Weathering the Storm Together (Torn Apart by Race, Gender

and Class)
Felice Batlan

NWSA Journal, Volume 20, Number 3, Fall 2008, pp. 163-184 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/nwsa.0.0052

For additional information about this article

Access Provided by City University of New York at 11/22/12 5:31AM GMT

Weathering the Storm Together
(Torn Apart by Race, Gender, and Class)
This genre-bending piece blurs the line between a primary document and
a secondary document, a folktale and academic scholarship. It provides
a first-hand account from when the author, then a professor at Tulane,
first learned of a potential hurricane, through evacuation, homelessness,
and the reoccupation of New Orleans—what she refers to as a newly
constituted “city of men.” Using the analytical lens of gender and feminist theory, the author attempts to make sense of her own experience of
Katrina, while situating the hurricane within a larger historical framework. Ultimately, the story, however, is about how the author, a white
woman, and her evacuation companion, an older black man, struggled to
find ways to communicate and express their grief, anger, and fears across
the chasm of race, gender, and class.
Keywords: New Orleans / Katrina / evacuation / disasters / gender / race /
masculinity / FEMA / rape
It is as if something that seemed inalienable to us,
the securest of our possessions, were taken from us,
the ability to exchange experiences.
—(Benjamin 1969, 83)1

I do not know how to tell my story.2 There are too many strands and complexities to fit into one narrative. Yet I imagine that through the process of
writing, I can create order out of disorder; that I can slowly piece together
all the fractured shards of my life in New Orleans. As a historian, I yearn
to explain the past and as a human I long to “exchange experiences”—to
offer my story, to engage in my own cultural production. As a feminist,
I recognize the autobiographical form as a way to disrupt the seemingly
objective, to force explanations and theories back to the register of lived
experiences. As a historian of gender, it is through this lens that I perceive the larger narrative of Katrina as one about race, gender, politics,
segregation, neoliberalism, and the visible results of the end of the New
Deal state. As an attorney, I can speak of legal needs unmet and of due
process violations. On a more intimate scale, one that keeps me awake at
night, that makes me afraid of the dark, I recognize Katrina to be part of
my own history.
In the days and months after Katrina, the word “unbelievable” appeared
in every conversation from describing the images of a submerged New
Orleans, to trying to get gas, to enduring endless FEMA double-speak. It
©2008 NWSA Journal, Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall)

In telling this as my own personal tale. I want to take my readers through a lived journey that really has no beginning or end.” During much of the year. where performance and the carnivalesque interwove with everyday life. the smell of jasmine and gardenias in the air. a city where one could take on a multitude of identities. found myself a law professor at Tulane and very single after the breakup of a decade-long relationship. I hope to keep my story dialogic through refusing the conventions of academic prose—the objectivity of the third person voice. But what does it mean to be unable to believe what was lived reality? Perhaps it meant that there was no way to explain what had so quickly become of people’s lives. African American social and pleasure clubs composed primarily . Still. the careful sifting through evidence as a way to avoid personal bias. Most of all. French. the heavy humidity that caused mold to sprout everywhere. New Orleans worked its charms upon me. what had become of my own life. the food. Further. and the use of extensive references that allow an author to hide behind others’ voices and that gestures towards truth. and an utter sense of being lost. Falling in Love In the summer of 2005. As a historian well-acquainted with the racial history of this city and region. It was unbelievable to me. grief. the fear of being revealed to harbor irrational fears and hatreds. At the same time my lived experience was one of unmitigated fear. and Spanish cultures. in narrating this story. What so enticed me was not the perfection of New Orleans but its imperfections—its aura of decay. of fragments that only tentatively form a whole. a lifelong New Yorker. the people. I hope to make the relationships forged and broken by the Storm live in defiance of its destructiveness. is that I recognize my own class and race privilege and how it cushioned and protected me during and after the storm. the visible expression of African. I attempt to create a narrative of intertwined stories. I played with who I was and what I might become. I knew better than to fall into the myth of moonlight and magnolias. to us. I imagined it as a Mississippi Venice—forever in the process of sinking but by some miracle destined to escape such a demise. and what in part makes the writing of this story so difficult. I intend to challenge the boundaries between what historians understand to be a primary source and a secondary source. I fell in love with the architecture. and especially the music. and the feeling of living in a city that was on the brink of ruin. But most of all. the sense of potential danger that lurked in the streets. I. I loved the streets and the “second lines. we who were caught in the storm and its aftermath. As a femme sole living in New Orleans. the broken sidewalks.164 Felice Batlan was not just unbelievable to those in front of their television sets in other parts of the country and the world.

