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.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    Approximately a month or so ago an unsolicited leaflet was left in one of my personal areas—for this post I went ahead and re-typed it verbatim (and of course there is no author to give proper credit to…). For several reasons I have held on to it—but thought it could be shared here as it may accent points made in the post above, but also, the post answers many of the questions the leaflet presented (as well as ol’ Rushy boy):

    Why Haven’t We Heard More About the Problems in Iowa?

    Where is all the looting? Why aren’t the local people stealing items off the Wal-Mart shelves—laughing as they do?

    Where are all the looters stealing the high-end sneakers, liquor, and big screen television sets? Where is the stadium that the Iowans have turned into a filthy crime-ridden sty? Where are all the Hollywood celebrities holding telethons- – – – asking for help in restoring Iowa and helping the folks so terribly affected by the floods?

    Why hasn’t the media been asking tough questions about why the Federal Government hasn’t solved this problem? And, what has kept them from asking where the FEMA trucks and trailers are located?

    Why hasn’t the Federal Government started relocated Iowa citizens to some of the fine hotels in Chicago?

    When will someone like Spike Lee claim that it must have been the Federal Government that blew up the levees that failed to protect Des Moines? And, have you seen Sean Penn or the Dixie Chicks making noise about how Iowa was mistreated?

    Why haven’t we heard from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton – – – – complaining about the plight of the flood-ravaged people in the Hawkeye State?

    When will we hear Governor Chet Culver say that he wants to rebuild a “vanilla” Iowa, because that is the way God wants it to be? When will he start to blame the Federal Government for the flooding? Where are all the folks to argue that this is proof George Bush hates white, rural people?

    Could it be that these “red state, backwoods” people know how to take care of themselves, and don’t blame others for their problems—or expect that others should do all the repair, while Iowans watch?

    Has the crime rate in the states bordering Iowa, increased sharply?

  2. Thanks Kate for reminding me of why I don’t listen to Rush on the radio. My blood pressure can’t take it.

    More important is that Rush’s words are a perfect example of implicit appeals to race. While Rush never has to mention white/black and his listeners would deny it to high heaven, everyone and their mother knows exactly what Rush means in his diatribe. That his audience is so big and his message so hungrily devoured is testament to the resentment undergirding much of conservative politics.

  3. GA

    i’m from cedar rapids, although i live in des moines right now. i was disgusted when i heard what rush limbaugh had to say–didn’t he also compare us midwesterners with the “black savages” of new orleans? yes, the flooding was horrible. i know quite a few people who lost a lot in the flood, but to compare this flooding with katrina is just disrespectful to the people on the gulf coast

  4. Joe

    Good points. Political and media “Conservatism” in this country often seems to involve thinly disguised white-racist thinking and emotions. Where is the “conservative” effort and leadership in getting rid of continuing racial discrimination?

  5. Rob

    This is very eloquent and well thought out. I would like to play devils advocate, first because rarely does even the greatest thinker get it all right, and seccond because I have my own bones to pick regarding the race card poker that is always being played. ( they should outlaw gambling)

    Under the best of circumstances does not NO rank very high in the high crimes ratios anyway? How do heartland places compare? Never mind the genes, I am talking about the culture of farmer vs city. They generates revenues by having Mardi open air Topless festivals all over the streets to bring in tourism money. Where might you suppose the theif or murder is being groomed? Add that to prisions having a mass escapes. The gun stores being abandoned, and broken into, and you have widespread crime without constraint.

    I futher think that the spirit of the gambler hit the people in NO. They had time, it was not like a middle of the night tornado. They actually told people to leave – and in fact Kartrina missed NO it could have been a direct hit with a 4 or 5, but was a miss with a category 3 winds and storm surge. The worst case would be the 5 that hits with the surge and goes up the river. continuing to feed and generating a 20-30 foot surge over the levys.

    Seeing the bus lots flooded with what looked like hundreds of buses, and knowing the lead time- the local authorities might have made the effort to force people from their homes, like they do for fires. But they did not. This is why it makes not sense to me that this Mayor was re-elected as a folk hero. It made about as much sense to me as Bush’s re-election slogan pointing at 911 and saying – if you do not want this to happen again- elect me.

