(Note: this lesson contains some profanity. Teacher discretion advised.)
In ancient stories, floods often serve as a great equalizer, washing away one world to allow another to start fresh. But in more recent history, floods take on a different significance: rather than cleansing wickedness, they often uncover persisting instances of inequality and injustice. As these flood waters reside, we find that it is all too often the poor and destitute who suffer most–victims to both environmental disaster and centuries of economic neglect and isolation.
Perhaps nowhere in recent history has this sense of injustice been more painfully revealed than during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. On August 29, 2005, the Category 3 hurricane touched down on the Gulf Coast, breaching the New Orleans levees within hours and ripping the roof off of the Superdome stadium, which held 25 thousand residents taking shelter from the storm. The following day, 80% of New Orleans was flooded, with thousands of citizens stranded on their roofs or in the leaking Superdome. An estimated 1,400 people died as a result of the hurricane.
While the flood waters rose throughout New Orleans, it was the more disenfranchised citizens of the city that were the most affected, the majority of whom were persons of color. The pre-hurricane evacuation notices were of little use for the 9 percent of households in the city that lacked access to a vehicle. Many others were unable to leave due to having a disability or caring for a loved one with a disability. Still others simply had nowhere to go, no friends or relatives outside the state, and no money for a motel room. Due to traffic exiting the city, public busses tasked with evacuating people only made it as far as the Superdome before they too were submerged in the floodwaters. Even many who wished to leave found themselves unable to evacuate.
As those stranded in the flooded city experienced, Hurricane Katrina’s force was compounded by a second tragedy: the federal government’s inefficient response to the crises. After September 11th, 2001, the once-independent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, whose overriding focus was counter-terrorism rather than natural disaster preparedness. With this organizational change, many of the FEMA officials most experienced in disaster preparedness left the agency. FEMA Director Michael Brown, who was appointed by George W. Bush, had little to no prior experience in emergency management.
Hurricane Katrina caught FEMA’s inexperienced leadership team unaware and unprepared. As local and state officials and relief organizations frantically sought to contact FEMA for direction and federal approval, they were met with automated phone messages or continuously redirected to various sub-contractors FEMA employed to outsource their services. In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, the agency failed to mobilize a myriad of resources that could have quickly provided aid to those suffering. The USS Bataan, a large marine vessel just offshore New Orleans with food, water, hospital beds, and helicopters waited for approval to begin relief efforts that never came. FEMA refused to authorize the entry of multiple aid organizations, from airboat captains anxious to rescue people from the floods to firefighters across the country to the Red Cross, an organization developed specifically to quickly respond to emergencies. The German government sent a military aircraft filled with supplies to New Orleans, only to be turned away. Those resources FEMA did allow into the city were often underutilized: a group of one thousand firefighters from Utah were asked to distribute FEMA flyers instead of attempting to save people. To those stuck in New Orleans, FEMA’s response was a tragedy; to many witnessing the crisis on the nightly news, it was a “national embarrassment.”
Witnessing the suffering occurring in New Orleans day after day on the news, many Americans responded to FEMA’s inefficient response to Hurricane Katrina with indignation. Such anger was manifested most spectacularly by rapper Kanye West, who during a televised fundraiser veered off-script and proclaimed, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” While the president and his administration took offense, black Americans throughout the country saw more than a grain of truth in West’s assertion. Many felt the federal government Bush represented purposely neglected the poor black community in New Orleans.
Such assertions were not without evidence: immediately after the hurricane, Bush famously flew over the flooded city without landing; in a televised speech he lamented the flooded house of Mississippi senator Trent Lott while not saying a word about those who lost everything in New Orleans; and as FEMA’s failures mounted in the news, he continued to praise the agency and his friend Michael Brown. But Bush wasn’t alone in its poor treatment of the African American population in New Orleans. In a drive for ratings, news organizations often overstated the amount of looting and violence that was occurring among the stranded community. They also leveled such unlawfulness more proportionally upon the black community, as was famously seen in newspaper picture captions describing whites “finding” goods and blacks “looting” them.
In this lesson, students analyze demographic data, and watch footage from CNN’s Soundtracks series and a congressional hearing after the disaster to better understand the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, and the way the federal government’s response brought to light issues of racial neglect. Students also investigate how Kanye West’s comments during a national fundraiser articulated the disappointment and anger many black Americans felt following Hurricane Katrina.