A Big Easy Comparison, But How Similar?

“Katrina” is a loaded word, less associated with an actual hurricane than it is with catastrophic destruction from natural disaster, breathtaking flaws in effective federal emergency response (or lack thereof), ineptitude of the executive branch, and a sobering magnifier of deep, deep racial wounds that, despite decades of advancement, continue to exist — more so in some parts of the country than it does in others.

As George Washington University’s Gregory Squires points out in his recent Rooflines post, Katrina, in all its nightmarish horror, is largely a manmade result of years and years of bad planning, “uneven development of metropolitan areas,” exclusionary zoning, and “concentrated poverty and hypersegregation.”

So let’s be careful about comparing the 500-year floods in the Midwest to Katrina, as some news reports tend to do. Katrina started simply as a Doppler image heading slowly for the Gulf Coast, but, even after the flood waters have receded and neighborhoods rebuilt, will undoubtedly become one of the most terrifying stories told in U.S. history books for generations to come.

Twenty levees have breached since the Midwest flooding began, with anywhere from two million to five million acres of crops damaged, according to The New York Times, sending corn and soy prices toward record levels. Moreover, in a stark contrast from viewing the effects of Katrina from a charter, President Bush actually visited the Midwest on the ground, offering these words of encouragement to an audience at Kirkwood Community College, as quoted in The Washington Post:

I know a lot of farmers and cattlemen are hurting right now, along with the city people. The good news is the people in Iowa are tough-minded people. You’ll come back better. Sometimes it’s hard to see it when you’re this close to the deal.

With Iowa authorities expecting roughly $2 billion worth of damage from the floods, the House of Representatives is debating a supplemental war-funding bill that includes $2.65 billion to replenish the federal government’s estimated $ 4 billion disaster relief fund, the Washington Post reports.

Fast acting from the Feds and Congress, huh? And we have a presidential pep talk. Take away the water, and the comparison to Katrina loses significant footing. So far in the Midwest, flooding has been blamed for 24 deaths, 100 injuries, and 40,000 evacuees.

Katrina was responsible for 1,836 deaths, devastation of over 100 miles surrounding the storm’s center, and $75 billion in damage. And if that’s not enough, Katrina opened the festering wounds of institutional racism — a result, in part, of the exclusionary zoning and concentrated poverty.

For reporting on the ground, read Washington Post reporter Kari Lydersen’s Rooflines posts calling for a general safety net after post-disaster relief needs are met, and how global warming and bad development is, in part, to blame for the emergence of a 500-year flood.

But rather than compare two natural disasters, we need to let Katrina stand on her own, to remember that the destruction that fell upon the Gulf Coast was only part of the catastrophe, and not let water wash away the social wounds revealed in Louisiana and Mississippi

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


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