The timing couldn’t have been more strange. Floodlines, an outstanding new audio documentary about Hurricane Katrina from The Atlantic, was released in its entirety on March 11. That day, which was almost two months after the first COVID-19 case was detected in the United States and almost two weeks after the first death, was also the day that Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson was reported to have tested positive for the virus, and the day the NBA suspended operations following news that a Utah Jazz player had contracted the virus as well. In hindsight, March 11 was perhaps a kind of tipping point, at least as awareness about the coronavirus in the U.S. was concerned. It was the day, for many Americans, when what seemed to be happening elsewhere started feeling like something that was happening here.
There’s a way to see the timing as inopportune. As one would expect from a project about Hurricane Katrina and its fallout, Floodlines is a heavy listen that engages with your discomfort. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the podcast may be hard lift for many still struggling with the prospect of life under an extended pandemic — doubly so, given the fact Katrina was a natural disaster made unnaturally and exponentially worse by poor government response, which, you know, sounds mighty familiar right now.
But Floodlines is precisely the right story at the right moment. The Atlantic’s revisiting of Hurricane Katrina is a genuinely illuminating piece that, in many ways, can better prepare us for the current context. It doesn’t just provide a guide to the likely struggles, inequities, and deep dysfunctions that will come once we get over the hump with this pandemic; more immediately, it’s also a key that can help process the nature of the crisis we’re currently living in.
Reported and hosted by Atlantic staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II, Floodlines is an economical creature, doing its work swiftly across an eight-episode stretch. It gets through the actual hurricane fairly quickly, placing emphasis on reintroducing us to the reality that the hurricane, as a natural force, wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The storm was a Category 3, after all, not a Category 5. Rather, the actual disaster was rooted in what happened — and more importantly, what didn’t happen — in the aftermath, when more lives could’ve been saved with greater action.
Floodlines spends the bulk of its first half on what it was like within New Orleans in the wake of the storm. There was chaos and confusion, with many not knowing how to access whatever help was available. That uncertainty was deeply exacerbated by a maelstrom of misinformation and persistent prejudice, as deeply distorted and racialized stories of violence began to spread and thicken the atmosphere of fear. This environment culminated, at least symbolically, in the horror of the Danziger Bridge police shootings that killed two black men and injured four other people.
All the while, the federal government under President George W. Bush proved slow to act. The alternate history persists: Fewer lives could have been lost, there could have been better mitigation of damage, it’s entirely possible that New Orleans could have been put back together with relative alacrity and equity, if only help came sooner. But that didn’t happen. The recovery effort simply wasn’t there. And so we live in this timeline, one that saw extraordinary pain, suffering, and death coming out of New Orleans, much of which was seemingly avoidable, much of which was disproportionately concentrated in the city’s black community. (From the look of it, history stands to repeat itself in the present, as preliminary data show that COVID-19 is killing black people at disproportionately high rates.)
The second half of the podcast pulls back its focus, shifting scale to highlight the relationship between New Orleans and the rest of the country. It is here that we can see the possible future of our current crisis. Help would eventually come, but so did the indignities. New Orleanians who had to relocate to other states were branded as refugees by their own country, and there were even open discussions about whether resources should be spent putting New Orleans back together. Indeed, as Newkirk’s reporting found, some blamed the people of New Orleans themselves for living in a place so vulnerable to natural disaster to begin with. One may be tempted to think that within the context of a global pandemic, that sort of thinking wouldn’t happen now — that, perhaps, there would be more empathy. Then again, probably not.
Floodlines builds to a climax of a sort in its eighth and final episode, which features Newkirk and his producers sitting down with Michael Brown, the FEMA director who became the face, and ultimately the scapegoat, of the government’s botched Katrina response. The interview is utterly fascinating, equal parts infuriating and cathartic. Newkirk probes and considers, carrying the weight of the previous seven episodes to bear. Brown, supposedly eager for a challenge (as he put it), proves to be mostly uncompromising over questions of accountability. Did structural racism factor into the lacking nature of the response? Could they have done better? He engages, but appears unchanged by the interaction.
The interview ultimately ends at a sort of impasse, even as it provides some insight. “The paradox of Michael Brown seems to be this: All of his efforts to defend himself, to not be made a scapegoat … they seem to make it impossible for him to perform empathy — to understand why an apology from him might mean something,” Newkirk observes. That feels particularly resonant in our current environment, as our nation’s coronavirus response is being bungled by a federal government that’s consistently proven itself to be inadequate, neglectful, and dismissive of any notion of responsibility.
Floodlines is the best audio documentary to come out this year so far by a mile. Much of its power lies in the way it’s able to link the big picture to more personal, intimate horrors. Large portions of the podcast’s storytelling is structured around the experiences of a woman named Le-Ann Williams, a New Orleans native who was when 14 Katrina happened. The narrative routinely returns to Williams as it moves from phase to phase: growing up in the city, surviving the storm, escaping the disaster zone, living through relocation, and finally, coming home. Her arc grounds the full meaning and purpose of Newkirk’s reportage, and her concerns are the heart and soul of Floodlines’ enterprise.
There are so many other striking qualities about Floodlines as a production, from its script to its use of tape to its seamless ability to bend time coherently. But particular attention should be paid to its music. Scored by the New Orleans jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and the composer Anthony Braxton (with additional music by David Herman, who serves as the production’s sound designer), the podcast is intensely rich with atmosphere. The music, evocative of the city’s jazz history, is deployed with impressive restraint, and the result is storytelling wrapped in a melancholic haze. There’s almost a dreamlike quality to the proceedings, except we’re dealing with a recollection of a nightmare.
I know it can be a really hard time for a lot of people to pick up this particular story, especially when there are opinion pieces out there with headlines like “The coronavirus isn’t another Hurricane Katrina. It’s worse.” But I do believe it remains a worthwhile exercise, if you’re able, to stare into the abyss, because there may something in there to prepare you for what’s to come.