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The Neoliberal DelugeHurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans$

Cedric Johnson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780816673247

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816673247.001.0001

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From Tipping Point to Meta-Crisis

From Tipping Point to Meta-Crisis

Management, Media, and Hurricane Katrina

Chapter:
(p.3) Chapter 1 From Tipping Point to Meta-Crisis
Source:
The Neoliberal Deluge
Author(s):

Chris Russill

Chad Lavin

Publisher:
University of Minnesota Press
DOI:10.5749/minnesota/9780816673247.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter looks at the failure of tipping point explanations of crisis in the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It suggests that under the current terms of neoliberal governance, states do not pursue legitimacy through public works, but through public relations. It considers how discourses of crisis coming from the state and mass media often obscure the political roots of “natural disasters.” In particular, it examines the use of the “tipping point” as metaphor and theory of epidemiology from its genesis in the popular musings of New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell to its prominence in the congressional testimony of embattled FEMA director Michael Brown. The chapter argues that this notion discourages any definitive identification of agency, power, and accountability and calls for an approach to crisis that focuses on the political economy of vulnerability—how public policy, productive relations, and social factors converge to concentrate risks among some sections of the population.

Keywords:   tipping point, flooding, New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, public relations, mass media, natural disasters, congressional testimony, Michael Brown, public policy

And in my opinion, it’s the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others to help those people.

—Michael Brown, September 27, 2005

In the Wake of Katrina, America Is at a Tipping Point.

—MoveOn.org press release title, September 21, 2005

POLITICAL DISCOURSE TEEMS WITH CRISIS. Often, this is hyperbolic and opportunistic rhetoric mobilized in the service of a particular agenda or a media strategy to increase ratings. Sometimes, as during the first days of September 2005, when much of New Orleans lay beneath water, and when thousands of the most vulnerable residents were stranded without food, medical supplies, and toilets, narratives of crisis are unavoidable. It is true that not everyone witnessed the same crisis. While some saw an ecological crisis after a massive storm and levee failure destroyed so many homes and lives, others saw a humanitarian crisis as various organizations and institutions seemed incapable of coordinating an effective response. Some saw a political crisis, noting the race and class of the victims, while others witnessed a crisis of civil society, focusing on the quick devolution to Hobbesian brutality within the city. Most cynically, Jon Stewart quipped on The Daily Show that the actions of federal officials in coordinating photo ops and press conferences suggest-ed that the true crisis was the president’s plummeting approval ratings.

(p.4) The proliferating visions of the crisis marked the clear failure of the Bush administration’s attempt to manage the crisis. Typically, narratives of crisis result from a ritualistic process dominated by government officials and media professionals, and these rituals distribute assumptions regarding how crises emerge, how a society responds, and how reoccurrence is prevented. In 2005, these rituals broke down, as media elites and citizens largely rejected the official narratives of events coming from government officials. Why did this happen? We argue that an insufficient notion of crisis organized the managerial strategies of key Bush officials, namely, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Michael Brown and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Brown and Rumsfeld both used a “tipping point” perspective to manage crisis in accord with the radical assumptions of the Bush administration. Both failed in spectacular fashion.

Here, we focus on the failure of tipping point explanations of crisis in the flooding of New Orleans. First, we revisit Michael Brown’s congressional testimony and examine his account of what went wrong. We develop in greater detail the tipping point metaphor animating Brown’s remarks and show how it encourages particular ideas of political agency and responsibility. Second, we propose a fuller conception of crisis through Eric Klinenberg’s “political economy of disaster vulnerability.” Third, we discuss how theories of crisis organize understandings of political agency and responsibility through narrative and media practice. Fourth, we examine how media coverage helped generate reflection on crisis, provoking what we call a “meta-crisis” in which established narratives of crisis were themselves thrown into crisis. We also discuss how the reflective potential of the “meta-crisis” in New Orleans has been appropriated.

The Tipping Point

On September 27, 2005, Michael Brown appeared before the House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. Testifying in response to criticism that FEMA and the Bush administration had failed in their response to this disaster, the recently removed FEMA director’s account was much anticipated. Few surprises had emerged from the earlier testimony of the National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service directors, (p.5) which amounted to a clear message: We told them the storm was coming. Brown would have to answer the question of what went wrong. As Representative Thomas M. Davis III noted in opening congressional questioning of the witness, “Like it or not, fair or not, FEMA in general and Mr. Brown in particular have become the symbol of what went wrong with the government’s response to Katrina.”1

In a long day of testimony, Brown maintained two key talking points. First, he argued that the system of response in place at FEMA was adequate such that this was a failure of execution rather than planning; as he put it more than once, “We were prepared but overwhelmed.” Second, Brown claimed that incompetent and defamatory media coverage contributed to the inadequacy of the response in general and his personal ineffectiveness in particular:

While FEMA was trying to respond to probably the largest natural disaster in the history of this country … [our] press office became bombarded with requests to respond immediately to false statements about my resume and my background.

Brown supported these talking points by characterizing key moments of decision as “tipping points.” In the most prominent and widely quoted of these statements, Brown blamed state and local officials for failing to manage the evacuation, claiming that, “The failure to evacuate was the tipping point for all the other things that either went wrong or were exacerbated.” Later, discussing his public blunder in admitting that he was unaware of the thousands of survivors still stranded at the Morial Convention Center, Brown stated, “That was one of my personal tipping points, too, because I was just tired and misspoke.” If the failure to evacuate was a failure of state operations, this second failure is slightly different—a failure of state–media interactions. Earlier, Representative Davis similarly identified the decisive nature of this particular failure:

When Michael Brown admitted to reporters that he didn’t know thousands of survivors were stranded at the New Orleans convention center without food or water, even though T.V. journalists had been reporting that fact for hours, his appearance before us today became inevitable.

(p.6) A third and more illuminating use of the term comes in a significantly less assured moment in Brown’s testimony, when he is explaining the inability to move the necessary supplies to the affected region:

Not enough people in place and not enough—again, couple that with the logistics problem of getting stuffin, so if you don’t have enough to begin with … the flood and then the logistical problem itself, it all just—it reaches its own tipping point.

Here, Brown’s frustration is palpable. His inability to control the situation in New Orleans is matched by his inability to meet the demand that he explain it. The term “tipping point” signals the limit of the explanation; Brown can explain important elements leading up to the crisis, but eventually his words fail just as thoroughly as the disaster response. The narrative, like the affair itself, eventually reaches a point at which established concepts and institutions do not work; the “tipping point” is the point at which rational description of the situation becomes cumbersome or visibly breaks down—where apparent order becomes obvious disorder. For anybody interested in crisis or disaster response, this is exactly the point at which the story gets most interesting.

Unfortunately, as Brown tells it, this is where the story ends. Even more unfortunately, nobody in the hearing asked Brown what he meant by the term “tipping point.” One might chalk this up to the term’s familiarity in popular discourse. Or perhaps given the ubiquity of “sound bite” media coverage and political grandstanding, it is not terribly surprising that nobody bothered to interrogate Brown’s explanatory device. But for a six-hour interrogation into the most visible failure of a federal agency in U.S. history—an interrogation that often turned to quite technical aspects of the agency’s mandate, organization, and operational strategies—it is noteworthy that the use of “tipping points” as a mechanism for explaining how disaster occurred was never questioned or elaborated. Indeed, although there was plenty of scrutiny regarding how FEMA responds to crisis, there was no discussion at all of how FEMA (or its director) conceptualizes crisis.2

So what exactly is a tipping point, and how did a government official come to explain the devastation of a major American city in these terms? The notion circulates rather freely in mass media and popular discourse, surely reaching its cultural apex through Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker (p.7) staffwriter who claimed in a 1996 essay that the idea “should change the way we think about whether and why social programs work.”3 Gladwell parlayed that idea into a reported $1.5 million advance for the pop cultural phenomenon The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, and nearly a decade later, this book remained on the New York Times bestsellers list.4

Gladwell spent the months before Katrina in a media blitz. His second book, Blink, hit bookstores in early 2005, and with The Tipping Point displayed prominently in airport bookstores around the world, it was the year of the tipping point. With profiles in such magazines as Fast Company (January 2005) and Brand Strategy (April 2005), christened one of the world’s most influential people by Time (April 2005), and commanding speaking fees in the neighborhood of $40,000, Gladwell had achieved a rare hybrid status as literary celebrity, political analyst, and business guru.5

