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Katrina: A History, 1915-2015

forthcoming from Harvard University Press in July 2020

The definitive history of Katrina: an epic of city-making, revealing how engineers and oil executives, politicians and musicians, and neighbors black and white built New Orleans, then watched it sink under the weight of their competing ambitions.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, but the disaster's causes and consequences extend across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. After the city weathered a major hurricane in 1915, its Sewerage and Water Board believed that developers could safely build housing away from the high ground near the Mississippi. And so New Orleans grew in lowlands that relied on significant government subsidies to stay dry. When the flawed levee system surrounding the city and its suburbs failed, these were the neighborhoods that were devastated. The homes that flooded belonged to Louisianans black and white, rich and poor. Katrina’s flood washed over the twentieth-century city.

The flood line tells one important story about Katrina, but it is not the only story that matters. Andy Horowitz investigates the response to the flood, when policymakers reapportioned the challenges the water posed, making it easier for white New Orleanians to return home than it was for African Americans. And he explores how the profits and liabilities created by Louisiana’s oil industry have been distributed unevenly among the state’s citizens for a century, prompting both dreams of abundance―and a catastrophic land loss crisis that continues today.

Laying bare the relationship between structural inequality and physical infrastructure―a relationship that has shaped all American cities―Katrina offers a chilling glimpse of the future disasters we are already creating.


Katrina: A History is a beautiful book about a long, ugly chapter in our nation’s history. Horowitz brilliantly demonstrates that the storm carried with it a century of poor decisions that both preceded and followed the disaster. Corporate greed, misguided policymaking, environmental blindness, corrupt politics, crippling racism, and class inequality: all these human failings were as significant as the broken levees and hurricane-force winds. This is not just a compelling history; it is a distressing warning about our future.”—Lizabeth Cohen, author of Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age

“This is by far the most important treatment of Hurricane Katrina—an extraordinarily valuable work of scholarship. Andy Horowitz offers a fresh perspective that serves both as a corrective and also an entirely different way of understanding one of the most critical chapters in the nation’s environmental and political history.”—Ari Kelman, author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans


“In 2005, in the eyes of many, the history of New Orleans and lower Louisiana shrank to a single moment of natural disaster. Andy Horowitz’s Katrina recovers the all-too-human policies, limited perspectives, and sheer greed that created the conditions for the events of 2005 over the course of the previous century—conditions that prevented an equitable recovery process, and continue to obscure the ways in which ‘Katrina’ was not just about one unfortunate group of people, but also heralds our collective future. This book is an important reinterpretation of the history of New Orleans, the history of disaster, and the history of our nation.”—Leslie M. Harris, author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863


“This book sees not only the forest and the trees but the blades of grass between the trees. Horowitz properly places the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in the much larger context of regional history, national and local policy decisions, and societal mores which all added up to having tragic if—mostly—unintended consequences, while not losing sight of intimate details and the personal stories of those who experienced the storm and rebuilt the city. Well-written and at times gripping, this is the most important book about Katrina so far.”—John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

"Horowitz debuts with a vivid and persuasive chronicle of the 'causes and consequences' of Hurricane Katrina... Horowitz argues that a combination of environmental challenges, structural racism, and governmental misjudgment resulted in a massive loss of life... Even readers who have never visited the Crescent City will be moved by this incisive account." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"In an incisive book debut, historian Horowitz argues persuasively that the destruction incurred by Hurricane Katrina was not merely a meteorological event, but part of a long process of political, environmental, economic, and cultural decisions.... An eye-opening environmental history." —Kirkus

"In 2005, Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, Louisiana, killing hundreds of people, destroying thousands of homes, and ejecting more than 90,000 African American residents. Then-president George W. Bush called it 'a tragedy that seems so blind and random'. Not so, as historian Andy Horowitz documents disturbingly; much of it was human-led." —Nature ("the week's best science picks")