Decentering Disaster — A Review of “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015”

Horowitz, Andy. Katrina: A History, 1915-2015. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.

Reviewed by J. Mark Souther

As Hurricane Katrina spun northward along the Pearl River into the piney woods of Mississippi on the morning of August 29, 2005, reporters spun the first news of how New Orleans fared. Reporting from the French Quarter, they proclaimed that the city had dodged the bullet. But events soon annulled initial reports from the riverfront. As levees failed, floodwaters submerged neighborhoods beyond the gaze of television coverage. An apocalyptic narrative fixated on the Superdome and Morial Convention Center, which filled to overflowing with flood victims. The media seemed to discover a hidden city that was poor and Black. They shaped the idea that the flood had hit primarily African American neighborhoods and speculated that New Orleans and its distinctive culture might not rebound. It became hard to see the storm as anything but the transformative moment in the city’s history, now divided into pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.

In Katrina: A History, 1915–2015, winner of the 2021 Bancroft Prize, Andy Horowitz demonstrates why viewing Katrina as the city’s watershed moment obscures more than it reveals. In so doing, he never loses sight of the unfathomable suffering wrought by catastrophic flooding in New Orleans in the long twentieth century and after Katrina—indeed people who suffered help frame the narrative, thanks to Horowitz’s embrace of oral history—but also warns against “seeing disasters as events without histories.” Katrina was neither unforeseen nor inevitable but instead was contingent upon choices made in the metropolitan area, state, and nation. In this way, Horowitz echoes Joanna L. Dyl’s Seismic City (2019). Just as forgetting lessons from the 1868 earthquake about the hazards of building atop “made land” magnified the 1906 earthquake’s impact, Katrina flooded most of the former swamp into which New Orleans had expanded after the 1915 hurricane.

Horowitz adds to a growing body of environmental histories that situate cities not only in metropolitan context but in relationship with their hinterlands. He observes that “the downriver parishes looked expendable” when viewed from one of New Orleans’s downtown skyscrapers, reinforcing elites’ willingness to dynamite a levee in St. Bernard Parish to lower the river level in the city during the 1927 Mississippi River flood. Following the flood, the discovery of oil “transmuted worthless marsh into liquid wealth” and powered the rise of Leander Perez, district attorney of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, into a dictator-like mogul who facilitated oil exploration that carved up the river delta with canals, causing it to slip into the Gulf. Horowitz’s attention to these parishes’ value in relation to the city’s development is reminiscent of Andrew Needham’s Power Lines (2014), which describes how “coal by wire” from Navajo Nation supplied cheap electricity to metropolitan Phoenix. Both cities grew through the social exploitation and environmental degradation they visited upon surrounding regions. 

This 1895 drainage map of New Orleans shows how little of the area beyond the natural levees formed by river sedimentation was heavily developed prior to implementation of A. Baldwin Wood’s screw pump beginning in the 1910s. L.W. Brown, City Engineer, “Plate III: Map of New Orleans Showing Present Drainage System” (1895) New York Public Library Digital Collections. 

Horowitz also demonstrates that federal policies facilitated metropolitan expansion in ways that complicate the dominant narrative. An elaborate pumping system enabled the United States government to view floods “as remnants of the city’s past, not part of its future.” As a result, when the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) assessed New Orleans neighborhoods in the 1930s, it gave those on the newly drained areas between the river and Lake Pontchartrain higher ratings while reserving lower ratings for older neighborhoods on higher ground along the river’s crescent, where the races had long coexisted in checkerboard fashion. HOLC and the GI Bill facilitated the massive expansion of the city’s white population onto the lowest ground. 

Federal incentivization of metropolitan growth went beyond underwriting mortgages. In addition to defense contracts that aided industrialization in the 1940s, in 1956 the government started work on the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (MRGO) and responded to concerns about the flood risk it posed by launching the Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project in 1965, which promised a concrete wall around the metropolitan area. While the latter proved slow to implement, the passage of the National Flood Insurance Act three years later helped encourage many middle-class African Americans to build in “surrogate suburbs” that were below sea level. The combination of an environment compromised by oil exploration, drainage-induced subsidence, and ill-conceived U.S. Army Corps of Engineers canal and levee projects, crowned by MRGO’s channeling of storm surge into the city, exacerbated Katrina.

Horowitz also attends to the longstanding belief in the city’s Black community that the federal government sabotaged their neighborhoods to save white sections of New Orleans during Katrina. He argues that their belief, while not demonstrable, was understandable. The city’s elite had, after all, ordered the use of dynamite to breach the levee in St. Bernard in 1927. Stories of destroyed farms became lodged in public memory. While the levee may not have been dynamited in 1965, Horowitz finds evidence that the city’s Sewerage and Water Board closed floodgates to contain floodwaters in the Lower Ninth Ward, lending credence to conspiracy theories.

Floodwall construction at St. Bernard Parish, 2010. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo,

Horowitz’s closing chapter grapples with responses to Katrina. Federal policy had steered the middle class into harm’s way in preceding decades and managed their risk with flood insurance rather than hurricane protection. Although the media fixated on the Lower Ninth Ward while ignoring similar devastation in the mostly white Lakeview neighborhood, Horowitz argues against concluding that Katrina’s impact hit both races equally. If the storm was colorblind, the response was not. Much more insurance and government money flowed to Lakeview than the Lower Ninth. Additionally, local leaders made the storm their excuse to demolish what public housing remained after a decade of HOPE VI and to replace public education with charter schools. But he cautions against viewing these efforts simply as reactionary impulses of “disaster capitalism.” While New Orleans emerged with a whiter population and a red-hot real estate market, seeing Katrina as the fulcrum blinds us to the ways in which business and government leaders had long labored to create more advantages for the already advantaged in New Orleans and other cities. 

Katrina: A History, 1915–2015 is among the best histories of modern New Orleans. It is, moreover, a towering intervention in modern urban environmental and political history that shows not only how human actions shape disasters, but also how urban history is inseparable from metropolitan, regional, and national histories. Finally, it offers a warning that in an age of climate change and rising sea levels, no one may assume that future crises will visit themselves only on the disadvantaged in urban America.

J. Mark Souther is a professor of history at Cleveland State University, where he teaches U.S., southern, urban, suburban, environmental, and public history. Souther earned his PhD from Tulane University and is the author of New Orleans on Parade: Tourism and the Transformation of the Crescent City (Louisiana State University Press, 2006), Believing in Cleveland: Managing Decline in “The Best Location in the Nation” (Temple University Press, 2017), and a number of articles and essays on urban history.

Featured image (at top): “Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Beaty looks for survivors” one day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, August 30, 2005. U.S. Dept. of Defense.

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