Gladwell had blown up into a full-fledged managerial fad a year or so earlier, with the Harvard Business Review promoting “tipping point leadership,” a program that weds familiar do-more-with-less efficiency mantras to Gladwell’s own focus on “social epidemics.”6 In rather derivative fashion, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne extend the very example Gladwell used in popularizing the term (the idea that violent crime in New York spreads like a virus) and emerge with a theory of the successful attributes of management leadership.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, meeting a massive challenge is not about putting forth an equally massive response. Rather it is about conserving resources and cutting time by focusing on identifying and then leveraging the factors of disproportionate influence in an organization.7

The appeal of this approach to managerial crises is not surprising, since it marries the desire to legitimate corporate downsizing to arguments for unleashing entrepreneurial creativity in an “information economy.” It is more surprising that such theories would inform managers of war and crisis. Yet, tipping points were the theoretical touchstone of both Rumsfeld and Brown. For Rumsfeld, military success in Iraq was always one tipping point away. In 2003, he sold President Bush on the Iraq Interim Authority concept by suggesting its value as a tipping point for democracy.8 In 2004, (p.8) he argued that a military victory in Fallujah would constitute a tipping point in the war, and elaborated:

When I use this phrase “tipping,” people don’t go from here over to there, they move this way, just a slight bit, and pretty soon the overwhelming majority are over in this area, recognizing that that’s the future.9

By 2005, the tipping point in Iraq would be the elections: “That has to cause a tipping of support for the government, whoever is elected, because of the confidence that all of those people have to feel as a result of seeing so many others of the same view.”10

A number of influential pundits were enrolled into this way of viewing crisis, not least of which were Malcolm Gladwell and newly inspired tipping point proponent, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times foreign policy columnist. On February 22, 2005, Gladwell appeared with Friedman on ABC’s Nightline to explain the potential of tipping points for managing war in Iraq.11 Straightforwardly, Ted Koppel asked Gladwell which factors were important for determining whether the 2005 Iraqi election was a tipping point. Gladwell’s answer emphasized the malleability of human perception and recommended attention to the way people reframe an issue. Koppel, in seeking a concrete example, pointed to the toppling of the Saddam statue and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech as two examples that fit Gladwell’s requirements. These examples draw attention to the stage-managed and manipulative media events encouraged by this way of thinking, and although Gladwell wisely refrained from committing himself to these examples, he did not object or correct Koppel’s suggestion either.

After a commercial break, Koppel again asked Gladwell to apply the tipping point perspective to events in Iraq. Gladwell emphasized three key aspects from his book: the role of socially influential people in advancing an idea, the multiple elements implicated in social change, and the rapid, contagious nature of such change. Gladwell tried to avoid prognosticating on tipping points in Iraq, always referring instead to historical events, such as the spread of rock and roll or the fall of the Berlin Wall; yet, when Thomas Friedman showed no such restraint, Gladwell agreed Friedman’s discussion of the Iraqi election was a good example. In brief, Friedman and Gladwell argued that the tipping point perspective is necessary to a (p.9) proper understanding and strategy for social change in Iraq. Change can catch on fast; it can result from leveraging only some of the multiple elements of a situation; opinion-leaders can drive change by reframing how people see a situation. Only two days later, Friedman expanded the scope of his perspective, identifying three tipping points that spanned “the Middle East playground.”12

Brown was clearly convinced by the efficacy of this point of view; he continued to use the term—and to recommend Gladwell’s book—after his removal from FEMA and “tipping points” have remained part of his evolving explanations for failure.13 It is important to recognize, however, that Gladwell’s book contains only a partial account of tipping points. In his 1996 essay on tipping points, Gladwell traced the concept back to the “foundational work” by Nobel Prize–winning economist Thomas Schelling.14 In Gladwell’s subsequent book, however, Schelling is downgraded to an endnote, and his work is categorized as one among “several classic works of sociology” that describe the tipping point model.15 In fact, Schelling, an economist and applied game theorist, had adopted the term from political scientist Morton Grodzins.16 Grodzins and Schelling had sought to explain the same phenomenon: white neighborhoods seeing increased numbers of black residents eventually reach a “tip point” that triggers what is commonly referred to as white flight. White families do not leave individually as black families move in; rather, they leave en masse when the neighborhood reaches a critical threshold of nonwhite households.

Grodzins saw this situation as the most pressing social problem of the immediate future; quite correctly, he expected a political struggle over the direction of American cities, even forecasting “a new round of repression aimed at Negroes,” and characterizing metropolitan space as a “racial problem.”17 Grodzins noted that the idea of “tipping” a neighborhood belonged to the common parlance of real estate professionals and community planners, and that it generally entailed a focus on controlling African American mobility. Grodzins’s broader lesson was that avoiding the unjust outcomes that resulted, like racial and economic ghettoization, required a federal commitment to public infrastructure and urban planning; otherwise, the overcrowding of impoverished residents and disinvestment in major American urban centers would result, and this would “accentuate the evolution of central cities into lower class ethnic islands.”18

Schelling’s lesson was rather different. Working with Rand Corporation, a think-tank criticized for the ideological production of (p.10) knowledge to contest investment in social infrastructure, Schelling argued an abstract point: one cannot infer individual intentions or preferences from patterns of social interaction.19 Schelling used this argument, and a raft of examples designed to support it, to recast political problems as ubiquitous and largely banal situations amenable to abstract mathematical modeling. In Schelling’s work, the influence of illegal racist activities and poverty is circumscribed, and he amplifies the importance of other variables in modeling neighborhood segregation patterns. It turns out urban segregation is not a “racial problem” at all; in fact, it is not even segregation, but rather aggregation, a byproduct of very general features of social interaction.20 It is difficult not to see the uptake of Schelling’s arguments as consistent with the general strategy of benign neglect used to combat proponents of economic and racial justice, like Grodzins.21

Gladwell reflects on this phenomenon to insist on a different point, which is the priority of sudden change.22 Social policy is gradualist and assumes steady progression, but social phenomena are “non-linear”; crime waves, for example, do not wax or wane in direct proportion to the obstacles or incentives put in their way. Instead, they move in fits and starts. A favorite example for Gladwell is William Bratton, the transit authority policeman Rudy Giuliani appointed to head the NYPD, who lowered crime rates not by marshalling a larger police force but rather by managing public perceptions of urban disorder by replacing broken windows and cleaning graffiti. Bratton’s approach, drawing on the “broken windows theory” of crime introduced by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, was predicated on the idea that the problem of crime in New York City could best be met not through a massive mobilization of police repression but through superficial “quality of life” reforms that would be inordinately influential on community dynamics.23

Gladwell’s point is that “liberal” social planners from the 1960s failed to account for this pattern and so pursued ineffective, inefficient, and overpriced strategies to fix social ills. Once the nature of threshold-based sud-den change is recognized, you learn the value of concentrating resources on tightly focused interventions, or “Band-Aid solutions.”

The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost. We, of course, have an instinctive (p.11) disdain for this kind of solution because there is something in all of us that feels that the true answers to problems have to be comprehensive…. The problem, of course, is that indiscriminate application of effort is something that is not always possible. There are times when we need a shortcut, a way to make a lot out of a little, and that is what Tipping Points, in the end, are all about. The theory of Tipping Points requires, however, that we reframe the way we think about the world.24

In a culture suspicious of social engineering and enamored of market models, the metaphor entails a drastically reduced vision for collective human agency, and it justifies the restriction of state intervention. It is clear from the earliest concerns with economic and racial segregation up through Gladwell’s work and Michael Brown’s testimony that tipping points are implicated in concerns regarding federalism, public policy, and urban planning. In this light, Michael Brown’s insistence that FEMA was “prepared” for a massive hurricane in New Orleans depends entirely on his belief that FEMA’s responsibilities for dealing with such a crisis were quite limited. Indeed, Brown explicitly claimed in his testimony that it was not FEMA’s job to help evacuate the city: “in my opinion, it’s the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others to help those people.”25 Brown identified the failure of such local organizations to assist threatened populations as the first tipping point for the disaster, and his invocation of “tipping points” divorces the affair from FEMA’s merging into the Department of Homeland Security, the reduced funding for maintaining levees, the concentration of poverty in specific neighborhoods, the ongoing erosion of the Louisiana wetlands that pro-tect against storm surges, the housing of hazardous material next to urban populations, or the increased willingness to leave individuals personally responsible for their own safety. For Brown, intent on identifying tipping points in the hours after the storm hit, these conditions are not relevant to determining whether FEMA was prepared to do its job.

