Sept. 22, 2005 • Volume 14 Number 2

Talk of the Campus: Katrina

Hurricane Katrina, and its aftermath, was one of those rare events that touched on most every aspect of the human experience -- hope, faith, despair, anger, courage and more -- while raising myriad social and political issues that will likely reverberate for months, if not years, to come. Chronicle invited members of the Boston College community to offer their assessment, whether from an academic, professional or personal standpoint, on the events in the Gulf Coast.

The first thing that comes to mind, after seeing the footage of the water everywhere, is the fact that the people who were stuck there, who could not go anywhere, were there because they could not go anywhere. They had no means to go.

Those people, for some reason, were in that position and it's not just by chance. That to me was very disturbing. It seemed that all of the people out on their roofs yelling for help were black people who had no way to get out before the hurricane hit even if they wanted to go. That really struck me.

Environmentally, I feel that I have learned a lot more in the past few weeks about some of the reasons that this has happened. This [hurricane] could have been indirectly caused by global warming because the temperatures over the past years have increased, creating a better atmosphere for storms. Storms have been bigger, more dangerous and more deadly. I think that [global warming] played a role in why the storm was a Category 5.

I have heard all the reporters saying, "We are going to rebuild. This is not going to keep us down." It seemed that was just more to keep morale up. Personally, I hope that they do rebuild the city, but realistically I don't know how good an idea that is. This has happened before and it will continue to happen.

It becomes a larger question of "Should we even rebuild anywhere?" There are large earthquakes in California, tsunamis in Indonesia. You have to be realistic about where you are building.

The reason I personally hope that they do rebuild -- and I think that they are going to - is because it's my home. It's an old city with a lot of history.

--Marie Aucoin '05, program coordinator of the University's Environmental Studies department and Urban Ecology Institute, grew up in LaPlace, La., just west of New Orleans. Her family evacuated their home in LaPlace before Hurricane Katrina hit, but returned to the property last week.

Police officers are like anyone else. We saw the pictures from New Orleans, and we couldn't help but think what the officers down there were going through, having to deal with all the destruction even as their own homes and families were being affected. By our training, when something like Katrina happens, we go to work. That's our job. We have to support the mission, like a soldier, and help keep people safe and things running as normally as possible.

But it's very difficult not to personalize the experience when you see what others have to deal with. The first thought was, "Let's send some of our cruisers down there" -- but how do you get in? So we've taken up collections, and we're sending some extra uniforms to help.

I think one thing that happens in a case like this is you try to look at lessons learned. We're sitting on a major fault line here in New England: What would happen if we have a serious earthquake? When I heard officials in New Orleans talk about how their radios' batteries failed, I thought about whether we have back-up generators; in a situation like that, your radio is your life-line.

--Boston College Police Chief Robert Morse

Hurricane Katrina is a natural disaster that has turned into a human tragedy. A lot of psychological damage has been done. The socio-economically marginalized are the most affected. When you look at the trauma of, and recovery from, a crisis, you consider its intensity and duration. What worries me in the case of Katrina is the duration. People were in the throes of a crisis situation for days. The psyche can only take so much. And when there seems to be no end in sight, the mind disassociates.

What people need for good mental health are routines and a sense of organization. But for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, these have been ripped away. Their daily life has been destroyed.

The victims have gone through a dire situation and they need a lot of support and time. They will need to talk about it when they are ready. People are resilient and they bounce back, but this will be a slow process.

--Asst. Prof. Danny Willis, Connell School of Nursing. Willis is a Mississippi native, a graduate of Louisiana State University and lived for 14 years in New Orleans, where he still has family, friends and property (all survived the hurricane).

The first point that needs to be taken into account is how dependent both Mississippi and Louisiana are on gaming revenues. In 2004, 11.4 percent of Louisiana's revenues were gaming related, and 10.38 percent in Mississippi. In a time when these two states are desperately in need of revenue, obviously, both states will not only want but need for these casinos to be rebuilt. This will have two public policy implications.

First, the casino firms will demand that they be given the option to rebuild their facilities in areas that will be much less subjected to hurricane damage. Yet casino gaming is a "sin" industry that government likes to isolate from "main-stream" communities. So, the casinos will compromise. They will trade location for the ability to build land-based facilities instead of barges but the casino firms will still be relegated to coastal locations.

The other change will be the further consolidation of the gaming industry. The unique feature of Mississippi casino gaming was that small time operators could thrive there. I doubt that they will have the resources to rebuild so that the market will be further dominated by Harrah and MGM, the two dominant players in the casino market. As their economic power increase, their political power will also increase.

--Adj. Assoc. Prof. Richard McGowan, SJ, Carroll School of Management

Reconstruction is always hard. Many people are daunted by even simple projects such as remodeling a kitchen, and the scale of rebuilding needed in New Orleans is inconceivable. Bostonians might reflect on the complexities of shaping the Greenway project, which is to knit up the surface wounds of the Big Dig and provide a new heart for Boston, and the challenge Boston College faces in creating a new master plan to put it in perspective.

If the mission is unclear, the aftermath will be an enduring mess. Will the task be to rebuild as it was, or remake it in fundamental ways? Do we focus on the past, or the future? Who is the city ultimately for?

The tally of losses is daunting: In addition to immediate human and animal tragedy, the disaster of hurricane and flood threatens erasure of cultural memory. New Orleans is unique among American cities. The rich legacy of French and Spanish tradition is reflected in the major buildings and the texture of the neighborhoods. New Orleans architecture was adapted to its environment, as seen in the cool balconies, framed with beautiful wrought-iron grills, and the above ground cemeteries, repositories of art and memory.