in fact experienced that particularly white sense of perverse pride. allowing the rhythm to transport me. in half—dramatically and drastically cleaving it from the predominately white and high-profile French Quarter. segregation. the historic African American community and center of African American culture. and dined in restaurants that hired off-duty policemen to ensure the safety of its patrons.” still I tutored in the New Orleans grammar schools—those crumbling buildings—and witnessed the inculcation of discipline that too often passes for education of the poor in this country. Fearing coming across as something of a “lady bountiful. In a blatant act of cultural appropriation and sheer admiration. as an American but especially as a resident of New Orleans. I benefited from the wages of whiteness. treasuring the opportunity to hear their stories of a New Orleans that no longer exists and may never have been. but I was not naïve. as many whites imagined the neighborhoods in which second lines occurred to be dangerously wracked with crime. New Orleans all jazz radio station. you can move. With building anticipation. Indeed. As I would spend Sunday afternoons writing and listening to WWOZ. “For a white girl. Everyday. I would wait for the announcement of a second line and quickly get into my car. which literally cut Treme. made my way to second lines. chaos. when someone would compliment me by saying.” I was also often one of the few white people who participated. Especially striking was the building of highway I-10. I read of how urban development destroyed some of the principal sites of African American culture and community. I was often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of talent demonstrated by the musicians and dancers.4 I also befriended an older group of jazz musicians. I mimicked the steps of the dancers and did not mind. moving crowd that ricocheted between spontaneity.6 I was often shocked that large segments of the city were practically abandoned and leafed my way through old books of the city that showed these streets as once vibrant centers of African American life. New Orleans African American cultural performances are marked by how they blur the line between observer and participant.5 I saw the staggering poverty. I felt empowered when we second liners stopped traffic.Weathering the Storm Together 165 of working-class people stage parades through their neighborhoods. which had its own private security patrol.7 I lived in the primarily white Garden District. I took great pleasure in my newfound city. I ignored such advice. and racism in New Orleans. I was also keenly aware of how. Each parade has a brass band that plays the traditional rhythms of New Orleans while paraders and dancers (the second liners) follow the band. and twice proudly paraded alongside the Mardi Gras Indians.3 Some of my friends would advise me not even to drive through these streets. I would join the second line and spend hours dancing through the streets. amazed by being part of a pulsating. sweating. and control. I saw . All are invited to participate in the second line.

my friend K. I went out on a date.9 He. and some fellow musicians were able to book rooms in one of the old large brick hotels—this was known as a “vertical evacuation. I never felt more like the stereotype of a helpless woman. phoned. I leaped at the invitation. I did not realize how stark those contradictions would become nor how difficult my negotiating between them would be. and I continually sought to learn more. eat. there was talk of past hurricanes. K came over to my place. I happily divvied up the responsibilities along traditional gendered lines. 2005. Evacuation was clearly a family affair. The furniture was too heavy.166 Felice Batlan young black men seated in wheelchairs who were victims of gun violence. Tried. I marveled at her strength and ingenuity and doubted the veracity of the story.” He explained that he had lived in New Orleans for seventy years. after such little time.8 I could not imagine what I would do. I gathered up some food supplies. I heard a story of a great grandmother who was Cherokee and lived in the bayous. I felt deeply marked by my single status and profoundly alone. if I could not get out. At dinner. She spent the hurricane of 1909 in a canoe strapped to an oak tree. never evacuated. I had lived in New Orleans for one year and marveled at how comfortable I felt. I danced. and safe. couldn’t reach the windows. I was thrilled for the masculine help and found myself looking forward to what could not possibly be more than a few interesting days spent with “my family. drink. They apologized that there was no time to help and no room in their family cars for me. held my attention in a way no other city’s problems and pleasures had ever done. By August 25. Of Hurricanes and Hardy or Helpless Women On Friday night. true. All morning I spoke with friends. I thought.”10 . in a city of such complexity. I couldn’t use a hammer. Then. and maybe even fun. and wait out the storm. He explained that we would have a good time. At six o’clock on Saturday morning my landlord called. I drank. A vertical evacuation was all that was required. I called the airlines and was told there was still room on flights to Denver or Chicago but that the airlines were pulling planes out of New Orleans and might decide to cancel all remaining flights at any moment. his family. and the idea of evacuating alone terrified me. I would be part of his extended family. while he moved my furniture away from windows and then left to shop for hardware. where I would go. play music. black and white. I ate. The contradictions themselves fascinated me. ordering me to take in the patio furniture and begin boarding the house. yet I did not look away nor hide from the problems of my new city. a renowned African American jazz musician. August 26. in fact. he assured me. I had only a vague idea that a hurricane was approaching. New Orleans’ contradictions.

We needed to leave New Orleans. As K loaded my car with his musical instruments. Daisy. Like some hackneyed story from the Civil Rights era of interracial couples. and a box of archival documents collected as a graduate student. I grabbed my passport. We should not vertically evacuate. In some sense. My childhood was filled with lessons of what one had to do when fleeing pogroms—sew your jewelry into your skirt. This was going to be the big one. the awkward billboards beckoning us to experience “real” plantation life. We would take mine and the family would meet up later—somewhere. Go Saturday night was eerie. and cars. immediately. a policeman pulled up. The policeman entered my house wanting to make sure that it was my car that this black man was loading and that I was “safe. like his grandfather’s banjo and expensive German cymbals. giving him his medications. K. just the chemical iridescent air of cancer alley. We stopped at gas stations for him to get fresh air and I fueled up the car. pulling trailers. As the ill-defined companion of a black man. phoned me just after midnight. and boats. belongings. he was correct. I learned that he. By four o’clock in the morning. I was possibly no longer viewed as correctly performing white southern womanhood. This is what happens. the ones he most wanted to preserve. my jewelry. take cash for bribes. remember your documents. he did not direct me to the hotel room he had described. I could feel the ugly stares. I felt as if I was losing my protected racial status. had high blood pressure. animals. the ones that K had traveled as a child. I thought of my grandparents immigrating from Russia. As our journey continued. He had a bad feeling.Weathering the Storm Together 167 Go. K was angry but not shocked or even surprised. muggy. with a white woman in the middle of the night— storm or no storm.” Was he forcing me to go with him? Was I sure that I wanted to go? I was stunned by this interaction—a blunt reminder of my status as a protected white woman in the South and the brutal history of black men suspected of having relationships with white women. hot. something I did not actively seek but now felt acutely vulnerable without. No other cars were in sight. was feeling physically ill. To my surprise. who had left to finalize arrangements. and intensely quiet. Our prescribed . K. feeding him. gas attendants who refused to talk to me or give me directions. who seemed so large and strong to me. “Whose car is it?” he demanded. we would figure that part out later. we were on the back roads out of New Orleans. he explained. three days worth of clothing. and then suddenly the extraordinary traffic of half a million people just trying to get out. like so many black men. diabetes. His children and grandchildren needed his car. Go.” He asked me if I was voluntarily accompanying “that man. when a black man is in a white neighborhood. I suddenly became the caretaker.11 Cars were stuffed with families. K joked that we should call ourselves driving Mr. heart disease.