Charles Perrow, the sociologist famous for explaining how massive failures in complicated organizations are, in fact, “normal accidents,”26 identifies how a tipping point explanation works in this respect:

This explanation does not assume deterioration on the part of the agency’s ability to deal with natural disasters. It assumes a tipping (p.12) point, and when disasters are involved, the tipping point may bring about a sudden, rather than gradual, decline. Once it is challenged beyond its capabilities, the failures can be sudden and widespread even if the organization is not weak.27

The trouble in applying a tipping point explanation to FEMA is that FEMA exists to prepare for and organize response to crises that overwhelm local and state agencies. When pressed on his claim that FEMA was prepared but simply overwhelmed, Brown eventually defaulted to a restricted understanding of federalism and states’ responsibility, claiming that a larger policy debate was needed if FEMA was to be prepared for events like Katrina: “Because what you’re doing is driving toward a policy debate about what the role of the federal government is.” In Brown’s view, the crisis outstripped the capacity of the agency to respond; in our view, Brown’s tipping point perspective carries an understanding of agency that encourages the very crises it purports to explain. Indeed, the most remarkable feature of both Rumsfeld’s and Brown’s leadership was an inability to recognize failure, and to claim success in obviously worsening conditions. In each case, the failed strategy would necessitate a massive “surge” in military deployment.

The Political Economy of Disaster Vulnerability

An alternative to the tipping point explanation is found in Eric Klinenberg’s sociology of disaster. In his “social autopsy” of the 1995 Chicago heat wave blamed for the deaths of 739 citizens, Klinenberg focuses not on particular moments of nonlinear change but instead on what he calls “the political economy of disaster vulnerability.”28 Klinenberg asks why most of the people who died were old, alone, and poor, as well as disproportionately African American, and he asks why these disparate mortality rates did not figure prominently in popular or official accounts of the disaster. Indeed, the disaster is largely forgotten (despite a death toll that dwarfs that of many more well-known disasters such as the 1989 San Francisco earthquake), and its rootedness in features of urban social organization is unacknowledged. A select list of factors that Klinenberg identifies as heightening the vulnerability of both specific and general populations in Chicago would be: the social ecology of the city that isolates its residents, the aging urban infrastructure that limits the (p.13) mobility and relations of the poor and the elderly, the differential access to cold water and air conditioning, and the defunding of public services that reduces the competence and efficiency of emergency response when it is needed. Klinenberg uses this neighborhood-level analysis to supplement the individual-level focus of public health agencies, including an official report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The result is a clear pattern of mortality, where residents of specific neighborhoods were significantly more likely to perish in a heat wave than were residents of other neighborhoods.

A key reason that African Americans had the highest death rates in the Chicago heat wave is that they are the only group in the city segregated and ghettoized in community areas with high levels of abandoned housing stock, empty lots, depleted commercial infrastructure, population decline, degraded sidewalks, parks, and streets, and impoverished institutions.29

Focusing less on the punctuating moment of the heat reaching 106 degrees Fahrenheit and more on the production and unequal distribution of vulnerability across the city, Klinenberg sees in the Chicago case not a “natural disaster” but, in the words of one interviewee, “murder by public policy.”30 The crisis in Chicago, like that in New Orleans ten years later, was not meteorological in origin but was produced by a neoliberal style of governance and exacerbated by unequal access to reliable transportation, communication, and healthcare networks. Government agencies and administrations are organized for ineffective response because they are committed to market based operating principles regarding the role of individuals, public sector, and the state. There are direct implications to these commitments for disaster management. In Chicago, the commissioner of human services viewed the dead as individuals who had neglected themselves, and the mayor blamed families for failing to care for their relatives.31 These views lead emergency planners to beseech individuals and families to ameliorate the crisis.

Only this is wrong. The organization of the social environment, not individuals and their families, explains why the pattern of crisis occurred. The evidence Klinenberg brings to bear on his analysis is exhaustive—he explores the demographic, political, economic, and architectural history of the city to explain why certain types of people were more likely to die in (p.14) a heat wave.32 The result is not a recommendation that the health commissioner or mayor be blamed for the heat wave. As he puts it, “It is pointless to organize an inquiry into the heat wave as a search for a guilty party, as only the crudest forms of analysis could reduce such a complex event to a single actor, causal agent, or social force.”33 The conclusion is that neglecting the political economy of disaster vulnerability in organizing crisis response is dangerous and deadly.

Klinenberg’s “social autopsy” is designed to denaturalize disaster, to illuminate the role of the state in producing disaster vulnerability, and to show how public officials and media “render invisible both the political economy of vulnerability and the role of the state.”34 He shows how government and media professionals alike had internalized the crisis as a “natural disaster,” and he explores the effect this had on news narratives of crisis: “The natural framing of the disaster, it seemed, had structured the editors’ own perception of the crisis.”35 For example, Klinenberg shows how newspaper headlines maintained that those perishing in the heat wave were “just like most of us,” even as the details in those stories indicated that the victims were primarily elderly, disproportionately black, and largely concentrated in specific neighborhoods—that is to say, not like most of us.36 Klinenberg challenges this framing to root the Chicago death toll not in unpredictable and unavoidable climatological shifts but in the actions and decisions that concentrate populations and neglect services in a manner that unequally, although systematically, distributes vulnerability across the population.

Klinenberg’s story is the converse of Brown’s tipping point testimony. Brown’s narrative is organized around the principled ascription of responsibility and the steadfast refusal of federal liability for the failed emergency response, whereas Klinenberg, in failing to hold anybody directly responsible, ultimately distributes responsibility across society such that only a systemic, collective agent could wage an appropriate response. For Klinenberg, the crisis is not locatable at the peak of the heat wave but rather in the decade leading up to the heat wave as city services and public infrastructure declined to the great neglect of so many residents. His account does not fit crisis to the existing capabilities of institutions, or fashionable theories of abrupt change, but requires that the social production of vulnerability inform debate on disaster management.

One lesson of Klinenberg’s model is that it is remarkably difficult to sustain public discourse on the political nature of disaster vulnerability. For this (p.15) reason, it is unfortunate that no one queried Brown’s tipping point metaphor and its underlying presumptions of management and agency. Instead, attention focused on Brown’s unabashed allocation of responsibility to Louisiana state officials for the failed evacuation, typically reproduced via his summary judgment that “Louisiana is dysfunctional.” It is tempting to see shoddy journalism or political expediency behind the “blame game” or “scapegoat” character of the ensuing public discourse, although strategies of responsibility displacement are probably as old as disaster itself. Responsibility displacement is encouraged, however, by the constricted vision of crisis and political agency informing such claims making. Without a political economy of disaster vulnerability, the complex set of relations between citizens, media, and state that render populations disproportionately vulnerable to meteorological or political violence are only partially evident. The tipping point vision is damaging in this respect. Its faith in the priority of small-scale and even counterintuitive Band-Aid solutions to social problems, its emphasis on changing perception rather than reorganizing material conditions, and its predisposition for explaining social change as the result of moments of abrupt change, all work against a broader analysis.

In summary, Klinenberg does not shift responsibility for the heat wave from nature to the government, and he does not merely change the frame from “natural disaster” to “man-made disaster”; he directs attention to a fundamentally different theory of crisis, one that is rooted in a different set of commitments about the responsibilities and capacities of the state. The “social autopsy” does not simply identify an underreported crisis; it opens the question of what a crisis is.

What Is a Crisis?

As Colin Hay explains it, “crisis” comes from the Greek kríno. Krísis means “to decide”; a crisis is “a moment of decisive intervention … a moment of objective contradiction yet subjective intervention.”37 When people are suffering heat stroke or are being flooded out of their homes and when hospitals are overflowing and cities lack facilities to treat ill or endangered citizens, decisions have to be made on how to intervene. However, in most cases, the decisions are shaped not by objective and unmediated conditions but rather by the narrative explanation of the situation. Crisis, in other words, is not incidentally but fundamentally about agency; crises do not merely arise but are produced when political (p.16) actors characterize the world in a manner that emphasizes the possibility of responding to a particular situation. The identification of a crisis always projects a possible response, and requires narratives of these responses to resonate culturally.

