Naming Names After Katrina
August 30, 2007 by Kate
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the disaster we call Katrina. I was surprised that there was no reading of names, no pause for a moment to remember each soul lost, as there is when we remember so many other tragedies.
Every September 11th, for example, we can watch on TV as, for hours upon hours, names are read. It is a harrowing moment, and appropriate, I think, as we name each loss. Naming makes the loss real to those of us who imagine ourselves untouched. This is why a visit to the Vietnam Memorial is so deeply moving. To see the names, names we recognize even if we don’t know them, in such a long, long list, offers a moving representation of the sheer magnitude of the loss. Naming is an important element in the public mourning of both public and private loss. This assiduous accounting has not occurred in the New Orleans area even two years after the storm, and this has everything to do with what counts as loss, and whose death is deemed worth mourning. It has everything to do with racism.
Today’s Times-Picayune offers several reasons for this. Cited first is the “difficulty and subjectivity of the task itself.” Unlike other disasters, it is posited, people died from the effects of the hurricane, breached levees, and lack of aid long after the storm itself. The length of the disaster means that who died as a result of the storm and those who just happened to die around the time of the storm and breach are difficult to distinguish. The parish coroners arbitrarily set the date of October 1, 2005 as the final day to count deaths as part of the storm totals. But what about suicides committed by survivors up until today, or in the future? Will these numbers count, or not? The fact that these questions must be tangled over and compromises made and subjective decisions decided is not reason enough to abandon this important work.
These perceived obstacles say more about what we, as a culture, expect from our disasters than about any one particular disaster. We expect our disasters to be neat and tidy, to happen once and then be over. Our losses are tallied and then we move on, incredibly quickly. Too quickly, I think. On this two year anniversary the media pushed messages of hope. Hope is good, but it does not have to exist outside of sadness. It does not have to constrict our spaces of public mourning. But it so often does. In the case of Katrina we have a disaster whose aftermath is a long-term, daily disaster, one that started long before the storm and one that continues afterward. How do we tally losses here, losses that keep adding up?
But also, what is it about other disasters we memorialize such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 that makes us think those were one-shot deals whose consequences didn’t reverberate, didn’t cause losses that far exceeded the initial impacts of the bombs or planes?The names of the Katrina victims have not been released also, according to officials, because of concerns about privacy. To name names requires permission from kin, and this has become a stumbling block. No one is willing to do the work to obtain those permissions. Why not? Why is it so easy to get permission from the survivors of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, of the victims of September 11? And why this sudden concern for the privacy needs of an African American community long under the intense scrutiny and surveillance of the state?
This is another specious argument, another excuse, another way to say these lives are not worth naming. But they are, and a full accounting must be made. We must account if we are to properly mourn the real losses of our human community.