Firstly, all the best for the new year! The first ten days have shown that dates are not a magic wand, and last year’s woes will be this year’s foes. When I overlooked my neighborhood’s playground yesterday, however, I was overcome by the feeling that if we all play our part, we can turn the world around for the better for everyone. It may be a decade, or it may be a generation, but we can make this work!
I had to Google the exact meaning of ‘levees.’ Born in Sliedrecht, the world’s dredging capital and raised a few meters below sea level, dikes and dams have been fixtures in my life. I now know most of these dikes were levees, such as the one a few hundred meters from my home.
‘Levees’ are a crucial word in Floodlines, The Atlantic’s magnificent podcast about the many disasters in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina. Another is ‘racism.’ I binged the series on my nightly lockdown walks. Living just east of Amsterdam, south of the former inland sea, and tucked in between various old rivers, all walks are along the dams, canals, and other structures of one of the world’s most advanced water management systems. And while I am sure our levees will likely hold, I also know they didn’t hold back the systemic injustices that were Katrina’s real disaster.
In Floodlines, Vann R. Newkirk II traces the historical roots and long-term impact of Hurricane Katrina. The show shows how it was not the weather but human error and indifference that caused the disaster and its suffering.
The levees broke not because Katrina was ‘the big one’ that was predicted to break them. They weren’t broken on purpose — as they had been in the past — to protect more affluent, whiter neighborhoods. They broke because they weren’t designed, built, and maintained well enough. In the show, Sandy Rosenthal believes they broke because of arrogance and the faulty belief in a romantic nature.
“We want to believe the romantic story—that it was Mother Nature. That’s romantic. The Titanic was almost romantic, the way they stylized it. You know, but the Titanic wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t a love story. The Titanic was a failure due to the arrogance of man. Arrogance is what caused them to put too few lifeboats. Arrogance is what caused them to turn off the radio so that they didn’t hear the warnings about the ice. They were so arrogant [that] they were going to break a record on their maiden voyage. They were not focused on the safety of their passengers. One hundred years later, we have the levees.”
In the Netherlands, we have our own story of ‘arrogance’ towards water’s destructive power. In 1953, a combination of a storm and high-tide created a storm surge on the North Sea that broke many of the dikes in the southwest of the country. Over 1,800 people lost their lives, and countless houses were destroyed. The disaster sparked the construction of the Delta Works, which now protects most of our country from flooding.
The Delta Works, however, came 30 years late. Already in the 1920s, the risk of flooding was understood. Some work was done, most notably the Afsluitdijk, which still protects my house. Yet, the invisibility of water’s potential to kill and destroy and the presence of other issues (notable, the Second World War) deprioritized the construction of appropriate defenses until it was too late.
I didn’t know this story until I started reading up about it because of Floodlines. In school, they always taught me the dikes were weakened by German bombardments and neglect during the Second World War. This certainly makes for a better story.
The real issue with Katrina is not human arrogance or even that the levees broke, though, Floodlines shows. The problem is how disaster amplified social and racial inequalities (almost) by design. It is here that the story turns from history into a commentary.
By carefully picking apart different strands of the narratives that emerged during Katrina and checking them against facts on the ground, Newkirk II shows how virtually every institution was unprepared for a disaster like Katrina. Also, they showed their worst reflexes and prejudices once the disaster struck. The media repeated hearsay that fit their racist beliefs. Police acted violently when they needed to care, and the government was mostly absent.
In the show’s final episode, Newkirk II interviews FEMA director Michael Brown. Brown is asked what he would tell Le-Ann, a protagonist in the podcast who loses everything (including her future) because of Katrina. Brown:
“If I can get Americans to think about risk and tell them honestly that when that proverbial feces hits the fan, that you may be fearful for your life, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about that. We’re not going—the government is not going to be there. The minute it happens. And they may not be there for a day, depending on how bad it is. So you tell Le-Ann I’m sorry, but you tell Le-Ann that her responsibility is to understand the nature of the risk where she lives and to be prepared for it. Knowing that somebody’s not going to come—the shining knight in armor is not going to come and rescue her when that fear sets in.”
Whatever 2021 brings, we can be sure it will bring natural disasters that we are unprepared for. There will always be disasters that we are unprepared for. Katrina was a category 3 storm that didn’t directly hit New Orleans. We know there will be more and higher category storms. We cannot prepare for such monster storms. We can only prepare for our response.
Levees are only as strong as the societies that build and maintain them.
Thanks for reading this first newsletter of 2021. There have been quite some new signups over the holidays. I’m happy you are here! If this is your first newsletter, have a look at the archive. There is so much going on in my (working) life at the moment that I’m confident we’ll keep the weekly schedule for the foreseeable future. The only thing I cannot predict is the topics.
I didn’t write about the Millennium Falcon cake I baked this weekend, homeschooling, again, lots of art and culture for health and wellbeing, or GIMBER, which is my new addiction. All that, for sure, in an upcoming newsletter. Until then, take care!