Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter February 26, 2007

Wake of the Flood: Crime, Disaster, and the American Risk Imaginary after Katrina

Jonathan S Simon

When the city of New Orleans was flooded after Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005, coverage of the beleaguered city was soon dominated by horrifying tales of violent crime. These stories, carried in all the major media, and verified by top officials of the City, turned out to be completely false. The major emphasis on violent crime, however, had immediate and dire consequences. Rescuers and victims of the flood lost precious time hunkering down instead of rescuing themselves or others. Escapees from the city faced stigma and sometimes armed resistance to their seeking refuge. Politicians responsible for one of the worst failures of government in American history found crucial political traction by railing against lawlessness. Now a year later, the most significant long term consequences of this “false memory” of criminal violence in the wake of the flood, may be in shaping America’s “risk imaginary.” For a long time American personal and governmental attitudes toward risk were shaped by the work accident as a model of modern risk and insurance as an exemplary tool of risk governance. In recent decades, those models and the images, narratives, and discourses supporting them, have been replaced by ominous images of grave technological disasters and fearsome violent crimes. These new figures haunting our risk imaginary have undercut support for broad measures of social risk spreading and encouraged privatization, isolation, and heavy reliance on police and prisons as tools of government. Now, the false memory of post-Katrina violence may reinforce those tendencies by condensing the disaster and crime fears of recent decades into a memorable and racially coded image of terror.

Published Online: 2007-2-26

©2011 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston