Blue Skies Ahead?

Historians think Hurricane Katrina may have been a turning point for America. Scott McLemee isn't swept away....

February 6, 2008

Hurricane Katrina is a disaster so recent that it is, in a sense, still underway. It isn’t just that large parts of New Orleans are in ruins after two and a half years, or that many of its residents are gone for good. According to one survey, something like a third of the population now living in the city intends to leave . The Journal of American History has just published a special issue, “Through the Eye of Katrina: The Past as Prologue?” that presents 20 papers covering New Orlean’s unique place in the American social and cultural landscape. It is also a reminder of just how much of city’s historical ambiance is now well and truly in the past, lost for good.

The issue is available online, in an edition that includes both audio slideshows and a set of maps and timelines. Rather than try to describe everything available in “Through the Eye of Katrina,” I’d like to take a short look here at two papers from it in particular. They frame the events of August 2005 as part of an unfinished story.

The final paper, “What Does American History Tell Us About Katrina and Vice Versa?” is by Lawrence N. Powell – a professor of history at Tulane University and one of the issue’s editors. That seems an odd place for it to appear. The paper feels very much like an introduction, and it can be recommended as a good place for the reader to start.

My impression is that Powell would like very much to believe that something like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s argument in The Cycles of American History (1986) is true. The idea is that our political life and national temper go through more or less regular swings of the pendulum, whether between liberalism and conservatism, or between public-mindedness and an emphasis on private interests.

This idea has been around for at least 100 years. The first widely circulated version was put presented by Henry Adams’s somewhat eccentric younger brother Brooks in the 1890s. Another cyclical theory was put forward by Arthur Schlesinger Sr., who predicted from it that a long period of conservative dominance would begin in the United States around 1978. Given that he died one year after Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964, this seems unusually farsighted. The model advanced in the mid-1980s by Junior (who passed away in 2007) held that U.S. history tends to go through cycles lasting 30 years each – with 15 years of expansive public-mindedness being followed by 15 of conservative retrenchment.

Powell doesn’t endorse any particular timetable in his paper, which is probably for the best. (Historians should avoid poaching on the professional expertise of astrologers.) But he does suggest that Katrina might yet prove to be a “detonating event” in setting off whatever seismic changes in public life are now underway.

Assuming, that is, that any such shifts really are underway. “American politics have been in a conservative phase for so long,” writes Powell, “thirty-five years and counting, that is hard to imagine an abrupt shift in the national Zeitgeist happening anytime soon.” He notes that the spirit of privatized effort “has been hard to miss in the Katrina recovery” – with the preferred mode of public assistance taking the form of tax credits for developers and “multimillion-dollar debris-removal contracts that were sole-sourced to politically connected corporations.”

But however locked into trickle-down thinking the current recovery efforts have been, the experience of Katrina has raised concerns about the state of the country’s infrastructure and emergency-preparedness. That may, in turn, require national action at the level of policy and budget – no matter what the talk-radio Zeitgeist says about it.

"We have probably gone too far down the road of states’ rights federalism,” writes Powell, “for some sort of New Deal–type agency such as the Tennessee Valley Authority to arise any time soon. The need for such a regional entity, with the capacity to coordinate relief and recovery activity across multiple levels of government and between public and private actors, has never been more apparent than now. All the same, the pendulum does seem to be swinging back toward the public sphere. When conservative southern Republican politicians start intervening in the insurance market or call for regulating outsourcing (as the governor of Florida has recently done), it is a sign the country is overdue for a conversation about the role of government.”

Geographers make an important distinction between “site and “situation,” as Ari Kelman points out in his paper “Boundary Issues: Clarifying New Orleans’s Murky Edges.” And in the history of the city, it is been a difference that’s made a difference. “Site” refers to the concrete geographical specifics of where an urban area is located. By contrast, “situation” is a matter of human attitude and need – what advantages it offers, relative to other places.

Site and situation are related, of course. But they can be at odds – and in New Orleans, are they ever. Kelman notes its “near-perfect situation” as a city built “on the east bank of the continent’s greatest river, near its outlet, in an era before technologies began circumventing the vagaries of geography.....Just downstream from the city lay the Gulf of Mexico, which provided access to the Atlantic world of trade.” But the site is near-perfect in its potential for disaster: a city built on sediment, with the riverfront being its highest point of elevation, with most of it below sea level and having no natural drainage.

Kelman, who is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis, describes three centuries of attempts by the city to compensate for its “site” problems through engineering – a series of efforts that have had complicated implications for its economy and social structure. It’s a valuable narrative that helps to place the events of August 2005 in a long-term perspective.

But when Kelman reaches the point of addressing the post-Katrina future, something puzzling happens. In the final lines of the paper, he writes: “It now appears New Orleans will try again to engineer itself out of harm’s way, once more attempting to improve its levees and drainage system. The various committees seem captivated by the notion that it is possible to separate the city from its surroundings, a myth that will not die, no matter how many of New Orleans’s residents do.”

This left me scratching my head. Just what alternative is there to improving the levees and drainage system? Is the implication that site has so trumped situation that repopulating New Orleans is a bad idea? While Powell’s article expresses ambivalence about prospects for the future, I found Kelman’s remarks inscrutable – so decided to ask him for clarification.

It turns out that confusion is a reasonable response, because Kelman himself intended his final remarks to be ambiguous. He has been studying the city’s history and its reconstruction efforts and has written about Katrina for The Nation and The Christian Science Monitor. He isn't against either hydraulic engineering or repopulating the city, as such. But at this point, no he sees no cut-and-dried policy option recommends itself as a real solution to its current problems.

"There’s no good solution to what ails New Orleans," he told me by email. "That was true before Katrina; it’s true now. Higher levees and better drainage conjure the illusion of safety without offering any real guarantees that people will be safe, particularly if the next storm comes soon, if the money runs out (a sure thing), or if global warming isn’t a hoax. The illusion of safety, then, makes it easy for people to live in harm’s way without reckoning with the danger. But, on the other hand, making people leave their communities heaps social insult atop environmental injury – not that I see the social and the environmental as being easily separable.”

So what is to be done?

"I have no idea," he writes. "Better leadership – a coordinated effort between federal, state, and local authorities, with real input from the grassroots, like Common Ground and others – would have been nice. But Katrina had the bad manners to come calling during the Bush years.... So we suffered through our first libertarian catastrophe. And we seem not to have learned much from it. That’s pretty grim, I know.... But we need to do more for the city. Maybe we will after this coming November."

Well, OK. Keep hope alive, etc. But in the final analysis it seems as if both Powell and Kelman are counting on the idea that a swing of the pendulum must be coming – and that when it does, things will start to change. Whole campaigns are being run on the principle that revitalized optimism can fundamentally transform the American situation.

Perhaps it can. But if Katrina taught us nothing else, it proved that situation isn’t everything. Anyone who wants lasting change needs to think about engineering some improvements to the site. That won't come easily, and it takes a lot of optimism to think that will happen at all.


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