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29 August 2006 @ 11:32 am
Story: Katrina; Dateline: ...?  
When you think of Hurricane Katrina, what place do you think of?

Do you immediately think of New Orleans?

I've kept a casual eye on the media coverage of the hurricane over the past year. It seems to me that most of the coverage has been based in or about New Orleans.

My esteemed mother (ninjanurse), displaced by the hurricane, becomes angry whenever she notices this tendency. New Orleans isn't where the storm came ashore, she points out. That was Gulfport and Biloxi, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She thinks that's where the coverage should be based.

I've pointed out that most people have heard of New Orleans, so readers and viewers can get an immediate sense of place when it's the dateline, but that's not the case with Gulfport and Biloxi. She thinks that's not accurate, because the region is one of the top casino destinations in the country. (I would still guess there's a large difference in recognition level.)

But more than that, I think it's a matter of what people take Hurricane Katrina to be a story about.

Yes, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated by the storm itself. It hosted the storm's landfall. At the same time, though, hurricanes are somewhat expected there, just as blizzards are expected in the Northeast and earthquakes in California. The destruction was phenomenal, yes, but every schoolchild in the region grows up watching the footage from Hurricane Camille. Until Katrina, Camille was a defining disaster for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in the way the Blizzard of '78 is a defining event for New Englanders.

But after Katrina came the failure of the levees. The flooding of a major US city. The stranding of thousands of people, largely (though not exclusively) along class lines -- which in this country maps largely (though not exclusively) along race lines.

Over the past year I've heard that the story of Katrina is the flooding, the incompetence of the current administration, the class divide, the race divide, the country's abandonment of the poor, the dire warning knell of global climate change, the hubris of man's attempt to conquer nature. For one editorial writer at the New Orleans Times Picayune, the story is that the citizens of New Orleans were lied to by the Corps of Engineers.

In other words, the story isn't the devastating hurricane; the story is the aftermath in New Orleans. The story is the sequence of disasters, the complicated narrative that illustrates any of a dozen morals. For that story, New Orleans is the place; the rich cultural history of this well-known city adds dimension and contrast and irony. New Orleans has become "where it happened" much the same way that Banda Aceh became "where the 2004 tsunami happened."

So Gulfport and Biloxi don't get the coverage -- at least most of the coverage. Occasional articles and clips do mention the area at least in passing; they get mentioned more often than, say, Waveland, MS. Or Pineville. Or Pass Christian, Pascagoula, Ocean Springs, D'Iberville, Gautier ... the list goes on. They may not have gotten the eye, but they were hit just as hard, and they generally speaking have fewer resources than the casino towns.

I'm from Gulfport, but it's part of my past, while it's still ninjanurse's present. Maybe that's why I'm not especially put out that the story of Katrina has been located elsewhere in the nation's view. I just don't know.

What about you, dear reader? What is the story of Hurricane Katrina? Where is the story of Hurricane Katrina? What lessons does this anniversary reinforce? Please feel free to discuss or disagree or debate in the comments.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
zoward on October 3rd, 2006 12:45 pm (UTC)
The Control of Nature
Pulitzer-prize winning geologist John MacPhee has a book called The Control of Nature. In it, he describes three scenarios in which mankind has chosen to pit themselves directly against the awesome force of nature. One was a group of Icelanders who (semi-successfully!) tried to prevent a lava flow from decimating their town by using huge pumps to dump seawater on it. Another was about the people who live above Los Angeles in the alluvial fan of the San Gabriel mountains - an area prone to severe mudslides which wipe out a neighborhood every few years. Apparently the locals consider this an acceptable risk.

And the third scenario, of course, described the losing battle of the US Army Core of Engineers in their quest to keep the Mississippi River out of New Orleans. This book was written in 1990. The chapter gives you no illusions that the Core didn't know what the eventual outcome of this was going to be. They made it clear that it was only a matter of time. At least in the book they did - whether this was common knowledge for those who lived in and around New Orleans, I don't know. The book is definitely worth reading, though, even in retrospect.