Each Friday, we bring you an article from our archive to propel you into the weekend.
Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, the White House released a report titled “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned.” Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, wrote in a letter to President George W. Bush a tale playing out again today in Texas. It was a disaster that could, if studied, be prevented from happening again. Yes, Katrina was “a deadly reminder that we can and must do better,” Townsend wrote. But he was confident: “We will.”
We have not. And we never did.
As James Ridgeway (who recently passed away) and Jean Casella documented in a timeline of events published for this magazine in 2007, the lessons of Katrina fell short. What is occurring in Texas now, what has been occurring in California, what is still every day visible in a New Orleans refurbished but certainly not fixed, is that whatever lessons the massive state failure of Katrina offered did not stick. Bush was blamed (rightly) for a bumbling response. But the aspirational redefinition of the political landscape to address problems of poverty and racist policies was cast aside.
As they wrote in 2007 of this switch:
Within just a few weeks of the hurricane, something had changed in the press coverage and the public response: As the floodwaters receded, so, too, did the powerful images—the portraits of racially segregated suffering, of death by poverty. America’s—even liberal America’s—focus appeared to be moving away from the experiences of Katrina victims and the deep, systemic problems they revealed. In the end, the leap from pathos to policy was never made. Instead, a narrower lens was focused on the foibles of the Bush administration—for instance, its hiring of a political crony, Michael Brown, to head FEMA (and, later, Brown’s infamous emails about wardrobe choices and dinner plans as New Orleans residents were literally drowning in their homes). Democrats were quick to attack President Bush, but when it came to advancing meaningful policy changes, they came up short on momentum.
The timeline is a damning indictment of what could come next for us. Our coverage on Katrina is all worth a read to understand how the unnatural is spun as “natural” disaster. We’ve also reported on the horrific statistics making clear that there was no end for victims of Katrina—and we’ve shown that this was clear for anyone who visited New Orleans, no matter the “happy face” some attempted to put on the new New Orleans.