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“Unnatural Disasters” Course Hits Home

Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans is the topic of a new class being offered this semester taught by a team of experts straight out of Mission: Impossible.

Authorities in religion, politics, land and literature organized to achieve the impossible this semester by introducing 75 students to “Unnatural Disasters: Responses to Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath.”

“It is a challenge to find something to say about a disaster that staggers the imagination,” said Tim Caron, a member of the English Department since 1998 who helped organize the class. “But it was the personal relevance that challenged me the most. What difference could be made by another discussion of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner? I decided I would talk about the response of Southern writers to New Orleans. I would give a window to students who had never known the city through its history, culture and literature.”

Also on board are Patricia-Anne Johnson, who joined the university in 2001 and occupies a joint position between Women’s Studies and Religious Studies. She explores the response of the humanities to such a disaster from the perspective of race, class, and gender. Liberal Studies Chair Dan O’Connor, who joined the university in 1996, discusses the political impact of the storm while Geography Chair Chrys Rodrigue roots her research in how the land helped to shape the disaster that rendered more than 100,000 residents homeless and took 1,400 lives.

“Hazards represent a field that can’t be claimed by any one discipline,” said Rodrigue, who joined the university in 1999. “There are problems that fall between the cracks in this country and hazards are some of them. A natural disaster like this one is framed different ways by different people. We want to study the ramifications of the city’s devastation from the perspectives of political science, ethnic and gender studies, English, and physical geography.”

Watching the Katrina disaster was a nightmare for Caron, who grew up in Louisiana and still has family there. “New Orleans has fostered and nurtured so many of the South’s great writers,” he said, “but I also want to communicate New Orleans’ sense of place. Certain geographical places have a sensibility to them. What troubles me is that, while physical places can be re-built, what will happen to the unique spirit of New Orleans?”

Rodrigue is impressed by the student response. “It is especially amazing that we have an enrollment of 75 considering how little time we had to organize and publicize the class,” she said. “Two of our students were actually displaced by Hurricane Katrina and it is wonderful to have their perspective. We’re all trying to understand this disaster. It is a learning experience for faculty and students.”

The threats to the city have not ebbed with the storm. The future carries with it the threat of what some critics call the potential “Disneyfication” of New Orleans. “This year’s Mardi Gras was corporate-sponsored for the first time in the city’s history,” Caron said. “There will be the first corporate-sponsored Jazz Fest, too. I don’t know whether to cry or get mad.”

Rodrigue explores the storm’s physical dimensions. “Hurricanes feed on warm water. If a hurricane forms in the southwest Atlantic and crosses Florida, it gets re-charged in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said. “When the category one hurricane crossed Florida, it found an unusually warm Gulf in 2005. It picked up plenty of horsepower and headed right at New Orleans. The levees were designed to take a category three hurricane. Katrina became a category five in the Gulf and was a category four when it hit. It has long been a source of discussion among geographers, geologists, planners, and engineers about what would happen to the levees in New Orleans in a category five. They just got their first clue.”

If there is any silver lining to this dark cloud, it is the cultural diaspora of New Orleans. While its survivors spread out across the South and the entire nation, they take with them the culture of New Orleans. “At the very least, it may signify a new rise in good eating down South,” said Caron. “What made New Orleans strong before the flood was its sense of community. That strength has been dissipated across the nation. But I look for improvement, too, in the nation’s art and music. Perhaps the leisurely pace of New Orleans will find a new home.”

Rodrigue hopes the students take from “Unnatural Disasters” a complex and nuanced understanding of Hurricane Katrina. “They’ll never forget this course,” she said. “The Katrina disaster ranks up there with 9/11 and the Challenger disaster. Everyone will know where they were when they heard about New Orleans. I hope that what they learn in this course directs some students to organize their academic majors to follow hazards.”