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Teaching the Unfathomable: Hurricane Katrina and the History of New Orleans


Nancy Bristow is a Professor of History at the University of Puget Sound, where she also teaches in the African American Studies Program and serves on the leadership team of the Race and Pedagogy Initiative. She is currently completing a book on the May 1970 police shootings on the Jackson State College campus.

In 2013 Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker published Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, 22 maps and accompanying essays that invite readers to learn about, and perhaps to love, this city. “New Orleans,” they explain, “is all kinds of unfathomable, a city of amorphous boundaries where land is forever turning into water… where lines that elsewhere seem firmly drawn are blurry; where whatever you say requires more elaboration; where most rules are full of exceptions, the way most land here is full of water” (Solnit and Snedeker, 1)“Trying to define New Orleans,” they conclude, “is like trying to hold water in your hands, like trying to walk through a wetland, like trying to draw a coastline that keeps shifting” (2).

And yet to accept the city as unfathomable, they make clear, does not require us to forego the task of making sense. Indeed, it only calls us more fervently to the work. Recognizing the city as unfathomable helps us to avoid simple understandings and easy answers, to take on the serious task of teaching and learning with an appreciation for complexity and a capacity to handle ambiguity and contradictions.

If the idea of something as unfathomable fits for New Orleans, how much more unknowable are the losses suffered by this city and its people as a result of Hurricane Katrina? How much more pressing the need for serious, critically engaged, unblinking and courageous exploration of this storm and its impact? It was this duality—the impossibility of ever really understanding the human costs of this catastrophe and the sense of urgency nevertheless to explain its causes and consequences—that encouraged me to develop a course on the hurricane and its aftermath when my university reconceptualized its first-year seminar program a few years ago.

Reframed as Seminars in Scholarly Inquiry, these courses seek to “introduce students into an academic community” and to make visible the process by which scholars frame questions, explore sources, develop and defend ideas and write and speak effectively and “with integrity.” Given the multi-layered issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina—its causes, consequences, and costs—it seemed an ideal subject for a seminar. The very unfathomability offered students the opportunity to recognize the deeply analytical and interpretive nature of scholarly inquiry and the necessity of complexity in our understandings of the past, even as that challenge was balanced by an awareness that the historical conclusions we reach can have real, lived meaning in the world.

Four foci have shaped the course from the beginning: the disparate lived experiences of people during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath; the historical contexts, institutions, and systems out of which those experiences emerged; the idea of Katrina and its consequences as an “unnatural disaster”; and the persistent tendencies in Americans’ ways of understanding disasters evident in the narration and later remembering of the storm. The Fall 2015 course marks its third iteration, and my discussions here reflect my ongoing work of revision, marked especially by continued efforts to select the right combination of texts, an exercise made all the more difficult with the surge of new work published this year.

The course begins with a very brief introduction to the seminar and to New Orleans, facilitated by readings in The Unfathomable City. This remarkable volume provides a source thread that runs through the course, even as the array of authors and artists involved in its production and the range of subjects they address offer students multiple access routes into their study of Katrina. 

Wanting to ensure that the students understand why the storm and its aftermath warrant their attention, this short introduction quickly gives way to the first course unit, focused on the disparate lived experiences of the disaster. Students have seemed particularly ready for the course this year, moved perhaps by the reality that our first week of class fell during the tenth anniversary observances. We begin the unit with the stunning documentary Trouble the Water, which follows the experiences of Kimberly and Scott Roberts and their neighbors on a block in the Lower Ninth Ward and features live footage filmed by Kimberly Roberts during the storm. This documentary works well to begin the course, serving the dual purposes of pushing students to discover the arguments made in a film without voice-over narration while also asking them to grapple with the abandonment experienced by so many people without resources. With many students very used to consuming videos for pleasure, asking them to analyze this documentary opens up our conversation about the range of sources with which they will work—secondary versus primary, scholarly versus popular—and encourages students to read everything they encounter with their skills in critical analysis at the ready. Students then write a brief paper applying these same reading skills to one chapter of Spike Lee’s iconic documentary When the Levees Broke.

Following this initial work with documentaries, the remainder of the first unit emphasizes the analysis of primary sources and introduces students to the range of experiences during the storm and its immediate aftermath. Sources in the unit range from materials on the National Hurricane Center website to footage from the Superdome, from a pair of speeches by President George W. Bush to print and television media coverage, from Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun to ACLU reports on the neglect of the incarcerated during the storm. Special emphasis is placed on Voices Rising: Stories from the Katrina Narrative Project, edited by Rebeca Antoine. Students are asked to consider several issues in this unit: the disparate ways residents experienced the storm and the range of factors, including especially race, class, and age, that contributed to these differences; the ways the media narrated the storm and its victims; the consequences of those (mis)representations in the actions of law enforcement and political leadership; and the ethical issues confronted by professionals responsible for the well-being of others. Students also debate the veracity of Rebecca Solnit’s argument, offered in A Paradise Built in Hell, that while economic and political elites and law enforcement expect the worst of citizens in the aftermath of catastrophe and act accordingly, civilians actually rise to their best selves in these emergencies, working together for survival and building community in the process. This unit concludes with a paper in which students write a historical introduction to a primary source, exploring both the intended and unintended insights it offers to a student seeking to understand Hurricane Katrina.

