Phrasing Katrina: Reflections on an (un)Natural Disaster (Part 1)
“I have never ever seen anything as badly bungled and poorly handled as this situation in New Orleans. Where the hell is the water for these people? Why can’t sandwiches be dropped to those people that are in that Superdome down there? I mean what is going — this is Thursday. This is Thursday. This storm happened five days ago. It’s a disgrace. And don’t think the world isn’t watching. This is the government the taxpayers are paying for, and it’s fallen right flat on its face, as far as I can see, in the way it’s handled this thing.
We’re going to talk about something else before the show is over, too, and that’s the big elephant in the room. The race and economic class of most of the victims, which the media hasn’t discussed much at all, but we will a bit later — Wolf…”
– Jack Caferty, September 1, 2005
From time to time there are incidents that reveal tensions at the heart of our contemporary modes of communication. In these rare instances we may be at a loss for words or find ourselves adopting divergent ways of speaking in order to communicate the incident we have witnessed. Times like these are often misunderstood. We tend not, for instance, to understand the silence of the genocide survivor as containing a narrative unto itself. Nor do we usually consider the hyperbolic and often emotional testimony given by those who bear witness to such incidents to be anything but symptomatic of the ferocious intensity of incident they are now attempting to articulate. These misunderstandings subsist when we neglect to consider the contingency of language, the constructed nature of narratives and the possibility that a given narrative and its accompanying vocabulary can seem ill suited to do what they are being employed to signify and represent. The incidents that reveal the most tension are the ones that our phrases and tropes, for personal or professional reasons, are prohibited from articulating. This may be because there is no possible signification in the dominant phrases and tropes or because one fears some type of reprisal. Nevertheless, silence can be understood as the richest of dialogues and frustrated emotions can lose their necessary association with hysteria and be understood as signals of a schism between the world and the words we use to signify it.
Despite the being less powerful than forecasters predicted, on August 29th, 2005 Hurricane Katrina ruptured over fifty levees, commissioned by the United States Federal Government and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, which had been protecting the city of New Orleans from the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. The resulting devastation was nothing short of catastrophic. Low lying portions of the city were submerged by nearly 15 feet of murky and debris filled water. Journalists in New Orleans who had been expecting a routine storm found themselves out of touch with their editors and in a number of cases fending for their lives. It is no coincidence that as journalists waded through a very different America from the one they had been trained to cover, audiences read and watched some of the most impassioned reporting in recent memory. We, the audience, encountered both fiery emotions and the silence that often accompanies perplexity as journalists, for a short time, worked outside their traditional narrative frames to address the enormity of the devastation and the ineptitude of the Federal authorities.
This series of posts are structured as a series of reflections on the reporting conducted by journalists in New Orleans between August 29th, 2005 and September 7th, 2005. I’ll touch on a broad spectrum of topics, from theoretical discussions regarding Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigmatic shifts to questions about racially charged narratives written by journalists in 1900 describing a catastrophic hurricane that took the lives of over six thousand people in Galveston, Texas.
Phrasing at the Void: There is a passage in H.P Lovecraft’s 1924 short story ‘The Shunned House’ where the protagonist witnesses a “horror beyond horrors”, a truly inhuman force and rushes out of a dark cellar. He runs out into the wet street, dazed and unable to speak about his experience. He exclaims:
“I could scarcely tell what was dream and what was reality. Then thought trickled back, and I knew I had witnessed things more horrible than I had dreamed. Sitting down I tried to conjecture as nearly as sanity would let me, just what had happened and how I might end the horror, if indeed it had been real.”
We leave the realm of fantasy to think through another horrific and (in)human force – Hurricane Katrina. (The construction (in)human is inspired by Chester Hartman and Gregory D. Squires’ 2006 edited collection of essays entitled There is no such thing as a Natural Disaster: Race, Class, and Hurricane Katrina. I have deliberately placed ‘inhuman’ in the textual construction ‘(in)human’ since calling it ‘inhuman’ and relegating its cause to the domain of blind nature denies the role that human caused factors [i.e. race and class] played on its disastrousness.) Consider the tense words expressed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper to Louisiana sentator Mary Landrieu a few days after the devostating storm. He frustradly argues with her, clearly perturbed as a result of the level of destruction he has witnessed, over how to ‘end the horror’:
I’m sorry…for the last four days, I have been seeing dead bodies here in the streets of Mississippi and to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other — I have to tell you, there are people here who are very upset and angry, and when they hear politicians thanking one another, it just, you know, it cuts them the wrong way right now, because there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman has been laying in the street for 48 hours, and there is not enough facilities to get her up. Do you understand that anger?
