Journalist Jed Horne
Journalist Jed Horne

On Tuesday, October 20, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Jed Horne took the stage to discuss lessons learned and unlearned ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana.

Part of the Surviving Disasters: Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities series from UW College of the Environment, UW Alumni Association, and UW Graduate School, Horne focused on life in a post-apocalyptic environment. His talk delved into everything from public and political discourse and land use issues to coastal ecology and inaccurate media portrayals of the ravaged city.

By highlighting both positive and negative shifts in the wake of Katrina, Horne’s hope is that other cities can benefit from the lessons learned by New Orleans—especially as climate change forces us to deal with large-scale natural hazards more frequently.

Four days after Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast.
Four days after Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

Key takeaways

  • Tragedy can present opportunity.
  • To seize opportunities latent in catastrophe, cities and regions should take planning seriously.
  • New Orleans has a lot to show for itself today, including $14 billion in levee improvements and defenses, 80,000 homes rebuilt, an overhauled school system and housing projects, and a culture that attracts artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs.
  • But murder and violent crime are a major problem, and childhood poverty and income inequality are worse than before Katrina.
  • What has worked well and what hasn’t worked at all for post-Katrina New Orleans should be used as a learning opportunity for other cities in advance of disaster.

Quotes that resonate

  • “Hurricane Katrina was not fundamentally a natural disaster. It was an engineering failure. The worst in U.S. history, by most accounts. Our first $1 billion disaster. The collapse of our levee system, which was the engineering failure at the heart of the Katrina fiasco, ranks as the second worst engineering failure in human history behind Chernobyl.”
  • “Myths and fabrications are as poisonous to recovery as any of the toxins that spill across a landscape that has been flooded or shaken to bits.”
  • “Disaster can also bring out what you might call “our better selves”. Sheer survival puts a premium on cooperation. Even love, as in love thy neighbor as thyself. Tribal hostilities fade. And it’s not just for an hour or two of high fives and back-slapping with strangers like you get after the Huskies win a big one, or the Seahawks, or the Saints.”
  • “A significant number of us got over ourselves long enough to start putting the city back together. And this may come as a surprise to some of you, because God knows there were pundits and reporters aplenty selling a different story—that Katrina had laid bare simmering cauldrons of class and race hatred and so forth.”
  • “Preplanning is also a matter of working out post-disaster recovery systems well before disasters strike and chaos starts to sew the seeds of distrust and paranoia that made consensus and decision making initially very difficult for us in New Orleans.”

Related reading

Upcoming Surviving Disaster lectures

10/27: Kate Starbird (RSVP) | 11/3: Jake Wood (RSVP) | 11/10: John Vidale (SOLD OUT)