Vann R. Newkirk II has spent a lot of time thinking about disasters. Three years ago, the Atlantic staff writer was on the ground in Puerto Rico covering Hurricane Maria and its political fallout. He spent the past year reporting Floodlines, an eight-part documentary podcast covering the unequal toll Hurricane Katrina took on the residents of New Orleans.
Newkirk noticed a pattern after both events—the desire to return to normalcy, to the way things were before. It’s a pattern he sees emerging in this moment, too.
On this episode of the podcast Social Distance, Vann joins Katherine Wells and James Hamblin to explore what the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic might be—and how its effects will be molded by how the world looks right now.
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Listen to the episode here:
Katherine Wells: Many people are referencing Katrina right now, sometimes by calling this Trump’s Katrina. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio last week said that this is a Katrina in every city. How do you feel about that comparison?
Vann R. Newkirk II: I’ve never been super gung ho about the “Blank’s Katrina” formulation. I have a bit of a problem with people calling this Trump’s Katrina, because I was [in Puerto Rico] in the days after Maria, hearing people echo the same things that people said during Katrina. If this is his Katrina, what was that?
What we learned about Katrina is that the structural problems, the problems of will and of spirit that led us to the outcomes of Katrina, are not episodic. We make choices every day about who we care about and who we will provide care for. Katrina was an illustration of that, and the coronavirus pandemic will be too.
Wells: There was a narrative that this was a great equalizer, and that the virus didn’t care who you were or where you lived. But there are all of these stories now about disparate outcomes.
James Hamblin: It’s sort of an equalizer in that everybody is a little bit afraid, but some people are definitely at a much higher risk. The percentage of people in New York who have died who are black or Hispanic is twice as high as the number of people who are white who have died.
Wells: One of the things that was so obvious in retrospect about Katrina was that it didn’t create anything new. It just made the existing structures more obvious.
Newkirk: Right. One of the things that’s interesting about Katrina is that even people who believe this happened along the lines of inequality tend to believe that poor, black neighborhoods were flooded more. But that wasn’t what happened. The amount of flooding isn’t really correlated with the likelihood of a person being able to come back to the city in two years. Instead, it was policy that happened after the fact. It was the baked-in inequalities that had not a whole lot to do with the flood itself that affected the long-term outcomes for people. It’s about whether they were going to be able to rebuild, whether they were going to have the wherewithal or the capital to figure out all the insurance stuff, whether they were going to be able to get their grants and loans for coming back, and whether they were going to have advocates for them on the ground.
Hamblin: The analogy I’ve made is that this is a slow-moving hurricane that’s hitting the whole world. There’s time still for places and people to be helped as it’s unfolding. Even as behind-the-ball as we are, and given all our historical precedent and the systems we have in place that are so flawed, what can we do right now to stop some of the damage?
Newkirk: Communities are doing a much better job at providing leadership than the government. In places where state leaders have up until very recently denied that this was a problem, you’ve seen local actors get out there. You see hand-drawn signs in neighborhoods telling people to wash their hands to try to maintain six-foot distance. You see people organizing meals. That, to me, is one super-promising sign. As cynical as we are about government and how we are organized, people still help.
Wells: That was one of the big lessons from looking really closely at Katrina. The narrative at the time was that in a moment like this, chaos reigns. But that is not what happens. People take it upon themselves to help each other. Right now, you hear people are buying guns, and there’s fear that society is just going to collapse.
Newkirk: Our visions of apocalypse are just a reflection of the fact that lots of Americans have not seen disasters up close. I worry about weeks into the disaster, when your efforts at helping keep things together are not being matched by effort at higher levels. That’s when you see the real effects of long-term trauma and mental-health damage. People will get burned out.
All the nice ways that we have been spending our time uplifting loved ones, these are very high-maintenance, high-energy things we have to do. People are really good at doing them in the short term. People are really good at buckling down and supporting each other at doing hard things in hard times. But there is a time limit on that, and it should be the job of the government to take the burden from them when it can.
Hamblin: There a lot of cops out on the streets, a lot of patrol cars just rolling around New York. It feels like we’re using a lot of resources to patrol for potential crimes, and more resources go toward that and less toward this inevitable rise in people who can’t feed themselves.