“Hey Mon. on friends’ couches. They understood the importance of normalcy and clung to their performance as “ladies. it all changed. I stayed at my dissertation advisor’s house. I gave K my car. I served him food. unannounced. roles that had partly landed us together in this fix. I wore a sweat suit and sneakers. concocting a strategy for avoiding massive traffic was our primary concern. The women of the family—wonderful. class and racial roles. K recalled that the children of friends lived nearby and by some miracle we found their home and arrived. stockings. were quite suddenly in flux. but I soon realized that I. I accepted as simple fact there was no available room anywhere between Baton Rouge and Houston that night. K insisted that I park away from the windows and that he stay in the car. like so many whites in New Orleans. I made quick plans to fly to New York where many of my friends were located. Everybody laughed that K had found himself a white girl to wait on him. changed the TV channels for him. She’s a Refugee” Upon arriving in New York.” Whenever they let me. I took over dishwashing. mashed potatoes. As I made my escape. We learned that K’s home located in Treme was under water. carefully dressed. had on makeup. As we listened to news reports. About ninety miles from New Orleans.168 Felice Batlan gender. welcoming people—spent the time cooking fried chicken. I could not imagine what these hard-working women thought of me. jewelry. and the men slept and watched TV. By Monday the storm was finished. I checked into a motel. whom I would ask for help. For a brief couple of hours. I stopped at hotel after hotel. K slept. The elderly parents of the people we stayed with found out that their home was ruined. It remained unknown what had happened to mine. As orders were issued to evacuate the entire city and we realized that none of us would be going home soon. and what I would do. a white woman. My women . We heard the news that the levees had breached. The other women. believing that there was no chance of a white woman and a black man getting a room together. and red beans and rice. issues of class and race resettled into familiar patterns of privilege. We decided we had engaged in a needless and exhausting evacuation and began calculating when we should set off for home. arriving with not much beyond a box of paper and possessing no cooking skills. lived on high ground. I was confronted with where I would go. In a second. We joined about ten evacuees as we crowded into our hosts’ two bedroom house. I thought he was paranoid. New Orleans had escaped the worst.12 Fourteen hours after our trip began. Each time. we found ourselves among the sugarcane fields and bayous of southwest Louisiana. although I would secretly find them rewashing the dishes after I left the kitchen. fetched him small things he asked for. it appeared that once again.

Welcomed into their enforced inactivity and insomnia. I told them I was from New Orleans. Yet the . I usually failed. and put into place “the Felice scale. where I had received my doctorate. food and gas was greater than mine. dress. In some sense. A friend from graduate school temporarily loaned me her apartment in Brooklyn and one day. I had visions of myself as a bag lady. and a world away from being a respected professor. Still. I became the stable hub and in some ways the masculine breadwinner of a very extended family. I too became a stoop-sitter through endless nights. opened its doors to me. I was familiar with the stories of how middle-class women became homeless through the loss of a husband. brush my hair. and had no permanent address to put on the multitude of bureaucratic forms which are part of modern life. I was glad to get back to my research concerning how women settlement workers a century ago had provided legal aid and legal education to poor immigrant communities. I wore hand-me-down clothes. the Jamaican men on the stoop next door called me over. It seemed like everyone in my world just wanted to go home. being thankful for the safety nets I could access.Weathering the Storm Together 169 friends gave me toiletries. too. fed me. I passed for being okay. unkempt. motel rooms. I. What Makes a FEMA House a Home? As my New Orleans friends depended upon my social capital. resources. capitalist time had ceased to exist for me. employment. When I was not on the stoop or in line to send money. I felt that I had become what so many of us fear—homeless. or the physical destruction or forced sale of a home. traveling from place to place. in the quite correct perception of others I had a multitude of resources and a very relative stability. I was sending cash to friends and acquaintances from New Orleans whose desperation for clothes. and put on some makeup. If in my own mind I was homeless and lost.” If I was able to shower.” I ate Jamaican patties with them. in turn. she’s a refugee. I did not know what the future held for me. I veered between feeling utterly bereft. I no longer had any place I actually had to go during the day. depended upon my connections to others with even more social. New York University. I felt as if I were a refugee. Increasingly. lugging her possessions. and material. I spent hours talking to an acquaintance stationed in Iraq. “Hey mon. News of my “grade” would travel. was constantly moving. I sat on doorstops and spoke to homeless people. this scale reflected whether I could at least superficially and correctly perform my gender. giving me the opportunity to leave my borrowed stoop to work on my manuscript about women’s legal activism in latenineteenth century New York. and ruing the inherent class and race privileges that those safety nets signaled. The response.

