Welcome back to MedHum Mondays on the Daily Dose! Today, we present a book review of Katrina: After the Flood, a look at the damage–social, economic, and psychological–that followed in the storm’s wake. Now a decade on, the book tracks some of that fall out. While not, perhaps, immediately classified as medical humanities, this piece of investigative journalism courts our attention. After all, the disparities of health continue here, as elsewhere, and the lens of Katrina offers particular focusing power. I welcome the Dose’s brilliant book reviewer, historian, writer, and librarian Anna Clutterbuck-Cook, to comment. Welcome Anna!
Rivlin, Gary. Katrina: After the Flood (Simon and Schuster, 2015).
A decade ago, journalist Gary Rivilin was sent by his employer, the New York Times, from his usual beat in San Francisco to Louisiana to help cover the unfolding natural, political, and humanitarian disaster precipitated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In Katrina: After the Flood (Simon and Schuster), released August 11 of this year, Rivlin takes us on a devastating narrative journey from pre-storm preparations through the inadequate emergency response to the long-term effects of the storm on New Orlean’s landscape, culture, and the people who call the region home. By following the evacuation and recovery (or non-recovery) stories of a wide-ranging cast of characters, Rivlin impresses upon his readers that the story of Katrina and the future of New Orleans is a far from finished chapter of American history.
That the local and national response to Katrina was informed by our long history of racial injustice should not surprise any readers, and is one of the primary through-lines in Rivlin’s work. Rivlin’s black characters — from the controversial and corrupt New Orleans’ mayor Ray Nagin to the well-heeled and big-hearted black bank owner Alden McDonald to a family of sisters conflicted about whether to return to the city — are all are constrained by the structural racism infused within the disaster response. So, too, are the white New Orleanians whose race privilege inevitably shapes their role, for good or ill, in the region’s remaking. (Rivlin takes passing note, too, of the gendered narratives at play: for example, the way Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was treated by media and fellow politicians in contrast to male governors in other hurricane-ravaged states.)
Hurricane Katrina is not a simple story of bigoted whites and marginalized blacks, the moneyed suburban enclaves versus low-lying impoverished parishes — except, of course, when it is. As activist scholar Lance Hill observes in an interview with Rivlin, many middle-class, predominantly white, returnees to New Orleans leapt at the chance to reinvent the city for the (white) creative classes. Even without an active desire to exclude the poor it became a reality that those living from paycheck to paycheck often lacked the resources for a return ticket — let alone the ability to pay rent in a city with diminished housing stock and an unwillingness or inability to invest in public housing, public transit, or other socialized services. Not to mention the jobs they had been summarily fired from or which simply no longer existed in the decimated parishes they had left behind.
It’s unfortunate that Rivlin’s own narrative replicates some of these socioeconomic stratifications, with few of the dispossessed speaking for themselves. We hear about those whose Katrina experience was one of stranded starvation and sleeping side-by-side with death more than we hear from them. Rivlin’s interviewees are, more typically, middle class individuals (black and white alike) whose households had some, if not unlimited, accumulated assets and the cultural capital to wring some material assistance from a dysfunctional federal and local government.
After racialized disparity, disinvestment in community infrastructure before and after the flood is the second key takeaway from Rivlin’s work. Whether he’s writing about the slashing of FEMA’s budget, the neglect of the coastal environment, or the lack of post-Katrina leadership that might have successfully wedded community buy-in with a strong forward vision for rebuilding, Rivlin makes a persuasive case that political antagonism at multiple levels stymied action costing livelihoods and even lives. Though it began a decade ago, the damage wrought by Katrina is not yet past, and the region’s future, Rivlin convinces us, is still one full of uncertainty.
It is perhaps the mark of a successful work of longform journalism that after reading over four hundred pages of exhaustive accounting for the sins of our collective indifference and lack of political will, my first impulse was to head for my local public library and request several of the secondary works Rivlin cites in his his source notes. Katrina convinces us that, far from being a story of regional disaster, the story of New Orleans is the story of our national challenges facing the ravages of racial inequity, environmental exploitation, economic injustice, and the urban geographies across which so many of these a fault-lines make themselves known.
Anna J. Clutterbuck-Cook is a historian, writer, and reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Her scholarly interests are in the histories of gender and sexuality, religion, and social justice movements in American history. She can be found online at thefeministlibrarian.com and currently lives in Jamaica Plain (Mass.) with her wife, two cats, and over one thousand books.