Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ten Years After…and Don’t Call it Katrina

Ten years ago, 80 percent of New Orleans--a city I love--was underwater. Most media covered it as an unavoidable catastrophe: the storm surge overpowered the levees, and who could possibly have expected this? So we thought it was a natural disaster, and we blamed the resulting devastation on Hurricane Katrina.

Television brought us heartbreaking images and stories—elderly residents abandoned to drown in a flooded-out nursing home, families making their way through foul waist-high water, thousands stranded on rooftops and bridges and in the Superdome and at the convention center, baking and some dying in the hot sun. (I've avoided using the most shocking images here.)

The story was still unfolding two days later when my husband Peter and I went to see New Orleans’ own Dr. John at a local jazz club. We had seen him several times before, but this time he was heartbroken, and angry. He was still trying to locate friends amid the chaos. And he was giving interviews with a message: Don’t blame Katrina, blame the people who knew for years that the levees were falling apart. The Army Corps of Engineers and the city’s own government knew that the levees couldn’t hold against a truly strong storm, and they let it happen. Dr. John performed a brand-new song about lies and betrayal, and eventually he produced an album full of protest songs,“City that Care Forgot.”

Thousands of homes were uninhabitable because of water damage, toxic mold, and lack of utilities. We heard that FEMA would bring in emergency trailers. There was a supply of trailers available nearby—in Mississippi, as I recall. They were locally built, so if FEMA used them and ordered more, they would be boosting a regional economy also disrupted by hurricane damage. Instead, FEMA held out for trailers that would be built in Alaska and transported to Louisiana. When I heard that, it dawned on me: They are stalling so their friends can get into position to profit from this. Just as Halliburton got excessive no-bid contracts in Iraq, a fleet of out-of-town contractors would profit from exceedingly favorable treatment in the cleanup and redevelopment of New Orleans.

Years passed before the stories came out about how greed and corruption did, in fact, prolong the suffering of people trying to recover from the storm, especially the poor and non-white. Rebuilding the poorest and most damaged parts of town took a back seat as developers, investors, and government officials focused instead on more profitable business and tourism projects. City officials pocketed payoffs and traded favors; former Mayor Ray Nagin was sent to prison. Tens of thousands of residents who had fled the city did not return, largely because they no longer had jobs or places to live. In the process, the city lost a perceptible share of its distinctive multiethnic culture.

Peter and I had visited N’Awlins three or four times before the flood. He fondly recalls a locally born cabby who briefed him on his first visit, including where to go, what to eat, and to be sure to order your drink in a go-cup so you can take it out on the street. When we took an interest in crawfish etouffe, wait staff at every restaurant could explain the recipe and technique that made theirs unique.

When we visited this past April, our cab drivers were seldom New Orleans natives; during Easter Week a nice young man from Jordan asked whether we could explain the Good Friday tradition. The wait staff at one Cajun-Creole restaurant was entirely Latino and at another entirely southeast Asian, seemingly imported from elsewhere when a restaurant reopened or changed hands. They provided competent service, but they didn’t know beans about rice and beans. Something similar must have happened in the kitchens; traditional New Orleans food was simply not quite as rich and tasty as it should have been. The problem is not the addition of new ethnicities; it is the decreased presence of those who, like generations before them, shaped the remarkable culture unique to New Orleans.

Of all the expressions of New Orleans culture, music seems to have survived best. Some of the city’s most successful musicians (the Marsalis family, Harry Conick Jr., Dr. John and others) banded together to support the many musicians who were wiped out, and often forced to flee, by the flood. They raised money, built a musician’s village through Habitat for Humanity, established a music school for city children, and kept on playing. New Orleans music is not just an art form, not just a tourist attraction, it is vital part of life. The spirit of second-line parades and “Indian” parades, together with New Orleans jazz, blues, zydeco, and the rest, give a sense of the culture and strength that brought the city’s people through the flood and its aftermath.

In case you’re interested, a remarkable HBO series called Treme gives a fascinating picture of post-flood life in New Orleans. Well researched, well written, and cast with wonderful actors, it humanizes the issues and spotlights the city’s music with live performances from a wide range of the best musicians. It’s available on Blu-Ray. I can promise that watching it will be much more fascinating, enlightening, surprising, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring than the feel-good ten-years-after pieces we’ve been seeing in the media the past couple of weeks.


stephen Hayes said...

It's still hard to believe something like this could happen in an American city. Such a disgrace.

Rian said...

New Orleans is my home. I grew up there. My family (what's left of them) still live there. IMO, Katrina wasn't a disgrace, it was a DISASTER... one that no one thought would ever happen... but it did.
Were they ready for it? Of course not. Could they have been? I doubt it. Hindsight is 20/20, but growing up there with hurricane parties and getting off school to help board up your house before the storm was the norm. People in New Orleans didn't fear hurricanes. We grew up with them. Did Katrina open up our eyes? Absolutely! Is New Orleans better able to withstand another Katrina? Hopefully. Positively? Who knows. But the heart of the city survived! The music survived! The food (IMO) is still the best there is. And although a lot of our homes had to be rebuilt (the home I grew up in is gone, my aunt's house is gone, my cousin's house is gone, etc.)but the people (not all mind you, but many - including my family) returned and the city has remade itself. It's come back... and it's come back stronger. (just my 2 cents)

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Rian, it's great to hear from you. I agree that the heart of the city survived, and I'm totally impressed with the strength and character of the people. You know better than I what it took for your family to cope with and overcome all that loss. I hope the scandals of the past are over and done with. The city is looking beautiful and it seems to be getting better all the time.

troutbirder said...

It was a disgrace on top of a disaster. The part I remember the most from my long range view was the arrival of the troops to presumably to save lives. The commander was interviewed on TV. I clearly remember my impression that his words clearly indicated his mission seemed to be to restore order in the city, particularly around the Dome where the poor, indigent and homeless and desperate, mostly black posed a potential "problem". Perhaps they felt they were entering Bagdad. An American city. An FEMA run by one of Bush II's political hacks. Mostly a disgrace....:(

Jeanie said...

This is a fascinating, thoughtful and I fear incredibly all-too-true post about a beautiful city, a great tragedy and the foolishness of those who didn't see the warning signs and yes, I agree, are greatly responsible for this terrible storm becoming a national disaster. I've not been to NOLA since the storm but have fond memories from before.

You might be interested, if you didn't already see it, in today's profile of Chef John Besh and his efforts to help his community rebuild the food culture. It was on CBS Sunday Morning but I know you can find the segment (about 10 minutes) online if you google John Besh CBS Sunday Morning. There were other Katrina features, too.

Deb Shucka said...

What a well-written piece about a truly shameful event in our history. One that has yet to be resolved and healed, which is true for far too many things. I have not been to New Orleans, have always wanted to go, and am sad I'll never get to see the real place.


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