Hay’s work engages a tradition of crisis theory covered in Jürgen Habermas’s Legitimation Crisis, in which the state aims primarily to recast endemic and irresolvable economic antagonisms as episodic and manageable political disagreements.38 The state, in this analysis, is an essentially conservative institution, offering its specific policies up for sacrifice in times of turmoil so as to protect its underlying institutional logic; in times of economic difficulty, “a potentially profound crisis of capitalism deriving from its inherent economic conditions … becomes, through displacement, merely a crisis of a particular regime of the capitalist state.”39 Just as Habermas characterizes the narrative construction of a political crisis to shield capitalism from critique, Klinenberg chronicles the narrative construction of a “natural disaster” to distract from the production and distribution of vulnerability by urban decay and market-based governance.

The displacement of crisis for Habermas is not conspiracy, or dupery, but mandated by the internal structure of the state itself: in order to maintain legitimacy, it needs to present itself as capable of solving crises, so it needs to cast each crisis as one that it can solve or recast unaddressed crises as tragedy and fate (which is to say, not crises at all). In Hay’s discussion of Thatcherism, however, there is a new twist to the story, as the extension of state power to ameliorate the inevitable crises produced by the contradictions of capitalism becomes its own crisis, exploited by opponents of “big government.” The latest turn, and the most radical version of this story, is found in Naomi Klein’s idea of “disaster capitalism,” where crises like that in New Orleans are exploited by neoliberal reformers descending on vulnerable populations during moments of shock.40 (Hence the popular refrain in the media that Wal-Mart was more successful than the government in providing aid.)

Hay’s observation is an important one. It is not merely the imperatives of particular organizations but the different narratives of crisis and responsibility that condition the types of responses that are possible. Klinenberg makes a similar point. Situating the heat wave in an era of privatized services and a declining sense that government bears responsibility to care for the well-being of its citizens, Klinenberg suggests that the ability to recognize a crisis depends on established ideas about (p.17) appropriate responses. When the political economy of Chicago and its unequal distribution of air conditioning, water, or medical care are not considered in discussions of the heat wave, the conditions of deprivation that lead to fatalities (conditions produced economically through housing and labor markets and politically through municipal budget and zoning decisions) are, precisely, naturalized—written out of the story and placed beyond the scope of legitimate political control. The story suggests a very limited set of possible responses to situations of public danger—evacuate the stranded, feed the hungry, rebuild the levees. But because Klinenberg sees the situation in Chicago as a situation of persistent vulnerability rather than unpredictable meteorological chance, he encourages reflection on a much wider set of possible responses—rebuild public infrastructure, invest in public health, deliver public services, and ensure equal protection.

Klinenberg’s model is especially valuable for its sensitivity to the way media “render invisible both the political economy of vulnerability and the role of the state in the reconstructions of the disaster they produce, reconstructions that not only dominate public representations of the event but help organize the terms of scientific studies as well.”41 He details how the Chicago mayor’s office was not only “spinning out of the crisis” but how successfully it had strategized to have the public record support its account of disaster, one involving a “sophisticated politics of denial to diffuse responsibility.”42 Klinenberg dedicates an entire chapter, “Governing by Public Relations,” to media practices, and he observes first-hand how public relations professionals have become “a fundamental part of the emergency political response” to disasters.43 This is not a conspiracy, but the messy interface of journalistic routine, the changing organization of the news industry, and a professionalized public relations perspective on managing emergencies that had staged the crisis to promote regional integration and consensus with “just like most of us” stories.

The organization of news production is generally synchronized with the practices of state and public officials, and the results are familiar narratives of disaster in times of crisis. Pierre Bourdieu argues that “the journalistic field” governing the production of news tends to produce narratives that “cut [events] offfrom their antecedents and consequences,” leaving viewers with “a series of apparently absurd stories” that are “stripped of any political necessity” that “can at best arouse a vague humanitarian interest.”44

(p.18) It’s almost a journalistic ritual, and certainly a tradition, to focus on simple events that are simple to cover. As for the victims, they’re not presented in any more political light than those of a train derailment or any other accident. We see nothing that might stimulate any sort of truly political cohesion or revolt.45

Klinenberg, in adapting Bourdieu’s work for his model, emphasizes four features of the field of news production that impoverish disaster coverage. First, the commercial nature of the media industry encourages spectacular rather than social treatments of disaster, as stories must reflect common sense rather than analysis, and complex material must be rendered in a simple and attention-getting way. Second, the personal and professional relationship between journalists and politicians cannot be risked through excessive criticism, and this relationship provides public officials with extraordinary opportunity to define and explain an event. Third, journalists are not sociologists; they are trained to write for a market and do not have the specialized understanding required to articulate the political economy of disaster vulnerability. Elite media professionals, in particular, are largely unfamiliar with the daily struggles or social environments of urban poverty. Finally, media production schedules preclude in-depth investigation.46

In Chicago, journalists and political officials rendered invisible the political economy of disaster vulnerability and the role of market-based governance in producing it. The result was not produced by conspiracy or cynical adherence to organization demands, and official disaster myths did not circulate in order to avoid throwing the political system into turmoil; rather, largely unstated assumptions about government responsibility naturalized economic and racial segregation and in large part exonerated the state from its responsibility for public safety. In Chicago, this understanding of crisis continued to organize state–media relationships, such that the “natural disaster” frame largely carried the day, Mayor Daley emerged from this affair with his reputation relatively unmarred, and the American public today is generally unaware that hundreds of people died as a result of reduced municipal services. During the disaster in New Orleans in 2005, however, these ideas of crisis failed, the state–media relationship was reconfigured, and the result was an unexpected meta-crisis, when established narratives for recognizing crisis were themselves throw into crisis.

(p.19) The Meta-Crisis

Media coverage of crisis in New Orleans took a remarkable turn, as journalists and public officials diverged in their narratives of the situation. Initial coverage of Hurricane Katrina conformed well to what might be called the “Weather Channel” template, with a de-politicized focus on the visual and affective dimensions of crisis prevailing in stories of property damage, human suffering, and individual heroics. The use of media to produce “consensual or integrative forms of ritual news coverage,” or even a “sphere of consensus,” is now a formal and institutionalized aspect of crisis response—a tool of governments to protect their legitimacy when their constituents are suffering.47 And although scholars differ on how these “ritual” processes work, they are a frequent touchstone for descriptions of media practice and only rarely discussed positively. Simon Cottle, for instance, observes that while these stories “proclaim international solidarity and collective compassion,” they also tend to “encode relations of national hierarchy and power” and they lack the political perspective needed to encourage contention or challenge to that power.48

By all accounts, this crisis template failed in the aftermath of the storm. Journalists lost interest in property damage, missing pets, and acts of individual bravery or suffering, and the usual rituals for producing news of crisis were abandoned. In an important insight, Frank Durham concludes that it was not simply the news content or production rituals that changed but that there was a “changed relationship of the media to the state in this crisis moment”49—media, that is, largely abandoned their reliance on official government sources and risked their collegial working relationship in rejecting the state’s version of events as self-serving and inadequate. Durham’s explanation for this change is a good one. He emphasizes how the desire to resonate culturally with the broader audience’s experience of the crisis introduced a populist dimension to media coverage, and he observes how the techniques and norms of tabloid journalism played a stronger role as a result. Given our concerns, however, we cannot help but emphasize how the prevailing idea of crisis, which had previously organized state-media-citizen relationships, could no longer do so.

At first glance, it is remarkable that government officials failed to recognize and adjust to shifts in media practice. Brown had presumed that media institutions could be managed to produce narratives of crisis organized around national hierarchy and humanitarian compassion. The timing (p.20) and content of his statements were organized to facilitate that end. From Brown’s perspective, emergency management requires the use of media to build support and legitimacy for the official government response; his role was to offer a steady stream of assuring statements through press conferences to secure political order. Holding regular press conferences, for example, is a standard technique for encouraging the press to consistently report the statements of public officials, as these officials establish a coherent storyline, as they establish the authority to maintain that storyline, and as they discourage the search for “man-on-the-street” counternarratives. In short, Brown’s strategy of managing media coverage is designed to avoid the political organization of social unrest that can result from disaster and crisis.

