Katrina, the Mighty—and Unending—Storm
by Kai T. Erikson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, Yale University, and Chair, SSRC Task Force on Katrina
The 29th of August will be known for years as the anniversary of that terrible storm, Katrina. This is its second anniversary. The public press will mark the occasion by recounting what happened two years ago and offering an assessment of what has happened in the time since. We will learn many things from the assessment: that much of the area visited by Katrina is still in ruins; that numbers of people hurt by Katrina are still hurting; that most of those who left homes made uninhabitable by Katrina are still displaced; that New Orleans and other devastated portions of the Gulf remain without sufficient housing, schooling, health care, counseling services, and the most basic of utilities. It was a mighty storm, this Katrina.
An anniversary is an occasion when something that happened in the past is recalled in the present. But the first thing to be learned about Katrina is that it is not of the past. A violent hurricane lashed the Gulf two years ago and then expired. But the disaster is far from over.
Experts who count Katrina a thing of the past have been trying to calculate the number of deaths it was responsible for. But the true death toll changes by the moment. Suicide rates are at an epidemic level in New Orleans and elsewhere, but those grim statistics do not include those who die from too much alcohol or too many drugs, those who die because they no longer care enough to take proper care of themselves, those who die because the levels of stress or despair or pain have become intolerable.
A disaster should not simply be known by its external features—the velocity of its winds, the height of its storm surges—but by its effects on people: how it works its way into the fabric of everyday experience, how it is visualized in the musings of the day and the dreams of night, what damage it does to the flow of human lives. By that measure, Katrina is still a storm of hurricane force.
This is particularly the case for evacuees who left damaged homes with the hope of returning soon. A majority of them are still displaced, not only in the sense that they do not have homes but also in the sense that they have been torn loose from what they take to be their natural niches.
In some ways, at least, there are two New Orleans. The same can be said of any community along the Gulf coast. The first, the one most often featured in the news, is a bounded territory, a place on the map. Most of the stories we read this anniversary season will concern what is happening in those parcels of land. But a city is also a gathering of people in much the same way that an organism is a cluster of cells. And a large portion of that second New Orleans, the cells that breathed life into it and were its substance, are no longer there at all. They are in Houston, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Dallas-Fort Worth, Mobile, and dozens of other locations. But they are New Orleans all the same, just as their kin from more rural parts of the area are the Gulf. From all available indications, they are suffering grievously.
An accurate reckoning of Katrina is in danger of receding into the past unless we mount a systematic study of its effects. A number of social science research projects are now underway, but most of them are brief glances at relatively small fragments of a much wider expanse. They sketch details rather than offer a broader portrait. What we really need is a more comprehensive understanding of the human consequences of that disaster.
The Task Force on Katrina of the Social Science Research Council has been attempting to provide such an understanding. There are two main incentives for our work:
1) To gather information required for a full and reasoned restoration of the Gulf coast, by which we have in mind not only restoring damaged tracts of land but restoring damaged persons.
2) To help prepare for that stark inevitability, the next time. Experts are unanimous in predicting that the future will see a marked increase in both the number and severity of disastrous events resulting from (a) the rages of an ever more turbulent natural world, (b) the miscalculations of an ever more incautious human world, (c) the way humankind distributes itself across the earth's surface, and (d) the threat of deliberate acts of terror. Knowing is far and away our surest line of defense against the harm done by events of that kind, and Katrina offers a remarkable opportunity to help us prepare for such a future. the next time
We owe this to the victims of Katrina, not only because we have to know what happened to them in order to be of help to them, but because they will be the first to take comfort in knowing that an understanding of their pain will ease the suffering of those who follow.