Teaching Hurricane Katrina 10 Years Later


Sep 01

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast, becoming one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes ever recorded in the US. People around the world were haunted by images of thousands of desperate people that flooded the media in the days, weeks, and even years to come as so many people tried to reconcile how a hurricane that ranked as a category three upon impact killed so many people – so many poor, African American people to be precise.

Although I’m not from New Orleans, I have journeyed to the city at least fifteen times since Katrina landed, most often with students in tow. I still find teaching Katrina to be incredibly important and central to almost any class I teach, because I’m always interested in the ways in which race and class shape communities, particularly their vitality and resilience. Over the past decade, I’ve read as much as I can about Katrina (and there’s a lot to read), watched films, listened to speakers, and sought out community members both displaced and returned on my visits there.

In this time of #Blacklivesmatter and the heightened focus on people of color being murdered by police, I find it more important than ever to talk about Katrina. Jamelle Bouie’s article “Where Black Lives Matter Began” on how Katrina showed the nation’s high tolerance for the pain and death of people of color might best explain why. To that effect, I offer some of the best Katrina-related sources that my students and I gravitate toward when we come back again and again to ideas of race, class, community, and calamity.

*Trouble the Water

While Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Act is better known and adheres to a more traditional documentary style, I have found that students respond better to Trouble the Water, which chronicles a family who endures the storm and the aftermath to varying degrees of success. Kimberly Rivers-Roberts lived three blocks from where the Industrial Canal breached, flooding the Lower Ninth Ward very quickly in several feet of water. She recorded that flooding as well as many other facets of her life in the days and weeks to come.   While the story is framed through one family’s experience, the themes of poverty, racism, displacement, and government malfeasance emerge throughout the film.

*Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial

Fink’s work is available in two forms that make them adaptable to a variety of classroom needs. The New York Times named her compelling book one of its ten best books of 2013. It reads more like a gripping, harrowing novel due to both Fink’s writing style and the near disbelief of the horrors she chronicles. Of course, not all classes are suited for the nearly 600 page read. In that case, I suggest the equally good New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Deadly Choices at Memorial” that led to the book-length chronicling of what happened. Her work has been described as “breathtaking,” and I can think of no more accurate word to sum up the moral and ethical complications it presents.

*Chris Rose, 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina

This immensely personal story collection by New Orleans Times-Picayune journalist Rose is hard to put down, making it a student favorite. In this work, Rose mourns many things, including his ravaged city. His account is frank and peppered with many of his own personal reckonings with life after the storm. Despite the many first person accounts of the storm that have accumulated over the past ten years, this one is still what I return to when I want students to get a taste of what it felt like to be part of that community in the immediate aftermath of the storm. You’ll never forget his description of the city’s refrigerators, filled with rotten food and stinking up the city for months on end after the storm.

* Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright, Race, Place, and Environmental Justice after Hurricane Katrina: Struggles to Reclaim, Rebuild, and Revitalize New Orleans and the Gulf Coast

Bullard, with 17 books related to environmental justice issues to his credit, has been referred to as the father of environmental justice research, and Wright founded the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. This versatile collection is one of my favorites as it examines the struggles in the region post-Katrina through a diverse, intersectional lens. Essays cover topics ranging from rates of car ownership to housing recovery issues to studies on air and soil contaminants after the storm.

*Hurricane Digital Memory Bank

You can find several online sites that preserve and offer access to a range of oral histories collected from Katrina survivors in the weeks and years after the storm. This collection is the largest, with over 25,000 items related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Items include maps, stories, oral histories, images, and videos. It also contains an essay on the formation and creation of the digital project, including guidelines for others looking to combine historical research methods with digital media to create projects in a similar vein.

*HBO, Treme

This may be a controversial choice, but for folks like me who teach students to be critical consumers of popular culture, it’s a great addition to my syllabus. While fictionalized, many of its storylines draw heavily from real events in the city, ranging from police corruption and cover-ups to mental and physical health issues to frustratingly difficult access to ineffective relief programs that wrack a number of characters’ lives. For a critical examination of the history of Tremé, the African American neighborhood that the series is named after (a neighborhood that barely survived urban “renewal” and is today split by Interstate 10), assign Micheal Crutcher’s fantastic Tremé: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood.

 These diverse sources provide a solid base for a range of discussions around privilege, power, race, class, and histories of oppression that I find applicable not only to New Orleans but to most any community-based study of cities nationwide.


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