Phrasing Katrina: Reflections on an (un)Natural Disaster (Part 2)
Revelatory Brokenness: The idea of a flood, from Gilgamesh to Noah, carries with it a certain cultural baggage. The flooding described in Genesis, for example, is an act of purification where God forces the world to understand its sins and recognize His commandments. Flooding represents a clearing away of structures, a clearing that often reveals something prior obscured, be it God’s commandments or the vermin that flee from overflowing sewer grates. When the levees broke in Katrina, turning portions of the city of New Orleans into a mess of moldy rubble, it is no coincidence that those attempting to narrate the tragedy became aware of things that were obscured to them prior.
On September 11, 2004 The New York Times reported that Katrina revealed a depth of poverty and a troubled levee system. But beyond poverty and structural neglect what was most apparent was how little race had been discussed prior to Katrina. All at once, “black people were dying – prime time live…expo[sing] shameful fissures in America’s social fabric” (Harris, 2006). Commentators have emphasized that a major impact of the storm was its presentation of America’s persistent racial divide (DeWeever & Hartmann, 2006). It is in this context that we might see Katrina as an event of tremendous magnitude not only for the power and devastation of the storm, but its coming to intersect the social (poverty & race relations) and the political (the Republican administration and its ongoing war in Iraq).
One is reminded here of Martin Heidegger’s claim that the essence of a thing, in his example a hammer, is discerned when it is broken. When broken, we can discern the hammers ‘hammerness’. In Being and Time he writes “we discover the unusability [of the hammer] not by looking and ascertaining properties, but rather by paying attention to the associations in which we use it. When we discover its unusability, the [hammer] becomes conspicuous”. When something appears inoperable or broken it can be de-naturalized, becoming simply an object in relation to all others. A simple way of thinking of this is that in order to use an object we must bracket its complexity. Heidegger refers to this bracketing as “withdrawing”. “Withdrawing” refers to the state where the hammer is naturalized and becomes “readiness-to-hand”. In order for something to be ready-at-hand the complex ‘thingness’ (in the case the ‘hammerness’) of the object must withdraw. The hammer, as ‘ready-at-hand’ becomes an extension of our own arm, and we bracket the complexly designed and shaped metal and wood.
When social structures breakdown we often discover the associations (and relations) on which they are founded. We might call this revelatory brokenness. Routines, naturalized in the order of things within a society, become de-naturalized. Our discourses, constructed on the assumption that certain objects and events are meant to be spoken about in certain ways, might seem no longer adequate. The modes of explanation that were ‘ready-to-hand’ for journalists covering Katrina began to demonstrate a radical inability to explain. The phrases and tropes they normally relied on to narrate the coverage of hurricanes appeared too simple to explain the now visible systems of inequality, domination and Federal ineptitude.
Techniques rely on sets of assumptions. Reporting techniques, intended to produce narratives of events, are no exception. They are not universal and are intelligible only within certain situations. They work when the objects being covered look and act in certain ways. When the objects become too foreign and alien our techniques often appear futile. They appear, if only for a time, unreflective of the objects they have traditionally been able to describing and the world they are accustomed to discerning. In a situation like this, aspects of the world normally obscured (and so ‘not there’ to those narrating the world) may appear in excess and become too pronounced to simply ignore.
Try to sweep the mess (the waterlogged faces of New Orleans’ poorest, bumbling FEMA employees and soldiers being wounded or killed in Iraq) under the rug, and you will find that the rug simply cannot contain it all. The excesses grew larger than the usual narrative-weaves could withstand and, like the foul waters of Lake Pontchartrain, were too amorphous and began to seep through and around the rug. We are left with a host of testimonies documenting this excess by the most unlikely of candidates: the American news media. A lasting image is Ted Koppel’s assailing of FEMA’s Mike Brown for not knowing basic information about what had been transpiring at the New Orleans Superdome and asking him “Don’t you guys watch television? Don’t you listen to the radio?”
Paradoxically, while the (un)natural flooding submerged much of New Orleans, journalists had a clearer view of the city than they may ever have had. This was a rare moment when things lost their status as ‘ready-at-hand’ and it became impossible to act on routine and impulse. Questions that would normally have pertained to the speed of the winds, the protection of homes on the coastline and the stocking up of provisions were replaced by questions concerned with war, race, poverty and Federal ineptitude.
For a short period of time it was clear that something was amiss in America. The devastation that traditionally wreaks havoc in Asia, Latin America and Africa appeared on the streets of the Big Easy. In countries prone to disasters of Katrina’s magnitude it is the poor who are usually affected most. The reasons for these disasters are usually man-made deforestation, soil erosion and desertification. The problems that plague the poor of the developing world had, in a sense, visited America. And they were clearly visible as such. One thinks to Port-au-prince or Dehli or Bangkok where the poor live in low-lying area prone to flooding. In Mexico City, for example, over a million people live in the drained lake bed of Texcoco, which turns to a flooded bog when it rains. The rain is only partially responsible for their condition (Timberlake, 1984). Journalists became aware that Katrina bore less the mark of a natural catastrophe, than an (un)natural one.
Think again to the biblical story of the flood in Genesis. There is an interpretation of Noah and the flood in the Jewish Zohar: “Far from entreating God for his fellowmen, not to destroy them, Noah thought only of his own safety and that of his own family, and, owing to this neglect on his part, the waters of the deluge bear his name; for so it is written, ‘For I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth’ “. Noah has been reproached in the Jewish tradition by rabbis and scholars throughout the centuries for not questioning God’s plan to kill every sinner on earth, especially given he had close to 120 years to construct the ark itself. He should have considered the effect the flood might have on the lives of the soon-to-be-drowned and pleaded with God to spare them. It is this lacking responsibility that stared journalists in the face as they watched the disaster in New Orleans unfold. Perhaps they wondered: “How could we have elected someone, like Noah, with such a shoddy sense of community, who cares most for himself and his own interests?” Thus, as the biblical flood is often associated with Noah’s arrogance, this modern day flood in New Orleans has come to be associated with the name Bush.