The Link Between Hurricane Katrina, Emmett Till, Racism, and Climate Change

This is a photo taken of one of the many homes damaged by hurricane Katrina in the lower 9th ward. (Getty Images)

As Mary Heglar remembers the chaos, human suffering, and racist radio coverage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — which hit the day after the 50th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till — she considers how racism, discrimination, and climate change are inextricably linked. Read her beautiful essay at Guernica.

The other thing often forgotten, but which I can never forget, was that Katrina descended the day after the 50th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till. If you are black, and especially if you grew up in the South, the name “Emmett Till” brought immediate, arresting, gruesome images to mind. The name sank to the bottom of your stomach like a bag of rocks—or like the cotton gin fan that weighed down his barely pubescent body to make it surrender to the Tallahatchie River.

I remembered the meteorologists explaining how hurricanes start off the coast of Africa and gather strength as they cross the Atlantic, following almost exactly the route of slave ships.

I wondered if Katrina was really a 14-year old boy named Emmett.

I never thought that I’d see the Mississippi my grandfather had known when he was my age, or even the one my mother saw. The Mississippi that brutally murdered a 14-year old boy for a wolf whistle that we now know never happened. But Katrina revealed things that I could never unsee.

I didn’t know it then, but that vision formed the lens I would bring to the climate movement a decade or so later. I can’t help but see the layers of injustice that led to our current situation. The climate crisis is covered in the fingerprints of slavery and Jim Crow and colonialism and genocide and patriarchy. It’s what happens when large swaths of people are not only systematically “left out,” but forced to be their own gravediggers and pallbearers. I can’t help but see how those same layers complicate and exacerbate the crisis. Who is saved and who is abandoned. Whose bodies litter the road to the “greater good.”

Like my grandfather, New Orleans became more fragile, more tenuous. I saw the things that made them both—the pressure that made the pearl—in a way that I never had before. They became more beautiful, more precious. And I couldn’t unsee it.

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