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Article ID: 10247

VoxAcct: 258693

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

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Was There a "Reason" for Katrina?

Author: Nicole Youngman
Posted: December 18th. 2005
Times Viewed: 6,235

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of having coffee with a Somewhat Famous Pagan Author, thanks to an introduction by a mutual friend. Since I’m from New Orleans, the conversation inevitably turned to Katrina. The writer suggested that perhaps “the Gods had a reason” for the hurricane: the mass evacuation and resulting diaspora was sending our culture–Voudon, for instance--far and wide, bringing it to parts of the U.S. where perhaps a dose of Pagan belief systems are sorely needed. As much as I appreciated Bill Maher’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that New Orleans be rebuilt in Kansas–we need the dry land, and they desperately need a city like ours–I found such a perspective utterly appalling from a spiritual point of view. Trying to be polite, I said that I found such an explanation to be entirely too close to Christian theology, which attributes everything that happens to “God’s will.” The Author merely replied that such a perspective wasn’t unique to Christianity, since “the Gods had their reasons long before Jesus was born.”

And then, a few days ago, I came across some online essays about the storm and its aftermath written by a Very Famous Pagan Author, who has been in town with others in her organization to help us get through this difficult time. As much as I greatly appreciate their efforts to get people fed and to clean up the horrendous amounts of trash and debris, I was very disturbed by some of what she had to say about why this has happened. Somewhat predictably, she said the reasons for the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flood were global warming and the Bush Administration’s budget cuts, which had hurt the Corps of Engineers’ ability to maintain and complete our levee system.

Now, I detest Bush and his ilk about as much as anyone can–now more than ever--and it’s obvious that global warming is very real and very frightening. But the situation in New Orleans goes much, much deeper than that, far beyond the current administration. Blaming our catastrophe on our usual political targets without understanding the realities of hurricanes in general, and the larger history and context of New Orleans’ development and subsequent flood control efforts in particular, isn’t any more helpful than chalking it up to the desires of the Gods. It also ignores some scientific realities–and Pagans are supposed to be people who have a love for science, not people who push it aside to make a political point.

Hurricanes are simply one of the planet’s mechanisms for moving heat energy around. That’s why hurricane season is during the warmer half of the year, and why the peak of the season is late summer and early fall–that’s when the waters of the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest. As heat builds up in the Carribean, or off the west coast of Africa, air rises, starts to swirl, and sucks in more air, which rises and swirls. The systems strengthens, and will eventually creep to the north, though it may well wander east or west on its way. Sometimes hurricanes move harmlessly out over the middle of the Atlantic before they dissipate, but frequently they hit land on the way–and when they do, human habitations are usually right smack in the path of all that moving energy. We get hit by the wind and the water, our structures are destroyed, and sometimes we die in the process.

So if all that warm water is the cause of these things, doesn’t global warming play a role? Scientists say yes, but a limited one. Hurricanes have always existed–at least since the planet’s continents and oceans have been in their current formations–and they always will, at least as far into the future as we can reasonably comprehend. And that includes the mega-storms, the massive category 4 or 5 giants that generally happen only once in a human lifetime, if that. They have happened before, long before human activities were capable of altering the planet’s overall climate, and they will continue to happen regardless of what we do about it in the future. Global warming may well be affecting the strength of current hurricanes, but only to a very few percentage points of wind speed and storm surge. Once a storm gets up to the “catastrophic” category, it doesn’t matter a whole hell of a lot of the top sustained winds are 155mph or 165mph, or if the storm surge is a foot higher or lower. Either way those casinos and shrimp boats are going to be picked up and moved well inland, and levees are going to break.

Global warming does NOT cause hurricanes to rapidly strengthen from category 2 storms to category 5 storms, contrary to what the Famous Author had to say. Additionally, hurricane activity goes through natural cycles of a couple of decades or so. The 1970s through around the early1990s was a period of relatively low hurricane activity. The 1950s and 1960s, on the other hand, was a period of intense activity, which gave us Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and Hurricane Camille in 1969–our previous benchmarks for the Worst Hurricanes Ever. We’re now, obviously, entering into another period of intense hurricane activity–and this time around, we have much more development and population in coastal areas to get in the way of these storms. Cities like New Orleans have grown and sprawled, and smaller coastal communities like those along the Alabama/Florida state line that were hit so hard by Hurricane Ivan have erected impressive numbers of beachfront hotels and condominiums that just didn’t used to be there a few decades ago. As a result, there is much more property to be destroyed, and many more people are losing their homes–and sometimes their lives–with each storm that comes by.

