New Orleans: A disaster waiting to happen?
Queensland University of Technology Creative Industries Faculty
Faculty of Education and Arts
School of Communication and Arts/Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts, Technology, Education and Communications
New Orleans is one of a number of infamous swamp cities—cities built in swamps, near them or on land “reclaimed” from them, such as London, Paris, Venice, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Petersburg, and Perth. New Orleans seemed to be winning the battle against the swamps until Hurricane Katrina of 2005, or at least participating in an uneasy truce between its unviable location and the forces of the weather to the point that the former was forgotten until the latter intruded as a stark reminder of its history and geography. Around the name “Katrina” a whole series of events and images congregate, including those of photographer Robert Polidori in his monumental book, After the Flood. Katrina, and the exacerbating factors of global warming and drained wetlands, and their impacts, especially on the city of New Orleans (both its infrastructure and residents), point to the cultural construction and production of the disaster. This suite of occurrences is a salutary instance of the difficulties of trying to maintain a hard and fast divide between nature and culture (Hirst and Woolley 23; Giblett, Body 16–17) and the need to think and live them together (Giblett, People and Places). A hurricane is in some sense a natural event, but in the age of global warming it is also a cultural occurrence; a flood produced by a river breaking its banks is a natural event, but a flood caused by breeched levees and drained wetlands is a cultural occurrence; people dying is a natural event, but people dying by drowning in a large and iconic American city created by drainage of wetlands is a cultural disaster of urban planning and relief logistics; and a city set in a swamp is natural and cultural, with the cultural usually antithetical to the natural. “Katrina” is a salutary instance of the cultural and natural operating together in and as “one single catastrophe” of history, as Benjamin (392) put it, and of geography I would add in the will to fill, drain, or reclaim wetlands. Rather than a series of catastrophes proceeding one after the other through history, Benjamin's (392) “Angel of History” sees one single catastrophe of history. This single catastrophe, however, occurs not only in time, in history, but also in space, in a place, in geography. The “Angel of Geography” sees one single catastrophe of geography of wetlands dredged, filled, and reclaimed, cities set in them and cities being re-reclaimed by them in storms and floods. In the case of “Katrina,” the catastrophe of history and geography is tied up with the creation, destruction, and recreation of New Orleans in its swampy location on the Mississippi delta.
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