It has been several years since Hurricane Katrina crashed into the Gulf Coast and precipitated the flooding of New Orleans. It was a towering catastrophe by any standard. Some 1,800 persons were killed outright. More than a million were forced to relocate, many for the remainder of their lives. A city of 500,000 was nearly emptied of life.
If measured by the number of lives it claimed, however, Katrina does not qualify as the worst disaster in our history. But it was far and away the most destructive disaster in our national experience when one considers the amount of damage it did not only to the physical and social landscapes of the Gulf region but also to the nation more generally. And it was far and away the most telling disaster in our national experience. Katrina stripped away the outer surface of our social structure and showed us what lies underneath—a grim look at race, class, and gender in these United States.
It is crucial to get this story straight so that we may learn from it and be ready for that stark inevitability, the next time. When seen through a social science lens, Katrina is almost the perfect storm in terms of informing us what the real human costs of a disaster are and helping prepare us for the blows that we know are lurking just over the horizon.
A number of studies of Katrina have appeared over the past six years. Most were brief glances at some fragment of that immense disaster rather than rich, in-depth portraits of it, and many rode the crest of Katrina’s celebrity for the time it was in the news. The Katrina Bookshelf, by contrast, is the result of a national effort to bring experts together in a collaborative program of research on the human costs of the disaster. The program itself was supported by the Ford, Gates, MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Russell Sage Foundations, and sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. This is the most comprehensive social science coverage of a disaster to be found anywhere in the literature. It is also a deeply human story being told here.