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.

NEXT: Good for Rick Perry

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  1. Why aren’t all the greenies in the Democratic Party eager to let the low-lying Nineth Ward go back to being what it was before humans got involved: a big swamp. (Or, if you prefer, an eco-diverse wetland.) Destroying wetlands is bad, but spending $40 billion to keep land from getting wet is good?

  2. Richard,

    You dont hear it so much now, which is unfortunate. But I can tell you anecdotally, in my Coastal Geomorphology class in 2002, my greenie Professor (Ph.D from LSU) predicted the Katrina disaster to a T.

    The green argument against N.O. and the southern Mississippi in general is that the levees have ‘straightened’ the twitching cats tail that was the Miss river. Thus, sand empties directly into the gulf, the existing land subsides, equaling less coastal wetlands to absorb hurricane storm surges, equaling more destruction in a storm. And so on. Its quite compelling; facts and historical observation support the theory. But its much larger in scope than just the ninth ward. Their problems are more acutely affected by the spilling of ‘Lake’ Champlain.

  3. I really must contend with your comparison of the situations in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast was most certainly not hit by a “moderately sized” storm. Katrina was degraded from a Cat 5 to a Cat 4 just as it made landfall, putting wind speeds right at 150mph. Also, there was over 30 feet of water pushed on shore in the matter of a few minutes, whereas in New Orleans, water rose about 20 feet over the course of a day. Certainly a far cry from the implied drama of a “flood of biblical proportions.”

    Also, your assertion that the CSX rail line made a significant difference in damage level shows your lack of knowledge of the geography and elevation of the Gulf Coast. The rail line was topped by water and washed out in multiple locations across the Coast and in many places is not even close to being 30 ft above sea level. Many heavily flooded areas were more than 10 miles from the beach and were flooded by the many waterways that permeate the Coast.

    Note that I do not contend that more damage was done on the Coast than in New Orleans, just that your characterization of the difference skews toward New Orleans more than the data would support.

  4. “But its much larger in scope than just the ninth ward. Their problems are more acutely affected by the spilling of ‘Lake’ Champlain.”

    Sheesh! Who knew that a lake in New York State could have such a big impact on a city in Louisiana?

    I thought the disaster was due to the failure of substandrd floodwalls built by the Corps of Engineers.

  5. I thought the disaster was due to the failure of substandrd floodwalls built by the Corps of Engineers.

    That’s what you get when you get an organization more concerned with paperwork than what’s really going on in the field.

  6. Also, there was over 30 feet of water pushed on shore in the matter of a few minutes, whereas in New Orleans, water rose about 20 feet over the course of a day. Certainly a far cry from the implied drama of a “flood of biblical proportions.”

    He does make an important distinction. The water rushing in and out of the Mississippi Gulf Coast did a lot of damage, and flooded a lot of buildings, but it didn’t sit and steep. The 9th ward did, for a long time.

    If you’re in an area where the storm surge hits directly, it will push big things around and cause a lot of damage. This happens, generally, for a mile or two inland. But if you’re just caught in the rising flood waters, you’ll have flood damage, but it won’t necessarily mean damage to the structure. But if that water sits long enough, it will damage the structure. That’s what happened in the 9th ward and other places in N.O.

  7. Of course New Orleans gets the attention, it is a major metro are, and is the economic engine of the south.

    New Orleans dies or slows down, the entire area will be affected in a very adverse manner.

    If there was ANY attraction to travelling/living in the Gulf South…especially in Louisiana…it was BECAUSE of New Orleans.

    The surrounding areas are important because of the people who live there, but in the big picture no one really cares about the “geography”.

  8. I thought the disaster was due to the failure of substandrd floodwalls built by the Corps of Engineers.

    Actually, the problem was that the CoE didn’t build them, the local (read: corrupt) contractors built them, pocketing much of the funds and using substandard materials in place of the CoE’s requirements.

  9. First, New Orleans is on the Mississippi River, not the Gulf Coast. Second, the entire Gulf Coast of Mississippi was wiped off the map for miles inland. Combined, the cities of the Coast that were leveled completely are a much larger loss than that which New Orleans endured. Third, Mississippi does have Republican leadership in the Governor’s office, but the Governor is the weakest office in the state. The state of Mississippi has been run, since it’s inclusion into the union, by Democrats. The legislature is the most powerful organ in Mississippi politics and it is an almost exclusively Democrat organization. I love it when outsiders who nothing about our state’s politics, much less the damage done by Katrina, start throwing their two cents in. Finally, the difference between the welfare city/state of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is that after the storm, Mississippians didn’t stand around complaining and blaming the federal government for an unavoidable gigantic disaster that nobody could possibly plan for.

  10. And last year was suppost to be the worse year for hurricanes becuase of GLOBAL WARMING and even those idiots from GREENPEACE wanted them to name hurricanes for industries they said were cuasing GLOBAL WARMING proving only a jerk would have anything to do with GREENPEACE

  11. I recently watched a program that showed a large area of subsidised housing in New Orleans that wasn’t in the flood and had no water damage -but the people living there were forced out anyway, made to leave behind anything they could not carry. They still have no place to go. Now the interesting thing is that this housing project is very close to the ‘quarter’ and the land has become extremely valuable real estate and in demand by developers…..dosen’t take an Einstein to see that the developers have won over the poor that were living in this nice, well cared for area of subsidized housing. It’s all still just sitting there, borded up- and dry. And one other question- why did it take a reporter from the BBC to report on this? Why hasn’t the American media covered it? Why, indeed. There are as many unaswered questions about situations in New Orleans as there are about Katrina. And it looks like the American media is content to let them all simmer rather than expose them to the light.

  12. I lost 3 new houses in Gulfport to Katrina. They were on Beach Blvd. and 14 feet above sea level. After Katrina I had 3 slabs. There were scrape marks in the trees 20 feet above the ground. To say that New Orleans suffered a flood of Biblical proportions while Mississippi had only a medium hurricaine is ridiculous. The Mississippi Gulf coast was destroyed, New Orleans was only flooded. If your 5 year study is founded on the premise you state, it is based on fiction and should be treated as such. I have a video of the entire stretch of the Mississippi coast from Long Beach to Biloxi. I made it the day before the storm as I was leaving. I would be glad to provide it to you as part of your study. I also have a video made a week later. The destruction is indescribable. Also many areas north of the railroad were flooded from water backed up in the bayous and bays.

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