Professor Rachel E. Luft joined the faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences in 2013 and teaches and writes about the intersection of race, gender, and poverty, with an emphasis on social movements. She came to Seattle from New Orleans, where she had been teaching at the University of New Orleans since the year before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. We interviewed Rachel on her experience and the lessons learned on the 10th anniversary of the disaster.
Q. You evacuated before the levees broke in New Orleans. What was it like to leave and return home?
A. I evacuated New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina in the middle of the night with a duffel bag containing a yoga mat, a summer dress, my toiletry bag and some apples. We all thought we’d be returning shortly. Forty-eight hours later, the unimaginable happened when the levees ruptured and 6 feet of water swept through my neighborhood. I returned the following month to drag every sodden, moldy thing I owned into a massive heap of personal belongings already piled high in the street by my neighbors.
As a recent transplant to Louisiana, I soon learned that what was unimaginable to me had been quite predictable — natural and social scientists had been warning about just such a catastrophic event for years.
Q. You were one among many, but how was your situation different?
A. I shared this disaster with hundreds of thousands of people. And while we were bonded by something non-locals could not understand, I was under no illusion that we had experienced the same crisis. I had what I needed to self-evacuate — good credit, a car and friends with extra rooms all across the country. I had what I needed to rebuild — good credit, savings and a stable job that paid a living wage. These were available to me by the conditions of my birth — being born white and middle class in a society deeply stratified by race and class.
Q. How did this experience influence you?
A. The same week that I returned to New Orleans from evacuation I joined the grassroots movement for a just recovery. It was the only way to cope with what had been a profoundly social and moral violation. “There’s no such thing as a natural disaster” became the rallying cry of activists and social scientists alike who explained that wind and water interact with social environments to produce social outcomes. What happened to the people of the Gulf Coast was a betrayal of the social contract, and, as the activists say, the disaster began a long time before the hurricane.
New Orleans was 67 percent Black before Katrina struck and had twice the national poverty rate. Factors that make all the difference in a so-called natural disaster — home elevation or fortification, health, good credit and others — are directly correlated to race, class and gender.
Q. What were some of the lessons learned?
A. Hurricane Katrina helped to demonstrate the nature of crisis. And I mean ‘nature’ figuratively! Through climate change we are actually raising air and water temperatures, and water levels, literally increasing the conditions for more and more serious hurricanes. Through ongoing institutional racial, economic, and gender inequality we are ensuring that some of us won’t survive what are otherwise largely preventable impacts of disaster. But the most important lesson of Katrina is that, as dramatic as a so-called natural disaster can be, many people in this country are living with ongoing, chronic crisis all the time—the crisis of economic insecurity, of healthcare, of overcriminalization, of violence. Hurricane Katrina revealed the enduring disasters linked to racism, capitalism, and sexism in the United States. While every region in this country faces different ‘natural’ hazards, each has social inequality that turns these predictable risks into catastrophic injustice.
Published January 2016