    All in all I’d say the hyper ego Limbaugh is a muse – you have to laugh at a drug addict named Rush.

    But what can be done now? I have thought that if someone with money who cares could put incinerators on wheels, that would be the first step. Instead of piles of destruction having to be loaded and hauled somewhere, it could step by step be reduced to the smallest footprint possible, Until a real cleanup is in progress. Next whatever is rebuilt there should be done up higher. Considering that they have to dredge the river all the time, dump the dredging over the levy and mix with something that turns it firm. First put in good public works, then build a trailer park to allow people to move their trailers back to, then chunks of infrastructure as high ground becomes available. However expensive it may seem, why rebuild below sea level where you could take a direct hit and lose it all again?

    I am sick of people who do all this labeling with the race card. Everyone’s viewpoint is going to be conditioned by their own personal experiences. I worked on a Habitat for Humanity project where some of the future tennants were complaining about the future black tennants laziness toware the effort of building their homes -to the forman and his reply was I cannot say anything to them because I do not want to be accused of being racist. This is one thing wrong with America today, not in the sixties, or eighteen sixties, but today. We have learn to be honest about facts, like say the bastard child rates that differ amoung the races and not play the blame game. BO’s call for personal responsibility! Find all the ‘players’ out there and let Jesse Jackson do his best to them. ( Except is Jesse one of them? ) The children who are born to two loving parents have the right ingedients for a good future.

  6. Rob, I agree with your point that the race card should not be thrown out there. I am a student of Dr. Parks and I’m more than excited to come to NOLA and help rebuild the community. However, people need to understand that it is an economic issue. The only reason it seems like a race issue is because the majority of the poor in this country are black or a minority. I cannot defend FEMA and the Feds, if you do, you are crazy. But I think some of the explanation for the terrible preparation, warnings and evacuation for this disaster is the fact that New Orleans is a fairly poor area. There was a mandatory warning on television and I’m assuming radio. Well, considering a most people in the NOLA area (especially outside of the French Quarter) cannot afford a television or even a radio. Please tell me, how are they going to be notified about the seriousness of the disaster? I agree with you; they should have been forced to leave. But thats like saying these people don’t have a choice its like taking their fundamental rights away that is given to you by the constitution. They can stay or go, don’t make them. Local authorities should have gone door to door begging for people to leave their homes. But if they didn’t, so be it. Those people have close roots to their city, their families and to their community. It is understandable that they would not want to leave.
    Anyways, I don’t think it is whole heartily a race issue. It’s a shame that the government didn’t care so much to immediately come and help the stranded victims. But keep in mind that its not because they were mostly black. Its because they were poor and not wealthy and not considered “exceptionally productive people to society” . If it was Bill Gates or Warren Buffet drowning FEMA would have been down there in a heartbeat. But the fact is that most of these people that were stranded didn’t have a good education (if any), didn’t have the resources to just get up and go, and nearly all those people just didn’t want to leave the city they grew up in. So saying people were warned in advance is true, but you have to understand the economic situation these people were put in to begin with before you say that these people should have left.
    People have a tendency to blame a lot of bad things that happen to black people in this country on race or discrimination. Well the fact of the matter is since the start of blacks in this country, they have always had some sort of social issue. First, it was obviously slavery, then it was the civil rights movement and now we have gotten to the point where the racism, discrimination, and segregation in this country has gone nearly unnoticed or has become barely visible. I personally think thats because of the main stream media and the Federal government hiding things and making things look better than they actually are. But anyways, a reason a good portion of African Americans in this country are underprivileged is because of their history of struggle and fighting “the man”. “The man” is the rest of society putting them down for what ever senseless reason. I think if slavery and the civil rights movement never occurred then there obviously would be no race issue. There has always been a struggle for black people in this country and thats the case for all minorities too; Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and now more recently Middle Easterners. But black people have a rich history of being discriminated and segregated. So there is no wonder why black people in certain areas of our country are struggling. They have never been completely accepted in society and I don’t know when or if they will be but let me tell you this; What we are dealing with is our country’s history is biting our own a** right now. Society and the Government nowadays don’t believe in slavery or segregation and FEMA didn’t take their sweet a** time to aide the people of NOLA because they were black. We have come too far as a country to once again say our government and our people are discriminating against black people. I will never believe that. But I will believe that the Bush administration has been a colossal disaster and I think that Hurricane Katrina is what did him in for me and many other Americans (not to mention 9-11). Like you said Rob, kids who are born to two loving parents and have a good education have a strong future. But unfortunately based on our history we haven’t allowed that opportunity for black people. Katrina is about the current struggle in the economy for African Americans mixed with our countries history, not Race. We have taken too many steps as a nation for anyone to believe this terrible circumstance were because of race.

