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Reconstructing the American South – After Katrina

Jim Downs finds that the reasons the Federal government was slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina are rooted in the South’s racial and economic history, and wonders if the catastrophe may lead at last to genuine Reconstruction.

The chaos that struck the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane season has created a stir among American historians. Some have looked back to the trail of devastation left by other major hurricanes in the twentieth century, and have even drawn parallels with natural disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Some, making comparisons with historical events that are unrelated to natural disaster or environmental destruction, have pointed to the possibility of Hurricane Katrina igniting a social movement similar to the labor strikes of the early twentieth century and the Civil Rights demonstrations of the 1960s. Yet others have argued that there is little historical precedent for what is unfolding in Mississippi, Louisiana and, more recently, Texas, and that a new mode of analysis and framework is required to situate these events.

 

While all of these perspectives offer a fresh insight into the aftermath of the hurricane, what has not been much discussed is the distinct history of New Orleans. A reminder of this history reveals how the events and discourse that followed the hurricane’s disastrous impact – the massive dislocation, the failure of the Federal government to respond promptly, and the sharp rise in poverty – are not new; a similar pattern can be traced in the aftermath of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves in the 1860s. Of course, those events unfolded over the course of years, while the hurricane destroyed and dismantled an entire region of a country within hours. But how people – both in and beyond the government – are responding to this present disaster has resonances in earlier US history.

 

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