Last week marked the 17th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the failure of levees in New Orleans, and the flooding of much of the city.
I was a college student in New Orleans in 2005 and when I think about Katrina it brings intense memories. I remember the rushed decision to evacuate, joking with friends that it would be another close miss like Hurricane Ivan the year before. Later I numbly watched CNN in a motel as a friend tried to reach his family members to confirm they were safe. I remember the mud that caked the city when I returned several weeks later to sort through the musty belongings of our second floor apartment. A year later, I sat in front-yard FEMA trailers talking with people about mold blooms keeping them out of their homes, later learning that the trailers had unsafe levels of formaldehyde. And several years after the storm there were still entire blocks where the majority of homes remained vacant.
The displacement and disruption that I experienced was minor compared to the families that call the city home. I love New Orleans and made meaningful connections when I lived there, but I never had the kind of roots that grow over generations. But despite all of that, New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina have stayed with me over the years.
Katrina echoes clearly every time I read about other disasters. I think of the families fighting to return to their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward when I see discussion of communities being abandoned to “inevitable” future flooding. Stories of vigilante militias in wildfire zones evoke the Danzinger Bridge massacre. And whenever a hospital or prison loses power due to extreme heat or cold, I think of the horrifying decision to euthanize patients at Memorial Hospital.
On the anniversary week, I try to give more intention to my reflections on Katrina. Respecting the loss requires listening to the communities affected. The first-person documentary “Trouble the Water” tells the story of the chaos of the flooding and evacuation. The more recent “Katrina Babies” describes the material, social, and mental harm experienced by children in New Orleans. It is easy to insert our own narratives as well-meaning outsiders without taking the time to listen and understand.
In addition, these kinds of anniversaries can help to resist the powerful gravity of normalization. It is natural that the first time something awful happens we are dismayed, but when that awful thing starts happening more frequently we eventually stop noticing. That can be true for hurricanes, wildfires, school shootings, or pandemic deaths. Because Hurricane Katrina is a story of so many cascading failures — obsolete infrastructure, generations of segregation, environmental racism, poor disaster response, inadequate recovery support, more environmental racism — it calls us to notice where the same kinds of failures are happening today and what actions we can take now to prevent and mitigate harm.
Finally, for many people, Katrina is the first time that climate change felt real and present, not a hypothetical for the future and far-away. The fact that the climate crisis has already arrived (17 years ago!) makes it all the more urgent to reduce emissions that make severe weather more frequent and invest in greater community resiliency. ecoAmerica research has found that a majority of Americans are concerned about climate change and there is strong support for a range of climate action. There are actions we can take today as individuals in our own homes, at the community-level with neighbors, and through political engagement and advocacy.
Anniversaries of tragedies can bring feelings of loss, guilt, fear, and anger. I hope that we can care for each other today as we fight for a safer and more just tomorrow.
About the Author:
Ben Fulgencio-Turner is the Director of Climate for Health at ecoAmerica. After starting his career as a community organizer in New Orleans, he worked for 14 years in public health programs, focusing on systems of safety-net care.
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