companies dredged canals throughout the wetlands. The canals let the gulf’s saltwater into the marshes, killing native grasses and aquatic life, eroding the soil, and exposing the state to greater flooding.

This proved particularly dangerous for low-lying regions in New Orleans. Although many African Americans remained on higher ground, a large number moved to the flood-prone Lower Ninth Ward. The Lower Ninth was a site of opportunity for some, including the musician Fats Domino, but the city’s Black residents largely remained impoverished and unaided by tax-funded public services. “African Americans were left on their own,” Horowitz writes, “to stitch together holes in the social safety net.”

Those holes widened in September 1965, when Hurricane Betsy hit. Under the force of the storm surge, the Industrial Canal’s walls collapsed in at least four places, flooding the Lower Ninth. The National Guard and the Red Cross provided little aid to the largely Black neighborhood; residents relied on each other, evacuating the area by boat and providing shelter for neighbors. Racism dictated relief efforts to such an extent that Black residents came to believe the government had blown up the canal, sacrificing the Lower Ninth for whiter parts of the city.

Months after the hurricane, Congress passed an act encouraging people to rebuild where their properties stood, even if those properties had flooded. Beginning in 1968, the National Flood Insurance Program subsidized further development in high-risk areas. “Why, over the course of the twentieth century, did people increasingly move to more flood-prone parts of Louisiana?” Horowitz asks. “The federal government paid them to.” It even guaranteed their security with a large-scale expansion of the federal levee system in 1965. Forty years later, in 2005, the project was only 80 percent complete, and an essential section of the wall was shorter and weaker than planned. The Army Corps’ construction provided a false sense of safety that encouraged building in regions the government could not, in fact, protect.

The catastrophe resulting from this mismanagement unfolded in August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Plaquemines Parish. Canals funneled water toward New Orleans, where it broke through levees in approximately fifty places and flooded 77 percent of the city. Close to a thousand New Orleanians died. The living were stranded on roofs and highway overpasses, left to take shelter in the Superdome or to survive however they could. Rather than government aid, many received its wrath, in part due to portrayals of Black survivors as violent looters. In a press conference, Governor Blanco threatened Black “hoodlums” with the full force of the National Guard. The following week, New Orleans cops shot at least nine people. The government that made New Orleanians vulnerable to forces of nature responded to flooding with gunfire.

Yet officials claimed they did not cause the devastation. Though their shoddy construction had enabled the flooding, the New Orleans District Commander for the Army Corps suggested Katrina was a natural disaster that could not have been avoided. Echoing this sentiment, George W. Bush called Katrina a “tragedy” that “showed the helplessness of man against the fury of nature,” abdicating his administration of blame despite FEMA’s slowness to act. Eschewing responsibility, they framed aid as charitable beneficence, rather than the redress owed to the constituents whose lives and homes they had drowned.

After the storm, the government divested from public projects and doled out a small amount of aid in ways that reinforced inequalities. Though public housing (which Black people disproportionately occupied) fared comparatively well in the storm, the city claimed Katrina made those projects uninhabitable and demolished many of them. By the winter of 2007, the city’s homeless population had reached approximately twelve thousand. The city transferred public schools to charter operators, simultaneously voiding the contract of 4,300 unionized teachers, about three-quarters of whom were Black. New Orleans’s public hospital was demolished to cut costs. The meager federal aid earmarked for individuals often disappeared into contractors’ profit margins. One of the few housing-assistance programs that did reach affected residents, the Louisiana Road Home plan, delivered payments late, offered Black homeowners less than white homeowners, and gave nothing to renters. Government relief was not negligent; it actively attacked New Orleans’s poor and Black people.

Horowitz argues that these governmental and corporate decisions caused much of the havoc that officials blamed on the storm itself. “Racial and economic inequalities,” he writes, “endemic in Louisiana before the flood, widened after—but not because of some inexorable implications of where the water settled. Rather, social arrangements before the flood and policy decisions after created possibilities for some and foreclosed them for others.” The disaster known as Katrina, distributed especially to poor and Black New Orleanians, might better be named Hurricane Blanco or Bush. The continued disinvestment in social safety nets and Black communities ensure that the weight of the next disaster will be carried, once more, by New Orleans’s poor Black citizens.

Attentive to history, Horowitz has harsh words for climate utopians who look for technological solutions to the city’s problems. If he sees any hope for New Orleans, it lies in mutual aid and other grassroots attempts to provide safety during hurricanes and in their wake. It lies, in other words, in the people who have suffered so much that they must believe in, and build, a better future to survive. Geological processes may have given birth to New Orleans, but it is those who have borne the brunt of climate change who will keep each other alive when the next disaster strikes.

Elias Rodriques’s novel is forthcoming from Norton.