Hurricane Katrina: A natural disaster… or man-made?

By: Marissa Dauber

In the thought provoking and deeply disturbing Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine, we are given countless examples of daily microaggressions that black people face. We are shown situations that may go unnoticed if Rankine hadn’t brilliantly recorded them, and we are made to think differently about how we interact with each other on a daily basis. Rankine reminds us, through real life examples, that our words can hurt and leave lasting effects. However, Rankine also makes mention of some terrible, race-related tragedies that took place, that weren’t so subtle. To name a few, Rankine touches on the murders of Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, and Mark Duggan. She then dedicates an entire page in memoriam to the many black bodies who have died because of their race. She fades the page out while the list is still going to remind the reader that this is a never-ending cycle, and these people frequently end up forgotten about. Perhaps one of the most devastating events Rankine mentions is the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was the most unfair display of blatant racism by police, National guard, and the nation as a whole. Rankine builds her many examples of racism up to this moment: to show that if we ignore racism, continue ignoring microaggressions, and disregard black lives, we will incite a national tragedy. All of our actions and words that may seem small all add up to explode in a nightmare of racially motivated tragedy.

            I remember talking about the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and it’s disturbing racial ties in a class I took on racism about a year ago. The professor for the class asked us if we considered Katrina to be a natural disaster, or a man-made one. The majority of people, including myself, stated that we thought it was a natural disaster. That was the day I learned the true meaning behind the events that took place during that hurricane. We watched a documentary called Trouble the Water, a film created by Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott Michael Roberts, who experienced life before, during, and after the storm. In the film, Kimberly states “These houses have not been inspected yet. There could be dead people right now, as we speak, because the National Guard, they have not been here, and it’s two weeks after the hurricane” (Democracy Now, 2008). They were stuck in the attic of their home, hiding from the water that destroyed the rest of their house. They started walking around what used to be their neighborhood and going into damaged homes, and they found their neighbor, dead in his house. The majority of people were too poor to afford to leave, so they were forced to stay there and die. Later on in the film, Scott states “This is one of the Navy bases that Bush had planned to close down. Why can’t we stay overnight? What about the women and children? They said, “Get off our property, or we’re going to start shooting” “ (Democracy Now, 2008). This scene was so disturbing, because there were safe and dry places that the people could be staying in, but they were not allowed to. When they begged to go inside, they were threated to leave or be shot, by the very people that were hired to “keep them safe”. I was very glad I had this knowledge of Katrina before reading Rankine’s book. It gave me a different perspective, as I was able to appreciate Rankine’s artistic and poetic touch to the tragedy, while understanding the back story behind her words. I feel that this film and the book couple together so nicely and give such strong background to the pain these people experienced unnecessarily.

            In Rankine’s description of the tragedy, she states “…each house was a mumbling structure, all that water, buildings peeling apart, the yellow foam, the contaminated drawl of mildew, mold…the bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying facedown, arms outstretched on parlor floors. And someone said, where were the buses? And simultaneously someone else said, FEMA said it wasn’t safe to be there” (Rankine, 84). This imagery says all too well what Katrina was like for black people. The very people that are hired and paid to protect them wouldn’t come to their rescue because “it wasn’t safe”, but they left all the people there to die, knowing it wasn’t safe. Rankine keeps repeating “Have you seen their faces?” (Rankine 83, 85-86) which emphasizes the point she previously made with the list of names fading off the page: these people will be forgotten about. They already are.

            Rankine’s telling of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, coupled with the documentary Trouble the Water, really gave me a new perspective to this disaster, and taught me a lesson I will never forget: Hurricane Katrina was a man-made disaster. Humankind must change. Our daily acts of racism in the form of microaggressions add up until they explode, just as what happened in the man-made disaster of Hurricane Katrina. How many black bodies must fall until we change our ways?

Discussion Questions

  1. How did reading Citizen: An American Lyric give you a new perspective on Hurricane Katrina?
  2. What example of racism affected you/stood out to you most from this book?

