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‘Problem’ populations, ‘problem’ places
‘Problem’ populations, ‘problem’ places

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2.3 The impact of Katrina on New Orleans

Activity 1

Below are four extracts from different commentators reflecting on the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.

  • In what ways do they offer contrasting interpretations of the events?

  • What are the key competing themes that emerge from these quotations?

  • How might these understandings shape potential government responses?

Extract 2

Katrina didn't turn innocent citizens into desperate criminals. This week's looters (not those who took small supplies of food and water for sustenance, but those who have trashed, burned, and shot their way through the city since Monday) are the same depraved individuals who have pushed New Orleans' murder rate to several multiples above the national average in normal times. … Today may not be the best day to get into New Orleans' intractable crime problem, but it's necessary, since it explains how this week's communications and policing vacuum so quickly created a perfect storm for the vicious lawlessness that has broken out. …

… Now no civil authorities can re-assert order in New Orleans. The city must be forcefully demilitarized, even as innocent victims literally starve.

Gelinas, 2005

Extract 3

The chaos after Hurricane Katrina did not cause a civilizational collapse; it simply exposed and magnified one that had already occurred … A strange admixture of upper-class decadence and underclass pathology, New Orleans has long been a stew of disorder and dysfunction, convincing many New Orleans residents, years before Hurricane Katrina, to evacuate what they regarded as an increasingly unlivable city … The squalor and crime in the Superdome represented nothing more than the squalor and crime transferred from New Orleans’ legendary hellish housing complexes [and the] countless images of stranded women, children and the elderly were explained far more by the absence of fathers than the tardiness of FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency].

Neumayr, 2005, pp. 48, 50

Extract 4

In the confusion and suffering of Katrina … most white politicians and media pundits have chosen to see only the demons of their prejudices. The city's complex history and social geography have been reduced to a cartoon of a vast slum inhabited by an alternately criminal or helpless underclass, whose salvation is the kindness of strangers in other, whiter cities. Inconvenient realities … have not been allowed to interfere with the belief, embraced by New Democrats as well as old Republicans, that black urban culture is inherently pathological.

Davis, 2006a

Extract 5

It is difficult, so soon on the heels of such an unnecessarily deadly disaster, to be discompassionate, but it is important in the heat of the moment to put social science to work as a counterweight to official attempts to relegate Katrina to the historical dustbin of inevitable ‘natural’ disasters….

… [T]he supposed ‘naturalness’ of disasters here becomes an ideological camouflage for the social (and therefore preventable) dimensions of such disasters, covering for quite specific social interests. Vulnerability, in turn, is highly differentiated; some people are much more vulnerable than others. Put bluntly, in many climates rich people tend to take the higher ground leaving to the poor and working class land more vulnerable to flooding and environmental pestilence. … In New Orleans … topographic gradients doubled as class and race gradients, and as the Katrina evacuation so tragically demonstrated, the better off had cars to get out. … [T]heir immediate families likely had resources to support their evacuation, and the wealthier also had the insurance policies for rebuilding. …

… The race and class dimensions of who escaped and who was victimized by this decidedly unnatural disaster not only could have been predicted, and was, but it follows a long history of like experiences. … In New Orleans there are already murmurings of Katrina as ‘Hurricane Bush’. It is not only in the so-called Third World, we can now see, that one's chances of surviving a disaster are more than anything dependent on one's race, ethnicity and social class.

Smith, 2006


There is a shared emphasis across each of the extracts above that Katrina was a ‘social’ as opposed to a ‘natural’ disaster. But there are sharply differing perspectives on offer between the first and second quotations, on the one hand, and the third and fourth ones on the other, as to what this might mean and how it is to be interpreted. There is no appeal to any shared ‘evidence’ to adjudicate over this. Gelinas and Neumayr reflect conservative ‘blame-the-victim’ stereotypes of the social problems that characterise US cities today (Macek, 2006). In addition, there is an implicit anti-urbanism here which reproduces long-held views of cities as places of deprivation and depravity, of social disorganisation and criminality. There is also a view, most notable perhaps in the Neumayr reference to public housing (‘New Orleans’ legendary hellish housing complexes’), that state policy and what passes as state welfare in the USA has contributed to ‘the problem’. This is captured most notably by the reference to an ‘underclass’, a concept which, as developed and utilised in the US context, is frequently used as shorthand for poor urban blacks and black pathology (Young, 2007).

The idea that poor people are responsible for their own situation is reflected in US government policy which, since the 1980s in particular, has dismantled public welfare programmes and reduced expenditure on the kinds of public services that were so badly needed following Katrina. The language and sentiments that pervade the quotations from Gelinas and Neumayr focus on the behaviour and deficits of the poor in New Orleans, which are seen as symptomatic of a wider ‘malaise’ across US society. By contrast, Davis and Smith locate Katrina within the wider social fabric of US society: they point to the ways in which inequalities come to shape the landscape of cities such as New Orleans – in particular, the racial and class segregation that characterises the districts in which different groups of people live. This unequal social geography, characteristic of many of the world's cities today, contributes to the marked differences in the experiences of socio-economic security and insecurity on the part of different groups of the population (Cochrane and Talbot, 2008a). Here, the US government is accused of abandoning the poor of New Orleans at a time of critical need, a claim that chimes with other criticisms of the Bush Administration for failing to address the sense of vulnerability and injustice felt by many poor people across urban America:

The Katrina disaster revealed the stark politics that surround ‘security’ in post 9/11 United States. A dark irony emerges here. On the one hand, a large proportion of Bush's rhetoric since 9/11 has emphasised the fragile exposure of US urbanites to purported ‘terrorist’ risks. … On the other hand, US cities' preparedness for much more devastating and likely impacts of catastrophic ‘natural’ events such as Katrina have actually been undermined because of fiscal cuts and the construction of the vast ‘homeland security’ and anti-terror drive which tends to ignore or downplay such risks.

(Graham, 2006)

The concern to control the New Orleans poor is evidenced by the activities of the police and by the militarisation of the city in the days that followed the hurricane. For critics, the real crime of Katrina, however, was the failure of the state to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of the most vulnerable, protect from harm, and provide for the environmental security of those parts of the city and populations threatened by flooding (which had been forecast for many years previously). The idea of social harm was introduced. By using this notion to reflect on the claims above that Katrina was no ‘natural’ disaster, we can develop our understanding of the ways in which the unequal social geography of New Orleans, the failure to offer adequate protection from storms and hurricanes, and the activities of the various law enforcement agencies all contributed to the vulnerability and insecurity experienced by many of the city's poorest groups. This is a much broader appreciation of the ‘crimes’ of Katrina than those often portrayed and helps us to further comprehend the complex interrelationship between crime, social harm and welfare.