Racism and environmental disaster collide in ‘Floodlines’
As Hurricane Laura makes landfall in the US, we turn to a story about another storm. The podcast series ‘Floodlines’ revisits Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath.
This week, we dig a little deeper into a single series. Floodlines from The Atlantic tells a timely story of how the failures of leadership and misinformation turned a manageable “Category 3” storm into an unnecessarily brutal tragedy. A lot has already been shared and said about Hurricane Katrina… And yet, there’s so much more to learn from this retelling.
The first thing you hear is the sound of the storm. The howling winds and the rising waters accompanied by a haunting musical note. The intensity builds until it feels like you’re right in the eye of the storm and the world is being ripped apart all around you. The rich soundscape sets a foreboding tone for what’s to come.
Using a combination of storm ambience with sultry New Orleans jazz to communicate a visceral sense of impending disaster tinged with nostalgia for what’s been lost. All of that communicated without a single human voice.
The words, when they do come, tell the story of Richard, an enslaved man who lived through another Louisiana hurricane in 1856. He was left to fend for himself in an old barn as the storm raged outside. The newspapers focused on the plight of the white wealthy plantation aristocracy on the island for their summer holidays. Each generation has its storm, the story begins: “Each with their stories and their myths, Each with their Richards.”
The storm of the current generation landed in New Orleans in 2005. The disaster, the series argues, was less about the Category 3 Hurricane Katrina and more about what happened afterwards.
Exquisite writing and smooth narration from The Atlantic’s Vann R. Newkirk II paint a vivid picture of how New Orleanians were failed over and over again by those in positions of power. In successive episodes, archival news clips detail a cascade of crises that are compounded by an eerily familiar element of our media landscape today: misinformation. Relying on rumours and unsubstantiated reports, the media created an echo chamber based on a racist narrative of violence and looting in the city. This meant that maintaining the appearance of law and order became a priority while displaced residents struggled to access adequate food, water and shelter.
This context provides a backdrop to the real heart of the story: the first-person accounts from those who lived through Katrina. These accounts crisscross the big picture, shrinking the distance between the listener and the story and making the narrative intimate and personal.
The character we spend the most time with is Le-Ann Williams who was 14 years old when Katrina hit. Over the course of a few short days, she goes from a promising student at her new high school to a refugee in her own country. Rather than being frozen in time, Williams and the other characters all have arcs. They change through the course of the eight episodes as they experience each new phase of the storm and its aftermath, allowing us to travel and shift our perspective alongside theirs.
From playing on the street, to wading through the water past dead bodies, to seeing the stars and eating a strawberry shortcake ice cream on a hot day, Williams and her journey come alive in the vivid scenic details of the highs and lows. It’s here that Floodlines shines brightest, adding complexity and perspective to a story that you thought you knew while giving a masterclass in the technique of “show, don’t tell”.
In parallel to Williams’ storyline is an unflinching look at those responsible for the chaos. Chief among these is Michael Brown, the then director of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The final episode consists largely of a longform interview with Brown in which Newkirk does not shy away from asking the tough questions.
“Michael Brown feels like he’s a scapegoat”, says Newkirk after the interview; “When he dies, he’ll be ‘the Katrina guy,’ and maybe that’s not fair. But even being a scapegoat means that people know who you are. That you mattered.” The implication is clear: there are thousands of New Orleanians devastated by the hurricane whose names we’ll never know. And much like in 1856, those who got a raw deal were disproportionately black.
Circling back to the opening sequence that recounts the story of Richard, Newkirk reminds us of the uneven destruction left in the wake of so-called “natural” disasters.
“After Katrina, is when I really started to notice that I’m black in America,” Williams sums up. In so doing, she powerfully ties together the threads of Floodlines that continue to dominate headlines today: institutional racism, impending environmental disasters and incompetent government response to crises leaving the most vulnerable in society to fend for themselves.
And although this is a story about New Orleans, it could very well be a South African story too. DM/ ML
If you’re wondering how to listen to these audio gems, local podcast organisation, Sound Africa, has prepared a handy guide to show you how.
If you missed last week’ edition, click below to read our podcast review.
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