Works Cited

Rankine, Claudia, 1963- author. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014.

 “‘Trouble the Water’–New Film Provides Firsthand Account of Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath.” Democracy Now!, 22 Aug. 2008, https://www.democracynow.org/2008/8/22/trouble_the_water_new_film_provides.

10 Replies to “Hurricane Katrina: A natural disaster… or man-made?”

  1. Marissa,
    I loved your blog post! I love how you shared the lessons you learned with us. to answer your question about what example stood out most, I would have to say the part on Serena Williams. The reason being that regular acts of racism often go unspoken and unnoticed because they are seen as minute. the bigger and more more outrageous instances of racism are always publicized heavily, but we lack awareness as to the daily acts of discrimination that need awareness as well. When Williams was clearly being mocked by Wozniacki it is thoroughly analyzed by millions of people, while her comments to the referee (which weren’t uncommon across all sports) where “immature and classless” solely because she was an African American woman. The instances where a blind eye is turned to the obvious racism could be a very interesting way to analyze society as a whole, and possibly find a way to become a proactive society instead of a reactive one.

  2. Hey Marissa!! I really enjoyed getting to read your blog post and I found all your points to be very interesting. The things you mentioned about Katrina was extremely eye opening especially since I was unaware of all the racism that coincides with this natural disaster until I read this book. I liked hearing about the video you watched and it definitely gave me an even better view on how racist this truly was. Knowing that people were left behind to die in their own homes because they were too poor to afford to live anywhere else during the storm makes me feel awful, and the fact that nobody was willing to help them out honestly makes me sick. I really liked when you talked about the faces and how Rankine kept asking if you can see them since nobody cares who it is that had died, it is clear they will be forgotten easily. Another intense quote from the story is when the author states, “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us.”(84) This had a great affect on me and I could only imagine how terrible and frightening it would feel to be forgotten like that. Also you see in this quote the recurring theme of no ending. The story has no end just like the list had no end and that is something to leave the reader thinking.

  3. Hi Marissa! I love how you included what you learned from the documentary Trouble the Water. I did my facilitation on Hurricane Katrina and I would honestly say that before this project, I believed that this storm was a natural disaster. After doing my research and reading your blog it is clear to me that is was man-made. It is obvious that prejudice against African Americans is still alive. And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description” (106) – a police officer to an African American. It is our job as a society to make people aware of the discrimination and the microaggressions that happen towards African Americans on a daily basis. I believe that it was Claudia Rankine’s goal to make us aware to situations like these, that may seem innocent but actually have racist components involved.

  4. Hi Marissa! I really enjoyed reading your post because, like you said, it gives a different perspective on Hurricane Katrina than one would previously have. To answer your first question, I never would have thought about how big of a role race played in the disaster before reading the book. Rankine really emphasizes how poorly the victims, especially the non-white and poor victims, were treated during and after the hurricane. One quote from this section that particularly affected me was when a man said, “we never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story… they forgot about us,” (84). I was particularly saddened by this because it really shows how black people in America are treated; they don’t even put in the effort to try to make a change anymore because they know it probably won’t do anything. They are so used to being neglected and mistreated, as shown also throughout the book in the different stories of microaggressions, that they are starting to lose hope for the future. When I finished the book, I felt that Rankine was sort of providing the reader with a call to action to make changes to today’s oppressive society, and I sort of felt like you were doing a similar thing at the end of your blog post.

  5. Hey Marissa, I loved your blog post and how you brought in outside references to reinforce what we saw in Citizen. I remember also learning about the racism underlying the events following the hurricane. As Rankine writes, “the fiction of the facts assumes innocence, ignorance, lack of intention, misdirection; the necessary conditions of a certain time and place” (83). I think that really speaks to how the American media really did not report the truth about what was happening on the ground. It was misrepresented to the public that as you said made an unnatural turn of events seem like just a natural disaster and nothing more. It definitely reminded me of how dark that time truly was and how well Rankine does of painting the picture all over again. The book definitely is calling for us to make a change and I think your blog did a really great job of reminding us of that too.

