Katrina in historical context: environment and migration in the U.S.
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The massive publicity surrounding the exodus of residents from New Orleans spurred by Hurricane Katrina has encouraged interest in the ways that past migration in the U.S. has been shaped by environmental factors. So has Timothy Egan’s exciting book, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of those who survived the Great American Dust Bowl. This article places those dramatic stories into a much less exciting context, demonstrating that the kinds of environmental factors exemplified by Katrina and the Dust Bowl are dwarfed in importance and frequency by the other ways that environment has both impeded and assisted the forces of migration. We accomplish this goal by enumerating four types of environmental influence on migration in the U.S.: (1) environmental calamities, including floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tornadoes, (2) environmental hardships and their obverse, short-term environmental benefits, including both drought and short periods of favorable weather, (3) environmental amenities, including warmth, sun, and proximity to water or mountains, and (4) environmental barriers and their management, including heat, air conditioning, flood control, drainage, and irrigation. In U.S. history, all four of these have driven migration flows in one direction or another. Placing Katrina into this historical context is an important task, both because the environmental calamities of which Katrina is an example are relatively rare and have not had a wide impact, and because focusing on them defers interest from the other kinds of environmental impacts, whose effect on migration may have been stronger and more persistent, though less dramatic.
KeywordsMigration Environment Hurricane United States
This research was supported by grant R01 HD33554 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. An earlier version was presented at “The Moving Americans Conference: Interdisciplinary Conversations on Internal Migration,” held at the University of Washington, Seattle, in May, 2006. We are grateful for advice from the other participants, the issue editors and the reviewers, and for the assistance of Emily Merchant.
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