lesbians. The law firm needed someone in New Orleans who could collect firsthand stories. or were a married heterosexual couple—only one person in the household could receive benefits. until a New York law firm contacted me and invited me to begin working on a pro-bono class action suit against FEMA. write about activism and a moral sense of obligation to one’s community when mine was in so much trouble? This state of dissonance remained. feed. and I was shocked that with all the news coverage I had pored over during the weeks since Katrina. I can only compare the postapocalyptic landscape that we encountered to photographs I have seen of Dresden after the fire bombings in the Second World War. The first person to file for benefits in a household received them. friends.170 Felice Batlan dissonance between writing about these settlement women providing legal services. comfortably ensconced in the academy. Whether your family culture was one that relied on grandparents as much as parents. leaving wives without recourse. in situations were husbands and wives were separated. who had fled to friends of his own up north. Nor did this policy recognize that the majority of households had two income earners and that the storm itself had separated households. Men had more mobility than women who had children and relatives to care for. It was unbelievable. and often these people were men. and often not even on speaking terms. and the reality of New Orleans and the plight of the folks I had left behind was too great. I contacted K. and other unmarried partners all constituted a legitimate household. were poor and lived with four families to make ends meet. Only this time I was going home. Class. husbands filed for and received the family’s benefits. Ironically and perhaps for the first time. I had not understood the extent of the disaster. and race all played a part in FEMA’s policies. How could I. It failed to take into account how people. especially the poor. As I learned that my home had not been severely damaged and that water and electricity had been restored. and we arranged to journey back to New Orleans together. gender. City of Men Approximately seven weeks after we had evacuated the city. and women who cared for nonbiological children or sickly relatives.13 This policy also had a discriminatory impact on women. Underlying this policy was the presumption that people lived in nuclear families with one breadwinner. FEMA only provided benefits such as emergency housing and cash assistance to one person per household. boarders. were two lesbians living together for even a short time. federal law unintentionally recognized that gays. . Furthermore. and clothe. I began planning to relocate to New Orleans for the second time. yet these factors often remained invisible. actually lived which was often with multiple family members.

For those women who did return. and volunteers. They picked through moldy items and began the process of demolishing homes. Yet even with such a practical reconfiguration of gender. Following a disaster. each man was on his own. disaster aid workers. especially one that was unarmed. The landscape itself was marked with signs exclaiming. men returned to New Orleans to repair homes. Army Corps of Engineer personnel. the elderly. friends and even policemen urged that I “get myself a gun and learn how to use it. and the infirm. and the women in his circle. including me.14 There were a lot of men.15 Out of practicality. utility workers. there were an unknowable number of contractors who seemed to pour in from the southern states. “Looters will be shot. and other Central and South American countries. even one who is heavily armed.” New Orleans. men cooked and cleaned for themselves and each other. There were men from the military who paraded through the streets. one helped in any way possible. by men. In some small part. they claimed. work boots. Furthermore. women’s clothing became masculine and uniform—tee-shirts. an ethos of aggressive self-defense emerged among many of the white men that I knew. his property. as I abruptly concluded. Everywhere one looked there were men. Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in their futuristic black uniforms. There was a sense that the world of fashion and femininity had no place within this war zone environment and there was too much to do to worry about it.16 Although there was little actual crime in the city. Over and over. no less than men. As if a mythical Wild West had materialized. gender functioned in newly complicated ways. missionaries. it was as if all the women had become men since if one was in the city. gender still very much mattered. and drove their Humvees down the narrow lanes of the Garden District. with a dearth of women to perform the feminized tasks of daily survival. Exacerbating this. while women stayed in new locations caring for children. because schools and hospitals throughout the city were closed. crime. space becomes masculine. as the most important skills required for immediate rescue and rebuilding are understood as possessed primarily. Silently. jeans.” A collective fantasy emerged that danger.Weathering the Storm Together 171 Another strange aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans was the gender composition. they drove . Women. Men I socialized with walked around heavily armed. the response to Katrina was deeply militarized as tens of thousands of soldiers clamored into the Gulf region. and by way of their behavior they also expressed their fear that New Orleans was now a dangerous place for a white man. Within this masculinized and racially tense urban space. cleared massive amounts of heavy and often contaminated debris from homes and streets. responsible for protecting himself. and disorder lurked everywhere. was now a dangerous place for a single woman. migrant construction workers from Mexico. guns became more obvious and ubiquitous. or even exclusively. On the other hand.

Later these homes stood empty as victims slept in cars and parks. Those fairly rational fears I could contain. This fed into their sense of masculine power and their rationale for being armed. I hated these errands into the wilderness. friends who were temporarily settled elsewhere asked that I sift through their devastated homes for some item—an insurance certificate. What I could not manage was my fear of being not robbed or murdered. Since this described most of the city. by construction workers.17 Although in the immediate days after Katrina looting of businesses did occur. the darkness. I dreaded the overpowering smell of mold. introduced myself. The pervasive climate of fear seemed deeply racialized and gendered. I imagined that they thought. but raped. adoption papers. food. this did not forestall my own fear from rising in my throat. The guns made these men hypermasculine. my fear stemmed from a sense of transgressing what a responsible woman did to protect her own safety. I brought male friends whose guns were carefully tucked into their waistbands. On some of my errands. but their fear seemed deeply feminine. shelter. At night.19 In part. “The little woman needs protection. by the unknown masked assailant lunging at me from the dark. At times. Perhaps the question is: why during a disaster when people are in need of water. First was avoiding deserted or poorly lit spaces. which was deeply gendered and went beyond the fear of disease and dirt. passports. and opened a legal education clinic under the . my inability to avoid the dark and the emptiness prompted self-criticism—at moments I thought that I would be responsible for my own rape. I visited the FEMA disaster center. My deeply history-inflected mind made the connection between the present situation and how slave owners continually feared that black rage would be turned against whites and white owned property. the city was pitch dark and large sections were deserted. the utter destruction.18 Although I recognized the racism present in the fears of those around me. and my own unmitigated fear. what most struck me was that private homes in unflooded areas within walking distance of the Superdome and Convention Center remained untouched. the pervasive dampness.172 Felice Batlan with guns on the passenger seat and literally slept with them next to their beds. FEMA Style Within days of returning to New Orleans. as my white friends imagined the danger they were guarding against to come exclusively in the form of black men.20 After all. and supplies is private property respected at all? There seemed to be a massive psychological transference in which the actual crimes of the government in its failure to provide for or even rescue hurricane victims or build an adequate levee system was transferred onto imaginary black male bodies. I have never seen men so afraid. I feared being raped by the men in the National Guard.” Rescue.

