The Perfectly Outrageous Storm
Questions for Shirley Laska
The award-winning sociologist talks about her memories of Katrina three years ago, why the city still hasn't fully recovered, and what the next president needs to do for the region and, more generally, to prepare the nation for large-scale disasters—no time like the present given the threat of Hurricane Gustav.
You have lived in New Orleans for 41 years. What brought you there in the first place? To attend Tulane University. My former husband and I both came to seek PhDs, he in biology and me in sociology.
What is the best thing about living there? The city wraps its culture around you every day, everywhere, and if it feels good to you, you will never want it to release its grip.
The worst? Poverty and crime and the long history of corruption, begetting still more poverty and crime.
Did your relationship with the city change in the wake of Katrina? It became even more intense. Given the applied sociology work I do on risk, disasters, and their human dimensions, I’ve now entered the “cult” bubble of Katrina studies and haven’t yet—may never fully—come out.
Have you read the book by journalist and fellow New Orleans resident Julia Reed, The House on First Street? My schedule of 12-hour days, seven days a week, doesn't leave much time for reading. My hazards center at the University of New Orleans [UNO-CHART] could not be more busy: 20 graduate research assistants and about 15 projects. We've been going at this pace while moving from one temporary location to another, after the storm destroyed our offices. We began by sharing space with a generous colleague at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Then we moved to an apartment in New Orleans near the river, using furniture scrounged from discarded items on the street. Our next home was the “bullpen” of an IT company in the UNO R & T Park. After that, we occupied space in the abandoned old College of Business Administration on the UNO campus, in the area of the building least damaged. It was not until June 15 of this year that we moved into our renovated, permanent location.
It sounds exhausting. Disaster literature talks about the importance of having depth of staff in any emergency position, as people must sleep, take a break, help their families. Nothing has been written about the same need for “depth” of recovery and reconstruction professionals. I don’t know a single committed recovery/reconstruction professional in New Orleans who is not threatening their health, psyche, family and friend relationships, etc., by their work pace.
In your article for the National Hazards Observer in 2004, titled “What if Hurricane Ivan Had Not Missed New Orleans?,” you warned that a Category 4 hurricane hitting the city would be one of the greatest disasters ever to hit the United States, with estimated costs exceeding $100 billion. In the aftermath of such a hurricane, you said it would take nine weeks to dewater the city, and “national authorities would be scrambling to build tent cities to house the hundreds of thousands of refugees unable to return to their homes and without other relocation options.” You also testified before Congress in 2005 about the dangers facing New Orleans. Can we call that remarkable foresight? It wasn’t just me. Except for one portion of the article—the concerns about evacuation—I was presenting a compilation of research by a myriad of other scientists—social, physical, bio—as well as engineers.
When Katrina struck, did you think, “I told you so”? No, not at all. On the contrary, I was in a total state of shock, which lasted for many months. The November following Katrina, I made a presentation of photos to the National Academy of Sciences attesting to the magnitude of the destruction to the city's housing infrastructure. I recall thinking I never should have been invited, nor accepted, I was feeling so devastated. We middle class Americans simply have no idea how a disaster will affect us. In less privileged parts of the world, people face risks to their lives, the lives of their children, their sources of livelihood, their cultural identities, and so on, virtually every day. Americans, by contrast, have very little sense of what catastrophe means and how it will affect us personally.
It’s now been three years. Where do things stand with the city's recovery? The National Academy of Sciences has a regular, semi-annual forum called Disasters Roundtable. As a panelist for their Katrina forum in 2007, I proposed that to offer a summary statement of how the recovery is doing is to misrepresent that process. So many different groups, namely those who are marginalized, powerless, have not recovered. Those with status, political clout, and personal financial resources are doing much better. Tourist areas of New Orleans have been “spiffed” up. Lower income neighborhoods and some middle class neighborhoods that are at a distance from the city’s tourist center are remarkably empty. One third of the population has not returned—many yearn to do so, while others are trying to adjust to another location, feeling literally “out of place.” I argued that the recovery of New Orleans is “the mother of Rorschachs.” You can read my paper in the forthcoming Sociological Inquiry, 78.4.
