Hurricane Katrina I: immune systems and green dots

Last year, Amnesty International presented its report – entitel Un-natural disaster. Human rights in the gulf coast – on the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane Katrina. Amnesty argues that ‘returning home is a human right’. Many former residents are still dispersed over a range of different states. The trauma that the storm caused to the United States is reflected in the number of films that cover it. In next week’s blog, I draw on the fictional HBO TV-series Treme (Simon & Overmyer, 2010-11), a documentary of two prankster activists The Yes Men Fix the World (Bichlbaum, Bonanno and Engfehr, 2009) and Spike Lee’s second Katrina documentary If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise (Lee, 2010). Before that, a short tale of how to understand green dots and other spaces.

Immune systems

Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “spheres” is helpful for understanding the aftermath of Katrina. Sloterdijk attempts to bring the notion of space into philosophy more explicitly. Our “private sphere”, office spaces, homes, islands and cities, all are spaces that have their own characteristics and manners of sustaining. The first part of the trilogy that he composed on the topic encompassed micro-spheres, the second macro-spheres. The former applies to “interior spaces” (bells or bubbles) in which intimate human cohabitation unfolds. The latter extends the borders of such private spheres to spaces of living together (globes) villages, cities, empires and universes. In the third part, he attempts to show how all these spaces are interconnected, in a continuously transforming whole that is as liquid, bubbly and changeable as foam. Foam city is the culmination of urban forms of space-configurations. Sloterdijk argues explains that cities are:

‘co-isolated islands, interconnected to a network, which briefly or chronically ought to form medium or large structures with neighbouring islands – a national assembly, a club, a freemasons’ lodge, a gathering of co-workers, a shareholders meeting, an audience in a concert hall, a suburban neighbourhood, an accumulation of motorists in a traffic jam, a congress of tax payers’ (Spheres III)[1].

Co-isolation is the idea that neighbouring bubbles in the foam share a “wall”: the indoor wall of my private space might be the outdoor wall of yours.

The next point that Sloterdijk makes is that all these different bubbles, globes and spaces have their own immune systems. Partly, this is to be understood metaphorically. For instance, how do we protect the invasion of our private space from intruders? At the same time, it is translated to concrete material manifestations of architecture and urban planning. Pointing at technological advances such as climate control and air conditioning, he shows how modern houses have their distinct immune systems to make the space inhabitable.

We could regard politics in post-Katrina New Orleans as a debate about spaces and their immune systems. The system was tested by the storm, and failed. 53 levees that were to keep the water out collapsed, many long before the fury of the storm was at its peak. It was the water that destroyed the city, rather than the wind. Roughly 80% of the city was under water, sometimes up to 20 feet. Close to 2000 people died. Tragically, this was also due to “over-isolation”: many people were trapped in their attics, dying of heat and lack of water.

It was also the immune system of particular neighbourhoods that did not hold up, or even that of individual houses that had not been elevated properly. Some areas on higher grounds –built before 1900 – were safe. All these spaces are interconnected. Houses, some even sharing walls, are connected to particular neighbourhoods, all of which constitute the foam of the city, which was seriously shaken up by the storm. These spaces provide us with a more systematic approach to our search of publics and their problems.

Green dots

The term “green dot” is notorious for New Orleanians by now. Planners look for ways to improve the sustainability of the urban environment. Billy Fields shows that one of the tools that is popular in green urbanism is the notion of “greenways”: open spaces that function as a ‘buffer between ‘nature’ and urban areas’ . In Sloterdijk’s terms, such an “artificial” green zone can be regarded as an example of strengthening the co-isolation of nature and human space. In principle, it seems reasonable to argue for such an approach in New Orleans: a major reason for the severity of the damage was that the wetlands that had traditionally functioned as a buffer had slowly but surely been urbanised and economised during the 20th century. Fields speak of ‘the “conquest of wetlands within the city limits”’. Also the doings of major oil companies like Shell and Exxon contributed to destroying wetlands, as John Manard Jr. and others add. The expanded island was not protected well.As Fields shows, the idea of greenways was finally accepted in New Orleans. The idea that preceded it was less successful, however.

The Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) plan was presented to the public early 2006. A local newspaper ran an article in which the initial proposals for creating green spaces were represented as green dots on a map. These spaces did not relate to buffers between nature and urban areas, but to the more general notion of green spaces in a city. The map led to instant fury, considering that the green dots covered whole neighbourhoods. Maria Nelson and others argue that ‘[m]any residents understood that all green areas were slated for green space, and the green dot became a threat to neighborhood residents’. What is more, the dots generally covered low-income, black neighbourhoods. Planners stressed that no form of discrimination was intended. Nevertheless, they add that ‘“recommendations to reduce flood risk equal ‘ethnic cleansing’”. Intentional or not, the dots became political actors.

Next week’s blog will continue the discussion of immune systems in the aftermath of Katrina, showing examples in documentaries and TV-shows.

[1] All quotations by Sloterdijk were translated from Dutch to English by the author. No English translation is available so far


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