The Archaeology of Vulnerability: Hurricane Katrina and archaeology in the midst of disaster

As Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast in late August of 2005, 1.2 million people across the Southeastern United States received evacuation orders. Most fled the storm, but many stayed behind; close to 2000 people lost their lives as a result, the vast majority of those fatalities occurring in New Orleans.  Katrina is recognized as the largest disaster ever to occur in the United States, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damages and disrupting wide swathes of the Southeast; many communities have still not recovered to their pre-Katrina conditions. One of the reasons I chose to center my thesis on archaeology and disaster recovery after hurricanes is the immensity of Katrina’s impact; the effects of the eight-day storm have been widespread and slow to resolve. The hurricane alone is not responsible for the damage and destruction, however. Without people a hurricane is just a windy storm that lashes the coastline; once people are placed in the path of danger, and given those people’s position in relation to any number of societal statuses – their race, education, and income, for example – the hurricane becomes the precipitating factor in a disaster which, particularly in New Orleans, had been primed by hundreds of years of institutional and societal neglect. These things that make it difficult for a person to prepare for, survive, or recover from a disaster are called “vulnerabilities” by the disaster management community and are increasingly being considered when drafting emergency management plans for communities, cities, and states. Vulnerabilities are often structural (in the Levi-Strauss/Bordieu/Latour sense) and are the result of a long history of oppression and injustice. For some residents of New Orleans, the historically entrenched vulnerabilities of being poor and black in New Orleans led to impacts which disproportionately impacted poor, black communities. Vulnerabilities stemming from race and poverty are complicated by a history of shifting sovereignty between France, Spain and the United States, combined with the city’s position as a once-flourishing trade hub dominated by the market for enslaved African and Caribbean people, and a slow descent into ruinous modernity as 20th century trade shifted economic power to other parts of the country

New Orleans residents lining up to shelter inside the Superdome. FEMA Photo by Marty Bahamonde - Aug 27, 2005 - Location: New Orleans, LA

New Orleans residents lining up to shelter inside the Superdome. FEMA Photo by Marty Bahamonde – Aug 27, 2005 – Location: New Orleans, LA

Institutional neglect, present from the earliest founding of the city in 1718, placed black residents at a higher risk of flood and storm damage by locating slave quarters and neighborhoods of freedmen and gens de couleur (“free people of color”, typically of mixed French, Spanish, Native and African or Caribbean ancestry who were not enslaved) in the swampy, lower elevations, failing to build or maintain levees to protect those lower elevation areas, and rampant racism and abuse in the city government and police department. These and many other vulnerabilities meant that when Katrina made landfall and cut a path of destruction and carnage through the Southeast, many black residents were not able to follow the mandatory evacuation order, had nowhere to evacuate to, or chose to stay behind to protect their homes or help family or friends to make it through the storm. The resources at their disposal, already strapped before Katrina, became even more scarce as funds, building materials, and even food and water were in short supply for weeks after the event. Some neighborhoods, like the now emblematic Lower 9th Ward, were obliterated by surging waters from the broken levees and have still, more than ten years later, not recovered.

An aerial photograph from one of the first New Orleans fly overs showing the flooding as a result of the breeched levees. Marty Bahamonde/FEMA Photo by Marty Bahamonde - Aug 28, 2005 - Location: New Orleans, LA

An aerial photograph from one of the first New Orleans fly overs showing the flooding as a result of the breeched levees. Marty Bahamonde/FEMA Photo by Marty Bahamonde – Aug 28, 2005 – Location: New Orleans, LA

In many ways, the archaeology of New Orleans is the archaeology of vulnerability. Everything from the siting of richer, whiter neighborhoods on high ground, to the razing of “colored” neighborhoods that were deemed too seedy for affluent tourists, to the historical trade in exoticized flesh, the birth of jazz in the red light district of Storyville and embellishment of hip hop in housing projects has left a mark on the city’s identity as an exuberant, vibrant place where people are by turns maudlin and joyful, but above all resilient in the face of overwhelming tribulation. Archaeologists have a role in identifying the historic vulnerabilities of at-risk communities; we also have a role in helping those communities to recover from disaster. In the days and weeks after Katrina, as the New Orleans struggled to repair infrastructure and clean up the detritus of wind and flood damage, teams of engineers, archaeologists, and other recovery personnel conducted building surveys to identify houses and structures which were so damaged as to require demolition, which could be reoccupied immediately, and every kind of condition in between. The building surveys also identified houses which held the bodies of people who had died during the storm or in the catastrophic heat wave and flood afterwards. Every building in New Orleans was checked and sigils were spray-painted on the front indicating the presence of the dead, the safety of the building, when it was checked and which crew checked it. These “x-codes” or “Katrina crosses” have become a sign of devastation, grief, and survival in the years since the hurricane blew through; many still display x-codes to this day.

A boat deposited by flooding in the front yard of a 9th Ward home bears an x-code after inspection by a search and rescue team.Patricia Brach/FEMA Photo by Patricia Brach - Sep 17, 2005 - Location: New Orleans, LA

A boat deposited by flooding in the front yard of a 9th Ward home bears an x-code after inspection by a search and rescue team.Patricia Brach/FEMA Photo by Patricia Brach – Sep 17, 2005 – Location: New Orleans, LA

If too badly damaged, the buildings received an expedited archaeological review to satisfy the legal requirements of Section 106 and often razed. At the time, Section 106 review and consultation were still largely paper-based; FEMA archaeologists processed thousands of archaeological reviews in a short period by developing and implementing new protocols for digital data gathering by survey crews using GPS and GIS technologies to locate and identify historic properties, and an electronic data management system to facilitate consultation with other agencies.

I find it hard to imagine any other context in which archaeologists so directly, so intensely effect the curation of community memory and identity, both by working to salvage the physical aspects of past heritage and simultaneously creating the symbols which become a part of the shared narrative of the present. The work of disaster response archaeologists in the field is grueling and sometimes dangerous as they are exposed to hazardous materials, inhospitable conditions, and in some cases, the anger of survivor communities who have been neglected and mistreated by the institutions which should have protected them. FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina was in many ways deeply flawed and a disaster in its own right; however, archaeologists within the agency can and do work that highlights the historic vulnerabilities of at-risk communities and advocate for them in surprising ways, be it developing new solutions to improve the review process or by physically putting their bodies on the line.

2 Comments

  • Paula H says:

    What an interesting topic! In your experience what are some of the ways FEMA archaeologists have, as you say, highlighted historic vulnerabilities and advocated for at-risk communities? Do you see some of this as a reaction to issues with the response to Hurricane Katrina?

    • amccomb says:

      During my internship with FEMA over the summer, some of the folks in Environmental & Historic Protection definitely talked about Katrina as the impetus for a shift in thinking to a “survivor first” philosophy – meaning that the people that survive the disaster are the first priority and that all members of the community impacted should be involved in emergency management plans and response/recovery operations. It’s kind of the emergency management version of bringing community stakeholders to the table during consultation. This centers the the needs of the people, which often extend to intangible things like psychological care and restoring social and community connections and includes individual and local organizations that are more knowledgeable about particular needs in the response/recovery effort.

      While working with the Sandy Recovery Team to evaluate public housing properties in NYC for National Register eligibility, the team worked to balance the “needs of the archaeology” (through the management of adverse effects) against “the needs of the survivors” – in that case, the residents of public housing developments which were damaged during Hurricane Sandy. The archaeologists and historic preservationists there conducted their work in a way that showed a real consideration for the residents and an understanding that protecting the historic properties was just one piece in the overall effort to get the survivors back to normal life.

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