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Hurricane Katrina: Washing Away the Liberal Illusion

December, 2016


Hurricane Katrina, the second most damaging natural disaster to hit American shores since 1927, took over news outlets with images of people stranded on roofs, rescue workers swimming through the floodwaters, and people gathering supplies from stores. Throughout these images were hidden messages of who was to blame for the human tragedy and what it meant for our country. These hidden ideas in pictures and captions in the news reports reflects a marginalization of nonwhite people in the US, as they were not treated the same as other victims in the media. How did these representations of the disaster reveal a demographic in America that is often hidden? How did some of these representations feed into an ideology of a white, middle class America? The shock white people in America felt at seeing New Orleans post-hurricane reflects an ideology of what America is to the public as reactions to images of Katrina relief efforts were described as though a “Third World country had suddenly appeared on the Gulf Coast,” according to Rosa Brooks (Dominguez, 2006, p. 2). More than 13% of Americans live in poverty, and not just during hurricanes, yet when middle class Americans are exposed to this demographic, they register these people as “defective” or “foreign,” as people who are in America, but aren’t Americans (Dominguez, 2006, p. 3). This “Third World” discourse surrounding Katrina reveals the assumption and ideology that nonwhite and poor means non-American.

Literature Review and Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is the movement to fight against the widespread disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards on people of color. This issue is simultaneously very nuanced and very focused, as it addresses environmental injustice on scales from local to global, it is fed by issues that affect a large number of racial minority and nonwhite groups, and the hazards range from toxics in local water sources, to electronic waste, to climate change. This movement was especially important in the face of industrialization and its exploitation of people of color, as the newfound speed and productivity levels created vast numbers of hazards in the workplace and pollution of the surrounding areas. Toxic waste dumps were located in the areas that gave the least resistance, poor communities of color, and these facilities and others just as hazardous to work in were staffed by the same demographic (Pellow 2002, Cole & Foster 2001). Segregation, and resulting spatialized concentration of people of color, especially African Americans makes them all the more vulnerable to industrial hazards and hazards related to geographical exploitation like hurricanes. Instances of this kind of environmental exploitation revealed themselves all over the United States, creating a need to address and correct this brand of inequality.

Marked as one of the founding events of the movement, the United Church of Christ released a report on data gathered to prove the connection between disproportionate impacts of hazards and the locations of communities of color in 1987. From this point, the movement tackled instances of environmental racism case by case, fighting at the grassroots level. Then, in 1996, Laura Pulido critiqued the Environmental Justice movement for its lack of acknowledgment the systemic aspects of racism still so entrenched in American societal, political, and economic processes. While these aspects of racism were implied in the literature and actions of the movement, there was a lack of an attempt to raise awareness about the broader issues that tied all of the local movements together. Pulido highlights the three dominant contradictions in modern racial discourse, even among environmental justice activists and scholars: 1. Racism is reduced to overt and deliberate actions; 2. Racism is denied to be an ideology; and 3. Racism is viewed as a fixed, unitary racism that can be isolated and removed from systems (1996, p. 146-147). The establishment of these truths in environmental justice forces us to see these individual cases as what they really are: part of a much bigger, much more entrenched problem of racial inequality.

Since the rise of the movement into the public vision, there have been two main criticisms of the environmental justice movement that target the idea of racism as a factor: market dynamics as causation of inequality and lifestyle choices as causation of inequality. The first is also described as the “chicken or the egg” argument, because it asks which came first, the residents or the hazard. It blames apparently benign economic forces for the exploitation of degradation of neighborhoods and argues that disadvantaged peoples “naturally” move to these cheaper areas. In other words, Pulido describes this criticism as a suggestion that the specific distribution of environmental hazards is caused by poverty alone (Pulido, 2006, p. 146-47). When asking, “What was there first, the community or the hazard?” the question is essentially asking, “Does racism still exist?” The answer is yes, institutionalized racism creates poverty, and capitalism takes advantage of that poverty. Therefore, race is still a factor in environmental hazards, mostly because people of color are seen as less likely to be able to prevent hazardous economic conditions and policies from invading and impacting their communities, not only because of their poverty, but also because of their race and the continuing presence of racism today.

