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Reflecting on Disaster

Reflecting on Disaster

USC professors explore the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in wide-ranging teach-in.

By Pamela J. Johnson
November 2005

During a teach-in entitled, “Learning from Katrina,” seven USC professors analyzed the aftermath of the hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, killing more than 1,000 and displacing thousands more.

In passionate speeches, they analyzed Katrina-related issues from global warming to the war in Iraq, and some attributed a poor rescue effort to racial discrimination. Professor Judith Jackson Fossett of USC College organized the event, held Oct. 25 at Taper Hall.

Fred Moten, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, compared the August disaster to the region’s deadly flood nearly 80 years earlier. Acting director of the African-American studies program, Moten was among several who criticized the government’s slow response in supplying aid.

“In the 1927 flood,” Moten told a crowd of about 300 students, “black workers were prevented from leaving the Mississippi Delta, in order to do the work of rebuilding. It was essentially an extension of a slave society.”

Conversely, Moten contended, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, displaced African-Americans were barred from returning, partly because the current administration fears their potential for success. And also because “undocumented workers are being shipped in by the busloads by Halliburton,” he asserted.

J. Lawford Anderson, professor and chair of earth sciences, told the crowd that hurricanes have intensified partly as a result of global warming, a theory describing a temperature increase in the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans caused by the build-up of manmade carbon dioxide and other gases.

“We have an administration that does not believe in global warming,” he said. “I assure you, although some would contest what I say, to most of us global warming is no longer a scientific question, is it now a political one.”

Tara McPherson, professor and chair of the School of Cinema-Television’s critical studies department, cited newspaper articles in 2004 and 2005 stating that money had been moved from the federal budget for hurricane preparedness in the New Orleans area to cover the cost of the Iraq war. Specifically, $250 million needed to complete levee repairs was used to help pay for the war, she said.

“We need to be outraged,” McPherson said. “It’s easy to watch the images of New Orleans and just be sad. I don’t want to stop with sad. I want to go to mad and do something about it.”

Jackson Fossett, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, asked the audience to remember, “New Orleans is first and foremost a city built on the backs of plantation slavery.”

Jackson Fossett was appalled by the suggestion that “New Orleans as a metropolis would somehow be written off. Some politicians have likened New Orleans to Hiroshima, Pompeii or Atlantis at this point.

“That New Orleans will become a kind of living civic museum has to do with these earlier forms of, again, expropriation that comes from the system of slavery,” Jackson Fossett said.

During the question-and-answer session, George Sanchez, a professor of history, predicted that in the coming years, racial tension would increase in the New Orleans area. He said this was “not just a black and white issue.”

“You’re going to see a flooding of Latino undocumented workers into New Orleans,” he said. “Coupled with the lack of ability of poor African-American people to get back [to the city], you’re going to see an incredible demographic shift.

“There will be the question of who belongs in New Orleans, displaced people with new immigrants coming in who aren’t citizens of the United States and who do not have the legal right to be there,” Sanchez said. “Keep an eye on it because we know that the powers-that-be have learned the power of misdirection.”

USC College student Andrew Hogan, a classics major, said he was moved by the teach-in, although it didn't persuade him to change his views.

Rather, “It enlightened me about things I had previously been unaware of,” said Hogan, 19. For example, he said, he learned from Anderson details about the dangers of manmade interference with nature.

“According to him, if the silt deposits at the mouth of the Mississippi had still been present, then Katrina would have lost a great deal of its destructive force, and more than likely would have wreaked far less damage,” he said.

Hogan was particularly moved by Jackson Fossett's speech.

“We often forget in this modern day and age,” he said, “that a great deal of our history is saturated with inequality and hypocrisy.”

Another College student, Isomi Miake-Lye, 19, said the professors’ views were insightful.

“It’s voices like theirs that need to be heard above all the political and emotional manipulation to help solve this disaster and plan for the future,” Miake-Lye said.

The College’s Program in American Studies and Ethnicity, and the School of Cinema-Television’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy sponsored the event.

Multimedia students have created a blog Web site featuring the teach-in. The event in its entirety is available on the site,