Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

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A History of Disaster and Recovery on the Gulf Coast

Andy Horowitz (History) is writing a dissertation that analyzes the political, economic, environmental, and cultural history of the lower hundred miles of the Mississippi River during the period 1915 to 2011.

This is a region beset by disaster, where life is shaped by hurricanes and floods and the seemingly endless efforts to recover from them. He most closely examines New Orleans, but his conclusions go far beyond the boundaries of that city.

“People have used this small piece of the world as a way of gauging the competing desires for independence and connection,” he explains. Looking at the city and the region in which it sits, he sees “the fate of local cultures, histories, and economies in the face of the powerful pressures of national cultures, government interventions, and environmental destruction.”

By experience and inclination, Andy is an oral historian, interviewing people about their lives and placing those stories in the larger context of history. A native New Havener, Andy graduated from Yale College in 2003 and started the New Haven Oral History Project at Yale with Professor Glenda Gilmore. Over the next four years he trained Yale undergraduates to record nearly 200 interviews about the history of the city “on topics ranging from urban renewal and the Black Panthers to Pepe’s Pizza and Louis Lunch.” The recordings are preserved in Sterling Memorial Library.

Now Andy applies to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana the skills and insights he developed studying New Haven. In his dissertation, advised by Gilmore, he examines how in the same communities the process of recovery has changed over time.

“When Hurricane Audrey devastated Cameron Parish in 1957, the community rebuilt in nine months, but when Hurricane Rita struck Cameron in 2005, the community struggled for years to rebuild. The same is true of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, which returned after the terrible floods of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, but not after Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” he says. “That shows that though storms may be inevitable, what happens because of them is not.”

Mississippi River 1

The disasters that the region has suffered are “political, not meteorological,” he argues, “which is why similar weather events have had dramatically different human effects. Though we call events like storms, floods, and erosion ‘natural’ disasters, most often their effects and even their causes derive from acts of man, not acts of god.”

Andy further contends that “shifting ideas about what government can and should do for citizens changed the way people responded to local events like disasters. The disasters themselves also changed the way people used government and citizenship.”

Mississippi River 1

Andy explains that during the Cold War of the 1950s, hurricanes “seemed like test cases for national nuclear preparedness.” In the era of Civil Rights struggle, white Southern politicians insisted on states’ rights and local autonomy until two massive storms in the 1960s forced them to reconsider their need for federal assistance. “Recovery looked different to citizens during the Great Society era – when rebuilding fit with urban renewal policies – than it did in the midst of Clinton- and Bush-era deregulation – when state-sponsored rebuilding seemed to some to obscure the proper functioning of the free market,” he explains. In the early years of the twenty-first century, recovery from hurricanes Rita and Katrina and the BP oil spill were shaped by deregulation and conservative political ideology.

“The BP spill demonstrates how extractive industry has been a blessing and a curse for Louisiana,” he observes. “South Louisiana has attracted the greatest concentration of petrochemical facilities in the Western Hemisphere, and the jobs that go with them. But the industry has damaged Louisiana’s coast in ways that have cost the state some 2000 miles of land to erosion, which puts New Orleans and the rest of the region at much greater risk of floods.”

Mississippi River 3 and 4

In response, local residents “have developed a broad range of preservation strategies as a way of holding their ground in the face of overwhelming losses,” he reasons. “Perhaps more than anyplace else in America, South Louisiana has worked in public to maintain a sense of place, to celebrate local vernacular traditions, to trumpet local distinctiveness.” He argues that cultural preservation has “more to do with concerns about the present than concerns about the past. Claiming that your history or culture is under threat but worth preserving is a way of resisting unwanted change.” As the region lost political and economic power, local culture became “a place to hold ground.”

Mississippi River 5

Above: Andy Horowitz

Below: Placard reads,
"FEMA Help Desk
Call 1-800-Ha!Ha!"