The reasons for environmental justice’s departure from the traditional environmental movement is tied to that movement’s perpetuation of blaming the poor for environmental crises. Di Chiro (2009) critiques the traditional environmental movement for its narrow focus and for ignoring of the exploitation of people alongside exploitation of land and natural resources. The traditional movement uses a Neo-Malthusian perspective on resources that describes a “mono-causal peril” associated with overpopulation as the source of all environmental problems (Di Chiro, 1996, p. 99). This ignores the effect of affluence on pollution and use of resources, a fact that is vital to the foundation of environmental justice, and instead often resorts to blaming poor communities of color for having multiple children, a stereotype used by the discourse of over population to shift blame for environmental degradation to poor people of color. While the overuse of resources affects everyone, those that cause the majority of resource scarcity are wealthy elites and those that face the brunt of climate change are poorer minorities. The traditional environmental movement’s lack of acknowledgement of these truths is the reason environmental justice removes itself from the earlier movement (Cole & Foster, 2001, pp. 20–31). This dismissal of realities of inequality in the environmental movement reflects its white masculinist ideology of what America should be and who is to blame for environmental degradation.

Social vulnerability (Cutter, 2006) is a product of social inequality and a lack of social support and political representation. As racism must be acknowledged for an argument about racial inequality to be realistic (Pulido, 1996), social vulnerability is inseparable from systems of inequality that cannot be simply overt, static, or removed from a greater ideology of nationalism. In fact, the fairly immediate history - the last century - of racism in America consistently produced and reproduced inequality and vulnerability for black families and individuals. Starting where the average history textbook ends the discussion, the Jim Crow South created a system of thievery and exploitation of black farmers who had no protection under the law and therefore could lose everything at the whim of a white farmer (Coates, 2014, n.p.). Sharecropping was an even further destabilizing practice for black families forced into it, as the farmers they worked for would hold wages for little to no reason or justification. Meanwhile, as a result of their parents’ instability in a Jim Crow South, black children missed educational opportunities because resources, like buses, were not available to them for the sake of upholding segregation of children, even in transportation to school (Coates, 2014, n.p.). Yet the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did not end the suffering and exploitation of black Americans. People were still fleeing the violence and rejection of the South, moving from the rural South to the cities of the Northeast, the Central US and the West in what is termed “the Great Migration,” which lasted from the 1920s to the 1970s. While they were not subject to the same culture of oppression they left, black Americans were still marginalized in the Northern cities by unfair and racist housing policies (Coates, 2014, n.p.). Some mortgage companies in Chicago exploited hundreds in a very similar way as those who exploited sharecroppers. These trends of mortgage rip-offs existed in many major American cities. Between redlining, white flight, and a lack of fair housing financing, the modern ghetto was formed (Coates, 2014, n.p.). This history, combined with a segregated school system and continued racism, created a cycle of poverty that proves very difficult to break and that set up the racial and economic landscapes of cities like New Orleans.

 The racist discourses of crime and economics feed off of the already-present marginalization of black Americans and continue to produce a representation of othered black people in binary contrast with normalized white Americans. Hall (1997) offers a theoretical background for how to analyze the othering of black Hurricane Katrina victims in media responses to the disaster. Most of Hall’s theoretical work is critiquing nationalistic, white ideology, and a historical pseudo-scientific othering that justified colonialism and slavery. Most racist othering stems from an established subordination and essentialism, which in turn, establishes a binary (Hall, 1997, p. 234-47). One half of the binary is white, middle class (or wealthy), and American, while the other half is nonwhite, poor, non-American. This binary creation doesn’t allow for admixture, so when tragedy strikes in America, and white Americans are shocked to see that our country isn’t entirely white and middle-class. 


