Campus & Community

The lessons of Katrina

6 min read

An intense gathering looks back and forward

Jennifer Leaning, Drew Gilpin Faust, John M. Barry, Tonya Marie Cropper, and Rosabeth Moss
Jennifer Leaning (from left), Drew Gilpin Faust, John M. Barry, Tonya Marie Cropper, and Rosabeth Moss Kanter were all participants in the discussion at the Humanities Center about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. (Staff photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office)

Two months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, exposing appalling poverty, neglect, and lack of preparedness, a panel of experts from various fields met to discuss what can be learned from the storm and its disastrous aftermath and how those lessons can help mitigate future catastrophes. The Nov. 29 event was sponsored by the Humanities Center.

Panel member Jennifer Leaning, professor of the practice of international health in the faculty of public health, started things off with a comparison between what she termed “the dominant and non-dominant discourse on disaster analysis.”

The dominant discourse, she said, sees disasters as freak events that discombobulate an otherwise stable society. It puts its faith in technological solutions and progress and relies on the vast resources of the government and the private sector to predict disasters, respond to them with emergency medical services, maintain control through law enforcement, and rebuild with the aid of the insurance industry, construction firms, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“The whole effort is to build bigger and better, to move on with our lives, and to ban these nasty natural disasters from our consciousness,” Leaning said.

The nondominant discourse, of which Leaning counts herself a proponent, is more realistic.

“One has to recognize that disasters are a way of life, that they are increasing in intensity and frequency, and that you have to plan for them.”

An example of the government’s failure to prepare, she said, was the cutting of funds for FEMA. As a result, the agency was not able to address the question of how to deal with the 100,000 residents of New Orleans who were unable to evacuate on their own.

Taking its approach from the humanitarian development community, the non-dominant discourse focuses on people and upholds the principles of human rights, dignity, and equality. If this approach had been followed, the evacuees would not have been scattered across the country but settled close to home, Leaning said.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, said that to her, Katrina represented “a massive failure of leadership and management.” Even more significantly, claimed Kanter, was the way these specific failures illustrated the general failure of right-wing ideology.

Kanter singled out four ideas she sees as underlying conservative leadership during the past 25 years, ideas she believes contributed to the inability of government to respond to Katrina.

The first is “contempt for government, making government the enemy of the people rather than a force to secure the welfare of the people.”

One consequence of this idea is that it becomes harder to recruit talented and qualified people for government positions because the institution they work for is held in disregard. One saw this result in the aftermath of Katrina, Kanter asserted, as leaders pointed fingers at one another instead of taking responsibility.

A second culprit of the Katrina disaster is trickle-down economics, the idea that by cutting taxes for the rich, the benefits will eventually reach the poor. The widespread poverty that was evident in the television coverage of Katrina made it obvious to Kanter that this idea was not working. “We’ve known technically that it doesn’t happen that way,” she said. “Katrina showed it.”

The third of these erroneous ideas, Kanter said, is “the dismissal of science as just another body of opinion that can be ignored by anyone who speaks directly to God.” Kanter blamed the right’s ratification of fundamentalist religious beliefs for promoting an atmosphere in which scientific research is held in low esteem and where funding for science is often in jeopardy.

Finally, she blamed the notion that the United States is inherently superior to all other nations and that therefore anything we do in the world can be justified. “I hope there’s been some humbling as a result of Katrina,” she said, “especially now that Third World countries like Sri Lanka have been sending us aid.”

John Barry, a New Orleans resident and the author of “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America,” refuted some of the popular misconceptions about New Orleans and its vulnerability to storms and flooding.

“New Orleans isn’t naturally vulnerable to what happened. It’s become vulnerable,” he said.

The blame lies with the companies that have constructed gas and oil pipelines and shipping channels through coastal Louisiana, making the area more subject to erosion and providing less protection to the city. The equivalent of a football field is lost every hour as a result of these changes, he said.

“New Orleans is the point of the spear in terms of flood control. Other areas are even more vulnerable,” he said.

One of these is Sacramento, Calif., which is only protected to the level of a 100-year flood.

“This means,” Barry said, “that a 101-year event is going to crush the flood control system. There’s a chance they may get a 1,000-year event, which would cause flooding of the central valley of California and could kill as many people as Katrina did.”

He said that Japan and the Netherlands routinely provide disaster protection to the level of a 10,000-year event, while the U.S. standard of preparedness is only 100 to 200 years.

Tonya Cropper, a Ph.D. candidate in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government and a New Orleans resident, told of the experiences of her three sisters as they tried to flee the city. Two of them wandered the flooded streets for eight hours before finally finding refuge in a battered women’s shelter. A third spent two nights camped out on a bridge before being bussed to Birmingham, Ala., where she was told her child could not attend school in a white neighborhood.

Cropper, who is black, addressed the concerns about racism that have surfaced as a result of the Katrina disaster.

“I don’t think they sat in the Oval Office and said, ‘Let’s not do anything because these people are black,’ but I think they just didn’t have much sympathy for these people.”