Amplifying frontline voices on Katrina's anniversary

Amplifying frontline voices on Katrina's anniversary

With the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, many groups will be making the connection between extreme weather events and how climate change is impacting Americans. The anniversary is an opportunity to remind the public that climate change is happening and has already affected many lives. But how can groups also share the message that for many Gulf communities, the struggle to recover is ongoing?

To answer this question, I spoke with Colette Pichon Battle, head of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy and a coordinator for Gulf South Rising. Gulf South Rising is a year-long effort to connect frontline communities along the Gulf Coast that have felt firsthand the effects of extreme weather, the BP oil spill and the vulnerability of poverty and marginalization.

In the lead-up to events being hosted across the Gulf South for a Katrina 10-Weeks of Action, Gulf South Rising led a community messaging process aimed at “elevat[ing] the voices of those most impacted such that the untold stories of survival, disaster response, and disaster recovery are amplified during the 10-year commemoration of Hurricane Katrina.” The five-week process included community meetings, regional calls and direct input from upwards of 60 participants from different backgrounds. The voices of frontline communities were encouraged to step forward in the process, while those less impacted were encouraged to take a step back and listen.

“What happens with conversations on environment and climate is a marginalization of the one or two brown folks in the room and then the rest of the movement is white. Katrina is proof. From the Vietnamese community, from the African American community, from the Native American community, from the Black-Latino community, from the Latino community, there are a lot of people who are not white who are engaged in climate change disaster recovery using their own words and own experience, and they are part of the movement. We have to see them as part of the leadership. It can’t just be folks who understand carbon swapping and water clarity.”

Each week involved a process of collective conversation. The first week began with a discussion on “what the nation needs to know [about the Gulf Coast] ten years post-Katrina” and whose stories need to be heard. The second week involved brainstorming headlines and messages for the Katrina anniversary. In the third week, participants found common themes and messages for what they had brainstormed. In the fourth week, they finalized messaging and demands with an eye towards “optics and opportunities.” In the final week, the group arrived at a shared message platform. By putting the energy and effort into including so many voices, facilitating discussions, and providing transparency in their process, Gulf South Rising was able to create a set of messages that authentically communicates the experience of frontline communities that have felt the impacts of Katrina and its aftermath firsthand.

A summary of this work is contained in this document. Here are their 5 topline messages:

  1. Displaced, Misplaced, Replaced
  2. Gone But Not Forgotten
  3. Our Land and Culture Are Under Siege
  4. Not for Sale: My Home, My Land, My Culture
  5. The Illusion of Recovery is Not Progress


Hurricane Katrina: A collective remembering

Battle says Gulf South Rising is also trying to frame Katrina as a moment that affected the entire nation, and even the entire world, and a bell toll for how climate impacts are going to continue endanger those already marginalized. She invites us to stop and remember what we went through as the water’s rose and saw our country unprepared to step in and help its own citizens:

“Remember what happened, but not just what happened to us. What happened to you? What changed in your life? What did you think of your country? What did you understand differently? How has that shaped how you see the world? And then, what is it that you need to heal from? Let’s be honest about what this country really needs to heal from. Let’s have a conversation with people we feel safe with. Let’s have a discussion about race, poverty and power in this country and what happens to these communities in climate change disaster.”

The (ongoing) price of climate disaster

Battle says the collective remembering process needs to include becoming aware of how inequitable the recovery process has been, and how many continue to live through the consequences of Katrina today. The media, communicators and climate groups need to be live to the fact that many of the problems that made gulf communities so vulnerable are still going unaddressed – a sign, she says, of the extent to which these communities have been devalued and uncared for.

“This is not just about how many square miles of land are lost. This is about how many people die, how many people get displaced, who gets reinvested in to replace and rebuild and recolonize,” she said. “Take a deeper look at how long-term and intricate climate change disaster is.”

Call to action for climate allies

Despite the significance of Katrina, Battle says there is little media coverage of how dire the situation continues to be in many gulf communities – in large part because of how the fossil fuel industry is impacting it.

“Folks just stay away from talking about the region but this is where the oil is, this is where the fracking is, this is where coal is. There is a reason for climate communicators to engage in this region. That kind of long-term and sustained engagement around what is happening here helps us to make political changes on the ground,” Battle said.

“So this is a call to action, to value the role that this region plays for the nation. We are at the heart of the impact. We are at the heart of the extraction. We are on the frontlines of these climate change disasters. This is reason enough to come back and engage. Do a story after August 29.”

Learn more about Gulf South Rising’s work on their website:, or find them on Facebook and Twitter