Cultural and social problems before, during, and after Katrina

From theories of environmental injustice, a history of racialization of space in the post-Jim Crow south, and othering in representation, the next step of this analysis is looking at racial inequality in New Orleans specifically. There is an extensive history of environmental injustice from the usual suspects - industrialization and toxins - and a special case that applies to New Orleans because of its landscape and relationship with the ocean. Between these factors, an environmental crisis was long overdue, and the negligence in the face of it was unsurprising when the history of disenfranchisement that proliferated America and New Orleans specifically.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the lack of government support fits into a history of racially driven negligence when black residents are not allotted the same foresight and emergency response as white residents. Clyde Woods (2005) describes the history of New Orleans as a “feeding frenzy on the poor,” due to the massive amount of wealth accumulated by the sugar, rice, cotton, and oil industries in Louisiana and exploited from the people of color living along the Gulf, now in deep levels of poverty (Woods, 2005, p. 1010-1011). This economic destitution of people of color caused by American industries shifts the blame for inequality from institutional racism to economic forces by blaming poverty instead of the reasons for poverty. Also, because of these conditions and the landscape of the area, New Orleans contained some of the worst environmental injustices before the flood, on top of deeply rooted racialized police brutality. “The city’s coastal wetlands, which normally serve as a natural buffer against storm surge, had been destroyed by offshore drilling, Mississippi River levees, canals for navigation, pipelines, highway projects, agricultural and urban development” (Bullard & Wright, 2009, p. 20). Because these wetlands prevented flooding, this caused certain areas to be more exposed to hazards like flooding and storm surges. Not only did the industrial exploitation of the landscape and people of New Orleans lead to toxic waste, pollution, and contamination of soil, water, and air, but the geology of the Gulf and the way the city was built over marshes and swamps lends the city to a very fragile hydrology. Who lived in these areas? “Poor blacks lived in the backswamps on the inland margin of the natural levee, where drainage was bad, foundation materials precarious, streets atrociously unmaintained, mosquitos endemic, and flooding a recurrent hazard” (Bullard & Wright, 2009, p. 21). One of these predominantly black, hazardous areas is the Ninth Ward, which houses The Agriculture Street Landfill neighborhood, also a space to dump debris after Hurricane Betsy in 1965 (Bullard & Wright, 2009, p. 23).  Across New Orleans as a whole, there were high levels of lead poisoning in over half of all black children before Katrina, yet the homeless population has doubled since Katrina at 4%, double the second highest rate in Atlanta (Bullard & Wright, 2009, p. 28-29). New Orleans was and continues to be essentially a food desert, with most grocery stores having left the inner city and moved to white neighborhoods (Bullard & Wright, 2009, p. 36). The pattern of environmental injustices and flooding was a problem in New Orleans before the hurricane, and it will continue to repeat itself.

In 1927 the Mississippi River flooded, creating what has been described as the worst natural disaster in the United States before Katrina (Lee et al., 2006, n.p.). The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 displaced over half a million people, and injustices in relief efforts, such as giving away assistance to white victims and selling it to black victims, were widespread. During the Great Mississippi Flood, the levees were dynamited to save certain parts of the city over others (“Third Stop,” 2015, n.p.). In response to the disaster, the world’s longest system of levees was installed to replace the damaged and inadequate earlier system. However, history repeated itself in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans and the levees around Lake Pontchartrain, never completed, either failed or were intentionally breached by the Army Corps of Engineers (Lee et al., 2006, n.p.). There was never an investigation into what caused the levee breach, but many speculate that the levee was compromised to save the French Quarter, which isn’t a stretch of the imagination considering the previous levee breach in 1927. Since these two floods, the levee system has never been fully repaired, leaving the city vulnerable to flooding again in the future (Lee et al., 2006, n.p.).

When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and the Lake Pontchartrain levees broke again, the disregard for people in Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward fits into a historic pattern of racially selective failures on the part of the government, whether the levees were intentionally breached or not. Many of the lowest lying areas of New Orleans like the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly are historically the more impoverished neighborhoods of the city, due to environmental injustices in the Louisiana housing market, and were also the most affected by the levee breach (“Journal of American History - Through the Eye of Katrina - An Ethnic Geography of New Orleans,” n.d., p. n.p.) Engineers and city planners again blame the incompleteness and lack of maintenance on the levees, so even if there was no dynamite used in the flooding of the Ninth Ward, the lack of consideration and prioritization in restoring the levees tells the same story (Lee et al., 2006, n.p.). On a national scale, because of a racist history we have already outlined and the hazards that stem from it, “Blacks in the US serve as the proverbial canary in a coal mine” (Woods, 2005, p. 1005). Woods’ statement reflects the level of environmental injustices experienced by black Americans, as when there is a pattern of destruction, disaster, or disease, the marginalized groups are going to be the first to witness and fall victim to it. Unfortunately, these crises are rarely treated as such until they affect whites, leaving marginalized groups not only susceptible to them, but also abandoned in their fight for help.

An image that is always called to mind when discussing Hurricane Katrina, even a decade later, is the thousands and thousands of people in the Superdome for five days after the storm (“Refuge of last resort,” 2015, n.p.). Black evacuees made up the vast majority of those in the dome and soon a slower crisis emerged between a lack of food and water, and running water to dispose of waste (“Refuge of last resort,” 2015, n.p.). The reality is that the people who were in the Superdome didn’t have an adequate safety net compared to white evacuees, and therefore ended up in the makeshift crisis camp that degraded into a crisis of its own after only a few days. Regarding the past history and continued cycle of poverty and government negligence of people of color, this lack of security fits into the greater narrative of black Americans’ social vulnerability. Evacuating is an incredibly expensive undertaking and those who don’t have the funds to stay in a hotel and don’t have relatives in wealthier, less affected regions have little choice but to stay and leave their fates in the government’s hands.

