Post-Katrina landscape: New Orleans impacted by loss of sense of place, culture

Share

The impact Hurricane Katrina had on the landscape of New Orleans goes beyond the widespread physical destruction of the city. America's "first mega-disaster of the 21st century" also altered the cultural, economic and the political landscapes of New Orleans in ways that could be irreparable, according to Rowan University sociologist DeMond Miller.

The impact Hurricane Katrina had on the landscape of New Orleans goes beyond the widespread physical destruction of the city. America's "first mega-disaster of the 21st century" also altered the cultural, economic and the political landscapes of New Orleans in ways that could be irreparable, according to Rowan University sociologist DeMond Miller.

"The loss of a home, community, and security during a natural disaster such as Katrina only magnifies the loss of a sense of place," says Miller, co-author Hurricane Katrina and the Redefinition of Landscape (Lexington Books) with Jason David Rivera.

"Reestablishing a sense of place-and subsequently, place attachment-among both returning and new residents is paramount to the city's future success."

Reestablishing "place" is a monumental task, according to Miller, an environmental and community sociologist who grew up in New Orleans, and Rivera, a Rowan alumnus and a former research associate in the University's Liberal Arts and Sciences Institute for Research and Community Service.

When Katrina, a 450-mile-wide, category 4 hurricane, hit landfall near Grand Isle, La. on Aug. 29, 2005, the storm caused the destruction of lives, homes and businesses. In New Orleans, the subsequent evacuations of survivors affected the diversity and cultural richness of the city, according to Miller.

Miller and Rivera note that two-thirds of the residents of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, destroyed by the storm, were homeowners. Many had lived in the same family home for generations.

That speaks, they say, to a strong degree of place attachment felt by families. When the storm hit, families were scattered throughout the nation and many have not yet returned to New Orleans. They may never do so, leaving a true cultural void in the city, Miller and Rivera maintain.

"In the aftermath of Katrina, most of the population that contributed to the city's world-class culture remains in diaspora, with former residents in nearly every state," they write.

"The culture of New Orleans is very much at risk when the people who make and preserve it are scattered and living in a sea of uncertainty and when the places where artists and traditional bearers live, where they make and practice their art forms, are largely destroyed."

New Orleans residents share something "that is lacking in other places across the nation-recognition that ‘root culture' matters," says Miller, noting that the culture of New Orleans is "world-renowned and attractive to all social classes.

"What occurs," he asks, "when you have no one there to make a place in this space? Who's going to make the gumbo? You have to have a cultural sense of place."

Also impacting the city's culture, Miller and Rivera maintain, is the rebuilding effort that is largely fueled by tourism. Tourism was the city's top industry prior to Katrina, but in the storm's aftermath, New Orleans is faced with maintaining genuine culture, rather than creating "culture on demand."

"Because culture will be an economic stimulus and possibly the most relied-on sector in the region, business and city planners will have to avoid the occurrence of Disneyfication of the urban and social environments," the authors say.

There's no doubt, Miller and Rivera maintain, that Katrina "exposed the social issues of segregation, poverty and minority marginalization" present in the city before the storm. With the mass destruction and migration of survivors, those types of issues may never be adequately addressed, they maintain.

"The storm has virtually created a blank slate for the city, almost as if the city was wiped from the earth and another city was built on its ruins," Miller and Rivera write. "The society and culture of New Orleans may never be the same again."

New Orleans' culture has already changed significantly with the influx of immigrants who have taken low-wage jobs in the limited labor pool, according to Miller and Rivera.

"As different people bring cultural and ethnic values of the city, the cultural landscape will change to be more inclusive," the authors say.

Most important to the city's future, Miller and Rivera say, is that New Orleans leaders and residents, and others in disaster-prone areas, better understand how the physical landscape of the city impacts their lives.

"The physical landscape is the foundation for other landscape development because it presents the natural characteristics that society employs," they write. "We need to take steps to reeducate and rebuild our connection with the natural world as opposed to attempting to ‘conquer' it."

About DeMond Miller

Associate professor of sociology at Rowan, Miller is director and research scientist at the University's Liberal Arts and Science Institute for Research and Community Service. He grew up in Slidell, La., in St. Tammany Parish, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, where his family still lives. When Katrina hit, Miller found himself trying to manage his family's evacuation of New Orleans from his Rowan office in Glassboro, N.J. The home of his grandmother, Myrtis Ruth Bell Craft, whom he acknowledges in the book for her strength, resolve and faith, was heavily damaged in the storm.

Miller, who returned home five weeks after Katrina, has led three groups of Rowan faculty and students on Alternative Spring Break trips to assist in the clean-up of the Gulf Coast. He's currently leading a study that focuses on the recovery process as Katrina survivors return to the Gulf Coast. In addition to his other scholarly work, Miller has written extensively about Katrina in a host of academic journals.

About Jason David Rivera

As a research associate at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Rivera, of Pennsauken, N.J., has focused on public policy in reference to disaster mitigation and relief, social justice in the face of disasters, and other issues.

Rivera earned his undergraduate history degree from Rowan in 2006 and his master's degree in public administration from Rutgers University-Camden in 2008. His research has been published in a host of journals, including The Journal of Public Management and Social Policy and the International Journal of the Humanities, among many others. His most recent research focuses on the treatment of various American minority groups by the U.S. government during natural disasters.

Categories