Gulf Coast blues

During the summer months, churches along America's Gulf Coast join together in a prayer that humbly acknowledges their precarious position in the world. It is "A Prayer for Hurricane Season": "We live in the shadow of a danger over which we have no control: the Gulf, like a provoked and angry giant, can awake from its seeming lethargy, overstep its conventional boundaries, invade our land and spread chaos." The destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina may be shocking in its magnitude, but for those who lived in its path, it should be no surprise. The Deep South has long been subject to disasters of biblical proportions. New Orleans alone can list flood, fire, plague and famine in its 300-year history. Parallels for modern horrors are all too easy to find, and natural catastrophes have proved essential for the political, social and cultural development of this unique region of the United States.

New Orleanians looking for someone to blame for the hardships they are facing might as well start at the beginning. Jean-Baptiste le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded New Orleans in 1718, confident that its position near the mouth of the New World's greatest river would inevitably guarantee prosperity. Though the site had much to recommend it, its early inhabitants soon realised that life on the Mississippi would not be so easy. In 1719, the river inundated the town, and frantic work began on the first of New Orleans's artificial levees. Undeterred, in 1722 Bienville successfully pushed to remove the colony's capital from Biloxi to the new settlement. That same year, as another taste of things to come, New Orleans faced its first hurricane. A third of the town was destroyed, including the hospital.

The threats of flood and hurricane have been a constant, recurring fact of life along the Gulf Coast, but two catastrophes have particular resonance with contemporary events, not least because they demonstrate the degree to which politics has always had a part to play in the unfolding of disaster and its aftermath. Sanitary and climatic conditions in 19th-century New Orleans meant that disease was always a threat. Cholera carried away 6,000 in 1832. In 1853, it became evident that yellow fever was taking hold of the city in similar fashion. Civic leaders were initially reluctant to announce the epidemic and take public steps to limit its progress, for fear that the adverse publicity would damage commerce. At the end of the summer, 10,000 people were dead, a near-decimation. Anti-slavery campaigners declared the outbreak to be the visitation of God's wrath, but the widespread death of poor labouring whites only led to an increased reliance on slavery.

Social tensions were also prominent in the 1927 flood - to date, America's greatest flood disaster. Early in the year, the Mississippi River Commission had announced that the levee system was "in condition to prevent the disastrous effects of floods". By April, the Mississippi had climbed above its banks and spread to a width of between 50 and 100 miles along 1,000 miles of its course to the Gulf. Though white and black people suffered alike, racial conflict ran high about who was to undertake the necessary labour to rebuild the levees, and about the way in which aid was distributed. Violence erupted and lynchings proliferated.

The "Great Migration" of blacks to the north predated the flood, but the events of 1927 pushed it forward with a new impetus. When New Orleans itself was threatened by the flood waters, intense politicking and the power of the city produced a bold solution. A levee was dynamited to relieve the pressure on the city, destroying much of the St Bernard and Plaquemine parishes and leaving 10,000 homeless. Politicians should take note, however: anger in Louisiana at the handling of the crisis propelled Huey Long into the governor's chair.

In the late 20th century, New Orleans proved relatively lucky in the face of natural disaster. Even now, it appears that the final death toll of Katrina will not come close to rivalling the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900, killing at least 8,000. In 1947, a hurricane hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast hard and caused tidal surges from Lake Pontchartrain to flood parts of downtown New Orleans, as did Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Improvements to the levee saved the city from Hurricane Camille in 1969, but now the long-feared inundation of New Orleans has happened and only two things are certain. First, that Katrina will bring new chickens home to roost: acts of God and their consequences involve, to a large degree, man's own handiwork. Second, as the Mississippian author Richard Wright described the eternal truth of the Gulf Coast: "When the flood waters recede, the poor folks . . . start all over again."

The author is an academic and writer specialising in the history, culture and society of the Deep South