historical stuff by Gareth Millward
29 August 2005 – New Orleans
It’s been ten years since Katrina tore through the South East of the United States, causing thousands to lose their lives and billions of dollars worth of damage. The impact on people’s lives is being felt to this day.
Natural disasters such as this are, for obvious reasons, highly publicised in the media. There is something awesome (in the literal sense of the word) about an unstoppable force, causing so much devastation and producing such dramatic images for television and print. That is not to say the media should be blamed for this.1 These events capture the public imagination, and appetite to hear more about them is clearly there.
Now. This raises a number of questions for historians about how people react to disasters. Living in a country that is so rarely affected by earthquakes, tropical storms, volcanoes or tsunami, my focus is often on the observers. How do those in remote locations deal with the news of disasters?
This matters, because sometimes those people in the remote locations are the ones with the power to act. Indirectly through charitable donations, logistical support and international co-operation; and directly as the heads of governments with direct jurisdiction. What made Katrina so iconic in the popular consciousness was not just the devastation it wrought – it was that the richest country on the planet was completely unable to rebuild one of its most important cities, or provide it with the support that it clearly required.
So many disasters occur in parts of the world that already have myriad issues with their political, economic and transport infrastructure. When just a few months previously the Boxing Day Tsunami hit South East Asian coast, there was a massive reaction from people across the world. British people alone donated over £390 million of private money through organisations such as the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), and the government pledged a further £75 million.2
At the same time, we often do very little (in terms of a percentage of the public finances) to build infrastructure so that these disasters have less of a long-term impact. The foreign aid budget remains a controversial topic, with a not-insignificant proportion of the population who subscribe to the mantra “charity begins at home”. Even when we do give, it is often in a patriarchal relationship, based on a very Western idea of “humanitarianism” to those “other” parts of the world.3
This is not a condemnation – dramatic events often provoke more of a reaction than the general, mundane grind of international poverty. But as a historian, these things matter. They uncover one of those paradoxes of charity, especially in England. We will (as a public) donate our time and/or money to a soup kitchen or food bank – but we won’t commit to the sorts of economic reforms that would provide the levels of social security, housing, employment and health care that would render those charitable acts moot. As one commentator on the welfare state put it in the 1960s, the welfare state is ‘the ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff’.4
The VAHS will tell you all about these sorts of nuances, which I don’t have time for here. Suffice to say, Katrina broke a number of the stereotypes. Because this happened in a country that was rich enough and had the infrastructure to clean up New Orleans. And yet for so many political reasons it didn’t.
The criticisms of President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans are widely known. Poor management and planning at all levels of the federal system in the United States led to what can only be accurately described as a clusterfuck.
What is intriguing for historians, however, is the way it exposed on a local level what we often see on the international stage. New Orleans was a poor(er) city, with economic and social problems that extended way beyond the damage inflicted by the hurricane. When Kanye West declared “Bush doesn’t care about black people”, it struck a nerve because it represented decades of neglect of poorer (often black) areas of the country. While the nation united in philanthropic donations and condemnation of the governments’ responses, many of the structural economic problems remain in the Southern United States.
And on that cheery note – don’t take this as an excuse not to donate to DEC appeals. The work they do is vital. But we need to be more critical of the systems which continue to allow natural disasters to do so much damage and last so long when we have the technological know how to fix many of these problems.