My Talk for Dimensions of Political Ecology in Kentucky

This weekend, I’m heading down to the Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference at the University of Kentucky.  Here’s a ROUGH draft of the talk I’m giving, keeping in mind of course that the presented form will undoubtedly be leaner, meaner and (of course) shorter.

I came across this research topic very much by accident.  I began working on my PhD in geography on Monday, August 29, 2005, the day Katrina made landfall on the gulf coast.  The night before my first day of school, I stayed up through the night, watching the news coverage of Katrina striking the gulf coast, and through the next few weeks, I kept watching.  And I started to get angry, really angry, that so many people were left behind, treated as less than human, even demonized.

As upset as I was with the effects of Katrina, I tried to avoid focusing on it for a while.  It isn’t a local occurrence, and I really like to focus my research on the areas around me.  I also avoided it because it was a big deal, because I figured that everyone and their grandmother would be doing something about Katrina so anything I said would be lost in the shuffle.   I had never been to New Orleans, and I really knew nothing of the city besides Mardi Gras and the Sugar Bowl.   At the same time, though, I kept coming back to it.  I started asking a lot of the questions in my mind that Katrina prompted and applying it to other disasters, like not only why people were left behind by the government but how those people became the government’s responsibility in the first place, but I got nowhere.  I kept gravitating back, and every time I read more, the more I knew I needed to work on this to help right, at least in a small way, the injustices that occurred there.

So, what I’m going to talk about today is a very small part of a research project I’ve undertaken on Katrina’s effects in New Orleans.  It’s a little piece of a big project that I’m currently wrapping up, but it’s a piece that I think really ties into these issues of space and place we’ve just talked about, and ties this into larger issues I’ve grappled with of late — what the purpose of research should be, at least in my career.


What I’m doing today is trying to show one way that I’ve theorized the enormously complex relationships existent between the state, citizens and the environment. What I’m going to introduce to you today is the notion of discursive safe spaces, but in the context of environmental justice.


The situation of New Orleans is not a safe place.  Founded in 1718 by French noble Jean-Baptiste Bienville, New Orleans long occupied an elevated ridge on the north bank of the Mississippi. Bienville called the city a necessity, that a prominent port there was a foregone conclusion, noting its strategic location near the mouth of the Mississippi, which at that time was the major inland water route to interior of the continent.

Levees have been a part of New Orleans since day one.  Because of its situation, it has been prone to flooding throughout European settlement of the region.  As founder Bienville worked to plat the city in 1718, the city was flooded by the river’s regular seasonal flooding, submerging the fledgling town in knee-deep water.  The next year, Bienville contracted French prison labor to build the first levees, three-foot high earthworks on the banks of the River.  Keeping in mind this history of infrastructure that continued for nearly 300 years, It’s unlikely New Orleans would have grown and prospered as much in a laissez-faire economic environment.  Its survival and growth has been dependent upon these works projects.  Think of Galveston, which was the largest city in Texas until the Hurricane of 1900 wiped the city off the map.  Much of its economic function moved inland to Houston to avoid this risk.

New Orleans is, to many, considered a unique city culturally.  Since its founding by the French, it’s been under the rule of the Spanish, the British, the French again, and the United States.  For hundreds of years, it’s also had a significant minority group in African Americans.  Such a variety of influences over time has given the city a wealth of diversity in terms of cultural features like architecture, cuisine and music.  We also know New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz.

Until the 20th century, most of New Orleans was found within the curve of the Mississippi, providing its nickname, the “Crescent City.”  The land within this curve is relatively high ground, laying anywhere between just above sea level to 12 feet above sea level.   Like many North American cities, New Orleans grew in population and sprawled outward from its compact center.  Developers drained low-lying neighboring wetlands to construct new housing far from downtown, causing soils to compress and the land to “sink”, creating the infamous “bowl effect,” in actuality referring to five major depressed areas within the city.