When journalists became critical and challenged the government’s narrative of the crisis, the fact that the bulk of government activities were organized around media management became a salient story in itself. Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded for a moratorium on press conferences; Anderson Cooper challenged Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu out of irritation with politicians thanking and congratulating each other on camera; and three separate news anchors publicly challenged Brown’s inability to aid people in the Morial Convention Center. Brown’s adherence to the media rituals that usually attend disaster was now recognized as a manipulative effort to manage public perception irrespective of material conditions in New Orleans.

The extent of Brown’s commitment to this view of media management in crisis situations is remarkable.50 He explicitly identified the failure to manage the relationship to media as one of FEMA’s two primary failures (the other was failing to realize how incompetent state and local authorities would be), and he described the changed relationship as his “personal tipping point.” He seems to imply that things could have been very different had he managed media practices differently, or had journalists acted more responsibly. It is a tempting conclusion, even for progressives, since it leads to the suggestion that journalists had recovered their public role once again, and served as a populist watchdog of government practice on behalf of the people.

In rejecting Brown’s story, however, journalists did not have a broader notion of crisis through which to organize their reporting, and what we call a “meta-crisis” ensued. The result was confusion, and even today media scholars do not agree on the precise nature of the resulting (p.21) coverage or its implications. Some scholars identified a “meta-narrative” of government failure, one underpinning a populist turn in media coverage and carrying more progressive possibilities.51 Dixon, for example, identified in the shift to criticism of governmental institutions an overtly sympathetic perspective among journalists toward victims.52 Grusky and Ryo summarized a familiar sentiment in noting the attention given to race and class in America:

The coverage of Katrina is fascinating precisely because it converted a conventional story about a natural disaster into an unconventional and high-profile story about the socially constructed disasters of poverty, inequality and racism.53

International coverage was also fascinated by this conversion, and Cottle observes how global media used the opportunity to criticize the Bush administration.

By such means, Hurricane Katrina also exposed the normally invisible inequalities of race and poverty in American society and became an opportunity for political appropriation by different projects and discourses worldwide.54

Others, however, emphasized a shift in narrative to stories of civil unrest and urban insurgency, which were organized in terms of a “warzone” metaphor.55 This narrative began with the media focus on the supposed dominance of armed gangs wandering the city, but culminated in the celebrations of General Russel Honoré, “The Category 5 General,” to quote The Washington Post, or, in the words of Mayor Nagin, “a John Wayne dude … that can get some stuffdone.”56 Tierney et al. conclude, “The overall effect of media coverage was to further bolster arguments that only the military is capable of effective action during disasters.”57 (Again quoting Nagin: “They ought to give that guy [Honoré] … full authority to get the job done, and we can save some people.”) Indeed, it was the military and private paramilitary contractors that intervened decisively in New Orleans, and in this respect, the moment of meta-crisis is not without its dangers. Durham points out that the movement toward populism in Katrina coverage did not come from a shared set of experiences of the audience and the victims but (p.22) rather “from the immediate shock of this overwhelming moment.”58 For Klein, these moments of shock and collective trauma are the very situations exploited by ideologues to extend neoliberal reforms.59 But one does not have to subscribe to Klein’s thesis to recognize the dangers inherent in recommending that the military be more involved in solving domestic problems.

These alternative narratives were established when journalists engaged in an adversarial relationship with government officials.60 However, it is important to view the meta-narrative of government failure as the result of a failed notion of crisis and of the neoliberal style of governance organizing this notion of crisis; otherwise, there will be a continuing failure to recognize the political economy of disaster vulnerability. In the opinion of Grusky and Ryo, the shift in media coverage from natural disaster to stories of poverty and racism did not produce a discernible change in public attitudes toward these features of social organization. It is not enough, then, to simply shift frames and to displace natural disaster stories with narratives of poverty and racism; the connection between these accounts must be established and narrated in terms of a political economy of disaster vulnerability. Otherwise, stories of government failure serve only to displace responsibility for crisis or recommend increased military control. Indeed, it is worth noting that while the media celebrated Honoré for his critical military intervention in New Orleans, few noticed his later commentary that the current disparity in access to healthcare constitutes a major obstacle to effective disaster response.61

Despite these dangers, two specific aspects of the “meta-crisis” deserve attention. First, there is the obvious conclusion drawn by many experiencing the disaster and its continuing effects: do not trust and do not depend on the government. The lesson is found in the streetwise lyrics of rap artist Juvenile, who tells folks to stop feeling sorry for themselves and to “get ya hustle on,” since “the government wasn’t going to do nothing for you anyway”; it is also arguably encouraged by Naomi Klein’s admiration of “direct-action reconstruction,” in which local residents proceeded to rebuild New Orleans without dependence on government aid.62 It is difficult not to sympathize with those drawing this conclusion. However, if the emphasis on bureaucratic failure implies still greater dependence on non–government-organized responses to crisis, then the result is to reinscribe arguments for privatization that continue to create social vulnerability.

(p.23) Second, there is the ubiquitous refrain of non-news media flows, which have continued to organize state–media relationships through a narrow vision of crisis. For example, the priority of a neoliberal understanding between citizens and government is the main lesson found on the Weather Channel, where individual preparedness for weather-related disaster infuses almost all aspects of their programming and marketing.63 Although Weather Channel partners with federal emergency relief agencies, it organizes its disaster coverage and marketing appeals around reliance on nongovernment responses to weather-related disaster. Their good example has not gone unnoticed. As Ouellette and Hay report, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge pointed to such coverage in his remarks to a public preparedness symposium:

If you’ve ever watched the Weather Channel when they talk about some of the individual stories in the midst of some of these horrific natural events and how the people actually saved themselves because they knew what to do before the event occurred and they just did it; it was a reflex. They had it prepared. They had thought about it and did it.64

If Weather Channel affirms the importance individual preparedness for crisis, media personalities like Dr. Phil McGraw privatize the disaster twice over. When Dr. Phil showed up at the Houston Astrodome to treat Katrina victims, he focused on reconnecting families and offered access to an array of nongovernmental resources to displaced people (his foundation continues to direct people only to nongovernmental aid sources).65 At the same time, Dr. Phil addresses the civil unrest and anger toward FEMA in psychological terms and demonstrates how therapeutic techniques and personal life management philosophies can be drawn upon for help. His recurring “Take Care of Yourself” message is not merely motivational but also effectively neoliberal.66

These are not unique examples. As Ouellette and Hay observe, television extends the reach of government by privileging a neoliberal relationship between the state and its citizens, as both become “more reliant upon privatized, commercial resources.”67 Government roles are outsourced, in a manner of speaking, to television, not unlike the way disaster management and policing were contracted to Blackwater USA and DynCorp in New Orleans. The relationship established between government and (p.24) citizens via commercial media presents formidable obstacles to the reorganization of crisis response in terms of a political economy of disaster vulnerability.

It is in this situation that the resonance between tipping point leadership and neoliberal governance is firmly established. It simply is not within the legitimate scope of governmental authority to maintain infrastructure and ensure the basic safety of millions of residents against disaster, although the appropriate response to catastrophic loss of life is to leverage media representations of the affair so that individuals and nongovernmental organizations can proceed “unhindered” to take care of themselves. Brown’s view of crisis response corresponds to a worldview in which the government has privatized the delivery of services and state legitimacy is secured through media coverage and public opinion. It is only within this context that recommendations to take care of yourself during a flood of biblical proportions could make sense.

In this respect, the reflective potential found in “meta-crisis” is severely circumscribed by contemporary media practices that are extensions of neoliberal governance, and disasters like Katrina may result not in the questioning of the theoretical assumptions informing social organization but rather in the extension of paramilitary control in times and spaces of crisis.

Conclusion

Years aft er Hurricane Katrina, public opinion still ranks the federal, state, and local responses to the flooding of New Orleans as one of the greatest failures—and, indeed, shames—of U.S. history. This seems unlikely to change anytime soon. But the reasons for this failure remain, as yet, relatively ill-defined. Despite some thoughtful attempts to situate this disaster in a crisis of neoliberal governance, a declining commitment to public welfare, and the enduring significance of race even in an Obama era, little has been done on the metaphorical construction of crisis in management literatures such as The Tipping Point or their resonance in popular media. Although academics often scoff at such literature, these works have tremendous impact on the production of public consciousness and public policy. With their implicit assumptions about the value of human life and the responsibility and ability of institutions to remedy situations, these vocabularies not only provide management professionals and public (p.25) officials with strategies for dealing with public problems; they also provide the public with narratives for evaluating responsibility of public institutions.

