If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Monday, April 20, 2009

New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina: It Ain't Over

My tour of New Orleans a few weeks ago reminded me that the aftermath of levee breaks during Hurricane Katrina still linger in the “City that Care Forgot.” Not only that but the devastation that the levee breaks caused highlighted the poverty, racism, opportunism, and economic injustice that have been perennial in this city, issues which are not dissimilar to other urban cities in the U.S. Even though Katrina is long gone, its impact and the lessons to be learned still remain.

Understanding the dynamics New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina can better help us all to comprehend wider issues of peace and justice that are part of this particular place, but also within our larger society. I offer three resources for better understanding New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.

One film that helped me to see and feel the depth of the heartbreaking human dimensions of the catastrophe of Katrina was Spike Lee’s award winning documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requim in Four Acts that first aired in August 2006 on HBO. His title reminds us that it was not the hurricane that caused the flooding of 80% of New Orleans, but the breaking of over 50 levees that were inadequately constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Senate Committee hearings on the levee breaks concluded that there were flaws in the designs of the levees. In his written evidence to the committee, Ivor van Heerden said, "Most of the flooding of New Orleans was due to man's follies. Society owes those who lost their lives, and the approximately 100,000 families who lost all, an apology and needs to step up to the plate and rebuild their homes, and compensate for their lost means of employment. New Orleans is one of our nations jeweled cities. Not to have given the residents the security of proper levees is inexcusable."

Spike Lee’s film points out that the devastation of the city could have been prevented and underscores the slow and inadequate response of the government that only exacerbated the suffering. In four acts the films shows the aftermath of the levee breaks through still photos, news coverage, and interviews with journalist, engineers, politicians, and people who were directly impacted by this cataclysm.

Another resource I read and recommend for understanding New Orleans and Katrina is Michael Eric Dyson’s book Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. Dyson’s book makes pointedly clear the racism, classism, and economic injustice that was evident in the government’s response to Katrina, given that the larger population of those impacted by Katrina were African American. Dyson minces no words when he presents as exhibit A Bush’s response to Hurricanes Charley and Frances, which in 2004 hit Florida. It was a state filled with rich Republicans and the hurricane hit with far less force. Yet, according to Dyson, Bush personally delivered relief checks and visited victims four times in six weeks. Those who want to avoid blaming the government for any of the misery in the wake of Katrina should avoid Dyson incisive critique.

Dyson’s devastating analysis reflects Kanye West’s statement about the media portrayal of blacks in New Orleans when West said that the difference between looting and finding food to survive was skin deep. Exaggerated and untruthful “reports” (i.e., rumors) of violent and anarchistic behavior, armed gang members assaulting the vulnerable, rape of women, people killed for food, and dozens of bodies being shoved into a freezer further displays the racism within institutions that responded to Katrina, according to Dyson.

Dyson critiques promise-breaking politics, foot-dragging FEMA , mixed-up media, and capitalizing corporations in this book with a prophetic sting that tells it like it is.

A more theological and pastoral response, while still using the lens of race and class to look at New Orleans and Katrina, is Cheryl Kirk-Duggan’s edited work The Sky is Crying: Race, Class, and Natural Disaster. This book is a collection of essays, reflections, poems, and sermons from theologians, ethicists, and ministers that offer spiritual insight and critical analysis to the larger phenomena known simply as Hurricane Katrina. The emphasis rests upon poverty, race, and class in natural disasters, particularly Katrina.

The variety of writers makes this collection a rich resource for better understanding the ethics, politics, and spirituality connected to Katrina. Especially helpful for pastors is the section of sermons that provide examples of preaching which addresses ethical, social, political and public issues. At the same time, if you are looking for “neutral” analysis (as if there were such a thing) or simply personal reflections on Katrina, this is not the book for you. This book also has a prophetic edge, which is why I recommend it.

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