In addition, the newly reclaimed lands were kept dry by the implementation of drainage canals and pumping systems.  Most of these drainage canals were ultimately southward extensions of Lake Pontchartrain, into which water from the lower surrounding dry ground was pumped into these canals to drain northward into the lake.  Because these canals are connected to the lake, which is effected by storm surges, the canals were surrounded by levees and floodwalls to ensure that the water stayed in these canals instead of flooding the surrounding area, lower ground.  Sadly, these canals can often serve as pipelines to allow surge water deep into the city.

The area’s proneness to hurricanes has also been well documented.  In the 126 years before Katrina, New Orleans had been brushed by Hurricanes at least 34 times, with storm passing within 40 miles 10 times.  Hurricane Betsy, in 1965, pushed a massive storm surge into the city, severely flooding at least 165,000 homes.  A number of close calls occurred in the 1990s and 2000s for which many residents evacuated, perhaps leading to evacuation fatigue.


On the morning of August 29, 2005, Category 4 hurricane struck the Gulf Coast of the United States, making landfall near Buras-Triumph, Louisiana.  Named Katrina, the storm devastated human development in large areas of Mississippi and Louisiana.  The coastal portion of Mississippi was subjected to sustained winds of greater than 125 miles per hours, along with a brutal storm surge, a 34-foot wind driven wall of water  that simply bulldozed everything in its path.  In Louisiana, on the weaker, western side of the storm, damages were inflicted differently.  In the below-sea-level city of New Orleans, the winds reached 105 miles per hour.   The storm surge was a still deadly 12 feet, which the levees around New Orleans were supposedly designed to withstand.  They did not.  In the hours following the storm, after having seemingly dodged Katrina’s worse, the breached levees drowned the city, inundating more than 80% of the city under water up to 18 feet deep, stranding nearly 100,000 remaining citizens, 20% of the city’s population.

Despite a tremendous amount of information provided to officials, particularly in New Orleans, before the storm, a number of problems plagued governmental preparations for the storm.  Perhaps most important of these was the failure of Mayor Ray Nagin to issue an evacuation order until Sunday morning just 20 hours before the storm made landfall, despite deciding in mid-afternoon Saturday that such an evacuation was necessary.  Nagin relented, reportedly, because he worried about lawsuits coming

Fifty three levee breaks allowed flooding in at least 80% of the city, some particularly low-lying portions under 18 feet of water.  Though the levee breaches mostly occurred before or during the storm, the effects of the flooding were delayed, as the bowl-shaped topography of the city slowly filled with water.

The storm was directly responsible for over 1800 deaths, including 756 in New Orleans.  Causing $81.2 billion of damage in New Orleans, Katrina devastated the local economy, destroying infrastructure and decimating the population, which remained 40% lower than pre-storm levels in October 2007.  Certainly, the magnitude of destruction is difficult to fathom.  In New Orleans, the devastation was mostly caused by the breaching of levees.


Levee projects and drainage canals in New Orleans were mostly private undertakings until the late 1880s.  Generally, if a developer wanted to use wetlands, it was the responsibility of that developer to drain them and protect them.  This led to a patchwork system that really didn’t work, and often led to uneven infrastructure, such as neighborhoods with open sewers.

Citing economic problems associated with constant rebuilding and following several disease epidemics, the city formed two distinct bodies to deal with protecting the city.  The Orleans Parish Levee District was founded to plan and construct levees.  The City Sewerage and Water Board was formed to drain water and sewage out of the city and to keep it out.  These local boards were solely in charge of the infrastructure necessary to keep the city dry until the 1920s.

A couple of things happened in that decade.  First, governor Huey Long, a famous populist, redesigned the capital sources of these tax-funded entities from taxpayer revenue to being self-supporting.  He did so by allowing these agencies to seize “unimproved” wetlands as property, and to allow them the opportunity to acquire funding through drainage and subsequent development projects, selling the reclaimed land as residential and commercial space.  A second shift occurred in 1927, following the Great Mississippi River Flood.  Citing the inability of the local boards to adequately protect the city, the federal government, via the Army Corps of Engineers, began to take the responsibility of building and improving levees.  This deployment of the Army Corps was in addition, and in contrast, to the Army Corps previous mission in the city, which was to construct navigational canals for the shipping industry.  Many researchers argue that during this time, the Army Corps more or less successfully tamed the Mississippi River (which hasn’t flooded substantially since 1927), but left the city sorely unprotected from Lake Pontchartrain.

