September 2, 2005

The institutional memory of survivors

One of the dominant undercurrents of reporting this last week has been the terror and outrage of journalists caught in the hurricane and its aftermath. The CNN and NPR reporters at the Convention Center yesterday were clearly witnessing as well as reporting, and I suspect most journalists in New Orleans right now will come out of this with firm beliefs about the powers of government and the effects of negligence.

The tenor of these stories, however fleeting, should remind us that survivors and witnesses of great historical and demographic events have a lasting impact on national memory and culture. And there is no doubt that Hurricane Katrina is one of the great demographic events of our country's history. The hundreds of thousands of refugees will be stranded for months until they either give up on New Orleans, resettling, or find their way back to whatever New Orleans becomes. The deaths from Katrina will include not only those directly killed this week but also those whose health was and is yet to be affected by the stress of evacuation or living in the affected area after the hurricane. Southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi will be suffering for years to come in terms of infrastructure and culture.

Journalists are some of the most powerful historical observers, because they can reshape national perceptions in a matter of hours and days. The reporting of the civil rights movement helped shape national opinion about civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. But journalists aren't the only ones who survived, observed, and will retell over the years. Some of the survivors will remember and pass on the sense of terror at nature's fury. Others will focus on the lack of preparation, the shoddy assumptions built into the levees, and the underfunding of the levee projects in the years prior to Katrina. Yet others will think largely about the aftermath, either of the New Orleans residents who terrorized their fellow citizens or the agents of government who could not mount an effective evacuation or recovery effort until it seemed all too late.

I suspect that the white-collar survivors will choose either the second or third as the focus of remembrances, plus a universal one: the dislocation at the loss of a beautiful American city and the utter rupture of communication with loved ones and friends. Among historians, I think of Rosanne Adderley, who was in grad school with me at Penn and is/was working at Tulane. I hope you're safe, Rosanne.

Unfortunately, it looks as though my prediction of fires is coming true all too soon. I feel foolish for having thought of it this late. As others (Penny Richards and Steve Savitzky) have noted, fires followed both the Johnstown flood in 1889 and the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. A good historian shouldn't lose perspective just because more than a million fellow citizens are homeless and thousands dead and ... oh, heck. I'm going to assume that some competent planner years ago put "likely fires" in the assumptions for a post-hurricane New Orleans. But municipal and national politics being what they are, such wisdom is probably buried in the muck of City Hall file drawers. No, I don't think that the current administration's underfunding of FEMA is the only human-oriented culprit (though it's one).

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Posted in Random comments on September 2, 2005 1:09 PM |