Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina by Vincanne Adams

Kevin Fox Gotham on the negative consequences of privatised disaster services and aid work

March 21, 2013

Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith offers a nuanced, sophisticated and long-term account of the misery faced by New Orleans residents in the years after the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005. The book does not focus on the causes of the event per se, but on the negative consequences of the implementation of privatised disaster services and the use of large corporations to deliver aid.

As Vincanne Adams documents, poor people were unable to secure resources to rebuild, and in some cases the loss of community identity in neighbourhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward served to slow repopulation. Stressing the problems of market-centred governance, Adams emphasises how the recovery process in New Orleans is illustrative of the overarching transformation of the humanitarian work of disaster recovery into for- profit business dominated by corporations and large contractors. She brings new insights and understandings to the post-Katrina recovery process and suggests that New Orleans serves as a harbinger for other cities under the conditions of privatisation and austerity politics. Moving beyond the rapid-response books of the immediate post-Katrina years, she marshals a variety of data sources including long-term ethnographic field observations and in-depth interviews with long-term residents and community stakeholders.

Adams’ overriding theme is on the post-Katrina “disaster” that occurred in the years after the levee breaks caused by the collapse of the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee system. The notion of disaster-is-in-the-response frames questions such as: Why did immediate assistance lag in the early months after the hurricane? Why has long-term rebuilding been so inefficient, wasteful and sluggish even after so many years? And what explains the unevenness of the rebuilding process?

For Adams, the answer to these questions lies in the long-term shift towards inserting market-centred priorities and logic into the formulation and implementation of public policies. Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith interrogates how the market-centred policies - including contracting-out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) and other federal government outsourcing programmes - that were supposed to assist families to recover, instead actually enabled, encouraged and benefited corporate profit-making. Examples include the exploitative and victimising actions of the Small Business Administration, Fema assistance programmes and the Road Home programme that were designed to compensate homeowners for the costs of rebuilding their flooded homes.

Much of the book applies and extends Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism thesis, but with new information and material including insights into how ostensibly non-profit organisations can operate as engines of exploitation in their single-minded pursuit of market opportunity. The subordination of public interest to private profit is a theme that radiates through the chapters, although to be honest it is not entirely new and is somewhat unsatisfying. Other books, including Klein’s, have pointed to the problems, limitations and negative consequences of market-driven governance and the privatisation of emergency management policy in the US. Although the term neoliberalism is raised here, it is never defined or elaborated. Most people view it as a synonym of privatisation, although there is considerable debate about its meaning. How neoliberal arrangements articulate and interconnect with state and local government cultures and policy orientations is given short shrift in this book.

Nevertheless, Adams’ rich description, plethora of personal interviews and close-knit observations provide insight into the impact of Hurricane Katrina in bringing to the forefront of debate the basic social, environmental and economic vulnerabilities that characterise US society.

Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina

By Vincanne Adams
Duke University Press, 248pp, £60.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780822354345 and 54499
Published 25 March 2013

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