In this essay, we have tried to reveal how some dubious assumptions of familiar vocabularies contribute to the very catastrophes they claim to address, and also how these assumptions proved so visibly inadequate in the days after Hurricane Katrina.68 Perhaps more than anything else, the flooding of New Orleans brought to the surface all of the displaced costs of a neoliberal approach to governance and public safety, as the water rendered it impossible to ignore the impoverished populations, slashed budgets, and environmental racism that kept the Crescent City afloat. The ensuing meta-crisis provoked long-overdue (if perhaps fleeting) attention to the racial and economic segregation predicted by Grodzins, the unequal distribution of vulnerability in our society, and the real consequences of environmental collapse.

This particular meta-crisis was facilitated by five specific characteristics of the situation. First, the high visibility of FEMA, both as the federal agency ostensibly charged with coordinating response to such situations and as the symbolic face of the Bush plan for national security after 9/11; the media could not help but notice the Department of Homeland Security stumbling upon entering its own coming-out party.69 Second, the visceral and visual seduction of floods as a media event provided inordinately more coverage than other “natural” disasters and provoked politically resonant comparisons to impoverished countries and warzones. Third, an unmistakable and shocking racial component to the suffering was demonstrated in a country that generally prefers to see racism—particularly in the South—as part of its regrettable past. Fourth, an inability to manage the media and public relations was exemplified by Brown’s public admission that he did not know about the convention center, and that he had lied. Fifth, the specific place that New Orleans occupies in the American consciousness compelled nationwide dissonance organized around a realization of how the city’s famous hospitality is predicated on the brutal poverty endemic to a postindustrial service economy in the South.

However, although media coverage unmistakably called attention to the failed policies of the Bush administration, and probably created greater willingness to criticize the administration’s similarly disastrous handling of the war in Iraq, it seems naïve to suggest that the meta-crisis has resulted in a challenge to neoliberal strategies of management and (p.26) governance writ large. Instead, as in Iraq, criticism targeted feckless bureaucrats and inept officials, while the values and commitments that informed the overseas invasion and the neglect of American cities have emerged intact. In this sense, while meta-crises mark an opportunity for rethinking the assumptions about agency and responsibility that define a culture’s approach to governance and public safety, the dominance of neoliberal refrains in both official and unofficial sources always threatens to overpower alternative narratives of the flooding of New Orleans. When this happens, representations of even this most devastating example of disaster vulnerability tend to revert to the neoliberal mantras of personal responsibility, corporate organization, and state security.

Notes

(1.) All quotes from Michael Brown and his interlocutors, unless otherwise indicated, are drawn from his testimony before the House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, September 27, 2005.

(2.) Brown continued to use the phrase in later interviews, identifying the moment President Bush declared that he was doing a “heckuva job,” the moment Michael Chertoff arrived in New Orleans and challenged his authority, and an August 31 reprimand from Chertoff as “tipping points.” See Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: William Morrow, 2006), 550, and House Select Katrina Response Investigation Committee, “A Failure of Initiative,” 109th Congress, 2d Session, Report 109–396, 13. When we asked Brown what he meant, he promised a quick answer but then failed to follow through and did not answer follow-up queries.

(3.) Malcolm Gladwell, “The Tipping Point,” New Yorker, June 3, 1996.

(4.) Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown, 2000); and Gavin McNett, “Idea Epidemics,” Salon, March 17, 2000.

(5.) Rachel Donadio, “The Gladwell Effect,” New York Times, February 5, 2006.

(6.) W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, “Tipping Point Leadership,” Harvard Business Review 81 (April 2003): 60–69; and “Tipped for the Top: Tipping-Point Leadership,” INSEAD Quarterly 3 (2004): 3–7.

(7.) Kim and Mauborgne, “Tipped for the Top,” 3.

(8.) Donald Rumsfeld, Memorandum for the President, April 1, 2003.

(9.) Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense News Briefing, November 8, 2004.

(10.) Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense News Briefing, February 3, 2005.

(11.) ABC News, Nightline, February 22, 2005.

(p.27)

(12.) Thomas Friedman, “The Tipping Points,” New York Times, February 27, 2005.

(13.) Brown: “You read the book The Tipping Point. It’s a short book—you would probably like it, it’s called The Tipping Point. Probably less than a hundred pages and it’s all about how different factors can accumulate and there’s a tipping point where you know, suddenly everyone in the country has a certain kind of sneaker” (Brown’s interview with Douglas Brinkley, February 5, 2006; transcript provided by Brinkley). See also Brinkley, The Great Deluge, 550, and Ed O’Keefe, “FEMA’s Michael Brown, Five Years Later,” Washington Post, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/federal-eye/2010/08/michael_brown_five_years_later.html (accessed April 25, 2011).

(14.) Gladwell, “The Tipping Point.”

(15.) Gladwell, Tipping Point, 261, 282.

(16.) Thomas Schelling, Models of Segregation (Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation, 1969); Schelling, “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971): 143–86; Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior (New York: Norton, 1978), 91–102; Morton Grodzins, “Metropolitan Segregation,” Scientific American 197 (October 1957): 33–41; and Grodzins, The Metropolitan Area as a Racial Problem (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958).

(17.) Grodzins, “Metropolitan Segregation”; Grodzins, Metropolitan Area.

(18.) Grodzins, “Metropolitan Segregation.”

(19.) For criticism of Rand Corporation, see Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled (New York: Verso, 1998), and Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2008).

(20.) Schelling, Micromotives, 153–55.

(21.) Similarly, although the term “tipping point” does not appear in Schelling’s Arms and Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966), the book recommends small military engagements as a means to avoiding larger ones — for securing international peace by finding, and then leveraging, the factors of disproportionate influence in geopolitics. Fred Kaplan traces a relatively straightforward link between this approach to international conflict and the escalated bombing in North Vietnam (Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983]).

(22.) Gladwell, Tipping Point, 12.

(23.) Wilson and Kelling’s article and its bearing on the decrease in urban crime in the 1990s have become a flashpoint for discussion among popular commentators seeking to advance pet theories of counterintuitive and disproportionate influence, including most famously the dust up between Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt (the coauthor of Freakonomics, who credited abortion laws with the decrease in crime). The relationship of such apparently apolitical discussion to the conservative politics implied by Wilson and Kelling’s support for the (p.28) informal order-maintenance function of policing deserves closer attention. See James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1982).

(24.) Gladwell, Tipping Point, 256–57.

(25.) James Loy, deputy secretary to DHS, echoed this sentiment on PBS’s Frontline, going so far as to say that claims that FEMA should have been more involved in the evacuation lead to “a logic path that takes you to pretty Orwellian nature.” See Frontline, “The Storm,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/etc/script.html (accessed April 21, 2011).

(26.) Perrow suggests that the accident at Three Mile Island, for example, did not begin when the reactor started to melt, but when the decision was made to construct a complicated nuclear power plant that would eventually, inevitably, have problems. His warning is that such accidents are “normal,” whereas approaches that emphasize tipping points suggest they are abnormal. See Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).

(27.) Perrow admits the argument can be persuasive but rejects it in this instance. See Charles Perrow, “Using Organizations: The Case of FEMA,” Understanding FEMA: Perspectives from the Social Sciences (June 11, 2006), para. 16, http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Perrow/ (accessed April 21, 2011).

(28.) Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster: A Social Autopsy of the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave,” Theory & Society 28 (1999): 239–95.

(29.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 127.

(30.) Ibid., 136, 268.

(31.) Ibid., 172–76.

(32.) Klinenberg applied this approach to Hurricane Katrina in a short essay co-authored with Thomas Frank, arguing that the devastation resulted largely from a series of decisions to privatize risk and dismantle government protections. The essay concludes with a warning that this same story will be told again after the flu pandemic that is on the inevitable horizon. See Eric Klinenberg and Thomas Frank, “Looting Homeland Security,” Rolling Stone (December 15, 2005). Frank later made this same argument in more general terms about neoliberals since the 1980s in The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008).

(33.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 32.

(34.) Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster,” 242.

(35.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 207.

(36.) Ibid., 18–20.

(p.29)

(37.) Colin Hay, “Rethinking Crisis: Narratives of the New Right and Constructions of Crisis,” Rethinking Marxism 8 (1995): 63.

(38.) Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975).

(39.) Colin Hay, Re-Stating Social and Political Change (Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1996), 91.

(40.) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

(41.) Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster,” 242.