few attorneys who could handle cases. FEMA had infinite reasons for denying aid. In the early weeks. By far what most people needed was housing and cash assistance. which was suffering from a serious shortage of lawyers. we metaphorically opened for business. the rules seemed to change on an hourly basis. One long-time FEMA supervisor informed me that FEMA policy was to ensure that employees did not become too sympathetic to disaster victims and a community. FEMA would then transfer the employee. were intended to make immigrants aware of their legal rights. the traditional conception of legal aid needed to be rethought. engaged in community legal education projects. The FEMA center was an exceedingly depressing place. People literally waited for hour after hour. As soon as FEMA personnel. day after day. Most frustrating was that FEMA’s actual rules and regulations were not public. One of the elements of the turn of the twentieth century settlements that I most admired was how women settlement workers. FEMA had established a sort of one-stop disaster aid center. and writing paper. We would not provide legal advice but rather legal education on the topics that people needed. be confidential? Furthermore. including the single household rule. in a supposedly democratic country based upon the rule of law. our cell phones. Often one FEMA representative would espouse one set of rules and another representative would provide the opposite interpretation. we began to collect as much relevant legal material as we could with the idea of putting it into lay language. and individual applicants. most without law degrees. Such projects. Simultaneously. . to speak to a FEMA representative and to register for aid. which meant that FEMA was their first and most important stop. unable to begin to piece together their lives. This still baffles me. I also understood that settlement workers too often tried to impose their own bourgeois norms on immigrant populations. How could the rules of an administrative agency. the settlement houses saw law as only one small part of the solution. became familiar with issues. however. 21 I tried to employ the best parts of the settlement house model in my own work. problems.22 Along with a group of other lawyers. mostly women. lines would form early each morning.Weathering the Storm Together 173 auspices of the local legal aid organization. Cautiously. in part. My most important function became determining which FEMA representative would provide the interpretation that an applicant needed. With literally hundreds of people coming through the center daily. The term “clinic” is really too grandiose a term. and I simply appropriated a folding table. Many found themselves at the center after FEMA denied their first application for assistance and such delays caused victims endless anxiety and anguish as they found themselves in a FEMA-created limbo. therefore making quick transfers of personnel necessary. With just a few volunteers. and the closure of courts and most administrative agencies in New Orleans.

as the lines formed at the FEMA center. At FEMA. In any case. and most of all a place to live. Although I would like to tell tales of the women and children I saw. all of New Orleans seemed to wind their way through the center—men. we traditionally envision lines of women with children. women. the silence of the center was deafening. heavily armed Blackwater security guards. now joined this line. contractors. poor. men resisted this feminized posture. In the three months that we staffed our table.23 The slightest displays of anger would attract their attention. As time went on. . these men were no longer independent breadwinners but were deeply dependent with little control over their lives.” Such tropes situated these men as active citizens entitled to aid rather than as passive victims hoping for help. At times. mortgage companies. People’s problems were remarkably similar. children. At first. lawyers. I would protest that I did not need such protection.174 Felice Batlan She also confided that FEMA’s overarching goal was not to help individuals but rather to jump-start the economy in a disaster area by sending personnel who required lodging. lost documents of all sorts. tenants. Korea. Desert Storm . “I served my country loyally in “WWII. I found this heartbreaking. . just increasing desperation. men. insurance companies. The FEMA aid process required extraordinary passivity with endless waits. and many would begin their stories to me about the denial of FEMA aid with the line. on their way to or from Iraq or Afghanistan. Although I wanted to dislike these hypermasculine guards. she found it policy. Unlike dominant understandings of masculinity. people searching for loved ones (alive and dead). patrolled the center. They were now dependent upon some form of government aid for which they had to plead. in actuality there were shockingly few children. black and white. the clientele became poorer and less white. At one level. including conflicts with landlords. At times. government agencies. white. I once again became the white woman in need of protection from the imaginary black bogeyman while these white men enacted the roles of being officers and gentlemen. The reality was that at least part of me was glad that they stood by my side. These stories struck me as both commendable strategies as well as exhibitions of gender privilege. Vietnam. we probably saw thousands of people. When we picture the typical welfare office. . There was surprisingly little anger. such bold and proud narratives did nothing to make FEMA benefits actually appear. rich. and other necessities. they were friendly and insisted that they walk me to my car each evening. but they would win the day with some corny line like “How could you deny me a couple of minutes with a beautiful professor?” On these walks. probation officers. food. Each day. mercenaries in the truest sense. I saw many of the men who entered FEMA space as becoming feminized—so many had lost their jobs and homes. Iraq. The night now terrified me. black.