  7. ssnola

    This forward offends me so much I can hardly breathe. And is does not, btw, contain “factual information.” It contains mostly falsehoods, misleading statements, overblown rhetoric, & offensive stereotyping. And a lot of stupid questions.

    First of all, I would say the “big differences” would be some of the following…

    Iowa Floods: Flooding occurred from June 7- July 1. Many people had quite a long time to prepare/evacuate.
    Katrina.: A major urban city had approximately 36 hours to evacuate. 90% of said city did manage to evacuate (the fastest & largest evacuation our country had ever witnessed). Flooding caused by faulty engineering of the federal government occurred over a span of hours, not weeks. ( http://www.levees.org/faq )

    Iowa Floods: 40,000 Iowans displaced.
    Katrina: over 1,200,000 displaced

    Iowa Floods: Damages of 6+ Billion Dollars (this number is for the ENTIRE midwest, btw, so Iowa alone is significantly less)
    Katrina: Damages of 81.2 Billion Dollars (in 2005 dollars)

    The only “big difference” that really matters?
    Iowa: 1 death (13 deaths in entire Midwest)
    Katrina: 1,836 confirmed deaths, 705 missing

    That makes for a “difference” of between 1823-2528 human lives. PEOPLE. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, & daughters. I’d say that IS “one hell of a big difference.” A hell of a big bleeping difference.

    >”Why is the media NOT asking the tough questions about why the federal
    > government hasn’t solved this problem? Asking where the FEMA trucks and
    > trailers and food services are?”

    Maybe, because we learned from the GIANT clusterbleep known as Michael “Heckuva Job” Brown, at the expense of people during Katrina. FEMA declared Iowa a disaster May 27th, & had disaster offices open in Iowa June 5th ( http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=43776 ), BEFORE the flooding. I think finally someone was put in into that position who was more than just one of Bushie’s buddies and perhaps had qualifications beyond just being able to run a bleeping horse show. The fact that we are all, individually & as a country, better prepared, is one blessing to come out of Katrina.

    Btw, there was looting in Iowa, too: http://www.iowaflood.com/20938/women-accused-of-looting-flood-ravaged-oakville-wqad.html , http://www.kcrg.com/news/local/22736259.html
    And people in the Midwest happily received individual Federal assistance, too. By June 23rd, FEMA had already handed out $81 million in housing assistance funds alone.

    All this being said, I think the floods in Iowa were a tragedy. But to somehow equate the two is ludicrous. This email is all about stereotyping. Good, (mostly white), hardworking rural heroes pulling themselves up by their bootstraps all by themselves versus poor, (mostly black) lazy urban “victims” sitting around doing nuthin’ and waiting on a handout. There are a lot of good folks in Iowa working hard on their own to recover from a tragedy. But there are lots of folks (of all colors) here on the coast & in Nola doing the same thing. There have been some unfortunate lazy people (of all colors) taking advantage of a tragedy down here. But I’m pretty sure there are a few of those up in Iowa, too. Folks in both places are taking assistance when offerred. Sadly, our culture seeks out the sensationalistic (which is generally negative), and the media, both liberal AND conservative, generally obliges. (see: SWINE FLU! PANDEMIC!) (see also: grossly exaggerated and mis-reported violence during Katrina) Because that’s what brings in the ratings & the bucks. Sadly, there’s lots of good going on that doesn’t get reported.

    I am thrilled and thankful that Iowa was a totally different situation. But let us be clear, it WAS a “big difference.” A completely different story. Apples and oranges. I think we should all be grateful this was the case, and not use that tragedy to further demonize people who suffered through one of America’s worst disasters.


  1. National Severe Storm Preparedness Week - Page 6

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