(42.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 180.

(43.) Ibid., 35.

(44.) Pierre Bourdieu, On Television, trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (New York: The New Press, 1996), 6–7.

(45.) Ibid., 8.

(46.) Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster,” 278–79.

(47.) Simon Cottle, “Global Crises in the News: Staging New Wars, Disaster, and Climate Change,” International Journal of Communication 3 (2009): 504; and Frank Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time: The Populist Turn in Television Coverage of Hurricane Katrina,” Journalism 9 (2008): 95.

(48.) Cottle, “Global Crises in the News,” 503.

(49.) Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time,” 111.

(50.) When asked about the inconsistency in his statements regarding the preparedness of Louisiana and New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, Brown was unapologetic: “Because I’m not going to go on television and publicly say that Ithink that the mayor and the governor are not doing their job, and they don’t have the sense of urgency. I’m not going to say that publicly. I don’t think that’s the proper thing to do. So yes, when I go on a news show, I’m going to talk about the state’s doing the best job they can and I’m pleased with the way they’re working. And then I’m going to get offthat news show, and I’m going to pick up the telephone, and I’m going to keep urging them to get busy and do what needs to be done.” Frontline interview, October 14, 2005, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/interviews/brown.html (accessed April 21, 2011).

(51.) Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time,” 96.

(52.) T. L. Dixon, “Understanding News Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: The Use of News Frames and Racial Stereotypes by Network Television News” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the NCA 94th Annual Convention, San Diego, California, November 20, 2008).

(53.) David Grusky and Emily Ryo, “Did Katrina Recalibrate Attitudes Toward Poverty and Inequality? A Test of the ‘Dirty Little Secret’ Hypothesis,” De Bois Review 3 (2006): 74.

(p.30)

(54.) Cottle, “Global Crises in the News,” 504–5.

(55.) Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski, “Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and Their Consequences in Hurricane Katrina,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604 (2006): 57–81; cf. Cottle.

(56.) Lynne Duke, “The Category 5 General,” Washington Post, September 12, 2005; Nagin interview with WWL-AM (September 2, 2005). In many ways, Honoré was the perfect folk hero for the “warzone” narrative—a Louisiana native (Pointe Coupee), a graduate of Southern University–Baton Rouge, and the embodiment of a no-nonsense militaristic approach to evacuation. His depiction in corporate media coverage illuminates the dangerously simplistic view of military intervention that dominated such narratives, as Honoré’s own views on New Orleans emphasize the impact of health disparities, poverty, and other elements important to a political economy of vulnerability. See Russel Honoré, “Health Disparities: Barriers to a Culture of Preparedness,” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 14 (2008): 5–7. We thank Cedric Johnson for drawing this point to our attention.

(57.) Tierney et al., “Metaphors Matter,” 61.

(58.) Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time,” 105. Durham points out that regular media routines are established rather quickly and that the process of “redress” in the case of Hurricane Katrina needs greater attention.

(59.) Klein, The Shock Doctrine.

(60.) Of course, the coverage should not be idealized. The scholarship on media depictions of race during Hurricane Katrina has been troubling. Miller and Roberts argue that despite the inclusion of race and poverty in media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, white victims and white officials predominated in national news coverage. In this respect, African Americans were seen and not heard: “The authorities who spoke were white, the victims who spoke were white, and African Americans were seen only in the rest of the video and most often in a negative manner.” Andrea Miller and Shearon Roberts, “Race in National vs. Local Television News Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: A Study of Sources, Victims, and Negative Video” (paper present-ed at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Brabham, D.C., August 6, 2008, 19). Similarly, Dixon (2008) and Summers et al. (2006) suggest African Americans were associated with the majority of the lawbreaking in media coverage. See Samuel R. Summers et al., “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, Implications, and Future Research Questions,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 6 (2006): 1.

(61.) Honoré, “Health Disparities: Barriers to a Culture of Preparedness.”

(p.31)

(62.) Shaheem Read, “Juvenile Tears into Cash Money, Lil Wayne—And FEMA,” MTV, March 9, 2006, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1525684/20060308/juvenile.jhtml (accessed April 21, 2011); Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 464.

(63.) Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, Better Living through Reality TV (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2008), 156–58.

(64.) Ibid., 168.

(65.) Ibid., 63.

(66.) Ibid., 77–79.

(67.) Ibid., 218–19.

(68.) In another essay, we consider characterizations of the Mississippi River and the levees in New Orleans as a battleground in a “war on nature,” similarly arguing that the resonance of this phrasing indicates a broader problem in American politics. See Chad Lavin and Chris Russill, “The Buoyancy of Failure: Fighting Nature in New Orleans,” Space and Culture 9 (2006): 48–51.

(69.) Hurricane Katrina was not the new FEMA’s first disaster; various scholars have talked about the 2004 hurricane season as the agency’s trial by fire. But in a special issue of the political science journal The Forum printed soon after Hurricane Katrina, one article claimed that FEMA’s performance in 2004 “was viewed as a complete mismanagement,” while another asserted that it was “wellregarded.” Clearly, the jury was still out on the new FEMA until Katrina. See Amanda Lee Hollis, “A Tale of Two Federal Emergency Management Agencies,” and Patrick Roberts, “What Katrina Means for Emergency Management,” both in Forum 3, no. 3 (2005).

Notes:

(1.) All quotes from Michael Brown and his interlocutors, unless otherwise indicated, are drawn from his testimony before the House of Representatives Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina, September 27, 2005.

(2.) Brown continued to use the phrase in later interviews, identifying the moment President Bush declared that he was doing a “heckuva job,” the moment Michael Chertoff arrived in New Orleans and challenged his authority, and an August 31 reprimand from Chertoff as “tipping points.” See Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast (New York: William Morrow, 2006), 550, and House Select Katrina Response Investigation Committee, “A Failure of Initiative,” 109th Congress, 2d Session, Report 109–396, 13. When we asked Brown what he meant, he promised a quick answer but then failed to follow through and did not answer follow-up queries.

(3.) Malcolm Gladwell, “The Tipping Point,” New Yorker, June 3, 1996.

(4.) Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown, 2000); and Gavin McNett, “Idea Epidemics,” Salon, March 17, 2000.

(5.) Rachel Donadio, “The Gladwell Effect,” New York Times, February 5, 2006.

(6.) W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, “Tipping Point Leadership,” Harvard Business Review 81 (April 2003): 60–69; and “Tipped for the Top: Tipping-Point Leadership,” INSEAD Quarterly 3 (2004): 3–7.

(7.) Kim and Mauborgne, “Tipped for the Top,” 3.

(8.) Donald Rumsfeld, Memorandum for the President, April 1, 2003.

(9.) Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense News Briefing, November 8, 2004.

(10.) Donald Rumsfeld, Department of Defense News Briefing, February 3, 2005.

(11.) ABC News, Nightline, February 22, 2005.

(12.) Thomas Friedman, “The Tipping Points,” New York Times, February 27, 2005.

(13.) Brown: “You read the book The Tipping Point. It’s a short book—you would probably like it, it’s called The Tipping Point. Probably less than a hundred pages and it’s all about how different factors can accumulate and there’s a tipping point where you know, suddenly everyone in the country has a certain kind of sneaker” (Brown’s interview with Douglas Brinkley, February 5, 2006; transcript provided by Brinkley). See also Brinkley, The Great Deluge, 550, and Ed O’Keefe, “FEMA’s Michael Brown, Five Years Later,” Washington Post, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/federal-eye/2010/08/michael_brown_five_years_later.html (accessed April 25, 2011).

(14.) Gladwell, “The Tipping Point.”

(15.) Gladwell, Tipping Point, 261, 282.

(16.) Thomas Schelling, Models of Segregation (Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation, 1969); Schelling, “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971): 143–86; Schelling, Micromotives and Macrobehavior (New York: Norton, 1978), 91–102; Morton Grodzins, “Metropolitan Segregation,” Scientific American 197 (October 1957): 33–41; and Grodzins, The Metropolitan Area as a Racial Problem (Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958).

(17.) Grodzins, “Metropolitan Segregation”; Grodzins, Metropolitan Area.

(18.) Grodzins, “Metropolitan Segregation.”

(19.) For criticism of Rand Corporation, see Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace, A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled (New York: Verso, 1998), and Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2008).

(20.) Schelling, Micromotives, 153–55.

