In late August 2005, for several hundred thousand Americans, Hurricane Katrina presented a problem of survival. On Monday, August 29, 2005, at 6:10 a.m., Katrina made landfall at Buras, Louisiana. The federally-constructed levee system began to fail as early as 4:30 a.m. By mid-morning, much of the City of New Orleans was under water. All told, 80% of New Orleans was flooded and 1,056 people died. For those who remained in New Orleans or on the Gulf Coast, Katrina was life-threatening and world-changing.
For everyone else, Katrina was experienced as a media event marked by a surplus of images and a paucity of experience.
Ten-years later, Katrina presents a problem for memory and for understanding. In On Collective Memory, Maurice Halbwachs argued that memory is social, and that coherent and persistent recollections are generated from shared contexts. Halbwachs maintained “crucial public events leave deep imprints on the minds of direct participants” (30). In the case of Katrina, whatever has imprinted deeply has been shaped more by television news coverage than by direct experience. As Aric Mayer has argued in his article “Aesthetics of Catastrophe,” published in Public Culture in 2008, “[f]ewer than several hundred thousand people witnessed the storm in person. For the other 99.8 percent of Americans, the disaster was a media experience with lasting implications for public opinion and action” (178). A global audience experienced Katrina as a flood of images, and those images have defined our memories over the last decade. If Katrina is to be understood, we must interrogate the production of our own collective remembrance.
The usual procedures and protocols of television news (broadcast and cable) shaped real-time response in the present and determined the way we will reconstruct these events for the time to come. Following well-established practices, the networks located resources in the French Quarter and the Central Business District, sites of the Super Bowl and national political convention coverage. According to CNN’s Miles O’Brien, they followed a “hurricane playbook,” pre-producing storylines before events unfolded. As a consequence, the major news networks (including NBC, CNN, and FOX) did not see the failure of the levees in the early morning of August 29. Late on Monday, they continued to report that New Orleans had been spared. For example, The Fox Report featured Shepard Smith on Royal Street examining wind damage and a title on screen asserting “Katrina Plows Through LA, Largely Spares N.O.” (8.29.05). This reporting misled a global audience and influenced local, state and national response in real-time.
Late Monday and on Tuesday, August 30, 2005, first CNN, and later NBC and FOX sent newsflashes on the failure of the levees and the extensive flooding of much of the city. CNN’s Jeanne Meserve and Mark Biello offered the first accounts from the flooded Ninth Ward, relating that they heard cries for help from people trapped in the attics of flooded homes. But, almost as soon as the networks began to focus on the direct peril faced by those who suffered from Katrina and the immediate, pressing need for search and rescue, they also started to emphasize the dangers posed by survivors to private property and to “security.”
For example, on Tuesday, at the top of NewsNight, anchor Aaron Brown intoned, “(New Orleans) is not simply a natural disaster tonight. It has become the sort of disaster humans cause” (8.30.05). Accompanied by Brown’s voice-over, CNN showed a shot of an African American woman, wearing a white shirt and dark shorts, carrying two white trash bags. The shot zooms slightly, drawn to the bags, but does not reveal their contents. Brown overwrites the image by asserting, “There is looting and lawlessness, overwhelming in some places the ability of the police to keep order.” The image itself does not provide any context for the woman’s situation or the contents of her bags, but Brown’s discourse insinuates that she has “looted” private property. In her article 2005 article in Harpers “The Uses of Disaster,” Rebecca Solnit has described this shift by authorities and media toward demonizing people who bore the brunt of the hurricane as “elite panic,” involving a displacement of responsibility for failed response onto survivors themselves. When the state abandoned the social compact, not providing for the welfare of citizens, authorities sought to portray Americans as not worthy of saving. The demonization of the most vulnerable strata of New Orleans’ population dominated much of television news coverage during the first week after landfall, strongly influencing national and global attitudes and the subsequent formation of memory.
In contrast to television news, the mode of production of documentary media involves a much longer period of preparation, filming, and editing. Much of documentary media is funded independently through federal and local grants and through foundations. Even commissioned documentaries [HBO commissioned and financed When The Levees Broke (2006)] involve a longer duration of production and post-production. Significantly, documentary is presented in longer formats than television news.
Documentary often features a wider range of voices and perspectives, including situated testimony through interviews and observation. In this sense, it allows for a better connection to the lived experience of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans than television news. If cable and broadcast networks produced the dominant avenues for collective memory, documentary media offers the possibility of what Geoffrey Hartman calls “collected memory” in his article “Public Memory and its Discontents,” published in Raritan. By listening to witnesses rather than projecting onto bodies, documentary media on Katrina puts together a collection of perspectives, sowing the seeds for counter-memories and complicating dominant narratives.
For example, Dawn Logsdon and Lolis Elie’s Faubourg Teme (2009) argues that Katrina needs to be understood within a deeper history of disaster, prejudice, injustice, and reconstruction. The filmmakers listen to and observe master-carpenter Irving Trevigne, a life-long resident of the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans, as he works to restore a historic home. They also investigate surviving evidence of the life and work of Irving’s ancestor Paul Trevigne, a newspaper publisher and a leading figure in Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction politics in New Orleans. The filmmakers cannot find a single photograph of Paul, and instead create scenes in the Tulane University archives and with performers in the Louisiana Living History Project to bring Paul Trevinge and his perspectives into their film. The flooding of New Orleans destroyed Irving Trevigne’s home, but it also threatened Paul Trevigne by destroying the material evidence of the past. Logsdon and Elie collect voices and perspectives that call viewers to empathize and connect, not only with the flooding of the City, but also with its deeper histories of injustice and activism.
After a decade, Katrina remains a problem of memory for us all. Even the use of “Katrina” as shorthand for the events of late August 2005 is problematic. Authorities seek to remember the disaster as a hurricane, a natural event that could not be fully anticipated. To use “Katrina” to describe what happened invites complicity in the arguments of “inevitability” offered by the Bush administration. Surviving citizens in New Orleans describe the events as “the Flood.” Calling the disaster “the Flood” insists on the complicity of the Army Corps of Engineers in the flawed construction and inadequate maintenance of the levee system. It, likewise, blames Congress for failing to appropriate sufficient resources to develop and maintain protections; indicts the state of Louisiana for insufficient monitoring and maintenance of the levees; and criticizes the City of New Orleans for its inability or unwillingness to evacuate and to rescue its citizens.
For most of us, who know “Katrina” only through images and narratives seeded by news coverage, the links to the lived experience of the flooding of New Orleans must be sought in the analysis of collected memory via documentary media and in the production of prosthetic memory via carefully constructed fiction, like Simon and Overmeyer’s Treme (HBO 2010-13). At stake is our understanding of what actually happened and of what must be done to prevent it from happening again.
Bernie Cook is Associate Dean in Georgetown College and Director of the Film and Media Studies Program at Georgetown University. His most recent book is Flood of Images: Media, Memory, and Hurricane Katrina (University of Texas Press, 2015).