Fateful Storm: In 2005, Hurricane Katrina descended on the southern United States and forever changed the landscape—physically, economically, and socially. The storm—which came ashore as a Category 3 maintained hurricane strength for another 150 miles inland—affected large swathes of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida but struck the City of New Orleans especially hard.
Although Katrina was a storm of epic proportions, the cascading effects of the disaster were even more devastating and highlighted serious problems in the nation’s ability to respond to disasters—including gaps in emergency management planning, evacuation failures, and a wide range of social vulnerability issues, just to name a few. As the years wore on, Katrina also provided a wealth of lessons on recovery and rebuilding.
Sea of Change: Ten years later, the anniversary of the mammoth storm spawned an almost obligatory look back at the changes Katrina had wrought. Conclusions about what we’ve learned, however, have been wildly varied.
There were, of course, stories of progress. The New York Times ran a piece on levees and wetlands that had been restored in the past decade. Wired devoted a feature to how everything from forecasting to emergency management to disaster gadgetry has improved since the storm. PBS even followed the pets of Katrina and how their plight changed the way we evacuate animals in disaster. Countless other stories touted the resilience of the survivors and communities.
But even while many celebrated the progress made since the storm, others were quick to point out all that’s left to be done. An article in The Lens points out that the state-of-the-art levee system in New Orleans is meant to protect property, not lives. And Katy Reckdahl writes in Politico not of true recovery, but of recovery with an asterisk. Harry Shearer, writing in the Huffington Post, simply says enough with the self-congratulatory back patting, already—New Orleans isn’t ready to be the success story most people want to hear and survivors shouldn’t be forced to submit to a media circus congratulating them on their resilience.
The Next Wave: Indeed, Shearer makes a good point. The ten-year mark of a terrible disaster might be a good time to recall public attention to the all that’s left to be done in terms of national preparedness, but the pressure to put a positive spin on the situation is counterproductive and condescending. One only has to delve in to the stories of actual survivors to see that, although they are resilient, they’ll never be made whole.
There’s also the question of whether or not such anniversary flybys are worth much. There’s indication that even the lessons of a major disaster such as Katrina aren’t relevant to communities that haven’t experienced disaster in while, or ever. Perhaps, as former President Bill Clinton told New Orleanians on the anniversary, the best purpose they can serve is as a brief respite—a moment to put down the shovel before digging in deeper.
“So my take on this is: have a good time New Orleans, you’ve earned it,” he said. “Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve earned it. Laugh tonight and dance to the music, you earned it. And tomorrow, wake up and say – ‘look at what we did. I bet we can do the rest, too’.”