Through the Lens of Katrina: A Historical Geography of the Social Patterns of Flood Exposure in New Orleans, 1970-2005
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Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, its reverberations remain evident in New Orleans and throughout the academic literature. Although scholars have written extensively on apparent social inequities present in the city before, during, and after the storm, an empirical consensus on the racial and socioeconomic distributions of the population relative to Katrina-induced flooding remains elusive. In response to this lacuna, I employ the U.S. Census, digital inundation data, and a GIS to analyze New Orleans' racial and socioeconomic geographies as they related to patterns of flood inundation in the city during the storm. Katrina’s inundation, however, represents only a brief episode within the greater history of New Orleans. While a temporally isolated analysis of a distinctive hazard event such as Katrina can be informative in and of itself, it does little to illuminate the evolution of the social landscape before or after the storm. Therefore, after conducting the initial analysis, I then replicate the methodology across the three decennial census periods prior to 2000 (1970, 1980, and 1990). While the initial assessment discerns the statistical relationship among race, socioeconomics, and Katrina’s inundation, the subsequent temporal analysis illuminates the historical patterns of social change that led to the landscape of exposure wrought by the storm in 2005. In essence, this research asks, "If Hurricane Katrina struck in 1970, 1980, or 1990, how, if at all, would the socioeconomic or racial geographies of flood exposure evident during each period differ from the patterns evident during the actual event in 2005?" I use Katrina’s inundation, then, as a lens through which we can view 35 years of urban social changes in New Orleans. I contend that it is not enough to understand merely whom the storm affected. Rather, scholars, managers, and policymakers at every level benefit by recognizing the evolution (or devolution) of social landscapes into those ripe for human disaster.