The management of the canals remained very much the same until 1965, when Hurricane Betsy stuck the city, killing 80 people and destroying 165,000 homes with surge flooding. Inspired to action and prodded by Louisiana’s congressional delegation, Congress passed a massive infrastructural initiative, promising an extensive system of levees designed and implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers capable of sustaining a Category Three hurricane’s storm surge.

Over the course of forty years, portions of the levee system were completed to a variety of different design standards.  Those finished early on were subjected to years of neglect and subsidence, which resulted in a weakening of their protective abilities.   Through the 1960s and 1970s, as the prominence of New Orleans as a shipping center declined, several new huge navigation canals, the Gulf Intracoastal Water Way and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, were dug, in an attempt to provide the city with a competitive shipping advantage by shortening the course ships would take to the port.  These canals had two negative effects.  For one, they provided another funnel shaped channel for surge water to enter the city.  Like a hose that you bend, as the channel gets smaller, the water pressure in such an event gets stronger.  On top of that, these canals provided a way for salt water to enter fragile freshwater marshes that acted as barriers to storm surges, killing them and leaving the city further susceptible.

Later additions to the system, particularly those following the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush, were subject to executive funding cuts, and later, reallocation of resources by the Pentagon to the war in Iraq.  Later levees were constructed using a method called “I-walls”, where vertical pilings of steel are pounded 12 feet into earthen mounds.  Then, thin concrete walls are attached to the pilings.  These walls are suitable to withstand water in stable soils.  Despite protests from engineers in charge of protests who said that the soil could not support these levees, pleading with supervisors to construct T-walls or to pound the pilings 65 feet into the ground, the Corps was unable to take these actions because of funding issues.

As of 2005, the levee system remained incomplete and undependable.  The navigation canal projects, which had much larger budgets than the levees, continued unabated.

In the tremendous visible effort to protect the city, the levees had created a discourse.  This discourse ensured investors, whether industrial, commercial or residential, that their capital investments were safe from this risk.   These visual reminders, the levees, told citizens on a daily basis that their city was safe, that the government was protecting them from harm.


One unique interdisciplinary approach to understanding the multitude of interactions between the state, humans and their environment is the environmental justice perspective.

The environmental justice perspective looks specifically at how environmental policy has differential effects on various social groups.  In this case, we’re specifically talking about socioeconomic groups that are already disadvantaged, such as those people living in poverty or members of racial or ethnic minorities. What’s important to remember here is that such policies usually aren’t designed specifically to inflict harm on these groups.

However, if we consider landfills, which are generally located in less affluent areas, these landfills are placed there because all of that trash has to go somewhere.  In order to keep the trash out of the rest of society’s way, it happens to go to where the land is most affordable, far from affluent groups who could be threatened with lowered property values.  While this placement doesn’t specifically and intentionally target the poor, it disproportionately effects their livelihood.  Now, in environmental justice, even without intent to harm, this placement is recognized as being unethical and hence unjust, and becomes the target for enacting change.

Environmental justice pairs academic research with social activism.

Now, what do we mean by activism: activism is best defined as an attempt to change society, often targeting a perceived injustice.  Proponents of the environmental justice perspective engage in research to be used as tools in seeking redress for those groups that are disproportionately effected.

Perhaps the most famous EJ work is Dumping in Dixie by Robert Bullard, who presents in shocking detail how African American settlements throughout the south face a higher level of environmental discrimination (the dumping of harmful pollutants in their area).  This work and others has been used as evidence for community leaders and organizers to seek legal action against offending polluters.



Now, why was Katrina unjust, in the case of New Orleans?  It was unjust because the negative effects of the storm endured by the city had harsher consequences on already disadvantaged groups, socioeconomically, which were highly concentrated within the city.


Of course, these two factors overlapped significantly in the Lower Ninth Ward, perhaps the hardest hit area.

