Katrina Continues to Impact Language, Media and Politics
AUSTIN, Texas. (August 30, 2010) – Katrina had a deep and lasting impact on how America looks at catastrophes and crises in the early 21st century. And Katrina’s influence is becoming all the more pervasive as the effects of the crisis linger and the reality of the magnitude of the destruction continues to come to light. An exclusive analysis by the Global Language Monitor (GLM) using it analytical resources, underscores how some five years after the event, Katrina continues to have an out-sized impact on our cultural landscape. Last year, GLM ranked the Top Stories in the Global Media during the first decade of the 21st century. Katrina ranked No. 8.
Background: It is often said that the war in Viet Nam was the first war to be broadcast directly into American living rooms (back when people still gathered for dinner together and watched network news broadcasts). We watched in horror at the mass destruction of the Towers falling a quarter of a century later, many of us on our computer screens. But it was the unfolding of the inundation of New Orleans after the levees gave way that provided us with any number of up-close-and personal tragedies that would unfold (and float) before our disbelieving eyes.
Among the most prominent example of Katrina’s continuing cultural impact include:
- Refugee vs. Evacuee – At the time GLM’s analysis found that the term for the displaced, refugees, appeared 5 times more frequently in the global media than the more neutral, evacuees. At the term, refugee was cited as racially insensitive. Never endorsed by the AP Stylebook, currently the word refugee is used in the media some fifty times more than evacuee.
- “Heckova job, Brownie!” – GLM named this paraphrase of President Bush’s actual remark, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” as the most memorable phrase of 2005. The phrase, according to a Reuter’s report at the time, “became a national punch line for countless jokes and pointed comments about the administration’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster”. Even now variations of the phrase are used to criticize less-than-stellar efforts, such as when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “Heck of a job, Barry” (her nickname for President Obama) in her Dec. 29th, 2009 column.
- Apocalyptic Imagery — The Southeast Asia Tsunami that killed over 200,000 people occurred nine months before Katrina, so audiences were somewhat familiar with horrific images of exotic locales as scenes of mass destruction. However, the thought of the devastation unfolding in a major, revered US city, with the world watching the only remaining superpower, apparently unable to mobilize the necessary resources to stop the ongoing destruction and loss of life proved more than the press could handle. Immediately, the global press echoed with apocalyptic imagery. The Times in London led with: “Devastation that could send an area the size of England back to the Stone Age” and continued describing “a paranoid post-apocalyptic landscape … where corpses lie amid a scene of Biblical devastation, any semblance of modern society has gone.”
- The Hiroshima Analogy – Katrina hit landfall shortly after the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. AP cited Mississippi governor Haley Barbour “Struggling with what he calls Hurricane Katrina’s nuclear destruction … [showing] the emotional strain of leading a state through a disaster of biblical proportions”. However, the analogy continues to be used in light of the lingering effects of a drawn-out and, some would argue, less-than-successful recovery effort. There are still 55,000 uninhabitable buildings half of which the new mayor has pledged to remove by 2014; many still lack essential services; the levees remain in questionable condition, and most importantly, some 20-to-25% of the population has failed to return.
5. Storm and Scientific Terminology — The public has a much better understanding of the specific terminology surrounding hurricanes and tropical storms. This would include:
- Saffir-Simpson Scale, which predicts the destructive power of a hurricane,
- Category or Hurricane Scale that measures the strength of a hurricane’s strength, from low to high (1 to 5). Katrina peaked at Category 5 but at landfall fell to Category 3.
- Storm Surge, the wall of water pushed in from of a hurricane. Katrina’s was about 30 feet, the highest on record.
- Levee, the massive, supposedly impermeable earthen walls, meant to hold back storm surges. New Orleans has some 350 miles of levees. An unfortunate fact about levees, once they let water in, they can actually prevent it from going out.
- Naming System for Hurricanes, which has been in place for some fifty years. They names are alphabetically sorted, alternating men’s and women’s names. The list was exclusively female until 1979. Names are recycled every 6 years. Influential hurricanes have their names retired. Katrina was obviously retired.
6. The name Katrina, according to the Social Security Administration, has fallen sharply in popularity. In 2004 Katrina was the 274th most popular names for girls born in the US; in 2009 it ranked at 815.
For historical coverage of Hurricane Katrina from the Global Language Monitor, go here.