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The Floods of Heaven

by JO GULDI

America is crumbling, and bipartisan deregulation is to blame.  Free-market mantras and corporate welfare have destabilized the dollar, bankrupted suburban America, and drained every sign of government activity from the landscape.

For twenty years now, the consequences of this course have been hard to see: hard, because whenever the signs of damage appear, the free market was quick to label a “culture of dependence.”  A term that originated in the 1970s to attack American blacks’ use of welfare, the term “culture of dependence” has been extended to a broadening sphere of parties that have any relationship with government or law.  New Orleanians’ ruined houses were the result of a “culture of dependence” on federal infrastructure funds.  Policing the illegal trading of faulty mortgages and bandit short-selling represents a “culture of dependence” on the state.   Community organizers, Sarah Palin suggests, instill a “culture of dependence” upon organizations of teachers and workers.  Any individual or group with a relationship to government or law – any form of society, that is – stands at risk of imbibing a “culture of dependence.”

A series of shocks are shaking Americans into reconsidering those stories.  Disaster, like the sun, falls on the good and the bad alike; provisions against disaster, like a law-abiding financial sector, are a necessity for a functionally operating society.

The more we look at history, the deeper the case of interdependence appears.  Consider the case of those individuals who lost their homes in Katrina: accused of willfully building in a flood plain, foolish southern homeowners, some might say, needed to be punished by the hand of nature for their individual willfulness.  On the contrary, the floods experienced after Katrina were so devastating, in part, due to the increasing strains put upon levees at the base of the Mississippi River after a century of aggressive levee building upstream, a process that began, with federal aid, in the 1890s as Midwestern farmers lobbied for the federal canalizing of the upper Mississippi.  Levees aren’t the only way of managing a river: traditional communities also employ spillways and reservoirs for the purpose of managing flood.  Levees are the best for the purpose of navigation, and the most convenient for expanding farmland.  They’re also the most damaging to wetlands ecology, the most expensive in the long term, and the deepest in terms of the consequences for those who live in lowlands downriver.  From the 1890s forward, higher levees in Iowa meant worse floods in New Orleans, met by higher and more expensive levees there. Midwestern irrigation saddled householders downriver with a deep and mounting tax whose benefits they would never know themselves.

The cost of disaster insurance likewise reflected building choices made elsewhere in America.  Insurance costs for disaster were driven up in the 1990s by a sudden explosion of beachfront vacation and retirement homes, products of the real estate boom in California and Florida.  These houses plastered the beaches with expensive properties often ill-suited to the hurricanes and floods that faced them.  When Hurricane Andrew struck in 1994, the insurance payments leapt to four times their historic average.  The insurance agency recoiled in horror.  Actuarial experts wondered if risk assessment could ever be provided at sustainable rates again.

The consequences of superficial building along the coasts re-echoed in the heartland, where the debts of the insurance industry were foisted upon all those who lived by rivers and shores.  Higher insurance rates hit hardest small farming communities along the Mississippi River and working-class communities across the Gulf Coast: no longer able to afford insurance, they let it go.  According to the restricted provisions of federal aid, when they let go of private insurance payments, they let go their chance at federal subsidy for levees as well.  New Orleans, a community created by federal spending on levees upriver, was cut off from the historical conditions of its preservation.

Republican policy denies the enormous scale and weight of such connections.  Pretending that a few fund-raisers can reverse the tides of history, Bush points to the nation’s tender-hearted volunteers: church groups who trucked in to help Habitat for Humanity rebuilt a hundred homes in Louisiana, graduate students who carried the University of Iowa’s book collection to safety from the flood, one volume at a time.  Relying on saints, Republican policies dodge federal responsibility.  As if such acts of God were once-a-millenia occurrences, they deny the nation’s interconnectivity.  Yet the nation remains an interconnected whole of insurance rates and federal relief programs, of infrastructure spending and rebuilding planning.  Ruined levees in Iowa follow the disaster of New Orleans, and Gustav should remind us that more disasters will follow still.

Cosmic floods, like Noah’s and Gilgamesh’s, appear in myth to initiate human atonement: water wipes clean the memory of guilt, making possible a new era. The bloodiest of those stories, and perhaps the most direct, comes from Greece. Deucalion, the mortal son of a demigod exiled from heaven, was trying to atone for his family’s guilt by feasting the gods.  He could think of no more profound sacrifice than to slaughter his own son and serve his tender flesh.  When the Olympians discovered the act, so disgusted were they that they caused the destruction of the earth with a flood so powerful as to purge the memory of that murder altogether.  Cosmic floods, the ancients knew, were necessary to eradicate the awful memory of responsibility denied.

The washing of guilt begins, that is, when neighbors recognizes their culpability in each others’ fate. On Youtube this summer, self-annointed preachers made videos explaining how white Iowa was being punished for the suffering of New Orleans.  They referenced slavery and the invasion of Iraq, alluding to biblical atonement and Noah’s flood.  Suffering ignored, they suggested, travels from Louisiana to Iowa in the form of suffering compounded.  The rattles of New Orleans overheard when Americans discuss Iowa represent one attempt to wrangle with the awful question of interdependence.

In America, government and insurance in one place are never far from the next.  Atonement, in such a landscape, means naming the players responsible for ruin: reckless building, untenable insurance rates for the poor, unsustainable river design, and weak government.  Only a plan that would hold those actors accountable will prevent further losses when hurricane, flood, and earthquake threaten other towns in the future.  Only such a plan would reckon with the ancient weight of collective shame, the guilt of interdependence denied.

JO GULDI is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital History, at the University of Chicago.She can be reached at guldi@uchicago.edu

 

 

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