A storm surge of people power

March 30, 2007

Hurricane Katrina spawned a civic movement that could mark a long-term shift in the political balance of power, says Lawrence Powell

There have been so many gloomy reports coming out of America's Gulf Coast since it was hit by Hurricane Katrina that it's hard to imagine there being anything positive left to say. The recovery has been sluggish, the governmental response feckless, if not completely inept. Across the disaster zone, Fema - the Federal Emergency Management Agency - has become an all-purpose four-letter word.

But into this civic vacuum has rushed a wave of citizen activism. Ordinary people are starting to question free-market conservatism and rethink the role of government. The change has been marked in New Orleans, where a "low-intensity citizens' revolution," to quote the New York Times 's Adam Nossiter, has been hard to miss. The decision by Ray Nagin, the Mayor, to let the market determine which devastated neighbourhoods would get rebuilt has roused home and business owners, often new to civic engagement, as never before.

"I'm a child of the Seventies, honey," a small-business owner told the New Orleans Times-Picayune . "We did disco. We didn't do rallies. It's kind of neat to get into this organising thing." And thousands have done likewise with the doggedness of survivors convinced that helping neighbours is the best therapy for working through personal trauma. They have formed new civic associations or revived dormant ones. When the hobbled city's public works division fell down on the job, people improvised street signs and filled potholes. And if the craters were too big, they turned them into aquatic theme parks, replete with toy boats and fake flamingos. Whatever citywide planning document eventually gets implemented may prove less important than the social capital generated by the social mobilisation itself. In the city of New Orleans, Katrina has produced a democratic moment that is still unfolding.

The change in political attitudes is also being energised by the blitz of volunteers who have descended on the Gulf Coast. Immediately after the storm, activist organisations set up food kitchens and medical clinics. Of more lasting significance are the thousands of college volunteers who are mucking out homes and pulling plasterboard. Those numbers have been augmented by so-called voluntourism, a nascent movement that champions Peace Corps holidays. Until the 2005 storm season, Third World venues were the destination of choice for vacationing Samaritans. Now they head for the stricken Gulf Coast.

Even more significant has been the host of apolitical volunteers drawn to New Orleans by faith-based organisations, professional gatherings or the simple call of conscience. They have come as Bible study groups, sleeping in camper vans and tents, chainsaw-toting pilgrims on missions of earthly salvation.

Katrina recovery is "the biggest domestic relief effort we've ever faced", said a spokesman for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The newly elected president of the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention pledged to get the word out to his members. Thousands of faith-based volunteers have been arriving in the Katrina zone every month to spend a week or two, but sometimes longer, gutting houses. Conventioneers have also travelled to New Orleans, not only to attend professional meetings but also to clean and restock libraries, plant trees in City Park or remediate houses rotting away from "the storm that won't end", to quote a contributor to The Washington Post .

Volunteering has its limits, though, as volunteers themselves are starting to discover. You only have to spend a back-breaking week to appreciate that altruism alone cannot restore electricity grids or fix broken water mains, let alone solve the myriad insurance and financial problems that stymie the post-Katrina recovery. You only have to strip one or two houses down before you begin asking: shouldn't the Government be playing more of a hands-on role in the recovery? These conversations are starting to catch on throughout the disaster zone and beyond.

It is useful to remember that disasters on the magnitude of Katrina can remake the political as well as the physical landscape. The devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900 launched the Progressive-era city manager movement, frequently favoured by urban reformers. The Great Flood of 19 made Herbert Hoover's reputation, spurred the passage of the most comprehensive flood control measure in the nation's history and helped launch the career of radical politician Huey P. Long, himself a force of nature. The Great Storm of 2005 is likely to rank as one of these detonating events, to reference the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr's explanation of how the cycle of American history occasionally gets nudged in a different direction.

Politics has been in a conservative phase for so long - 35 years and counting - that it is hard to imagine an abrupt shift in the national Zeitgeist happening anytime soon. But Katrina, which exiled more people than the Dust Bowl and inflicted more property damage than any disaster in US history, seems to be causing ordinary Americans to reconsider the relationship between the private sphere and the public interest. The next few years could be as tumultuous as the storm itself.

Lawrence N. Powell is professor of history at Tulane University, New Orleans. He gave the keynote address to the Through the Eye of Katrina conference held at the University of South Alabama earlier this month.

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