With a comprehensive sense of the human toll of this storm and its immediate aftermath, students are ready to situate it in the history that produced it, and so the second unit focuses on a brief but comprehensive history of New Orleans and on the critical reading of secondary sources. Students begin with Ned Sublette’s The World That Made New Orleans, a text that is very challenging for first-year students who must learn to read for ideas amid an avalanche of detail. Exploring the development of the city and its region up to 1819, Sublette emphasizes the role of Africans and African Americans in shaping the city and its culture while placing that history in the shifting international landscape and the corresponding changes in political identities and slave regimes, allowing students to recognize how early the catastrophe of Katrina began taking shape. With this early history in place, students turn to Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow, a text that examines the impact of Americans’ approach to development and to the environment in creating the Katrina crisis. Together with readings from The Unfathomable City, these texts allow students to interrogate the human choices and cultural norms—from the white supremacist assumptions that undergirded slavery to the unbridled capitalist development that built the levee system—that created the context for Hurricane Katrina. This unit again concludes with a paper, as students write a review of one of these secondary sources, offering their own recommendation of whether or not I should assign the book again. They base these recommendations on their assessment of the quality of the scholarship and its value for the work of our course.

At this point students are ready to engage with the catastrophe of the aftermath, looking beyond the storm and the days immediately following to the long-term consequences, including for instance the struggle to rebuild not only the city but also its communities; the complex role played by disaster capitalism in shaping the rebuilding efforts; the psychic costs of the storm, the abandonment of its aftermath, and the cultural, familial and community separations produced by the post-storm diaspora; and the ongoing influence of racial and class disparities in each of these. During this unit students practice placing scholarly arguments in conversation with their own primary source discoveries.

Their writing assignment in this unit, too, demands integrative thinking, even as it challenges them to imagine the world from the perspective of someone whose life was affected by Hurricane Katrina. Early in the semester students have been asked to select an actual person or create a character based on what they have learned, and to track that person’s experiences before, during, and after the storm, contextualizing all of this in the person’s family history in the centuries prior to the storm. In this fourth writing assignment, students write about the person’s experiences of, and responses to, the storm in a creative piece written from that individual’s perspective. This is complicated work that requires students to recognize the danger of stereotypes on the one hand, and cultural appropriation on the other. Students rise to this challenge. Grounding their writing in a deep understanding of the historical and contemporary realities that shaped one individual’s experiences, and recognizing as well the role of systems and institutions, students have written memoirs, letters, diaries, even political speeches. This assignment often helps students to complete their most analytically sophisticated work. Perhaps the opportunity for creative formats helps them engage the historian’s task more fully, imagining the world, and worldview, of a person whose life may or may not resonate as familiar.

The course concludes with a unit on how Americans have remembered Katrina, with students exploring both public policy and popular culture. The advent of the tenth anniversary has made this particularly accessible for students this year, given the extensive public remembering that has taken place in recent months. Here students engage with the Select Bipartisan Committee’s extensive report on Hurricane Katrina, work by scholars emphasizing the ongoing risks of other catastrophes born of environmental and societal neglect, recent media productions designed to acknowledge the tenth anniversary, and a range of creative works by novelists, poets, a playwright, and musicians. Students have the opportunity again to explore the narratives that have emerged as Americans have sought to make sense of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, and in some cases have struggled to move attitudes and policies in new directions. In particular they examine the interplay of what Edward Linenthal has identified as the progressive, redemptive, and toxic narratives.

Students also work in this last part of the course to produce their final paper of the term, a somewhat longer exploration of how Katrina has been remembered—culturally, politically, or in terms of public policy—and forgotten. This final assignment serves as an integrative exercise, pushing students to draw on the historical material—both primary and secondary—that they have engaged as well as the scholarly methods they have been polishing. These final projects also provide the class with additional material for imagining what would be necessary to prevent another such tragedy from occurring.

From its beginning this course has emphasized engagement with charged and difficult issues confronting Americans today—racial and class disparities, economic development and its impact on environmental degradation, and a cultural unwillingness to confront the causes and consequences of these ongoing, unnatural catastrophes. I have been heartened by my students’ ready willingness to think critically, and in conversation with one another, about these issues, and to engage with this unfathomable, but tremendously important, history.

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