As we approach the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s assault on New Orleans, it is almost impossible not to draw connections between Katrina and the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as the storm exposed long-standing patterns of institutional neglect and structural racism that had typically been overlooked by the white American mainstream, so too have the uprisings across the country against police brutality drawn renewed attention to institutionalized racism in America this year. As Jamelle Bouie put it, “Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
But what does such memory look like? What tools are available online besides simply Googling old news articles? What history do we have at our fingertips, beyond returning to the heavily criticized mainstream media coverage, which at the time was limited at best and, at worst, trafficked in harmful racial stereotypes? For instance, in one heavily publicized example, photos of African American storm survivors were captioned as showing “looting,” when nearly identical images of white survivors were captioned as simply “finding food.” This, too, is part of the memory of Katrina, but it is a part in which survivors were not allowed to speak for themselves.
One alternative resource at our disposal is the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, a site devoted to “collecting and preserving the stories of Katrina” and Hurricane Rita as well. Created in 2005 by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the University of New Orleans, it is a digital archive where members of the public have uploaded their stories and images of the storm. I have critiqued these sort of digital archives in the past for privileging a kind of cathartic, inner-directed self-help, but in the present moment this one seems particularly valuable.
A decade on from the devastating collapse of the levees, the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank provides vivid examples of the storm’s impact on particular individuals. Of course, some would argue that returning to these stories is simply gawking: disaster porn, ten years removed. But the fact that the authors of these memories went online in order to preserve and share them, to me, suggests otherwise. Refusing to engage with others’ traumas, when they have shown the bravery to write them publicly, risks transmuting one’s own sensitivities into callousness. Such a gesture is also a cruel reenactment of the American public’s initial loss of interest in Katrina, when news readers, politicians, and pundits began complaining of “Katrina fatigue” just a few months after the storm hit. In this context, the need for remembrance is clear.
Here, then, are a few of examples of the memories collected on the site. We begin with an excerpt from one of the most heart-wrenching entries in the memory bank:
As the sun was going down on August 29, 2005, my 95-year-old, invalid mother died in my arms as we tried to escape the rising flood waters coming into our house by climbing the fold-down stairs into the attic of our house. The next morning, August 30, at about 9:30 AM, I had to leave her body behind in the bathroom of the house so I could swim to a neighbor’s house to let him and his wife know that I was okay. Men in a flatboat who came to rescue me and other neighbors would not let me return to my house to rescue my two dogs… Without going into exhaustive detail, I will simply say that my past life died that day with Mother and my dogs. I now wish to devote my life to living my life to be a blessing to others.
A younger storm victim shared the pain of leaving her parents behind during the evacuation:
Monday the storm hit and my family and I were glued to the television in the church mission we were staying in. When the news anchor said that all of New Orleans was underwater I started to cry because my parents were still there and I couldn’t get through to them on the house or cellphones. One of my uncles hugged me and told me that my father was a survivor and not to worry… I spent the next few days trying to get in touch with my parents and watching the horror unfolding on the news and wondering where my older siblings were and if they were safe. One of my older sisters lived in the East and the other in the lower 9. Finally I talked to my parents and I started to cry and thank God for protecting them.
And users like this one merely commented on what it was like to view the storm from a distance:
I was watching the news on how a destructive hurricane was headed towards New Orleans and thinking how are the people with who are barely getting by going to get out to safety? And are there enough buses to carry everyone out? When the storm hit and cleared I thought there would be some type immediate help just like the tsunami disaster, but when I saw the total disrespect towards people of color, it kind of reminded me that as far as we have made progress we have digressed just as much… Then I thought maybe this rebuilding process is where Bush would empathize and start rebuilding the city of New Orleans, but what happened? The city of who used to people mostly black is now just like every other city in America it is now mostly white… This really showed me how worthless our lives [are] to America.
Those who directly experienced Katrina could surely never forget even if they wanted to. But for those of us who watched from a distance, in relative safety, the question of what it means to remember the storm is a slightly more ambiguous matter. If remembrance simply means “to learn from” Katrina, then those lessons ought to clearly translate into direct support for the Black Lives Matter movement and other movements that struggle against the forces of structural and institutional racism.
But perhaps remembering means something more than learning. Empathy, compassion, and care are, after all, also important takeaways from remembrance projects. So perhaps it means spending time with the memories that Katrina’s victims have shared with us. Making use of the tools that digital culture provides to try to understand the suffering of others. Sitting with those memories, in sympathy and in discomfort. Not because we can ever fully understand what it is like to survive such a trauma. And not because I, as a white person, will ever completely understand the physical and psychic burdens imposed by racism. But because knowing the inscrutability of others’ pain, the ever present distance between others and ourselves, is precisely what impels us to try to understand. It is, in a way, the least we can do for those who have suffered—to take their pain seriously.
The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has already begun to generate a significant amount of news coverage. No doubt there is more to come. But such commemoration in the mainstream media is likely to peak with this milestone, and decline precipitously thereafter. Indeed, the temptation to forget Katrina is great for an American mainstream that is deeply uncomfortable with the deeply rooted racism that the storm laid bare.
This is all the more reason to return to the few online spaces that have preserved these memories exactly as they were recorded by those who lived them. To browse through these remembrances—some painful, many mundane—is to receive a fleeting glimpse of the full social and psychological impact of the storm, and simultaneously, to grasp the inadequacy of our attempts to fully recall it.
In the end, memory can only do so much, and social movements are necessarily rooted in the present. But the injustices of the past, the trauma of survivors, and the losses of the victims are reason enough to remember.
Timothy Recuber is a sociologist who studies how American media and culture respond to crisis and distress. His work has been published in journals such as New Media and Society, The American Behavioral Scientist, Space and Culture, Contexts, and Research Ethics.