Midwestern Flooding and Katrina: More Racist Framing

Though I know am I not the first person to post something about this on a blog, I felt it was really important to start a similar discussion on this blog in particular. I’m currently teaching at a small college in Iowa after being on a 9 year hiatus and have been enduring crazy weather here in the Midwest. The flooding this summer was devastating for many (image from Dusty Allen Smith). Fortunately, the area where I live was unaffected for the most part, unlike 83 out of 99 counties in this state. While I do not want to diminish the loss that many families have suffered, I was nothing but shocked to see that there were comparisons being made to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. I’m creating a class on Katrina for our J-term in 2009 and was googling to see if I could find displaced Katrina refugees residing in Iowa. Instead of finding that, I saw many articles talking about “Iowa’s Katrina” (as apparently dubbed by Fox News) and statements from Rush Limbaugh praising Iowa victims for not being whiny like those in New Orleans were.

Limbaugh: I want to know. I look at Iowa, I look at Illinois—I want to see the murders. I want to see the looting. I want to see all the stuff that happened in New Orleans. I see devastation in Iowa and Illinois that dwarfs what happened in New Orleans. I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property…I don’t see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters, I don’t see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don’t see a bunch of people raping people on the street. I don’t see a bunch of people doing everything they can…whining and moaning—where’s FEMA, where’s BUSH. I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America.

It is likely the case, that when Limbaugh looks at Iowa, he sees a lot of white people. According to the Census, Iowa’s population was 73% white in 2000. Iowa City and Cedar Rapids are 87.33% and 91.86% white respectively. The percentage of people below the poverty line in Iowa City is 4.7%. In Cedar Rapids, 7.5%. In 2000, New Orleans was 67.25% African American and the poverty rate was more than twice the national rate at 28%. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was highly segregated and had many more African Americans living in poverty than whites (35% compared to 11%). Beyond these statistics, and trust me, I’m not meteorologists, but I’m pretty sure that flooding after a Category 5 Hurricane destroys a city is different than flooding caused by enormous amounts of rainfall combined with a wet winter. The infrastructure in Iowa was already relatively sound and definitely not completely obliterated before these flood waters started rising. Additionally, people were well informed about the risk of flooding in advance and had resources to prepare to evacuate. Roads were not damaged and closed, police were not preventing people from leaving their cities, and no one that I’m aware of had to wait for 5 days for food, water, or rescue.

There are many reasons that it is foolish for Limbaugh and others to compare these scenarios. The most obvious is difference between human life lost or relocated. Reports are showing that 35,000-40,000 people were evacuated in the Midwest compared with 1.2 million in the Gulf Coast area. In the Midwest floods, 24 people lost their lives, compared to the 1,833 that is estimated along the Gulf Coast (though there is still some question about the final number.) When comparing damages, the numbers are just as staggering. Perhaps if the devastation in Iowa had been even remotely close to what poor, African Americans faced in New Orleans, we would have seen frustration that boiled over into the acts that Limbaugh is using to characterize the victims of Katrina. (It’s interesting, though sadly not surprising, that he does not focus on the positive ways that people pulled together in order to save lives and help their neighbors, despite risking their own lives to do so, but instead exaggerates events that occurred and criminalizes victims of a tragedy.) However, there’s also a good chance, that because the flood victims in Iowa were predominantly white, that help would have happened more quickly than Katrina regardless of the scope of the disaster.

But moving beyond that, wouldn’t we expect the response to these sorts of situations to be different because of the tragedy of Katrina? Shouldn’t government be responding more effectively and efficiently? Shouldn’t people be more prepared and informed on what to do having seen the aftermath of what can happen when a response is painfully and unnecessarily slow? Even today as Texas recently prepared for Tropical Storm Dolly, the government took more precautions than were likely in place when Katrina hit.

Regardless, it is disturbing that people are referring to the floods of ’08 as “Iowa’s Katrina” as Fox news has claimed. The comparison and discourse around it serves only to diminish the impact of the what happened in 2005, to further denigrate and marginalize victims who suffered tremendous loss, while bolstering white Iowans who were in a much different scenario in every sense. It seems to me that to label a lesser event a “Katrina” is a way of manipulating the true impact of that disaster. No one would deny that the floods of 2008 were tragic, but to compare them to what happened in the Gulf Coast is just ignorant. People making these claims are wearing blinders, choosing only to see certain aspects of each situation. And at the same time, they are drawing racial lines in the sand. The message is clear. Whites in Iowa should be praised for their fortitude, while blacks in New Orleans should be seen as whiny, criminals not responsible or concerned enough to try to do something to help themselves. Though it shouldn’t, I still find myself amazed at how blatantly racist people continue to be, even in the face of tragedy.