Are small coastal and rural communities doing any better? This question, too, is politically laden. Unlike smaller communities, a city needs an infrastructure to manage the needs of its much larger population, particularly when so many are living in poverty. One thing I have noticed is how quickly everyone in the affected region—whether in small or large communities—learned that to get a response from government, you have to be assertive, in fact down right aggressive. And when such assistance is not forthcoming—from the immediately life-saving activities to the continuing struggle to gain reconstruction momentum—then relying on yourself and on small groups of friends and neighbors is the only way to go. Never before in a major American city have neighbors come together over such a long period of time in shared determination to regain their world as have the citizens of New Orleans. They have richly redefined the “therapeutic community,” a classic concept in the sociology of disasters.
Congratulations on winning this year’s Public Understanding of Sociology Award from the ASA. How does sociology enhance our study of disasters such as Katrina? Sociology teaches us that disasters like Katrina, far from being “natural,” are socially induced by such factors as disparities of income, unequal access to resources, and discrimination against, marginalization of various groups. The physical driver is of course the storm itself, but this will make merely a “glancing blow” if the society in toto has the ability to be resilient. When a society is so out of kilter with regard to human rights, social justice, and economic access, then a natural event becomes a disaster.
The Kaiser Foundation has been studying Katrina. What do you think of the findings of its latest (second) report? I reviewed the Kaiser study and don't find anything that I disagree with. One striking finding was the increase in medical treatment of mental illness. That may be the improving access to medical care and medication. There were a few other surprises but nothing dramatic.
This was a year of natural catastrophes, with Mynamar suffering the ravages of Cyclone Nargis, soon to be followed by the Sichuan earthquake. Is there anything Mynamar or China could have done better? The Myanmar government should have given international NGOs access to the victims. To prevent or delay this was inhumane. With regard to Chengdu, China should have built earthquake-resistant schools.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about his encounters with some villagers in China who had suffered great losses from the earthquake, saying that they appeared to have gotten on with their lives. Most of the world must cobble an existence together every day. And that includes the psychological response as well as the social. When a disaster occurs it requires yet more cobbling. Middle-class Americans are not accustomed to such pressures to “make do.” But you should also ask this question of a cultural sociologist, who would consider possible cultural differences such as the response to authority, expressions of emotion to strangers, social class hierarchical subservience in responding. There are so many aspects of cross-cultural comparisons. I would urge caution.
Have either of the presidential candidates articulated a policy on Katrina’s continuing recovery? In an effort to distance himself from the incredible failings of the Bush administration in their response to Katrina, Sen. McCain vows never to have such a “lapse” happen again.
If you were a consultant to a newly elected President McCain or Obama on a Katrina recovery policy, what would you set as their top priority? To support the development of a just, equitable society in which all people count and in which there is commitment to provide every citizen with equal opportunity to work toward safety from “natural” disasters. I discuss this in my “Mother of Rorschachs” paper. I call the condition “essential resiliency.” By this I mean not so much immediate disaster response preparedness as the need to ensure that everyone living in vulnerable areas a) has a car, b) can afford the gas and hotel in order to evacuate, c) has the monetary resources and level of education to build a storm-resistant house, d) has the requisite savings to support the family in living away from the area should that become necessary. The list goes on…
Three years after Katrina, would you say that the U.S. is any further along in educating its public and creating the necessary political will for coping with such disasters in future? Recently, the media have explored the “hurricane amnesia” of Floridians. Our culture is extremely fickle about social problems. All surveys show that interest in them waxes and wanes according to which has occurred most recently. We have a very difficult time believing that we must institute continuous systematic actions to address risk. Interestingly, on the Kaiser study’s list of critical issues facing New Orleans, restoring levee protection isn't even mentioned. Such efforts cost time and money. They are not very “sexy” in contrast to a daring rescue. One also hopes that the worst possible outcome never happens, and it is hard for people to get excited about investing for an event that may never occur. Still, with the prospect of even more “natural drivers” due to climate change, we will come to a point where we have to invest as we cannot afford to absorb the financial cost. Even today, we only absorb it because of the massive amounts of money that our federal government can borrow.
Do you see think you will always live in New Orleans? Yes, unless another catastrophic storm renders it a ghost town. Speaking of which, I need to prepare for an evacuation in response to Hurricane Gustav. I'm off to the UNO-CHART offices to secure everything in plastic tarps and garbage bags, then back to my home to do the same. Many inland hotels have already been booked—it's good to see that people are taking this seriously.
Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Mary-Lea Cox.