Why Are We Commemorating Hurricane Katrina?

by Gary Kinte Perry

August 29, 2005, has become one of those unforgettable dates in the annals of United States history.  It was on this date that Hurricane Katrina made landfall just Southeast of New Orleans, Louisiana.  The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is one of the most costly natural disasters in recent U.S. history.  

Many commemorations of Hurricane Katrina, now ten years into the aftermath, have a way of either missing or avoiding the obvious:  we cannot commemorate that which has never ended.  On this tenth year since Hurricane Katrina, I was preparing like many others to travel back to New Orleans, a region where I was born and raised, and to take part in the commemorations of this historic event.  Upon deeper and more thoughtful reflection, I soon came to question both why I was being drawn into what has become a circus of Hurricane Katrina commemorations and why I even thought a commemoration of Hurricane Katrina was fitting.  A commemoration denotes a remembrance or a ceremony designed to remember a person or an event.  

While I recognize the popular sentiment surrounding a commemoration of Hurricane Katrina, I am also left asking and agonizing with one question.  How could the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina ever be forgotten?  If we think of Hurricane Katrina as a natural disaster, I could then see why people want to remember the almost 2,000 lives that perished either in the hurricane or during the flooding that followed.  If someone thinks of the aftermath as the result of Hurricane Katrina, I can understand how people can stand in the desolateness of what the media calls the Lower Ninth Ward, which was once a highly populated community, and think that Hurricane Katrina is the cause of this destruction.  If you consider Hurricane Katrina to be the ‘big one’ that those of us who grew-up in South Louisiana always heard was going to happen, I guess it makes sense that some of us need to remember and to mourn the loss of a city, a culture, and a civilization that will never return.  

This popular framing of Hurricane Katrina does make this storm worth commemorating.  In other words, we have constructed Hurricane Katrina as an event, as a natural disaster, and as the reason why a post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans is now increasingly white, more affluent, and less Black.  My reluctance to commemorate Hurricane Katrina is because I recognize that the storm’s aftermath never stopped.  I also realize that there is nothing natural about this ongoing unnatural disaster.  Like so many Black people, we understand that a commemoration of Hurricane Katrina only triggers our commiseration for the ongoing attacks on of our Black spaces and our Black bodies.  This assault on Black spaces and Black bodies, it should be noted, did not begin with Hurricane Katrina; it has been at the foundation of this nation’s existence.

I still struggle to understand how one can forget that which still exists.  That is why a commemoration of Hurricane Katrina so insidious.  We are permitted in this moment to forget the ongoing destruction that is currently happening in post-Katrina New Orleans.  By shifting our gaze back to August 29, 2005, as if it is a finite moment in time, the act of remembering Hurricane Katrina becomes another opportunity for those in power (especially White people) to construct a dominant narrative for us all.  As we observe ten years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, that dominant narrative – especially for New Orleans – is one of recovery, redevelopment, and renewal.    

Any act of remembering is prone to forgetfulness.  Although much and many are forgotten when commemorating Hurricane Katrina, I am more disturbed by the dominant narratives that I – as a Black person – hear during this commemorative moment.  For me, I hear that the recovery of a post-Katrina New Orleans could only be made possible by the federal and city governments violently keeping Black, working-poor people from returning to this city.  I cannot help but hear that the redevelopment of post-Katrina New Orleans required the destruction of almost every public housing development in this city.  Housing communities, more specifically, that were vital for 100,000 families that were predominantly Black, female, and working-poor.   I am left hearing that the renewal of post-Katrina New Orleans comes along with the privatization of most of its public schools, the dismantling of its public medical system, and the privatization of communal spaces.  With all this privatization, a new New Orleans has seen a public education system that employed numerous Black women now staffed by mostly white, middle-class folks; a growing population of people of color who cannot access quality medical care; and Black street artists (e.g., brass bands) that are being criminalized for carrying out centuries-old traditions of performing in public spaces.  

For me, a commemoration of Hurricane Katrina is accompanied by an unspoken celebration of the erasure of Black spaces and of Black bodies from the urban landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans.  I cannot remember this because the act of erasing Black spaces and Black bodies is alive and well in post-Katrina New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore, D.C., Harlem, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, and most other major urban spaces in this county.  The presence of Black spaces and Black bodies is no longer tolerated in our major U.S. cities…if not anywhere.  This destruction of Black spaces and Black lives is politely referred to as gentrification, urban renewal, urban revitalization, and even community safety.  The destruction of Black spaces and of Black lives is the new urban politics.  We must be clear that anti-Black racism and white supremacy are driving levers behind this twenty-first century racial cleansing.  

While some might find solace in commemorating the tenth years since Hurricane Katrina befell the U.S. Gulf Coast, I see this moment as motivation for me to remain connected to communities of struggle both in post-Katrina New Orleans and here is Seattle.  Communities that are struggling to dismantle the prison industrial complex.  Communities that are disrupting the forced evictions of mostly Black bodies and Black businesses.  Communities that are protecting all Black lives from state-sanctioned violence and torture. Communities that are pushing back on the movement to privatize our schools and all public spaces.  In short, I am finding my strength in communities that are defending the right for Black spaces and Black bodies to exist, freely, in post-Karina New Orleans and throughout this country without reason and without apology.  

Gary Kinte Perry is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Seattle University. He is also an anti-racist community organizer and prison abolitionist who resides in Seattle, WA

Featured Image Azhar Elmiza

 

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