This morning on Fox News Sunday, the President’s new Chief of Staff, Josh Bolton said something in passing that has become conventional wisdom in Washington on both sides of the aisle. Talking about the many reasons for high gas prices, Bolton mentioned Hurricane Katrina and the damage it did to drilling and refining operations in the Gulf of Mexico, calling last August’s storm “the worst natural disaster in American history.” My own quick search turned up several similar comments, many made in the last couple weeks, including statements by House Minority Leader John Boehner, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs ranking member Joe Lieberman.
Undoubtedly Katrina was and continues to be a major tragedy, but is it the worst natural disaster in American history? Very good arguments could be made for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1900 Galveston hurricane. But this isn’t an argument we seem to be having. Even the Bay Area media seems to have conceded primacy to Katrina, commonly referring in its 100th anniversary coverage of 1906 to the quake as “the worst natural disaster in American history up to that time.” (Emphasis added.) Thus common knowledge seems to have settled what is really a pretty complex problem of historical analysis, judging Katrina “worst.”
This is a powerful example of popular historical production. My guess is that it will be a long time before professional historians revisit the question of “worst.” In the meantime, right or wrong, the popular judgement will stand as historical truth. Sometimes to historians’ surprise, sometimes to their chagrin, this is often how history is made.