Book Review: The Continuing Storm: Learning from Katrina
Authors: Kai Erikson, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, Yale University and Lori Peek, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Natural Hazards Research Center, University of Colorado Boulder. Publisher: University of Texas Press Austin Texas. ISBN: ISBN: 978-14773-2433-2 (hbk); 978-1-4773-2434-9 (pbk); 978-1-4773-2435-6 (PDF ebook); 978-1-4773-2436-3 (ePub ebook); DOI:10.7560/324332. Pages: 142; Paperback Price $27.95; Hardcover Price $90.00. University of Texas Press; Katrina Bookshelf Series.
Reviewer: Jack L. Harris, Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication; Communication Department Internship Director (Summer 2022); University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Author of Hyperlocal Organizing: Collaborating for Recovery over Time, forthcoming in November 2022 from Lexington Press.
This book is the 8th in the University of Texas’ Katrina Bookshelf series edited by Kai Erikson. This is the only series of writings that explores the multiple levels of a disaster and its extended aftermath over a nearly two-decade period. As such, the series provides a much needed understanding of the complexity of disaster response and recovery, of long-term toll disaster takes on people, families, and communities.
The Continuing Storm serves as a series capstone of sorts, locating Katrina in both time and space while revisiting the chaos fostered by the immediate storm and flooding. The book also extensively reviews the impact of race and racism on Katrina response and recovery.
Chapter 2, “On the Streets of New Orleans” confronts head on the role that race played in the response to Katrina. It crystallizes the media narrative of an out of control city and the false reporting that may have delayed response. As is well-known among the disaster research community, the sensationalistic Katrina reporting of the media was unfounded with minimal corrections of the record(s) and apologies by media organizations for getting it wrong. What we do know is that people worked collectively with neighbors helping neighbors and family helping family to get to safety and find ground after their homes and lives were upended. Individual and collective behaviors in New Orleans during and after Katrina played out exactly as disaster research would predict.
One of the most valuable contributions of The Continuing Storm is Erikson and Peek’s overview of work of the different contributors to the bookshelf series. In Chapter 7, “After” (The Pains of Displacement) they review Weber and Peek’s work on displacement in the Katrina diaspora and its long-term effect of creating a smaller and Whiter New Orleans. Both the Katrina diaspora and the processes of long-term recovery disrupted multigenerational extended families and the networks of support that people relied on in a city and region with sharp divisions of race and class. Issues and impacts of long-term recovery are well-covered in Kroll-Smith, Baxter, and Jenkins study of the recovery of two African-American New Orleans neighborhoods, and Katherine Browne’s in-depth study of the “The Peachy Gang” a large extended African-American family in Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish. In their review of Katrina’s “aftermath” Erikson and Peek emphasize the language and cultural barriers between the institutional response of nonprofits and federal agencies and the actual needs of impacted residents. In particular, the inability of institutions to adapt their policies and knowledge to local cultures and practices is well-covered here through an extended discussion of the failure of these institutions to understand and account for the importance of extended families and neighborhood networks in New Orleans and coastal Louisiana.
The Continuing Storm is organized into three sections and seven chapters. Part 1, a “Hurricane Known as Katrina” is divided into two chapters, Chapter 1, “Along the Shores of the Gulf,” and Chapter 2, “On the Streets of New Orleans.” Chapter 1 provides a retrospective on Katrina’s gathering intensity and immediate impacts on the Gulf Coast. Chapter 2 provides a longer look at the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans that we now simply refer to as Katrina. Chapter 2 revisits the timeline of the levee collapses and the slowly unfolding disaster as waters from the Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River, and Lake Pontchartrain slowly began filling the bowl shaped city. Chapter 2 then turns its focus to the media focus on race and rioting, as discussed previously in this review.
Part 2, “Locating Katrina” locates Katrina in time and space and is divided into two chapters, “In Time” (Chapter 3), and “In Space” (Chapter 4). Chapter 3 situates Katrina within post-colonial time highlighting how the physical geography of New Orleans was shaped through industrial activity that supported New Orleans historic role as a critical United States seaport. This is followed by an in-depth discussion of “Counting the Dead” and “Counting the Wounded.” These sections are one of the most important parts of the book as they ask a key question for both disaster policy and research, whose death counts when we assess the toll of a storm or pandemic, and what is the impact on physical, mental, and emotional health during disaster and recovery? Erikson and Peek show the ways in which official death tolls, strictly time-bounded to cover only the time-period of immediate storm and flood impact misses the larger dynamics of recovery. Physical and mental health declines, often precipitously, in the years after storms of the magnitude of Katrina, Sandy, or Harvey. Displacement and disruption in the routines of everyday life create trauma-response in individuals that may only manifest as physical or mental health problems years after the storm is gone and initial clean-up completed. This section emphasizes the need for expanding the scope and boundaries of disaster to better account for the long-term health, social, and emotional toll that disaster and its aftermath takes on people and communities.
“In Space” locates New Orleans both as a physical location on a map and as a broader culture radically reshaped by Katrina and its aftermath. The social interactions of people in New Orleans with each other, their physical environment, and their history are likened by Erikson and Peek to an “organism” that extends through time and space. This metaphor helps frame the broader arc of the book in which people, neighborhoods, history, culture, foodways, and stories are all dispersed post-Katrina through government policy and individual decisions. Government policy is the main driver of the Katrina diaspora making policy decisions that destroyed public housing, dismantled the public school system, consolidated health care services through LSU, and set up barrier after barrier on the road home that led to a much smaller, whiter city in the post-Katrina era. Like their review of the media’s focus on unsubstantiated reports of social breakdown driven by perceived Black lawlessness, in this section Erikson and Peek highlight the role that race plays in reshaping both the physical and temporal space in which New Orleans resides.
Part III, “Katrina as Human Experience” is divided into three chapters; “Before,” “During,” and “After.” Each of these chapters breaks down the issues of policy, race, time, and space that the authors review earlier in the book into direct impact on people and neighborhoods, “Before” details the geography of vulnerability in New Orleans, while “During” shows how these preexisting vulnerabilities of race, class, health, and age left many New Orleanians stranded in toxic flood waters and led to many preventable deaths. “After” covers the extended recovery period and the physical and psychic displacements that marked the aftermath of Katrina. These three chapters in Part III represent a seamless whole and reinforce the book’s central premise, that disaster needs to be understood as a social process that exists through time and that the boundaries of disaster extend far beyond the specific physical impacts occurring over a series of hours or days. Disaster not only encompasses the social and physical environment in which a hurricane, flood, wildfire, tornado, or earthquake occurs, it also extends into an uncertain future where people, neighborhoods, and communities wrestle with an aftermath whose parameters are already set by the degree of vulnerability and marginalization existing in disaster-impacted communities.