Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Lisa B. Keranen

Second Advisor

John Ackerman

Third Advisor

Gerard Hauser


This dissertation offers a comparative study of the symbolic and material rhetoric of rebuilding in two American communities felled by natural disaster. It employs ethnographically-informed rhetorical criticism in order to assess how the communities of Greensburg, Kansas, and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana, engage in rhetorics of sustainable rebirth. It argues that while the symbolic and material rhetorics of Greensburg and Katrina employ similar populist discourse and the soaring topos of national resilience, Greensburg succeeds where the Lower Ninth Ward fails in rebuilding swiftly post-disaster because residents and stakeholders present a united front to government officials and investors and benefit from normalized portrayals of Greensburg's deserving and brave (white) citizenry. In contrast, the Lower Ninth Ward faces conflicting and often overtly discriminatory media coverage of its residents and multiple, conflicting visions for redevelopment, some of which position residents as outside Others in need of relocation. Despite this turmoil and social vulnerability, local resident activists tirelessly work with outside organizations to map a sustainable future for the Ninth Ward. Methodologically, this project contributes to the growing pool of rhetorical scholarship interested not just in official and vernacular texts, but also in the material, spatial consequences of those texts. The mixed-methods rhetorical criticism analyzes texts from informal ethnographic interviews and participant observation alongside government documents, media coverage, and ancillary materials intended for tourists and investors. Practically, the study provides a map of rhetorical strategies for other citizens looking to green or reinvent their communities, work against environmental racism, or fight for spatial and environmental justice. This effort is informed by the belief that those affected by environmental disaster should be able to participate in those decisions affecting their well-being. Theoretically, the project is significant in several ways. First, it contributes to an understanding of the rhetorical operations of neighborhood design and public space, and it expands understanding of sustainability rhetoric and explores how sustainability discourses are used to wield and conceal power across local and national contexts. Second, this study argues for a move toward spatial justice as a complement to social justice, and explores how sustainability is appropriated for discriminatory ends in New Orleans. It therefore offers insight into the racialization of space and the relationship between social and geographic vulnerability. Furthermore, this dissertation investigates the interplay between rhetorical strategies of race-averse discourses and normalized whiteness in media narratives of Greensburg and the Lower Ninth Ward, contributing new insight to critical race studies and critical rhetoric. Third, this study theorizes the relationship between disaster, space and place, memory, and rhetoric. It explores vernacular and official commemoration in the Ninth Ward as well as Greensburg, ultimately arguing that residents and stakeholders' opinions of a memorial's efficacy is directly related to that memorial's perceived authenticity.