While there are obvious differences between the two narratatives above they bear a striking degree of similarity. In both cases we find individuals faced with some horrific state of affairs and are unsure of how to make them right. One resorts to silence, unable to “conjecture” what he has seen, while the other, adopts an uncustomarilly opinionated tone for a CNN journalist. Are these positions diametrically oposed? One man cannot phrase what he has witnessed while the other turns to a divurgent phraseology. (To clarify: by ‘phraseology’ I mean one’s choice of words and the way in which they are used.)
Days after a catastrophic hurricane in 1900 which killed close to eight thousand people in Galveston, Texas, the Galveston Daily News ran an article that read:
“Words are too weak to express the horror, the awfulness of the storm itself; to even fully picture the scene of the devastation, wr…—[unreadable]—…ruin, misery, suffering and grief. Even those who were saved after terrible experiences, who were spared to learn that their families and property had been swept away, spared to witness scenes as horrible as the eye of man had ever looked upon – even those can not tell the story. There are stories of horrible deaths, thousands of stories of individual heroism, stories of wonderful rescues and escapes, each of which at another time would be a marvel in itself and would command the interest of the world. But in a time like this, when a storm so intense in its fury, so prolonged in its work of destruction, so wide in its scope and so absolutely terrible in its consequences has swept the entire city and neighboring towns for many miles on either side the human mind can not comprehend all of the horror, can not learn or know all of the dreadful particulars. One stands speechless and powerless to relate even that which he has felt and knows.
Gifted writers have told of storms at sea, of the wrecking of vessels, where hundreds of lives were at stake and lost. That task pales into insignificance when compared with the task of telling of a storm which threatened perhaps 60,000 people, sent to their deaths perhaps 6000 people and left other thousands wounded, homeless and destitute and…—[unreadable]—…others to cope… to clear the water sodden land of putrefying bodies and rotting carcasses, to perform tasks that try men’s souls and sicken their hearts ….Many of the [bodies] were lying on the beach; many others were buried beneath the ruins of buildings. They were decomposing rapidly and giving off a horrible stench. The situation looked desperate. On Tuesday morning the bodies had decomposed so greatly that it was absolutely impossible to handle them to send them to sea.”
The front-page article bears a striking degree of similarity to the limitations journalists described during Katrina and in the following weeks. These limitations tend to emphasize the inability to describe the surrealistic nature of the devastation. ABC reporter Leigh Sales wrote that “It looked like a Salvador Dali landscape – hellish, silent and devoid of people. It was a pile of twigs, dirt and rubble.” A September 5th article in Broadcasting and Cable explains that for many journalists, including seasoned veterans of major news outlets, Katrina was “the roughest situation anyone’s ever seen” in the United States. In the article an NBC meteorologist claims that the conditions for journalists were “not a reference point that the US has seen before” and goes on to describe is as surrealistic in the same manner that Sales does.
For the author of the 1900 Galveston Daily News article “words are too weak to express the horror” and he stands speechless and powerless. So to, in their own contexts, do Anderson Cooper and the protagonist of Lovecraft’s ‘The Shunned House’ grapple with a problem of language, a problem of phrasing. The 1900 author emphases the manner that the storm exceeds the abilities of his vocabulary. (In this sense, it is no coincidence that in disasters of this magnitude we find less rationalization than we do descriptions of the grotesque. While describing Katrina as “one of the most astounding events ever to hit our country”, CNN’s Jeanne Meserve emphasizes the grotesquerie of bloated bodies in the street and dogs mangled and wrapped in electrical wire. We find our fictional equivalent in the Lovecraft story as the protagonist describes what caused him to loose the ability to conjecture, an object with “blackening and decaying features leered and gibbered at me, and reached out dripping claws to rend me in the fury which this horror had brought”.) The types of words we use, the dominant tropes and phrases, are historically and socially constructed. Yet while one’s vocabulary has been constructed to deal with reporting about 6 or even 60 dead, 6000 may require another set of words or manner of speaking altogether.