  6. Hey, Marissa! I am IN LOVE with your blog post. It was very powerful. Especially your ending, “How many black bodies must fall until we change our ways?”. It left me with chills. It was also neat how you tied in that documentary. I have it on my “need to watch” list now. I have never heard of it before. In answer to your question, “How did reading Citizen: An American Lyric give you a new perspective on Hurricane Katrina?” I think it really opened my eyes. I was able to get more perspective on the people who were trapped there, and to be honest, it is an event I’d forgotten about. I hate to say that, it makes me feel like a terrible person, but it’s true. It’s just not something that was taught deeply about in school for me and when I read it in this book I was like, “Oh my god, that’s right!”. When Rankine writes, “Where were they? Where was anyone? This is a goddamn emergency, he said.” (197) it was a horrific point for me to think about. It was an emergency. A HUGE one. And absolutely nothing was done. I feel awful for the people who had to go through such an evil experience and for every innocent life lost.

  7. Hi Marissa! Your blog post was super interesting and thoughtful and I loved seeing your perspective on the book. I wanted to draw attention to something specifically that you mentioned, the page in which Rankine lists the names of many black people who have died due to police brutality (134). Throughout the page, Rankine puts “In Memory of…”, to ensure that we don’t forget the people whom she makes mention of. What I found most thought provoking, though, was the way that through the course of the page, the names began to fade, showing almost an endlessness to the tragedies. It is extremely unfortunate that there are so many names to be listed already, and that the list may never end. It then becomes imperitave to evaluate our society today and make the changes necessary to have the tragedies stop.

  8. Hi Marissa! I thought that your blogpost was really interesting and I liked how you were able to input previous knowledge on the topic. It definitely gave me a better insight to Hurricane Katrina following Rankine’s work. To answer your first question, I think that Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” definitely opened my eyes to all the racism that actually played into the horrible aftermath of this hurricane. What really struck me was when Rankine states, “…it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the whites and blacks, in the difficulty of all that” (83). In your blogpost, you stated that the documentary said that there were many dry, safe places that the people could have gone to, but they were not allowed in. That saddens me because there was nothing that the victims of Katrina could have done to prevent this natural disaster. You would think that the first thing would be to give the victims the best possible help they could get, but unfortunately that was not the case. After reading Rankine’s words and about the documentary you watched, it made me realize that racism is something that happens so often in today’s world and that as a society, we have to become better.

  9. Hi Marissa! I really enjoyed reading your blog post, I especially like how you added in an outside source and related it to another class. To answer your first question, after reading Rankine’s perspective on Hurricane Katrina and the things you took from your class and put into your post changed my perspective on the Hurricane completely. This was all new information to me. I found it interesting when your professor questioned your class if the disaster was natural or manmade. I never thought of it that way. Something that caught my attention was when Rankine said, “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us” (84). This stood out to me because they had no help, people were dying and struggling and no one seemed to care. Their houses and belongs were destroyed, they had nothing and had no help. Rankine throughout the book demonstrates many examples of discrimination, this one definitely had a huge impact on me when reading. I look forward to hearing your facilitation, good luck!

  10. Hey Marissa! I loved reading your blog post and it gave me a whole new perspective about Hurricane Katrina. I loved that you included a documentary from one of your classes last year to further develop what Rankine writes about in Citizen. Throughout reading the book, I gained a whole new perspective on Katrina and what really went on with the people there. Rankine states “Then someone else said it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the whites and the blacks, in the difficulty of all that.” (83). This allows the reader to know that even in a time of crisis, there was still discrimination. Nothing will stop the discrimination of people in this country. The people could have come together to help everyone in the same predicament, but they decided to keep focusing on discrimination. Overall I enjoyed reading your blog post and I look forward to what you are going to say in class.

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