Newkirk: You are what you spend on as a state and as a government. We’ve spent, in so many states, so much on punitive measures, on ways to keep people out of housing or ways to stop people from being “dependent” on the safety net, on ways to incarcerate people who do wrong. Those are going to be the effective systems when everything else falls down. In rural Mississippi, you can’t expect the hospitals to all of a sudden start working when they haven’t before. What we can expect is that cops are going to keep arresting people. People are going to keep contracting diseases in jail and prison, as is already happening. People are going to die that way. That’s just the bottom line.
We’re going to report on things as if they’re new, as if they are sudden manifestations of a nation in crisis. But really, all this is going to do is accelerate all the things that we have been spending on. It’s going to illustrate what we haven’t paid attention to. People like to say this disaster has opened our eyes. But having your eyes closed is a choice.
Wells: We’re all asking this question now: When will this end? When will life get back to normal? I feel like Katrina has a really complicated lesson for us about the aftermath.
Newkirk: I was talking to Andy Horowitz, who wrote a forthcoming book on Katrina, and he talks about how people willfully misunderstand what a disaster is. It's a manifestation, not an abrupt thing. It is so natural to wish to go back to the way things were before, the day before we understood the virus was in Wuhan.
But we should be interrogating that idea. Why do we want to go back there? We understand that the things that exist today are the things that are aiding and abetting this virus. If we know now that the entire construct of our system of prisons and jails is going to create reservoirs of disease that is going to be impossible to fight on a public-health front, why do we accept it as necessary? As bad as the COVID-19 pandemic is, there are lots of nastier germs out there with higher mortality rates that we could have been hit with. What if one of those happens and we still have the same exact system? Why do we want to go back to that?
Wells: Here’s the flip side, though. I’ve heard people say this is an opportunity. The optimistic among us see this is an opportunity to change things. It’s making all of our problems impossible to ignore, so now we can reconstruct everything, which is a lovely thought. But ... what we know about the aftermath of Katrina is that the way social structures were rebuilt ended up alienating and displacing a lot of people who had been there for generations. When people say this is an opportunity to rethink our structures, that scares me. I am worried about the vultures.
Newkirk: I’m worried about opportunism generally. But I think my answer to that would be, the vultures aren’t rethinking anything. They are doing what has been the rule of thumb in America for the past however many decades. They have power and they have money and they are exercising that power and money. That’s not a rethinking. The fact that aggressive, accelerated gentrification seems to follow every single disaster, that’s not rethinking. That is power doing as it will. That’s as mundane as oatmeal.
To me, there is rethinking and there’s changing the way you do things. There’s a next step that seems to be more difficult after a disaster, and that’s changing how we actually respond to these things. It’s realizing that the structures of inequality in America are what’s exacerbating and maybe even creating the problem in some places, and then it’s doing something to permanently change those conditions of inequality.
Wells: Has that ever happened after a disaster?
Newkirk: Well, there’s lots not to love about Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression. But to say that it wasn’t a radical reimagining of society would be untrue, too.
Hamblin: That’s the era I was thinking of too. I think there’s lots of problems with the war comparisons, but it’s closer to that than any natural disaster, because it’s affecting the whole country and whole world. September 11—it affected everybody, but didn't directly topple buildings in every city. But with this, there is no going back. After World War II, no one was asking when we would go back to normal life. The whole world was different.
Wells: I don’t know why I’m such a catastrophist.
Newkirk: You’re afraid that the radical change that is going to happen is going to be one that’s worse for everyone. It’s going to be one where the vultures take over.
Wells: That’s what happened after Katrina, no?
Newkirk: Right. It is a function of modern disaster. The phrase disaster capitalism is true. I watched it happen in Puerto Rico after Maria. It is a fact of modern life. You’re worried, and I’m worried too, that it’s going to be the rule that dictates our big choices that are made in response to this pandemic.
But one reason I can never be a true pessimist about humans is the humans themselves. People, especially when pushed to extreme situations on the brink, have ways of surprising us and doing things that seem impossible. People figure out ways to go up against powers and trends that have until certain points in history been unshakable. That’s where I always place my hope.