15 Years After Hurricane Katrina, Another Perfect Storm Is Upon Us

When Katrina hit, the mainstream media and Congress both reacted shamefully. Their response to the pandemic is no different.

Joel Bleifuss August 21, 2020

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In the fall of 2005, Susan J. Dou­glas, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­fes­sor, wrote two con­sec­u­tive Back Talk” columns on Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na, which, 15 years ago in August, flood­ed New Orleans and killed more than 1,000 peo­ple. In the first, The Mar­gins Go Main­stream,” Dou­glas exam­ined the media’s cov­er­age of the disaster:

"Katrina exposed the nation's continuing failures to combat poverty and racism; … it showed that you actually need a functioning federal government; and it revealed our contempt for the elderly and the sick."—Susan J. Douglas, 2005

[As] the flood­ing began, the press went into its usu­al dis­as­ter-mode report­ing. As ear­ly as the next day, the AP began report­ing about mas­sive loot­ing. By Wednes­day, Black peo­ple as loot­ers was the main sto­ry on Fox, and this news frame cir­cu­lat­ed in oth­er media as well, as did still-unsub­stan­ti­at­ed sto­ries about rapes and murders. 

Despite the dam­age done by this racist frame, it could not hold. Two pho­tos from Yahoo News soon rock­et­ed through cyber­space. … One from the AP showed a Black per­son wad­ing through the flood cap­tioned loot­ing,” the oth­er from Agence France Presse of whites in the flood waters cap­tioned find­ing food.” … CNN’s Ander­son Coop­er said, I wouldn’t call it loot­ing. What I have seen is des­per­ate peo­ple kind of wan­der­ing around.” By Sep­tem­ber 1, the sto­ry had shift­ed, with a new empha­sis on the vic­tims being dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly poor and Black. …

Kat­ri­na was a per­fect storm jour­nal­is­ti­cal­ly, but will such cov­er­age be restrict­ed to this par­tic­u­lar hor­rif­ic event? … The report­ing of the nation­al news orga­ni­za­tions will answer the ques­tion. But a brief peri­od in which the country’s failed war on pover­ty, its insti­tu­tion­al racism and the utter bank­rupt­cy of a CEO pres­i­den­cy” were all lead sto­ries is tes­ti­mo­ny to what can hap­pen when those at the mar­gins of the main­stream media (and of our coun­try) final­ly get the podi­um they deserve.

In her sec­ond col­umn, Miss­ing Their Moment,” Dou­glas turned her eye to Congress’s response:

Kat­ri­na exposed the nation’s con­tin­u­ing fail­ures to com­bat pover­ty and racism; … it showed that you actu­al­ly need a func­tion­ing fed­er­al gov­ern­ment; and it revealed our con­tempt for the elder­ly and the sick. …

Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na has cre­at­ed the moment for a true par­a­digm shift in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, because many Amer­i­cans have actu­al­ly become scared about what it means to have an evis­cer­at­ed, dys­func­tion­al fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. That’s what Democ­rats would hear if they lis­tened to their base, instead of shun­ning it as their own advi­sors have con­vinced them to do. If they miss the Kat­ri­na moment, it will go down as one of the biggest polit­i­cal blun­ders of the ear­ly 21st century.

Fif­teen years lat­er, anoth­er per­fect storm is upon us. The pan­dem­ic is killing hun­dreds of thou­sands, lay­ing bare a class and racial divide. Peo­ple are ris­ing up against a neo-fas­cist pres­i­dent and his GOP enablers who have mis­han­dled both the pan­dem­ic and the George Floyd protests. In 2035, let’s hope In Those Times” will look back at 2020 as a peri­od in his­to­ry when the par­a­digm did shift, when Amer­i­ca changed course and restruc­tured our nation­al priorities.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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