Announcing the third of our Occasional Paper Series:
Space and Place in a Disaster Landscape: the phenomenology of Hurricane Katrina recovery in Waveland, Mississippi
By Sabrina Bradford and Abby Loebenberg
Sabrina Bradford is a senior Anthropology student enrolled in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi. She is a native of Waveland, Mississippi and has been present for every hurricane that has struck the town since 1991, including Hurricane Katrina. She and her family survived Katrina’s surge, remaining in their Waveland home, which received substantial structural damages as a result of the surge waters that inundated it. This paper was drawn from the experiences and recovery process of that event.
Abby Loebenberg is a Barksdale Fellow at the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi. Abby completed her doctorate in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford in 2011, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. Her research areas include: material culture, sociality and space and childhood.
In this paper, written especially for Material World’s Occasional Paper Series, the authors explore critically the concept of the ‘disaster landscape’ with specific reference to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina recovery in Waveland, Mississippi. Drawing heavily on the auto-ethnographic work of a Waveland native, the paper explores how the anthropology of landscape is engaged through memory. In this light, the paper argues that the concepts of ‘benchmarking’ and ‘breaking of the home’ have particular resonance with the collective and individual construction of place respectively. This goes to support a wider discussion of the importance of physical markers in grounding our relationship to time and space. The paper concludes that stark reality of complete disaster reveals the relevance of recognizing the cultural landscape in contemporary communities, both for personal, and collective recovery.
We cannot help but feel that the word ‘loss’ is entirely too simple to describe the magnitude and complexity of the void left in the lives of those whose places of memory are reduced to spaces of rubble. This paper examines a town, marked and defined by the overwhelming destruction such a ‘loss’ entails. The Mississippi town of Waveland in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In particular, the cultural relevance of landmarks and borders will be investigated, using an anthropological lens, to determine what happens to a space when its sense of place is both challenged and erased. This allows us to reflect on the socio-cultural consequences of a singular event that breaks and remolds the landscape into a different one, substituting new, harsh memories for the old, familiar ones. Oliver-Smith & Hoffman (2002) have argued, “disasters divulge matters of time and space use. They bring to the fore the power of place and attachment” It is this power that is attached to the landscape. A landscape that due to human occupation may be argued to be, “considered inseparable from, and integral to, the day-to-day activities and values of its occupants” .
In our vernacular, a ‘locality’ is often described to a stranger using physical geography as a tangible indicator for what exists in the present and what had existed in the past. Through such a method, ‘locals’ are able to shape the geography of an area into a socio-historical or spiritual landscape held together with ‘landmarks’ holding specific meanings. Landmarks act as both cultural touchstones and are incorporated into oral tradition as a connection to the past and guide for the future . Landmarks, materially, are key to the way people make the landscape local and are inherently representative of how the landscape has made them. This relationship is so familiar, that it is imperceptible. That is, the landscape often, in day-to-day reality, seems to be a container for activities, rather than the actively-shaped cultural world that Basso , Cruikshank , and Morphy and Flint have argued it to be. However, when a tremendously destructive event occurs, the familiar landscape physically becomes a tabula rasa, revealing how, while the landscape may shape many of the material aspects of a culture, more than anything the landscape shapes the collective memory.
While Casey made the argument that it is “our inevitable immersion in place and not the absoluteness of space that has ontological priority in the generation of life in the real” , he de-emphasizes the temporality and, sometimes, temporariness of place itself. A culture that remains in the same physical space but is faced with the removal of its sense of place finds itself fighting to maintain the integrity of its sense of self. One example of this lost place is the post-disaster landscape. While the normal context of the landscape was one that was a product of the inhabitants’ collective understanding of place, the post-disaster landscape forces new social roles that re-shape the ghostly after-image of the landscape, into a new physicality and materiality born of necessity. Although all landscapes, like culture itself, are not static and are subject to change , the landscapes themselves provoke a palimpsest of competing memories made concrete as salvage and re-construction attempts to rebuild a sense of place and self.
While anthropologists have documented the role of disasters since World War II, it is only recently that disasters have actually become a focus for anthropological research in their own right. Post World War II, research on human behavior during bombardment evolved into a research study of natural and technological disasters with anthropologists amongst the earliest contributors. These experiences, however, were more of footnotes on studies from anthropologists who were studying other issues in areas that had been affected by a disaster . Anthony F. C. Wallace was the only anthropologist that actually conducted research that primarily focused on the disaster experience through works such as Prelude to Disaster: The Course of Indian-White Relations Which Led to the Black Hawk War of 1832 (1970) and St. Clair: A Nineteenth Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry (1988)
When disasters occur, human intervention may naturally follow. These interventions can take the form of relief groups setting up distribution centers to that of emergency aid workers bringing in heavy equipment to clear roads or set power-lines. As Bender has noted, these interventions are “done not so much to the landscape as with the landscape, and what is done affects what can be done” . The disaster ‘culture’ that exists following a storm is one of both attachment to the past and apprehension of the future. While people are emotionally bonded to the memories of the landscape, there is a fear of not being able to recover what was lost, or even worse, completely losing the sense of place. A landscape so filled with memory “serves to draw people towards it or to keep them away, permits the assertion or denial of knowledge claims, becomes a nexus of contested meaning” (Ibid).
Hurricanes are one of the most destructive natural forces on earth. In Waveland, Mississippi, we estimate that 95% of homes and 100% of businesses and government buildings were destroyed after Hurricane Katrina. It is somewhat ironic to note, that the word hurricane is itself representative of a culture that no longer exists. The word is one of the few remaining from the decimated Tainos tribe of the West Indies who called their god of evil, Huracan . The Huracan was said to have been “a natural phenomenon of such violence as to be unnamable in any European language” . In historical anthropology, such as Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande , these types of enormously destructive natural forces are often attributed the status of the supernatural, where social order is predicated on appropriate rituals to placate said forces. Destructive, life-threatening events can thus be assimilated into a socio-natural order by the claim that these rituals were incorrectly performed, and thus the god’s reaction with anger, warranted. In today’s parlance, these events too, are often called ‘acts of God’.
NOAA. “Satellite Photo of Hurricane Katrina.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 29 August 2005. <http://www.noaa.gov>
On the 29th of August 2005, the small coastal town of Waveland was marked as the ‘ground zero’ of Hurricane Katrina by the National Weather Service. The storm’s thirty-six foot surge destroyed all of the town’s major infrastructure including buildings, roads, and bridges. The trees that had marked the town’s leafy streets were stripped away creating a haunting scene which was described by many as “worse than a war zone.” Remnants of homes were lefts perching over twenty-foot up in those trees with established enough roots to hold fast against the driving water. Not only is land an important asset and a symbol of individual livelihood in this town, but its loss, and the loss of public assets threatened livelihood on the most basic level. While the destruction of the town was devastating, the destruction of landmarks virtually erased the history of Waveland.