Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow

Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of TomorrowCatastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow by

My rating: ★★★★☆

A copy of this book was provided to me free via Netgalley for the purpose of review.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I had just celebrated my twelfth birthday the day before. As I've lived my entire life in Maryland, I am and was then no stranger to hurricanes. With my memory of Isabel fresh, I heard the news of Katrina's approach with some passing interest. But the storm wasn't going to reach my house, so it seemed an absolute world away; Louisiana, New Orleans, and the entire Mississippi River / Gulf of Mexico region was utterly foreign to me and so of little consequence.

Then the footage of the flooding, the destruction, the suffering. The people packed into the Superdome. The pleas for information on missing relatives, friends, and animal companions. (That last I will admit broke my heart the most, given my intense love--and in this case, pity--for "domesticated" animals.) It was a natural disaster the likes of which I'd only seen once, that being in 2004 with the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. Between those two events, I formed my concept of the term "natural disaster".

Catastrophe in the Making, however, seeks to challenge that concept in a fascinatingly insightful way. Katrina, it posits, was no “natural disaster”, fitting a strict definition of neither “natural" nor “disaster”.

As Freudenburg, Gramling, Laska, and Erikson define it, Katrina was not a natural disaster so much as it was a tragedy of unintentional human design. “Disaster”, they explain, comes from dis and astro, a combination which would be translated as “bad star”--as in, simple bad luck with an astrological spin. But the idea that Katrina was merely a storm born under a bad star, so to speak, is the exact opposite of the message Catastrophe in the Making offers. So instead the term “tragedy” is offered, and it's certainly a better fit with its Aristotelian implications of one's own hubris begetting suffering.

I must say that I love that definition, and was very much intrigued by the related message that built over the course of Catastrophe in the Making. As the book goes through the human history of New Orleans, from its period of native habitation through the Louisiana Purchase and on to the current day, it explains the growth and so-called growth of city. And as this history unfolds, even a reader entirely unfamiliar with the region—that is, a reader like myself—gets a glimpse into one of the prime manifestations of perhaps the greatest mistake the U.S.A. has made: our tendency to think ourselves somehow above or separate from the rest of nature, compounded with our ability to so thoroughly mistake needless environmental destruction for “progress”.

Catastrophe in the Making is a wonderfully insightful look at New Orleans and Katrina from an environmentalist perspective, and I recommend it to anyone interested in reading on the subject of environmentalism, Hurricane Katrina, or “green” government reform and city planning.

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