But by and large, thanks to greatly improved warning systems, we’ve actually traded property loss for loss of life--most of us have easy access to media and transportation to receive warnings and act on them. (Of course, this isn’t true for everyone, as the disaster immediately after the storm in downtown New Orleans proved.) Scientists have actually gotten pretty good at forecasting where a hurricane is going to go once it’s up and running. Not perfect, mind you, which is why it’s such a pain to decide whether to evacuate or not when one might be headed our way–more often than not the storm doesn’t give us a direct hit, and we just have to turn around and go home a couple of days later, after spending money on gas and hotel rooms and dealing with the stress of reservations and traffic and heat and restless kids and pets along the way. What meteorologists are still trying to figure out, though, is what makes these storms rapidly intensify or weaken sometimes before they make landfall. Hurricane Lili in 2002, for instance, went from a category 4 to a cat 2 overnight before striking the Louisiana coast, averting what could have been a Katrina-type disaster. Last year’s Hurricane Charley, on the other hand, did the exact opposite before striking the Punta Gorda, FL, area, and caused much worse destruction than originally anticipated as a result.

Blaming all this on global warming, then, is just plain simplistic, and doesn’t do any of us any good.Neither does blaming the initial impact of the storm itself on the Bush administration (which is, of course, a different issue than the badly bungled federal response as the waters rose afterwards) . New Orleans did NOT flood because funding for our levees was cut. It’s very true that this happened–and that the Corps of Engineers repeatedly expressed its dismay at the situation–but the portions of the levee system that were considered “unfinished” were largely over in St. Charles Parish, to the west of New Orleans and its immediate suburbs (“parish” is the Louisiana term for “county”) . These levees are–or would have been–along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain and in some other low-lying areas, particularly along one of the major highways that’s also a primary evacuation route. The concern at the time was that a hurricane’s storm surge could push waters through the lake, then into St. Charles parish where the levees were inadequate, and from there eastward into the Greater New Orleans area.

But this isn’t what happened with Katrina. The floodwaters came from two large drainage canals in the northern parts of the city--which are supposed to remove water from the city and move it into the lake, not the other way around–and from a pair of shipping channels in the eastern parts of the city, the Industrial Canal (aka the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, or IHNC) , and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, or MRGO (pronounced “Mr. Go”) for short. The Industrial Canal was built in the 1920s, and the MRGO was finished in 1965. Both were built through residential areas in order to provide shortcuts for the shipping industry, which of course is one of the main economic engines of New Orleans. And both have proven to be flood menaces–channels for hurricane storm surges–before. When Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, its storm surge came through the MRGO, flooding St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans, and then through the Intracoastal Waterway and down into the Industrial Canal, where the levees broke and flooded the 9th Ward, which is to the east of downtown and the French Quarter. And yes, the exact same damn thing happened in Hurricane Katrina. And to make matters even worse this time, the surge also backed through the lake and into the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal, causing breaks in their floodwalls and taking out the adjacent neighborhoods. Ongoing scientific investigations have determined so far that the 17th Street Canal had a weak point where the soil under the floodwall was soft, leading it to shift under the weight of all that additional water, and it’s very likely that the same thing happened with the London Avenue canal.

So the bottom line is this: throughout its 300-year history, but particularly in the last several decades, the economic and political powers of New Orleans have repeatedly compromised public safety by allowing and encouraging industrial and residential development in highly risky areas, and by disconnecting the natural hydrology of the region through an extensive levee system and trying to re-connect it in ways that were more conducive to industry. In the process, the risk of hurricane-related floods has been greatly increased, and we finally had the “disaster waiting to happen” on August 29 as Katrina came ashore.

This was not about the Gods having reasons, or about any specific environmental or political issue that many of us are concerned about as Pagans (or feminists, or Democrats, or radicals, or whatever) . It’s about the larger systems: the human system in the industrialized world and the pre-existing natural systems that it seeks to alter or ignore, putting public safety and the environment at risk in the process.

My own belief is that “the Goddess” is a metaphor we use for those larger systems of the Earth or of the Universe of which we are a part. We are that part of Her that has the kind of consciousness capable of creating the concept of “reasons” in the first place, and the part that has evolved the capacity both to care about individuals (human or otherwise) and about more vague and abstract ideas (like, say, “sustainable development”) . So it’s up to us to look out for one another, to help when tragedy strikes, and to share (and implement) our knowledge of how the planet’s systems work in ways that limit our exposure to the risks that come with living on a dynamic, ever-changing planet–AND to avoid creating new ones through our own actions. Extreme natural events like hurricanes don’t happen because some deity out there has a will to impose on us–they happen because Nature is going to continue doing its thing, and sometimes, we short-sighted humans put our communities in the way.


Nicole Youngman

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana

Bio: Nicole Youngman is a graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans, pursuing a PhD in environmental sociology. She is working on a dissertation about the history of hurricane mitigation and flood control in New Orleans.

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