In a pique. One evening.” I was stunned and thoroughly confused. but he was not through yet. What was he saying? Was he implying that he ultimately possessed the ability to engage in sexual violence and chose not to do so and therefore I should submit to his other demands?24 Was he saying. K rightly seethed with anger over what had become of his life and more specifically over his dependence on me. I am not your maid. In my exhaustion and frustration. chandeliered. and a lawyer and that I had not worked so hard to become any man’s maid. K. I informed K that I had graduated from law school. we bickered viciously. bring me that. I wondered whether he had a point. held a PhD. whose house had been destroyed. I was reminded of Jane Addams’ writing about the subjective need for settlement houses. I seethed as my house began to fill with what were left of his possessions and growing piles of dirty dishes and clothes. I was making him feel like a stereotype. the relationship between K and I quickly deteriorated. Addams astutely reminded her readers that the settlement houses did more for the settlement worker than for the clients. an outcome that neither of us imagined back on that hot humid first night of our evacuation. useful work. They provided women settlement workers with an identity.” I began to respond with that stereotypical harried wife’s line: “Get it yourself. My work gave me a newfound status and removed me from the category of victim. Of course he had never tried to rape me. K was infuriated and screamed that I thought that I was better than he because of some fancy degrees and accused me of treating him like a “nigger. and wonderful man.” Without romantic love as a bond. one that includes rapist among its other elements? I could not decipher these words as they echoed through my lovely.Weathering the Storm Together 175 “And I Never Tried to Rape You” As I began to spend increasing amounts of time at FEMA. the simmering tensions between K and I came to a terrible head in which issues of race.” I felt shocked.” he continued in a deeply offended tone. He wondered out loud why I was willing to spend my days helping other people when I was not willing to bring him a bowl of ice cream. I felt that he constantly made illegitimate housekeeping and caretaking demands upon me. only slightly damaged antebellum home. I had found a new professional identity. K was a gentle. I threw all my class and race privilege in his face. “and you sleep down the hall with your door open and I have never tried to rape you. was a professor. What I heard was “bring me this. . “I have lived in your house all this time. kind. At the FEMA center. class. Our usual spate of “Get me”/“Get it yourself” was sparked by a request for a plate of canned mango slices. I gained control over my own life while I advised other people about how to proceed with their own. and an alternative to marriage. and gender collided like tectonic plates. was now living with me.

one being that I believed that I could not survive another evacuation. the least damaged. he saw my neighborhood slowly coming back to life while the black sections of town still remained devastated. I was more than happy to be a legal caretaker in the public sphere. if only to a certain degree. our argument was about gender. Instead K tells me that I saved his life. and I tell K that he saved mine. anger. K had lost his livelihood. As I was regaining a modicum of control over my life. For months following the storm. Perhaps he viewed himself in this way. K. As his own identity receded perhaps he feared that I viewed him as just another poor. was asking me to take on the most traditional responsibilities of a wife or daughter. Yet such an analysis is drastically too simple to be satisfying. This role. both paid and unpaid. my self-image hinged on rejecting the role of domestic caretaker. and a feminist. community. Ultimately I decided to move from New Orleans for a multitude of reasons. Furthermore. an activist. he had little control over his own. We are still friends. homeless black man—another potential criminal. living with me in the white section of town. K had lost his own identity and perhaps feared emasculation and impoverishment. there was little work in New Orleans for a jazz musician. I had worked for a great deal of my life to evade the traditional domestic responsibilities associated with being a woman. Perhaps in the smallest and most imperfect way our relationship is a microcosm of America—a black man dependent on a white women and a white woman dependent on a black man without the ability to communicate the depth of our confusion. perhaps K simply saw me as a woman who felt too superior to him as a black man to offer him the care and comfort that provided the security he was craving. Although I cannot be sure. K eventually found other accommodations and then received a FEMA trailer. however. Perhaps one of his only ways of enacting masculinity was to ask me to perform the traditional role of a woman. To a significant degree. but we never speak about that awful night when inexplicable accusations rang loudly in the air. I find it strange to think in these terms. and fear. with my possessions in storage. As an outgrowth of my embracing a professional identity. but I am part of the Great Katrina . home.176 Felice Batlan No “The End” in Sight As I did not know how to begin my story. and possessions. I do not know how to end it. I had regained a professional identity and had somewhere to go and something to do during the day that made me feel empowered. a rapist. In contrast. I was even comfortable fulfilling the role of breadwinner for others. From my perspective and in the heat of the moment. another period of homelessness. confirmed my identity as a lawyer. I now live in Chicago. I lost the lease on my house and found myself living in someone else’s home. Within months following K’s departure from my home.

I continue to struggle against the multiple dispossessions that Katrina visited upon me and so many others—a dispossession not only of one’s material goods and community but also of one’s “ability to exchange experiences” or that which should be “the securest of possessions” as Benjamin’s epigram to this essay reminds me. Yet I say even this with hesitation. or at least pieces of them. tried to bring my training as a feminist scholar to the telling of my own tale even if my telling of it serves to elevate my.S. Perhaps it is only these hundreds of thousands of individual fractured stories that can form a whole and my story is neither unique nor representative of other people’s stories. as we felt that others simply could not understand. we might actually come to believe what seemed so unbelievable and inexpressible. Send correspondence to fbatlan@kentlaw. For months in New Orleans following the storm. By continually renarrating such tales. This story has been part of my attempt to understand how however. She holds a doctorate in U. She has written extensively on the gendered origins of public interest law and the role that women played as legal activists and lay lawyers in the late nineteenth century. class.Weathering the Storm Together 177 Migration. It became commonplace to say that there were as many Katrina stories as people. Felice Batlan. is now an assistant professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. Once again. and gender functioned together in the most intimate ways in my life and in the much larger story of the aftermath of the storm. for there is a tremendous difference between those who voluntarily left New Orleans like me and those primarily poor and disproportionately black Americans with deep roots in New Orleans who could not return. like prayer itself. the ones off the tourist maps. Notes 1. these stories were for the natives. . I have. We told our stories. we can bring the disaster of Katrina back to lived experience while attempting to recognize that our own lives played out and were constructed against a potent historical backdrop that infused every moment of the present. over and over as if through repetition. experience of the storm and simultaneously exposes me to the judgment of others. all that one ever spoke about was how we survived the aftermath of Katrina. relatively privileged. having left Tulane. History and specializes in feminist jurisprudence and women’s legal history. Lipsitz (1988) uses the Benjamin epigram that I used to begin his article on the Indians. Yet like New Orleans’ most treasured places and customs. words to describe even my own status fail me.