And these are just a handful of illustrations.  We also know that the storm had a harder impact on other sizable minority groups such as the Vietnamese and Honduran communities, and other groups we’re less likely to think of as disadvantaged, like the elderly and disabled.

Remember, what I’m saying here is not meant to downplay the significant losses endured by the affluent and the white.  Deeply personal losses were felt by many thousands of people in those demographics, as some people in this room can attest.  What we have to remember, though, is that these already disadvantaged have a harder road to recovery, with fewer financial and social resources at their disposal.


Those who remained in New Orleans cited the ability of levees to keep floodwaters out, some noting that “the government would not have built these levees in a way that wasn’t protective.”    They also cited Nagin’s late-standing voluntary evacuation order as evidence that they could safely stay and weather the storm, as they had for Hurricane Betsy in 1965 or Camille in 1969.

Of course, these spaces of safety had dramatic consequences for people lacking resources.  Assuming they were safe, people were less likely to take action to avoid the storm.  There’s another thing at play here as well.  To the least affluent, evacuation for a perceived false threat is a tremendous financial risk.  Not surprisingly, the people left behind were predominantly economically disadvantaged. In New Orleans specifically, this category overlapped with substantial populations of racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans but also significant Hispanic and Vietnamese communities.

Digging into the discourse of safe spaces certainly provides room to critique the differential effects of Katrina upon members of disadvantaged groups.


In order to get to a point where there is a safe space, we have to look for the threat to safety.  In the case of natural disasters, that threat comes from the modern.

To get to this point, we must accept that “nature” is a concept, a social construction, contrasting to many aspects of so-called “modern” life.  Indeed, “nature” cannot be understood outside its social context.  Nature, then, is constructed discursively.  I offer three different constructions of nature which are commonly forwarded and utilized for various purposes as examples: the environmental movement’s notion of “Mother Nature” as a nurturing being, the capitalist and colonialist model of an exploitable nature which is powerless, feminine and unmodern, and finally, the hazards conceptualization which views nature as an unbridled threat, “nature’s fury,” and a risk to modern living.

This last conceptualization is key.  Not only does “nature’s fury” provide a risk to modern living, but of course it threatens those very safe spaces that the state has actively sought to carve out.  The goal of these discourses of safety, beyond simply protecting these assets, is to minimize the perceived threat, and to reassure investors of capital that a place is a reasonable risk.


How were the safe spaces produced?

  • Contraflow – plan that works to get people out of the city, but basically says that anyone who wants to get out can.
  • Levees – the city is protected because the government has build the levees, levees weren’t working
  • Late evacuation – Nagin held off evacuating because of the threat of hotel lawsuits… and what good is a city for tourism if it’s not safe?
  • FEMA’s going to come anyway, and put everything back together.
  • Even after the storm, the government adamantly defended the levees, saying that the flooding was the result of overtopping, not breaching.

Why discursive safe spaces were unjust?

First and foremost, these plans, despite promising to protect the residents of New Orleans, directly failed for 100,000 people who remained through the storm and its aftermath, many of whom were disadvantaged.  Many more suffered great financial setbacks.  The failure of these plans meant that the discourses of safety were not an improved condition of risk for these people, but simply empty discourse.

These people were fostered into a dependence on the government, and a trust of the claims of safety, which were not upheld.   Researchers knew the levees wouldn’t sustain the surge, as popular publications had reported for years before, but if 40% of the city is illiterate, how do they know?

Levee projects and other preparations, built for the interest of development and protecting development, obscured inherent danger of New Orleans to the disadvantaged people who populated it.  When these projects failed, the disadvantaged groups suffered greatly and disproportionately.  To me, this is an injustice, and one that I hope to help rectify in whatever limited way I can by reporting this research.



So, if Katrina was unjust, what can we do about it?

As with any research, this project has opened far more questions than answers.  For one, should we rebuild New Orleans?  It is an irreplaceable cultural jewel, with tremendous history.  It will rebuild regardless of whether or not it makes economic sense because of this cultural attachment.

