How America Handles Catastrophe

Covering Katrina weakened my faith in the country’s preparedness. The coronavirus has robbed me of it completely.

Vincent Laforet / Reuters

On the night of Wednesday, March 11, I stepped out of one catastrophe and into another.

My colleagues and I were working late, putting the finishing touches on Floodlines, an eight-part podcast about the long aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that would be launching the next day. I’d spent the better part of a year traveling back and forth between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, immersing myself in the stories of Katrina’s victims and heroes, trying to get my head around the immense human suffering and colossal failures of governance that followed the breaking of the levees 15 years ago.

We had endeavored to distill something meaningful and useful from that modern American disaster, in hopes that what we learned might—someday, somehow—help someone. But until we wrapped up our work, as I wiped my desk with bleach at 3 a.m., it had not occurred to me that I might be that someone, and that someday might be now.

Hours earlier, the Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and the actor Tom Hanks had revealed that they’d tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA had announced that it was suspending its season. Earlier that day, the World Health Organization had declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic. Our phones kept buzzing with a pileup of push notifications as we scrambled to finish our work.

As a reporter who covers disasters, I thought I’d become keenly attuned to them, prepared for them. When I first learned about a virus emerging in Wuhan, China, I remembered hearing the hum of generators and tasting the smoke of burned gasoline in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Still, the threat of COVID-19 felt abstract. Having arranged my work life for a long time around the monolith of Katrina, I could not see other shadows in its shade.

Or so I tried to tell myself. Now I think some part of me simply had not accepted the conclusions of my own Katrina reporting: that power corrupts and American political leadership often fails; that the country’s deep-woven racial and social inequities will eternally resurface to punish the poor and the black; that magical thinking about American ingenuity will not save us from natural disaster and human folly. Despite everything I knew, my faith in this country ran deeper than I realized. Until that night, I still thought America—whether through some miracle drug or cosmic, city-on-a-hill blessing—would escape or vanquish the virus.

And someday, surely, it will. But in the meantime, I don’t know when I will be able to see my immunocompromised mother again. I don’t know which friend or family member might end up stricken, or dead. Yesterday, I was reduced to witnessing the birth of my second child on FaceTime, because under quarantine rules I was not allowed in the delivery ward. I watch in despair as all across the country, yet again, poor folks and people of color bear the brunt of the economic and mortal costs of a disaster, a result of both historical political injustice and contemporary political ineptitude.

I’d like to think that COVID-19 has finally stripped me of my last illusions, as Katrina stripped New Orleanians of theirs. But whatever comes next, I will draw strength from the stories and memories of the thousands of Americans who confronted catastrophe before me—Katrina and Maria and 9/11 and the Great Depression and the 1918 flu and the Civil War and all the others—and persevered.

This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “The Disaster Beat.”

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