but remained impoverished” (White 2006. which occurs after Easter. and genocide while simultaneously creating a space of solidarity. and Gillian Nichols-Smith. Over 27% of New Orleans lived below the poverty line. She also writes that whites “are so traumatized by media coverage of violence in the city’s low-income neighborhoods that they would not dare to drive into them” (477). and possessions during the storm. . and songs. fun. Residents and participants form a second line of dancers. As Marline Otte (2007. costumes. Each Indian spends months constructing his or her highly elaborate costume of feathers and beadwork. Many Indians lost their homes. chants. Others point to its origins in the Wild West shows that traveled through New Orleans in the late nineteenth century. laid-back and stable. . .133.178 Felice Batlan 2. Helen Regis (1999) has written an extraordinary article on second lines. 22). 5. The median household income was $27. George Lipsitz (1988. the income of white people had remained at least double that of African Americans (Frailing 2007. social. organized. Some say the practice derives from slaves escaping to Native American tribes. (Barnshaw 2007. In helping me to find the words to tell this deeply personal story. Unlike the popular image of black unemployment in New Orleans. Few if any mentioned the crime. and Louisiana ranks last in the nation for African American median earnings for women (JonesDeWeever 2007. 3. the failing public school system . One third of African American women in New Orleans are poor. complete. I worked as a legal observer in 2005 and 2006 to document possible instances of police interference. I viewed the opportunity to walk with the Indians as an observer as a great honor. . 99). “resistance and self-affirmation. and economic order. New Orleans was 67% African American and 28% white. 58). Carolyn Shapiro. respondents used terms like pleasant. 47). Joseph’s Day. For her the second line’s “taking it to the streets” is one way in which residents take back the streets from crime and an oppressive legal. Since the 1950s. New Orleans’ poverty is feminized. In it she discusses her own second line experiences and interprets the second line as a way in which the “quotidian order of inner-city poverty and spatial apartheid” is disrupted. . peaceful. Like elsewhere. On Mardi Gras and St. The precise origins of the Mardi Gras Indians are unclear. see White (2008). Instead. Lori Andrews. 4. slavery. 105) theorizes that Mardi Gras Indians combine identities in complex ways that point to American racism. staggering poverty. I am indebted to Tracey Jean Boisseau. 829) writes of oral histories that she conducted. “In many cases individual despair expressed itself in the idyllic terms subjects used to portray New Orleans prior to its destruction. Pre-Katrina. the Indians clashed with police. Kimberly Bailey. (472).” 6.” On multiple occasions. For a succinct explanation of second line music and the dances that accompany it. “tribes” of African American men and an occasional woman dress as Plains Indians and parade through the streets accompanied by music. “87% of the city’s ‘inner-city’ residents were employed .

Along the Mississippi River there are a number of former plantations open to tourists. At times. 9. During Hurricane Ivan the previous year.B. The drive took 28 hours and would have been impossible to complete alone. Such tropes served to disguise the brutality of slavery by masking it in domestic paternalism. Thomas 2008). beneficial treatment from the police and courts. They also can be rented for events such as weddings. erasing or severely understating the harsh regime of slavery (Adams 1999. Ironically. 173) astutely theorizes that the renovated plantation is a deeply feminized space that emphasizes domesticity. One author writes. Shortly before going to the airport. 8. Slave owners often used this phrase to refer to their own white family and their slaves. Dubois (1935) wrote that whiteness yields “public and psychological wages” including access to public space. 10. 115). primarily poor African Americans. In the Reconstruction era and well into the twentieth century. W. suffer from high rates of disease. I made reservations to fly to New York. these accusations arose from consensual affairs. For example. K and I were conscious of the violent history of what it meant for a black man and a white woman to travel together. slaves and their owners were often biologically related as slave owners raped and impregnated their female slaves (Brown 1996.” The local population. and higher wages. such lynchings were a reaction to struggles for political and economic power by African Americans.Weathering the Storm Together 179 7. 12. Through discourses that constructed black men as rapists and by avenging the rapes of white women. In close proximity to the plantations are large industrial plants that spew forth pollution. the petrochemical plants that continue to exploit low-wage black labor might be coded as masculine. The population is over 80% African American with an average income of $5. “The plantation owner in the rural parishes was replaced by the petrochemical industry executive as the new ‘master’ and ‘overseer’ ” (Bullrad. In contrast. I then drove with a friend to Nashville. I have chosen not to identify the people who appear in my story as I do not want to appropriate their own stories more than I have already done. white men positioned themselves as patriarchs and righteous protectors that white women needed (Bederman 1995. Jessica Adams (1999.000 (Hines 2001). Tennessee. leisure.E. entry into the best schools. In general. This corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has been dubbed “Cancer Alley. Gordon-Reed 1997). I learned that the flight was cancelled. I am using the phrase here to indicate my temporary adoption into a black family where superficially race and power relations were imagined as nonexistent. . and the pastoral. black men were lynched upon false allegations that they had raped white women. Throughout our evacuation. Hodes 1997). Convent sits in the middle of the industrial corridor. Often tours are conducted by women in hoop skirts and antebellum plantation life is presented as one of domestic leisure and racial harmony. 11.

