In this September 2005 photo, two cars sit on top of a home surrounded by floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. (Photo: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
When Hurricane Irene soaked, flooded and blew over parts of America’s East Coat this weekend, a lot of people couldn’t help but draw comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, whose six-year anniversary was also this weekend. Like Irene, Katrina reached Category 5 strength, the strongest category, and then weakened before it hit land. Like Katrina, Irene was huge, measuring 600 miles wide to Katrina’s 400. Unlike Katrina, however, the devastation wrought by Irene was bad, but nowhere near as deadly as the now infamous Southern storm. While Katrina killed hundreds, Irene’s death toll is currently at 31.
Considering their similarities, it’s easy to be a bit disturbed by the fact that Irene killed so few while Katrina killed so many. What’s the disparity there? Is it a racial bias, what with Katrina killing a lot of Blacks while Irene smashed into places like New York City and D.C., where a lot of wealthy white people live? They’re good questions to ask, but their answers are more complex.
Firstly, one can’t overstate how much more prepared for Irene people were than Katrina. Officials in many East Coast cities, like Michael Bloomberg in New York, started taking precautions against Irene very early, evacuating flood zones days before the storm hit. By contrast, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin waited almost until the last minute to order evacuations; by the time he got around to it, Katrina was just 18 hours away. Beyond that, Katrina was a more powerful storm than Irene, so New Yorkers were far better prepared for far less trouble.
After that comes the problem of New Orleans’ levees. Much of the carnage of Katrina happened not directly because of the storm itself, but because the levees protecting the city collapsed. When the levees broke and flooded major swaths of New Orleans, far more people died than would have had the storm just come and gone, the way it did in New York and elsewhere.
None of this is to say, of course, that there wasn’t any element of bigotry in the response to Hurricane Katrina. The fact of the matter is that if Ray Nagin, who is Black, were in charge of a city of wealthy white people, he might very well have been compelled to do more to combat Katrina. That said, most of the damage and deaths caused by Katrina weren’t feats of outright racism, but products of wild incompetence from the federal level down. It wasn’t, as Kanye said, that George W. Bush hated Black people. It was that nobody cared enough about poor people.