In terms of relief efforts and evacuations, there was already a significant lack of resources allocated to rescuing and assisting the poorer victims of the flooding. When the Levees Broke, directed by Spike Lee, documents the stagnation and delay of the government’s response, often comparing it to the response of the Linden B. Johnson administration during the 1965 flood. Johnson was on the ground in 1965, pointing a flashlight at himself, and telling the people of New Orleans that he was there to help them (Lee et al., 2006, n.p.). President George W. Bush didn’t come to New Orleans until well after the initial waves of disaster had run through. On his way back from a 29-day vacation, Air Force One flew over New Orleans to assess the damage, but it didn’t touch down on land. Our former president’s delay in action wasn’t only in his decision not to visit. One survivor was even approached by Canadian Mounted Police, who were there as part of relief and police volunteer efforts from other nations, before receiving any help from US emergency services (Lee et al., 2006, n.p.). FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) acquired over one hundred thousand trailers after Katrina, yet those living in these trailers became ill due to the high levels of formaldehyde in the structures (Bullard & Wright, 2009, p. 34). Most experts blame the issues on failures in anticipation, as FEMA seemed unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude to hit such a large city (Badkhen & Writer, 2005, n.p.). Bush offered his opinion on the unexpected nature of the disaster: “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees,” despite many engineers’ critiques that the system was in an advanced state of disrepair (Badkhen & Writer, 2005, n.p.). There has also been a reported case of outright exclusion and racism based in fear, where one of the neighboring communities to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans refused to let evacuees enter their neighborhood, threatening them with guns (Lee et al., 2006, n.p.). Both on the scale of the city and of the nation, residents were abandoned in the time of crisis, as is common in cases of environmental racism.


Media portrayal and American Ideology

Media both addressed and uncovered an environmental injustice disaster that destabilized the ideology that America is white and middle class. At the same time, it fed into this ideology, showing victims of Hurricane Katrina as deserving of their fate, as undesirable, and as unAmerican. By establishing a binary of “self” as white and middle class and “other” as black and impoverished (Hall 1996) in reporting the victims of Katrina, the media justified existing environmental racism and the future inequality in relief efforts. Dominguez introduced this idea of Hurricane Katrina breaking down ideas of the “liberal illusion” of American equality by showing the poverty that exists and is common in America, but is also often hidden from the mainstream media. David Harvey (1996) defines the liberal illusion:

In societies governed by deep inequalities of political power, economic wealth, social standing and cultural accomplishment the promise of equal rights is delusory with the consequence that for the majority, rights are merely abstract, formal entitlements with little or no de facto purchase on the realities of social life. In so far (sic) as social life is regulated by these abstract principles and in so far as the promise is mistaken for its fulfillment, then the discourse of rights and justice is an ideology a form of mystification which has a causal role in binding individuals to the very conditions of dependence and impoverishment from which it purports to offer emancipation. p. 389

Hurricane Katrina exposed the “futility of ‘plausible deniability’ dance” (Woods, 2005, p. 1005) or the fragility of “liberal illusion” that has allowed America to view itself as a strong, middle class nation with an infrastructure and safety net that would catch all citizens in times of crisis like hurricanes.

Initially, images of the “Third World” appearing in New Orleans brought up questions in many who were watching the media coverage following the storm: why black Americans were visually “over-represented” in the Superdome after the hurricane, and where all the white people went (Dominguez, 2006). Revealing dynamics of social vulnerability, this media representation of the Superdome points out the lack of security many of the impoverished people of color in New Orleans, and America as a whole face (Sommers, Apfelbaum, Dukes, Toosi, & Wang, 2006). Dominguez goes on to question why the media portrayed New Orleans, post-Katrina as 99% black, when the city has a diverse racial demographic (2006, p. 3). The media reflected the reality of the devastation, answer the questions “Who ended up in the Superdome?” and therefore “Who was able to evacuate?” Dominguez brings it back to the demographic of New Orleans, with 2/3rds of the population black, and one third of that majority in poverty. This demographic existed before Katrina, so the reality is that blackness and poverty, separately and together, are just as much a part of America’s reality as whiteness and the middle class, even if the media rarely points it out besides in times of tragedy. This shattered the nationalistic ideology that America is white and well off, but present in this “Third World” rhetoric was othering that justifies the preventable economic, social, health, and environmental tragedies experienced by black Americans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.

