I haven’t written about the Katrina anniversary so far, since I think such reminiscences for the most part really belong to the people directly affected. Last time I was in New Orleans, about two-and-a-half years ago, you could still see the wounds of the flood if you looked, or avoid them if you wished. Some of the city’s pre-Katrina troubles–violent crime, poverty and poor public education–are still around, which makes accounting for the flood’s impact difficult. And it’s a place that, as a friend once commented on his first visit, has always had “an easy intimacy with death,” which makes evaluating the psychic damage of a great city submerged and ravaged difficult as well.
I was once involved in a flood disaster recovery project in southwest Georgia–nothing remotely as devastating as Katrina, of course, but still terrible for people whose houses were destroyed or damaged–and an emergency management coordinator for a very, very poor county in the area half-joked that “our job is to make it possible for people to return to their dysfunctional lives.” Since natural disasters always affect the already afflicted the most, there are limits to the kind of “recovery” you can really expect. Katrina survivor Cheryl Watkins touches on this in her remarkable essay on the anniversary at TPM:
Following the flood, a lot of people discovered they had less of a support system than they thought. Are you suffering under the illusion that your family or friends would, without resentment, let you crash with them if you got in a serious bind that lasted more than two days? Do you think you have an adequate emergency fund? How will disaster interact with quarter or mid-life crises, career struggles, illness in the family or death that were in the cards anyway? When very real and bizarre stresses pile up, are you confident your partner or parents or children will not dive straight for the bottle or bong? Think again.
During the Katrina disaster itself, the most maddening thing was to talk to or hear people who would smugly blame the victims for living in a flood plain, for failing to get out at the first warnings of disaster, or for not having a detailed contingency plan for unimaginable catastrophe. That’s true, too, of more clearly man-made disasters since then, like the Great Recession. Much of what we call “polarization” in our society revolves around the simple question of whether you have the practical experience or the moral imagination to empathize with people who have little and then lose it all–or instead simply regard them as “losers” who have richly earned the pain of a desperate daily existence. I fear a thousand floods will not close that divide.