41) demonstrates that the fear of black New Orleanians’ criminality following Katrina was not limited to whites as the black Mayor of Baton Rouge publicly played to and reinforced such fears. New Orleans officials announced that only police could carry firearms. strenuous. At the same time. In 1973. On discussions of crime . Originally the suit primarily complained about the “shared household rule. Dan Baum (2006) in a New Yorker article writes that every white person he met in New Orleans after Katrina was armed. and the third which organized large clean-up crews. has recently written an article about middle-class and elite women’s organized activism in New Orleans following Katrina.100 guns. Male Latino and Mexican workers were lured to New Orleans by high wages and a guest worker program which provided temporary work visas. there is a long-history of women taking responsibility for cleaning up urban environments using tropes of municipal housekeeping (Batlan 2008).180 Felice Batlan 13. a historian and New Orleans resident. In part. Researchers have now begun to study the influx of labor into New Orleans following the storm. 113) writes “Most of us. As Kathryn Russell-Brown (2006. Much of the work was unskilled. 98) insightfully posit that “[W]hile armed white men were presumed to be defending their property. FEMA was filed in federal district court in November 2005. At times. This general fear of black men is of course not limited to New Orleans or the South or even whites.” John Valery White (2006. The suit was successful in that the court issued a number of injunctions against FEMA. Louisiana amended its constitution to protect the “right of each citizen to keep and bear arms. For a discussion of the shared household rule and the evictions. and officials confiscated approximately 1. but it is my sense that these organizations primarily developed after November.” Louisiana prohibits the carrying of concealed weapons in most cases but otherwise has only very loose registration requirements for firearms.” 17. and in tent cities that began to pop up across the city. the complaint alleged that FEMA failed to provide housing assistance in violation of the Stafford Act.” Later other claims were added that included FEMA attempting to evict Katrina victims from hotel rooms that FEMA was paying for in the absence of other housing. She focuses on three organizations. The National Rifle Association filed suit seeking to have these firearms returned to their owners (Halbrook 2008). see Pierre and Stephenson (2008). the second which lobbied Washington politicians for funds. McWaters v. Such women’s activism certainly existed. trailers. black men with guns constituted gangs of violent looters who had to be contained. one which worked to reform how the levee boards were organized. Redwood. Cheryl Harris and Devon Carbado (2006. fear young black men. Following the hurricane. wages were not paid and workers were not supplied with protective equipment (Donato 2007. regardless of race and gender. 16. 2008). 15. and hazardous. Pamela Tyler (2007). Workers lived in empty warehouses. I would also argue that the clean-up crew was engaging in traditionally male labor of picking up debris. 14.

 . Theoretically. 21. Likewise. after disasters the incidence of rape and violence against women increases (Bergin 2008. In connection with Katrina she lists delay in search and rescue. and refusal of the White House to release papers for a senate investigation. 20. sexual violence provided a mechanism for reasserting control and reestablishing patriarchy upset by social instability” (182). In general. Direct assistance includes the provision of actual housing such as trailers. The Act provides that in disaster areas FEMA can provide direct assistance and financial assistance. The Act also provides the President of the United States with the power to provide financial assistance for other needs. infliction of emotional stress on displaced victims. FEMA was created in 1979 pursuant to the Stafford Act. For a full discussion of the settlement houses use of law to both benefit immigrants and to inculcate discipline see Batlan (2006). Financial assistance includes cash for housing and utilities. an applicant must first apply for a Small Business Association loan. 484–6). “Experts in the gendered dynamics of natural disaster agree that the destruction and disorder created by Katrina undermined social constructs of masculinity in a way that rendered women vulnerable to rape and violent assault . 22. eligibility should have been automatically determined based on where a person lived prior to the disaster (Pierre and Stephenson 2008. To qualify for such additional assistance. 19. Rather it must provide such assistance to each person or family whose predisaster residence is uninhabitable. There were rapes primarily of African American women that occurred following the storm (Harris 2006). denial of access to safe public spaces on the basis of race.Weathering the Storm Together 181 immediately following Katrina and how the media and officials portrayed the primarily poor African Americans in the Superdome and the Convention Center. Blackwater Worldwide is a private military company that supplies security forces to the federal government including for use in Iraq. 181–2). . Poor African American women who sought shelter in the Houston Astrodome and Reliant Center faced sexual harassment and sexual assault. 114) brilliantly asks why we are able to envision “real” crime as street crime instead of seeing the massive crimes that are committed by the government. see Dynes (2007) and Harris (2006). Kathryn Russell Brown (2006. Kathleen Bergin writes. absence of an evacuation plan. in the handling of Katrina the federal government failed to comply with numerous international conventions (Wing 2006). Blackwater also provided the security personnel for at least some FEMA centers. SBA was incredibly slow processing loan applications. 23. In Katrina. FEMA does not have discretion in determining who will receive housing assistance. 18. MacKinnon (1987) discusses how rape and the fear of rape is used to enforce patriarchy and with it women’s need for protection. preventing people in immediate need from receiving cash assistance. . Under the Act. The Blackwater guards that I knew were white and primarily from rural areas.

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