The Myths of Hurricane Katrina: Part Two

Myth Number Two: "New Orleans" and "the Gulf Coast" are synonymous.


Rather than deal with the nuances affecting communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, the media like to cover New Orleans as if it is synonymous with the entire area affected by Hurricane Katrina. This is similar to the way the media often treats "Africa" as if it were one extremely large, monolithic country.

Many well-researched stories by dedicated reporters have come out of New Orleans in the past two years. But what's largely missing is any coverage of the Louisianan parishes near New Orleans, or of the many counties in Mississippi also hit by Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina, the Red Cross provided assistance to some 4 million people, although only 450,000 people lived in New Orleans. President Bush's disaster declaration covered 90,000 square miles. New Orleans encompasses only 350 square miles, almost half of it water. Many parts of New Orleans did not flood, but over 99 percent of buildings in neighboring St. Bernard Parish did.

Why, then, does New Orleans receive the majority of the media coverage? Reporters disproportionately focus on New Orleans because it's more interesting, it fits more preconceived narratives, and it is, paradoxically, both a simpler and more complex story than other areas damaged by Katrina.

The complexity stems from the diversity of experiences across New Orleans' neighborhoods and communities. No single factor–be it financial resources, political power, geography, or demography–portends an area's post-Katrina experience. The wealthy Lakeview area, for example, took over a year to show any progress, while working-class Broadmoor began rebuilding within weeks. The previously apolitical, keep-to-themselves Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans East began rebuilding homes and packing their church for Mass before Entergy, the local power monopoly, would even turn their electricity back on. This complexity creates human interest stories, which reporters package into pre-imagined narratives of race, class, and power, even if the anecdotes don't fit what's actually happening.

But the New Orleans story is also simple, because it can be told through the lens of the same superficial, Disneyfied version of New Orleans that informed most Americans' conceptions of the city before Katrina. Few visitors to New Orleans ventured outside of the French Quarter, Business District, and Garden District. However, New Orleans as understood by the majority of its residents is more complex than an hour-long tour or weekend bender lets on. Since Katrina, reporters focus on telling stories through the tourism-and-jazz lens, despite the fact that before Katrina, shipping and related industries represented more income and more jobs than tourism. But the familiar stereotypes make for easy reporting.

New Orleans is still struggling, but it is not alone. For all the frustration people in New Orleans feel about warped or clichéd coverage, people in Mississippi and Louisiana locales outside New Orleans get almost no coverage at all. Across the Pearl River, Louisianans feel that Mississippians are getting more than their share of federal money. Key to making sense of this is understanding that Louisiana and Mississippi experienced very different storms.

Mississippi suffered hurricane damage. In many areas, Katrina's storm surge penetrated a mile inland, to the raised CSX railroad tracks, which act as a levee and broke much of the surge's power, and washed away virtually everything in its path. Further inland, homes and businesses were flooded and damaged by 140-mph winds. The destruction was significant—but St. Bernard Parish and the New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward suffered more.

Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes in Louisiana were, by contrast, not victims of a traditional hurricane, but of poor government and central planning, which allowed massive but preventable flooding. In these areas, levees, floodwalls, and engineering projects designed to keep flooding out failed, and instead kept water in. For periods ranging from days to weeks, entire neighborhoods sat underwater, while antiquated city pumps slowly inched down the flooding. Mississippi was hit by a moderately sized hurricane, while Louisiana suffered from a flood of biblical proportions.

This crucial distinction is often lost in media coverage. That's unfortunate, because understanding it is vital to understanding the subsequent recovery efforts. Reporters and pundits sometimes distinguish Louisiana and Mississippi by noting the marked difference in the two states' recovery periods. Frequently, Mississippi's lower taxes, less generous welfare programs, and Republican leadership get credit for making the state less dependent on Washington, and therefore better able to pull itself up by the straps of its collective hip-waders. Many Mississippians that I and my colleagues have interviewed or spoken with have bought into this story—"we" are not like "them."

Truth be told, neither state is an exemplar of self-sufficiency or probity. According to the Tax Foundation, in 2004 Louisiana got back $1.45, while Mississippi received $1.77, for every dollar sent to Washington. Researchers Russell Sobel and Peter Leeson point out that while Louisiana does bear the ignominy of the highest rate of public corruption in the country, Mississippi isn't far behind. In other words, while differences exist, neither Mississippi nor Louisiana are paragons of virtuous—or limited—government.

The speed and quality of the recovery effort along the Gulf Coast have depended upon a number of factors: the type and amount of damage from the storm, insurance coverage on affected homes and businesses, whether governments made credible commitments about infrastructure and the "rules of the game" for rebuilding, and the inherent resilience of the communities affected. Indeed, community resilience is a perhaps the most critical factor in recovery, and one that researchers are just beginning to understand.

The most effective solutions to rebuilding are actually coming from people, not governments. So it's not really prudent to discuss recovery in conventional, red-blue political geography. While governance is important, it hasn't been the sole or even primary determinant of the recovery process. What's happened since Katrina is far too complex for neatly-packaged conclusions about party or ideological supremacy, or to draw broad inferences about the nature of people in Mississippi, New Orleans, or those Louisianans outside of New Orleans.

Scholars will undoubtedly debate the legacy of Katrina for decades, and we will hopefully learn a great deal about the role that politics and public policy played in the recovery process. But even today, two things are evident: Political geography is not the silver bullet for explaining the response to disasters, and Katrina's impact wasn't uniform across the Gulf Coast.

Tomorrow: Myth 3: The Gulf Coast is suffering from a crisis of leadership.

Daniel Rothschild is the associate director of the Global Prosperity Initiative at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The Mercatus Center is conducting a five-year study of the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.