(21.) Similarly, although the term “tipping point” does not appear in Schelling’s Arms and Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966), the book recommends small military engagements as a means to avoiding larger ones — for securing international peace by finding, and then leveraging, the factors of disproportionate influence in geopolitics. Fred Kaplan traces a relatively straightforward link between this approach to international conflict and the escalated bombing in North Vietnam (Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983]).

(22.) Gladwell, Tipping Point, 12.

(23.) Wilson and Kelling’s article and its bearing on the decrease in urban crime in the 1990s have become a flashpoint for discussion among popular commentators seeking to advance pet theories of counterintuitive and disproportionate influence, including most famously the dust up between Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt (the coauthor of Freakonomics, who credited abortion laws with the decrease in crime). The relationship of such apparently apolitical discussion to the conservative politics implied by Wilson and Kelling’s support for the (p.28) informal order-maintenance function of policing deserves closer attention. See James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” Atlantic Monthly (March 1982).

(24.) Gladwell, Tipping Point, 256–57.

(25.) James Loy, deputy secretary to DHS, echoed this sentiment on PBS’s Frontline, going so far as to say that claims that FEMA should have been more involved in the evacuation lead to “a logic path that takes you to pretty Orwellian nature.” See Frontline, “The Storm,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/etc/script.html (accessed April 21, 2011).

(26.) Perrow suggests that the accident at Three Mile Island, for example, did not begin when the reactor started to melt, but when the decision was made to construct a complicated nuclear power plant that would eventually, inevitably, have problems. His warning is that such accidents are “normal,” whereas approaches that emphasize tipping points suggest they are abnormal. See Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).

(27.) Perrow admits the argument can be persuasive but rejects it in this instance. See Charles Perrow, “Using Organizations: The Case of FEMA,” Understanding FEMA: Perspectives from the Social Sciences (June 11, 2006), para. 16, http://understandingkatrina.ssrc.org/Perrow/ (accessed April 21, 2011).

(28.) Eric Klinenberg, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); and Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster: A Social Autopsy of the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave,” Theory & Society 28 (1999): 239–95.

(29.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 127.

(30.) Ibid., 136, 268.

(31.) Ibid., 172–76.

(32.) Klinenberg applied this approach to Hurricane Katrina in a short essay co-authored with Thomas Frank, arguing that the devastation resulted largely from a series of decisions to privatize risk and dismantle government protections. The essay concludes with a warning that this same story will be told again after the flu pandemic that is on the inevitable horizon. See Eric Klinenberg and Thomas Frank, “Looting Homeland Security,” Rolling Stone (December 15, 2005). Frank later made this same argument in more general terms about neoliberals since the 1980s in The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared the Nation (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008).

(33.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 32.

(34.) Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster,” 242.

(35.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 207.

(36.) Ibid., 18–20.

(37.) Colin Hay, “Rethinking Crisis: Narratives of the New Right and Constructions of Crisis,” Rethinking Marxism 8 (1995): 63.

(38.) Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975).

(39.) Colin Hay, Re-Stating Social and Political Change (Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1996), 91.

(40.) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

(41.) Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster,” 242.

(42.) Klinenberg, Heat Wave, 180.

(43.) Ibid., 35.

(44.) Pierre Bourdieu, On Television, trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson (New York: The New Press, 1996), 6–7.

(45.) Ibid., 8.

(46.) Klinenberg, “Denaturalizing Disaster,” 278–79.

(47.) Simon Cottle, “Global Crises in the News: Staging New Wars, Disaster, and Climate Change,” International Journal of Communication 3 (2009): 504; and Frank Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time: The Populist Turn in Television Coverage of Hurricane Katrina,” Journalism 9 (2008): 95.

(48.) Cottle, “Global Crises in the News,” 503.

(49.) Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time,” 111.

(50.) When asked about the inconsistency in his statements regarding the preparedness of Louisiana and New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina, Brown was unapologetic: “Because I’m not going to go on television and publicly say that Ithink that the mayor and the governor are not doing their job, and they don’t have the sense of urgency. I’m not going to say that publicly. I don’t think that’s the proper thing to do. So yes, when I go on a news show, I’m going to talk about the state’s doing the best job they can and I’m pleased with the way they’re working. And then I’m going to get offthat news show, and I’m going to pick up the telephone, and I’m going to keep urging them to get busy and do what needs to be done.” Frontline interview, October 14, 2005, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/interviews/brown.html (accessed April 21, 2011).

(51.) Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time,” 96.

(52.) T. L. Dixon, “Understanding News Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: The Use of News Frames and Racial Stereotypes by Network Television News” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the NCA 94th Annual Convention, San Diego, California, November 20, 2008).

(53.) David Grusky and Emily Ryo, “Did Katrina Recalibrate Attitudes Toward Poverty and Inequality? A Test of the ‘Dirty Little Secret’ Hypothesis,” De Bois Review 3 (2006): 74.

(54.) Cottle, “Global Crises in the News,” 504–5.

(55.) Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski, “Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and Their Consequences in Hurricane Katrina,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 604 (2006): 57–81; cf. Cottle.

(56.) Lynne Duke, “The Category 5 General,” Washington Post, September 12, 2005; Nagin interview with WWL-AM (September 2, 2005). In many ways, Honoré was the perfect folk hero for the “warzone” narrative—a Louisiana native (Pointe Coupee), a graduate of Southern University–Baton Rouge, and the embodiment of a no-nonsense militaristic approach to evacuation. His depiction in corporate media coverage illuminates the dangerously simplistic view of military intervention that dominated such narratives, as Honoré’s own views on New Orleans emphasize the impact of health disparities, poverty, and other elements important to a political economy of vulnerability. See Russel Honoré, “Health Disparities: Barriers to a Culture of Preparedness,” Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 14 (2008): 5–7. We thank Cedric Johnson for drawing this point to our attention.

(57.) Tierney et al., “Metaphors Matter,” 61.

(58.) Durham, “Media Ritual in Catastrophic Time,” 105. Durham points out that regular media routines are established rather quickly and that the process of “redress” in the case of Hurricane Katrina needs greater attention.

(59.) Klein, The Shock Doctrine.

(60.) Of course, the coverage should not be idealized. The scholarship on media depictions of race during Hurricane Katrina has been troubling. Miller and Roberts argue that despite the inclusion of race and poverty in media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, white victims and white officials predominated in national news coverage. In this respect, African Americans were seen and not heard: “The authorities who spoke were white, the victims who spoke were white, and African Americans were seen only in the rest of the video and most often in a negative manner.” Andrea Miller and Shearon Roberts, “Race in National vs. Local Television News Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: A Study of Sources, Victims, and Negative Video” (paper present-ed at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Brabham, D.C., August 6, 2008, 19). Similarly, Dixon (2008) and Summers et al. (2006) suggest African Americans were associated with the majority of the lawbreaking in media coverage. See Samuel R. Summers et al., “Race and Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina: Analysis, Implications, and Future Research Questions,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 6 (2006): 1.

(61.) Honoré, “Health Disparities: Barriers to a Culture of Preparedness.”

(62.) Shaheem Read, “Juvenile Tears into Cash Money, Lil Wayne—And FEMA,” MTV, March 9, 2006, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1525684/20060308/juvenile.jhtml (accessed April 21, 2011); Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 464.

(63.) Laurie Ouellette and James Hay, Better Living through Reality TV (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2008), 156–58.

(64.) Ibid., 168.

(65.) Ibid., 63.

(66.) Ibid., 77–79.

(67.) Ibid., 218–19.

(68.) In another essay, we consider characterizations of the Mississippi River and the levees in New Orleans as a battleground in a “war on nature,” similarly arguing that the resonance of this phrasing indicates a broader problem in American politics. See Chad Lavin and Chris Russill, “The Buoyancy of Failure: Fighting Nature in New Orleans,” Space and Culture 9 (2006): 48–51.

(69.) Hurricane Katrina was not the new FEMA’s first disaster; various scholars have talked about the 2004 hurricane season as the agency’s trial by fire. But in a special issue of the political science journal The Forum printed soon after Hurricane Katrina, one article claimed that FEMA’s performance in 2004 “was viewed as a complete mismanagement,” while another asserted that it was “wellregarded.” Clearly, the jury was still out on the new FEMA until Katrina. See Amanda Lee Hollis, “A Tale of Two Federal Emergency Management Agencies,” and Patrick Roberts, “What Katrina Means for Emergency Management,” both in Forum 3, no. 3 (2005).