Hurricane Katrina through a Kaleidescope

Lesson Plan from “To the Ends of the World” Syllabus

Daniel Grant (

Quick Description of the Class

This lesson will create a kaleidoscopic portrait of stories from Hurricane Katrina to introduce the third and final unit of a course on how people use stories to determine how they will respond to disaster. The lesson is intended for an upper-level undergraduate seminar focusing on how America is implicated in producing and responding to “global disasters” both at home and abroad through the lens of environmental history and narrative. More broadly, this lesson will be relevant to any class that attempts to interrogate the production of the global from a western (and specifically US-based) vantage point and can be cross-listed in history, geography, environmental studies, American studies, or international studies.

Hurricane Katrina, August 28, 2005. Courtesy of NASA. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Learning Objective(s)

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to read critically a narrative account of Hurricane Katrina and see it as a story with a moral lesson rather than only as a factual depiction of “what happened.” Students will each interpret a story about Hurricane Katrina and compare, critique, and analyze it amongst others from different perspectives to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of stories from the disaster. Students will be able to understand how each story leads to a different understanding of what caused Katrina, who was responsible, and what lessons should be drawn or actions taken to prevent or alleviate future suffering?

Course Plan

This 75-minute lesson serves as a pivot to the third and final unit of the course, which focuses on how people cope with disaster: whether they stay and rebuild their lives or relocate entirely, what scales these adaptations are made, and how people use stories about disasters to make sense of their future prospects. By viewing Hurricane Katrina as an entry point that many students will be familiar with given that it happened in American relatively recently, this lesson will serve as the bridge to the final unit of the course entitled “Strategies of Coping.” This unit builds off the previous two: if one can read the American and global landscape as disaster zones (Unit 1), and one is familiar with different narrative arcs of stories of disaster (Unit 2), this unit will analyze different ways people made sense of disaster and how they configured their futures on their landscapes.

Related Reading

Students will come to class having read parts of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe (Preface, Chs. 1-3, 5-7). This reading applies the fictional narrative arcs of Unit 2 and introduces the concept that contemporary disasters read through the lens of climate change take on a different valence from disasters that are not framed within the discourse of climate change. This sets up the larger point of the lesson, which is that different stories about disasters point to different causes at different moments in history, and carry explicit and implicit lessons about future adaptations and what should be done to avoid these disasters in the future.

Click image for book review
Click image for book review

In class, students will be divided into pairs or groups of three and each will be given a relatively short “story” for them to analyze in class and present to the rest of the class. The stories are carefully selected for their diversity of perspectives, scales, narrative arcs, and lessons drawn to create a kaleidoscopic portrait.

-“Help Wanted” listings from residents of the Lower 9th Ward, LA Times, 9/5/05

Ted Steinberg, “A Natural Disaster, a Man-Made Catastrophe, and a Human Tragedy,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/9/05 Op-Ed, Natural/Human apportionment of blame

Edward Rothstein, “Seeking Justice, of Gods or the Politicians,” New York Times, 9/8/05 Op-Ed, Theodicy of Katrina

“The Slow Drowning of New Orleans,” Washington Post, 9/9/05: USACE history of New Orleans levees

“‘You’re one of us now,’” Washington Post, 8/29/15 Narrative journalistic account of a family written 10 years after they relocated to Nebraska following the hurricane.

The Katrina Sermons: What spiritual leaders say about the storm” in New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Student-Centered Activity

Students will divide into pairs or groups of three and each receive a “story.” Using a series of critical and interpretive questions on the chalkboard, students will read and analyze the story to understand who is writing, how their story is constructed, how their story defines causation for Katrina and on what scale, and what (if any) lessons or morals about how to adapt in the future should be drawn from their story, who is responsible for enacting such responses, and on what scale. Once students have finished reading and analyzing their story, each pair/group will briefly present their interpretations to the rest of the class. The instructor will then pose synthesizing questions for discussion to compare and contrast each of these interpretations.

Materials Needed


-Computer with Internet connection to show YouTube clips of interviews of Katrina victims from Spike Lee’s film When the Levees Broke

-Chalkboard to write analysis questions for pair/groups and synthesis questions for class

-Printed copies of each “story” for each member of pair/group


Students will need to know the broad context of Hurricane Katrina – as a disaster that occurred in a city with long histories of segregation by lines of race and class, flooding and contestation over water infrastructure on the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, and global trade as a port city – and as a disaster that came to stand for the kind the globe could expect with greater frequency and severity as a result of climate change (note the cover of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth with a hurricane emanating from a smokestack). All of these historical contexts are in play in the stories that students will be reading, so it will be important to frame this history not in the hopes of being comprehensive but rather to show how complex the causality for this hurricane was understood to be depending on who you were and where you were positioned in relation to the disaster. This brief introduction will provide context for a 5-minute cut of interviews from When the Levees Broke.

Directions for Students

To introduce the variety of stories that can be told in the wake of a disaster and the lessons people can draw from it, we’re going to use Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 as a case study to construct a kaleidoscopic portrait of how people experienced this particular event and how these narratives pointed to particular future adaptations. After we watch various first-hand accounts from Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina called When the Levees Broke, we’re then going to divide up into pairs/groups. Each will be given an account written about the disaster from the following perspectives:

  • A resident of the Lower 9th Ward
  • A US Army Corps of Engineers operator with an Op-Ed in the New York Times
  • Several academics with Op-Eds in the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Education
  • Several journalistic narratives from displaced residents of New Orleans who relocated across the country after the storm
  • Sermon delivered by a pastor in the Lower 9th Ward several weeks after the hurricane

In each story, pay attention to the following questions [write on the chalkboard]:

  • Who is speaking, and how might their identity affect what kind of story they tell?
  • Who or what caused Katrina, according to your story?
  • When did this cause take place in history (event itself? One year prior? A decade prior? A century prior?)
  • How large or small is the geography of suffering for your narrator? Feel free if helps to draw a map of places and things characters in the story deemed important.
  • What solutions does each story point towards? Who is responsible for enacting such solutions (if anyone)?
  • What is the moral of the story?

Afterwards, we’ll come back together and each pair/group will present their findings for 2-3 minutes. We’ll then shift to a discussion trying to stitch together and make sense of these accounts as a whole. [After each group has shared, write the following synthesizing questions on the chalkboard]:

  • Who was at the center of these different narratives? What kinds of landscapes did they encounter over time?
  • Similarities/differences in kinds of problems each story named? At what scale?
  • What similarities and differences did you notice in what each story named as the cause of suffering?
  • Compare how did the different narratives configured the past. How far back did they go?
  • What lessons can we draw from these different readings of the same event?

Time Allotment

  • Katrina framing and Film Clip: 10 min
  • Instructions and dividing into pairs/groups: 5 minutes
  • Independent pair/group work time: 30 minutes
  • Pairs/groups sharing findings: 15 minutes
  • Synthesizing class discussion/wrap-up: 15 minutes


The main takeaways for students are the following:

  • Even disasters that occur on American soil enroll the globe in different ways through stories (from climate change to oil exports).
  • The stories that one constructs in the wake of an event follow familiar genres (apocalypse, utopia, journey, etc.).
  • How one narrates an event depends upon who one is and how he/she encounters it. There is no “single” interpretation of a disaster.
  • How one narrates a disaster does real “work” in the world in that it reflects who one blames, whether one stays or leaves, and how one sees a disaster being avoided in the future.

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