As an urbanized river-dominated delta, New Orleans, Louisiana, ranks among the most experimental of cities, a test of whether the needs of a stable human settlement can coexist with the fluidity of a deltaic environment—and what happens when they do not.
That natural environment bestowed upon New Orleans numerous advantages, among them abundant fresh water, fertile soils, productive wetlands and, above all, expedient passage between maritime and continental realms. But with those advantages came exposure to potential hazards—an overflowing Mississippi River, a tempestuous Gulf of Mexico, sinking soils, eroding coasts, rising seas, biotic invasion, pestilence, political and racial discord, conflagration—made all the worse by the high levels of social vulnerability borne by all too many members of New Orleans’ population. More so than any other major metropolis on the North American continent, this history of disaster and response is about the future of New Orleans as much as it is about the past.
This article examines two dozen disasters of various types and scales, with origins oftentimes traceable to anthropogenic manipulation of the natural environment, and assesses the nature of New Orleans’ responses. It frames these assessments in the “risk triangle” framework offered by David Crichton and other researchers, which views urban risk as a function of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability. “Hazard” implies the disastrous event or trauma itself; “exposure” means human proximity to the hazard, usually in the form of settlement patterns, and “vulnerability” indicates individuals’ and communities’ ability to respond resiliently and adaptively—which itself is a function of education, income, age, race, language, social capital, and other factors—after having been exposed to a hazard.
Josh Greenberg and T. Joseph Scanlon
Media have always played an important role in times of emergency and disaster. Undersea cables, international news agencies, the press, radio and television, and, most recently, digital and mobile technologies—all have played myriad and complex roles in supporting emergency response and notification, and in helping constitute a shared experience that can be important to social mobilization and community formation. The geographical location of disasters and the identities of victims, the increasingly visual nature of disaster events, and the ubiquitous nature of media in our lives, all shape and influence which kinds of emergencies attract global media and public attention, and how we come to understand them.
Globalization has compressed time and space such that a whole range of disasters—from natural events (cyclones, earthquakes, and hurricanes) to industrial accidents and terrorist attacks—appear on our television and mobile screens with almost daily frequency. There is nothing inherent about these events that give them meaning—they occur in a real, material world; but for many of us, our experience of these events is shaped and determined in large part by our interactions with media industries, institutions, and technologies. Understanding the media’s construction of these events as disasters provides important insight into the nature of disaster mitigation, response and recovery.