I was checking in on a number of promos and announcements of upcoming “Katrina 5 years after” specials on networks and in print while I was away. In a sense, the destruction and horror of those days in the Gulf can’t be recreated in mere pictures. The frustration of outraged reporters screaming about FEMA inaction, the images of people stranded on roofs, the armed troops enforcing martial law, seem like disembodied moments that don’t connect. They are horrible reminders certainly, but to me, who experienced Katrina far from the disaster, they are like dots in an emptiness of memory. People who actually lived through Katrina’s devastation can probably recall their own desperate experiences more readily than I can recall those days of late August 2005. But vivid feelings do rush back.
I remember that time as one of total powerlessness as an American. This was the worst moment of the Bush administration, following on some already pretty bad moments. The killings and violence on the streets of Iraq were coming to a peak. The brutality at Abu Ghraib prison had rallied the world in a unison chorus of disgust and outrage. In 2005 the last thread of the idea of the USA as a well-meaning superpower stumbling into the wrong war was completely gone. We had acquired a much sharper, more than plausible identity of a malicious, arrogant, warlike monster inflaming the world with its treatment of prisoners, powerless to contain exploding violence in Baghdad under occupation, and unable even to protect a city on our own soil.
The emotions of that time are tangible living reminders of a nation at a huge crossroads. For most Americans, Katrina was the experience of being permanently and publically defined by events beyond the range of citizen control. In a sense, democracy always delivers this powerful illusion that we voters are controlling things. But Katrina exploded a number of myths simultaneously. The illusion of military power, the illusion of feeling represented in the actions of one’s own government, the peculiarly American illusion that we are all individuals detached from the consequences of our government’s actions, all blown apart. In a way, the 2008 election was an attempt to reach back and grab that power again. Where are we now? Past the recession, past the politics of health care, financial regulation, the same two wars still smoldering forward, there is another election on the horizon. What are the illusions we see in the issues and rhetoric of this campaign?
It occurs to me that the 2010 feelings of frustration and powerlessness are perhaps direct echoes of Katrina. Back then feelings were deeper, more painful and compelling. They became calls to action. Today, they are duller. We have been defined by events. America is a nation of bystanders waiting to see how things turn out. Five years after Katrina the storm still blows.