But when New Orleans is rebuilt, what form will it take?  Many estimates guess that the rebuilt New Orleans may only be 35-40% African American instead of 67%.  Does this change compromise the culture of the city, or is this a positive development, given the amount of risk involved with living in the city and the fact that members of disadvantaged groups are often ill-equipped to deal with this risk? These are questions that no one can definitively answer.

Regardless of the form that New Orleans takes in the decades ahead, I think there are a couple of suggestions that I can make to ensure that the spaces of New Orleans are more just.  Remember, this is where the academic research, all that theorization about safe spaces, nature and discourse, is applied in a way that helps to inform activism.

How to improve the situation of those who live there and to prevent future injustice:

Improve general education.   It’s been recorded that 50% of African American ninth graders in the city fail to graduate high school.  As we mentioned earlier, 40% of New Orleans are functionally illiterate. This lack of education leads to lower economic standing and less awareness of the events at hand.  Several studies have shown strong correlations between educational attainment achieved and likelihood to evacuate for Katrina.  Education needs to be improved, not only in the formal school settings, but in expanded opportunities for older citizens.

Implement grassroots alternative evacuation plans.  This not only includes the actual evacuation itself, but keeping people informed about the coming destruction.  An organization could dedicate itself to making everyone know, in pedestrian terms, the danger faced.  People need to know that even improved levees are never 100% safe.   But how are these people going to leave if there’s no way to get them out?  The planned course of action for evacuating residents without cars was to use both city transit buses and school buses to help these people leave in preparation for a storm.  As we probably remember from those images of flooded school buses, this plan never saw fruition before Katrina.  In this case, assistance is needed for both getting the people out and finding them accommodations for their time away from the city.

Hold government accountable to either improving levees or providing assistance to those living there.  The injustices of Katrina could have easily been prevented if steps were taken to ensure accountability before the storm.  I am not a fan of big money lawsuits, but at the same time, in the system as it exists, these types of litigation are useful to sending messages and to arousing awareness.  Through the 20th century, various levels of government have assumed the responsibility of being the protector, and has convinced people to trust its actions and judgment.  Regardless of whether this particular fostered dependency is ethical, it still exists, which means that without major change, the government needs to be held to the promised standard.



Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

1 thought on “My Talk for Dimensions of Political Ecology in Kentucky”

  1. the corps is in the process of evaualting all the levees to see if they, too, could fail in the same way.There is more. As for the $6 Billion needed to rebuild the levees? Under questioning from Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, Strock also told the committee that the stunning $6 billion increase in the price of levee protection announced last week was prompted by a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to certify the levees to national flood insurance standards SNIP Six billion dollars was our preliminary estimate, Strock said. That number should come down somewhat. The general, however, could not say when he might be able to fine-tune the estimate. Timing is critical because the Bush administration is evaualting how much money to request from Congress for additional levee repairs. Without a White House request, FEMA says it can’t release flood maps that tell people whether it is safe to rebuild or not.Is it any wonder that New Orleanians do not trust the Army Corps of Engineers. Their design failed resulting in Katrina being a man made disaster not a natural one. Everyone suspected as much as independent evidence pointed to that. Additionally it is clear the FEMA maps have been held up by the Army Corps which in turn has held up reconstruction. How much of taxpayers money has been wasted as a result? How much additional hardship have New Orleanians endured waiting in hotels, tents and trailers as a result? And what damage has been done to the general reconstruction of NOLA as a result?The non-partisan non-sectarian grassroots group, has given us this statement regarding levee failures .. The US Army Corps of Engineers has admitted to a “design failure” that led to the breach of the 17th Street Canal levee that flooded much of the city on August 29, 2005. This is the tip of the iceberg, and more design flaws will surface. It is time that Congress acknowledge the Corps’ failure to protect the citizens of Louisiana, and it is high time that Congress got serious about Flood Protection and set aside the necessary funds for reconstruction. We would agree.Given the admissions by the Army Corps of engineers of fault and their own uncertainty regarding the amount necessary to rebuild the levees we are therefore suggesting the following message to send with your Beads for Bush .Please Take Responsibility and Set Aside the Necessary Funds for Levee Construction.We will be changing all previous posts to reflect that.And send a few strands of beads to your Congress Critters

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