Response to Christina’s post on sentinel species

A few weeks ago, Christina wrote a rich blog post about using the concepts of sentinel species and range to contextualize post-Katrina New Orleans as a “canary in the coal mine.” She discussed how what happened in New Orleans allowed for increased discussion on topics like climate change, the environment, and how our government reacts to disaster.

I think that Christina’s comparisons aptly put into words something I’ve been feeling the past few weeks in this class, especially as we see the links and disparities between coverage of Katrina and the coverage of Superstorm Sandy. These disparities allow us to think about what is considered marginal, central, or classical when it comes to metropolises and natural disasters. They allow us to think about which narratives are sacrificed (i.e., the canary), and which are valued in their own right. Because my thinking about this topic is so wide, in this post I’ll cover more about what I was thinking about during Monday’s class, and I will hopefully cover more of the question of New Orleans as the canary later on.

In class on Monday, we noticed that the portrayal of Sandy in the photosets– such as in the New York Magazine slideshow and the aerial shots of NYC after the storm– painted a particular portrait of the storm that we’ve seen before. From whitecaps in Battery Park to blurry bike photos on the Lower East Side, my discussion group noticed that the photos were focused not only on commonalities like aesthetics, composition, and dramatic editing– but also the fact that the photoset mostly covered Manhattan.

As I mentioned in class, a power outage due to a storm is not something particularly out of the ordinary or jarring. In Jeff Mermelstein’s photographs, he features post-Sandy life (notice I use life, and not survival) on the Lower East Side, such as a photograph of a woman riding a bicycle in the dark night streets. What many, including myself, may have found so haunting about Mermelstein’s photos and the aerial photoset is that by putting Manhattan in the dark, our sense of classical national consciousness is put in the dark as well. It’s disconcerting like watching the Statue of Liberty freeze over, or the New York Public Library flood– imagery we’ve most definitely seen before in this class.

Yet, in the case of New Orleans, it was perceived merely as a “canary in the coal mine”– for a variety of complex and interrelated reasons, its destruction did not disrupt something profound in the national consciousness, at least for those in power. In this way, it became a warning sign, a testing point, a ritual sacrifice– rather than a national disaster in itself, which it was. We must ask ourselves why this is the case: Who lives in these cities? Who do we consider important? Which bodies are sacrificed for a larger point– a symptom of waste– and which are considered bodies in their own right?

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