Analysing The Governance Of Hurricane Katrina Through The Lens Of Disaster Capitalism

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Your millions are not worth more than our humanity. “Your millions” are how we got here to begin with. —St. Bernard Project orientation leader, speaking to a Fortune 500 CEO volunteer who had come to work in New Orleans for a day in March 2011; the orientation leader was telling the CEO to stop answering emails on his Black-Berry in order to hear the story of the family whose home he would be working on (Vincanne, 2013).

The above excerpt from Adam Vincanne’s 2013 treatise Markets of Sorrow, Labours of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina introduces the premise for this essay. The discussion centres on the fact that Disaster Capitalism played a huge role in the sluggish response to and the continuing debilitating effects of Hurricane Katrina. The relationship between post-disaster actions and the enrichment of private companies was manifest in the handling of Hurricane Katrina.

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The discourse will highlight what Disaster Capitalism theory is, its key tenets, the context and background of Hurricane Katrina, why this particular case study was chosen and the resultant instances of Disaster Capitalism that exacerbated the negative effects of the disaster. Finally, it will allude to some of the challenges of thinking about Disaster Capitalism (the limits of the concept) and propose key learnings from the literature on the disaster that can be applied to other global situations.

Naomi Klein brought to the fore and popularized the notion of Disaster Capitalism. In her book The Shock Doctrine (2007), she described Disaster Capitalism as the “political economic processes that take advantage of mass trauma to impose neoliberal capitalist economic policies, facilitating the redistribution of wealth and exacerbating socio-economic divisions.”

Schuller and Maldonado (2016) define the concept as “National and transnational governmental institutions’ instrumental use of catastrophe (both so-called natural and human-mediated disasters, including post conflict situations) to promote and empower a range of private, neoliberal capitalist interests.” They add that there are two components of disaster capitalism. The first, ‘non-profiteering’, is the more widely reported. While non-profits and increasingly for-profit corporations are receiving no-bid contracts for reconstruction- justified by a systematic undermining of state capacity that neoliberal policies portend, at least until the 2005 Paris Declaration acknowledging that there needs to be some roles for states- disasters are opportunities for radical policy reform. These reforms constitute the second and more long-term element of disaster capitalism, what Antonio Donini (2008) calls ‘world ordering.’

Disaster researchers have long pointed out that disaster events can trigger profound social change (e.g. Davis 1999; Dyer 2002; Hoffman 1999; Hoffman and Oliver-Smith 1999:9; Middleton and O’Keefe 1998; Scheper-Hughes 2006). In addition to the direct transfer of funds through contracts to private corporations, disaster capitalism is distinguished by the instrumentality of catastrophes for advancing the political, ideological and economic interests of transnational capitalist elite groups. Schuller and Maldonado (2016:63) stipulate that natural disasters are also fertile ground for implanting particular neoliberal policies because of an acute temporary crisis that demands quick action and usually an infusion of emergency assistance. They add that following a disaster, local governments need a quick response and usually large sums of financial assistance to respond. To refuse the aid in this circumstance is to risk central government or international ramifications. A local government in desperate need of assistance is not in a good position to negotiate the conditions under which the aid is given. Local government sometimes use the opportunity to shut down participation, implementing decisions without debate (Stonich 2008). More often, following natural disasters, cash-strapped local governments are dependent on the goodwill and generosity of donors, creating fertile ground for promoting neoliberal policies (e.g. privatization of public sector resources, austerity measures, foreign-directed fiscal and monetary policies and reduction of barriers to so-called ‘free trade’) through conditionalities. Neoliberal policy agendas are facilitated by shifts in donor flows that advance the interests of private constituencies and the stage set by “windows of opportunities” provided by disasters (Bray 2005).

The case of Hurricane Katrina is a watershed illustration calling attention to the precepts and practice of Disaster Capitalism advanced by disaster scholars.

Katrina was Katrina was a category 4 storm, surging over 6 metres in height that made its landfall on the U.S. Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. It is estimated to have impacted approximately 90,000 square miles throughout southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, displaced between 1-1.5 million people (with nearly half of those coming from New Orleans), killed more than 1,800 people, and exceeded $80 billion in costs (Button and Oliver-Smith 2008:123; Cutter et al. 2006:8; Elliot and Pais 2006:302)

Why the case study: significant literature on the disaster, notable media attention, remarkable magnitude of loss, currency/relevance (in terms of it being recent, racial divisions and social inequalities that still exist in New Orleans and the broader south)


  • It does not distinguish between small business and large corporations.
  • In order for it to mean anything, it simply cannot conflate any benefit from disaster with disaster capitalism.
  • Too broad to make distinctions- business interests e.g. Walmart’s donation to Haiti. Corporate goodwill?

Theoretical limitations:

  • It does not address the long-term structural reasons for a given area’s vulnerability.
  • It can only address the aftermath of a disaster.

It focuses on the recent past and as such does not address the long-term formation of capitalism, and the long-term impacts of plantation slavery in the incubation of capitalism (Beckles 2013; Mintz 1977, 1984; Trouillot 2003; Williams 1961). Given its theoretical trajectory as a variant of Marxian theorizing, the concept of ‘disaster capitalism’ is silent on questions of race and racism.

Key learnings/Conclusion: Cases like Katrina show that the collapse of government infrastructures and the wholesale selling of government social welfare provision to private secto for-profit interests has created quasi-emergencies where on-going trauma is the norm; characteristics of a future in which chronic disaster syndrome emerges as a health, social and political nexus that continues to perpetuate disaster capitalism and on-going trauma. Community/grassroots mobilization, access to resources 


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