Unintended Journeys is a photographic exhibit in collaboration with Magnum Photos on view until August 13, 2014 on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History. This is the second post in a series exploring the relationship between humans and the environment, and the consequences of human migration and displacement.
Imagine a tropical cyclone is hurtling towards your home. Its destructive potential is staggering. But you’ve seen hurricanes—your city has weathered them before. Do you board up, hunker down and hold out hope? Or do you run — abandon your home, and seek refuge? For the people of the Gulf Coast, this was not a game of scenario. When the storm hit, it hit hard, and thousands were thrust into a whirlwind of difficult decisions.
On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina came rolling across the Gulf Coast at 125 mph, surging six miles inland, breaching the levees of New Orleans, and ultimately flooding 80 percent of the city up to depths of 6 meters. The deadliest storm ever to hit the United States, Katrina left 1,800 known casualties in its wake, along with an additional one million displaced. Hurricanes are no stranger to the Gulf Coast. A city largely situated below sea level, New Orleans has for decades demonstrated its exceptional ability to thrive under extreme conditions. These environmental pressures have, after all, been integrated into its very design. In collaboration with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the city systematically removed wetlands, drained swamps, and secured a series of costly levees. But these manufactured improvements devastated the landscape of its natural floodplain and buffer system, leaving the coast vulnerable to the very nature it had attempted to harness. The warning signs were all there, and yet no one seemed to anticipate the extent of the storm’s destruction. The formidable power of nature seemed almost inconceivable.
For months following the storm, catastrophic images dominated media coverage. The world watched as trapped residents desperately awaited rescue from rooftops, swarms of people gathered along highways, and frustrations mounted in the face of aid that never came. Images of the direct aftermath of the storm can be found in the portfolios of Magnum photographers Paolo Pellegrin, Larry Towell and Thomas Dworzak. Like most natural disasters, there was certainly nothing “natural” about the far reaching effects of Katrina. In addition to the overwhelming nature of the crisis itself, lack of preparation, chaotic rescue coordination, and media framing all intersected to expose a society still characterized by deep-seated systemic racial and socioeconomic disparity—disparity that had rendered certain groups disproportionately more vulnerable to the disaster than others. These disturbing revelations prompted many to ask difficult questions about the underlying causes of both the lack of preparation and delay in government response. Reactions to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath ranged from tremendous empathy, outrage, and confusion, to a sober critique of governmental failure and even larger reflections on American society and culture.
Katrina is a tragedy forever etched into the minds of its survivors. Eight years later, we still struggle to make sense of the rubble. Post hurricane photos taken by Eli Reed and Peter van Agtmael show that even with mass mobilizations to rebuild, the landscape and its people are forever changed. Return to normalcy is slow, sometimes excruciatingly so. Many may never return. The resiliency of New Orleans nevertheless shines through its historically rich and unique culture. Many have found empowerment through musical tradition, using it as a medium through which to preserve connection and conduct social change. Others have adopted alternative ways to share their stories, to promote a greater understanding of exigent structural and environmental issues yet to be addressed. With this comes an appreciation that preservation and reflection are a crucial means of fostering positive change. Katrina will certainly not be the last hurricane to ravage the Gulf Coast. But it serves as a stark reminder of the web of important relationships among ourselves and the natural world.
For a personal perspective on the impact of Katrina please read Ann Juneau’s account, The Long, Long Road Home,which she has graciously shared with the museum and public. A selection of objects from Ann’s home are on view as part of the exhibition.
Sarah Bradley (GWU), Jennifer Rowland (GWU) and Joshua A. Bell (SI) contributed to this post.