Using different language that characterizes black victims in a specific way and a focus on violence in the aftermath (often made up), media abandoned the black victims of Katrina, and fully classified them as the “other,” leading to racialized stigmas. Madison Gray (2006) for Time presented an article about a year after Katrina that criticizes media for bringing their own biases to their reporting on Katrina, citing unsubstantiated claims of violent crimes, which include simply false reports of rape, murder, and violence. Gray cites differences in language in describing black and white survivors. Camille Jackson, a writer for a tolerance website, calls the media to action: even if it’s “uncomfortable” or “scary,” reporters must confront the racial bias they bring to a story if they want to report fairly and accurately (Gray, 2006, n.p.). When looking at the bigger picture of Katrina, however, this focus on “bias” distracts from the pervasiveness of racism and the damage it causes in media reporting of Katrina and in America as a whole. Essentially pinning all the blame on the media “is to miss the forest for the trees,” and ignore that the media only reflects the society it belongs to, which is racist (Gray, 2006, n.p.). This analogy is vital to our understanding of Katrina as an environmental justice tragedy, and therefore, symptomatic of a historic local and nationwide racial inequality that is perpetuated in economics, media, education, housing, and health.

Racism’s role in media, specifically of reporting that 2005 August, continues to be investigated, now in terms of linguistics. Sommers et al. (2006) analyze language used in the media to describe the aftermath of the hurricane. Specifically, they investigate the use of the word “refugee” instead of “evacuee” that was common immediately following the hurricane (Sommers et al., 2006, p. 40). “Refugee” implies an immigrant, not an American, and therefore the use of this word instead of evacuee reveals what is considered “American” and what is not. This also further shows how Katrina challenged the liberal illusion, as it made more sense to people to understand victims stuck on roofs and in the Superdome as part of another country than as part of America. Next, the choices the media made in which story angle to portray reveal racial undertones to reporting. The stories that come out of Katrina were filled with much more violence than what actually transpired, and described a “violent crime wave” that swept the evacuee-filled Superdome, which didn’t actually happen (Sommers et al., 2006, p. 43). Sommers et al. explain this gross misreporting as an example of  “illusory correlations,” or “overestimations of the co-occurrence of distinctive events and distinctive group memberships,” (Sommers et al., 2006, p. 45). This translates to mean the belief that there are expected to be instances of crime when there are black people because of racism, therefore the media projected their own racisms onto the situation at the Superdome.  These illusory correlations are always present in times of instability, war, or tragedy, with the help of propaganda and the media, but in Katrina, the patterns of othering in this method were widespread. Many would describe the phenomenon as fear mongering when perpetuated by the media. As Katrina exposed the poverty and vulnerability of America to itself, the media pardoned these injustices with its othering and criminalization of the victims of the tragedy, and allowed for the continuation of environmental injustices.

This representation reinforced a lack of sympathy and desire to help victims as many people, and even people in political power, already viewed the flood as a way to rid America of its “undesirables.” Richard Baker, the House Representative for the 6th District of Louisiana was overheard saying, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did” (Woods, 2005, p. 1014). This racist rhetoric shows that those with political power and the ability to sway relief efforts, economic allocation, and so many aspects of Louisiana residents’ lives, believe that the tragedies felt by people of color during this disaster were deserved. Baker expressed his stance on what he thinks America “should be,” and poor black people aren’t a part of that picture. The racism in Baker’s statement not only justified the environmental injustices that affect black Louisianans, but put further cracks in the liberal illusion that assumes those in power in America are looking out for everyone they work for, and ignores the role of racism in American politics today. The media’s failures of racism and othering post-Katrina encouraged the already-present marginalization of black southerners and reflected racism in politicians. With people in the House of Representatives and in the media justifying the marginalization of black victims, environmental injustices will continue unhindered and excused by the racism that thrives in America.



New Orleans has a history of environmental racism caused by past and present anti-blackness and marginalization. Hurricane Katrina exacerbated these already-present trends and proved that the US has abandoned its inner cities. Media perpetuated the discourse of racism surrounding the hurricane and excused the injustices that existed before and during the hurricane, justifying environmental injustice by othering victims as unAmerican. New Orleans is a prime example of economic, social, and political marginalization of black people in America, so when Hurricane Katrina hit in August of 2005, this reality was revealed to America, shattering the liberal illusion and a ideology of middle class whiteness as basic traits of the United States as a whole. The media’s role in perpetuating racial stereotypes and othering allowed for this ideology to continue and allowed for future environmental racism to be excused.