The French Quarter and the Garden District seem to have been spared most of the worst destruction; these would probably be rebuilt in any case. Perhaps the most vulnerable are the districts of everyday, vernacular architecture which contributed to the unique texture of the urban environment. The "shotgun houses," inexpensive wood-frame bungalow type housing, are a distinct African-American contribution to American architecture.

The architecture of the city fostered a unique community and a rich musical tradition with places for performance, listening and celebration. The blocks of cafes, bars and music halls, brought the music outdoors as well as in.

New Orleans resisted the homogenization which makes many American cities seem interchangeable. Some of it was undeniably seedy, but it was real and irreplaceable. The poet Andre Codrescu has expressed the fear that it may be rebuilt as a theme park, which would be unfortunate.

New Orleans is frequently said to be haunted, and has made voodoo and vampires into a virtual industry. Let's hope it will not become just a city for ghosts.

--Prof. Jeffery Howe, Fine Arts

Hurricane Katrina is likely to go down in history as the most extensive natural disaster ever to hit the United States.

The widespread destruction of businesses and infrastructure in the Gulf region will obviously have an important negative effect on economic activity and employment in the region for the next few months. These direct effects, in conjunction with the sharp spike in gasoline prices, will translate nationally into a slowdown in overall economic growth for the third quarter of the year, likely shaving about a percentage point off the growth rate. Likewise, the number of jobs lost in September will be substantial -- probably on the order of several hundred thousand.

Going forward, however, an enormous and unprecedented amount of rebuilding will spur job creation and boost economic activity in the region. Congress has already agreed to spend over $62 billion dollars in disaster and reconstruction aid, and the figure is likely to head well over $100 billion. If, say, $60 billion were spent by the end of this year, it alone would increase overall growth by about 2 percentage points at an annual rate, helping offset the drag on the economy.

In addition, wholesale gasoline prices have already dropped and futures markets indicate a further decline next year to prices below pre-Katrina levels. Refineries are coming back on line and pipelines are flowing again. A drop in retail gasoline prices would help support consumer purchasing power and cushion the economy.

Adding together the effects of lower gasoline prices and reconstruction spending, national economic growth will recover by the fourth quarter of the year to a rate pretty close to what was anticipated prior to Katrina. And, as the rebuilding effort continues into next year, economic growth and job creation will now be stronger than previously expected for much of 2006.

The economy had substantial momentum when the storm hit, and so the downshift in economic growth for the rest of this year will still leave it growing at a healthy clip of just over 3 percent. Barring some unforeseen event, there is almost no chance at all that economic growth falls below zero and the economy enters a recession.

But this relatively upbeat assessment of the economic fallout from Katrina should not mask the loss of life, terrible suffering, and continuing hardship for those in the Gulf region. Clearly these human costs are enormous.

--Assoc. Prof. Robert Murphy, Economics

Of all the words and commentary about Katrina, the most meaningful for me have been from the mouth of an evacuee: "They left us here to die." This one phrase in my mind represents the collective clarion call from the overwhelmingly black and brown, poor folk and undocumented workers alike, literally left to die during the Katrina Tragedy. These comments cut through the facile and politically correct rationale of bureaucratic incompetence to get to the heart of the matter that was Katrina. Poor, people of color had been left to die in New Orleans and the gulf long before Katrina and this "unnatural disaster" just brought to the surface longstanding structural and moral realities that we have long sought to ignore or at best dismiss.

In this particular case, poor black and brown folk had little political and economic power from which to hold anybody accountable, the Federal Government did not listen to long-time requests for repairs to a deteriorating levee system, while unchecked development along the coast destroyed acres of wetlands that helped protect coastal communities from storms. These images of the largely black and poor, are powerfully contrasted with the selective airlift of the white and elite in uptown New Orleans that coincided with the influx of national guard and private security forces sent in to "shoot to kill" in the protection of manicured lawns, spoiling milk, and other deteriorating trinkets of wealth and abundance.

Through Katrina we may perhaps have to contend with the costs of the American Dream mythos, as our privileges, our sense of moral superiority rest not on being a chosen nation, but on not seeing how this very status is directly tied to the realities of poverty elsewhere. A culture of callousness and cynicism surrounds our heart in the same way that images of the "black looter" blind us to our national disinheritance of the world from which the evacuees were forced to flee.

Is this the American spirit found in the legacy of Katrina?

Will we cordon off our undesirables and embarrassments within separate schools and militarized/enterprise zones? Will we allow the captains of "disaster capitalism" to feed on the tragedy of displaced residents by instigating the white re-colonization of urban spaces in the name of a never trickle-down economic plan of small business entrepreneurship and home ownership? City leaders are already planning for a less poor New Orleans, replete with proposed reductions in corporate taxation and environmental regulations.

Or will we follow the lead of the evacuees and give long-term decision-making power to the people who desire to come home and build grassroots oriented, self-sustainable, anti-racist, environmentally friendly, co-operative, living-wage based communities that work in spite of not because of what has been revealed to be the American Spirit.

The evacuees of the Gulf may save us all.

--Asst. Prof. Davarian Baldwin, History.

I think for most people, an event like Katrina provokes a layered response. First there is the sense of horror and hopelessness one feels in the face of such massive human suffering. Then there are questions -- personal but also in our communities -- asking how God is present or missing in this human tragedy.

As a parent I experience this with my own children. And then there is a great rush to want to help: my office was overwhelmed with inquiries and suggestions from our students and faculty. My 10-year-old daughter and her friend sold lemonade. Eventually the deeper questions concerning poverty and racism in our nation, and how these structural realities are (or are not) being addressed will have to be confronted.

--Volunteer Service and Learning Center Director Daniel Ponsetto

top of page