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The Gumbo Pages

August 28th, 2006

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01:03 am - looking back
Last week, I wrote two op-ed pieces for the Detroit Free Press. The editor I was working with rejected them both. :-<

Here they are, illustrated:


Lakeview, November 2005
Lakeview, November 2005
The sights and sounds of Katrina blow back this week, stirring memories and emotions anew. Media pundits and repentant politicians will list off the “lessons learned” from the hurricane, but the meaning of the events that unfolded in New Orleans a year ago is not easily distilled into such a simple recounting of the “moral of the story.” In part this is because the story is so complex; in part it is because the stories we carry shape the stories we hear and pass on.

Because I grew up in New Orleans, Hurricane Betsy is my hurricane story. How clearly I remember staying up late in our house in Lakeview while the storm raged outside; even at seven years old, I sensed my parents’ fear: this was a time when they might not be able to make things all right. Although our neighborhood saw relatively little damge (one of the fig trees in our back yard blew down), friends fleeing a flooded house moved in with us for several days, refugees in their own city.

When I returned to my childhood church last spring, a longtime family friend spoke with urgency: “Do they understand what happened here? Make sure they understand.” What they want us to understand is that the story of Katrina is not merely a natural disaster: the hurricane devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast; what made 80% of New Orleans uninhabitable was human error. The hurricane protection system built by the Army Corps of Engineers failed: failed repeatedly, failed catastrophically. Navigation channels on the east of the city funneled Katrina’s storm surge into low-lying areas, breaching the levee that protected the lower Ninth Ward. The floodwaters that covered my former elementary school to a depth of eight feet came from a levee that, quite simply, fell down under the pressure of a Category 3 storm. Understand, this was not the Big One, the Category 5 storm that doomsayers have been warning against. Because of the flawed levees, the devastation in New Orleans matched doomsday predictions.

Thinking of Katrina as a natural disaster, an “act of God,” gives it a certain inevitability, notwithstanding the claims of ultra-right preachers (and misguided politicians) who claim a specific motive for divine intervention. Understanding the New Orleans flood as a human failure calls for a different kind of accounting. When an area seven times the size of Manhattan is under water, we naturally seek accountability. Although President Bush decried this as playing “the blame game” (simultaneously, as Jed Horne points out in his remarkably lucid book Breach of Faith, maneuvering to win the game he pretended to disdain), it is a natural human instinct: to look for causes, mishandled responsibilities, answers.

One of the most troubling answers is found in the story, repeated in many poorer sections of the city, that the levees were blown up to protect the richer neighborhoods, just like in 1965, just like in 1927. There is no credible evidence to support this claim either during Katrina or Betsy, yet the Great Flood of 1927 remains a powerfully revealing story. The rich power brokers of the city did indeed arrange to have a levee blown up in 1927 to relieve the danger of flooding in New Orleans, destroying the homes and livelihoods of thousands of small farmers, trappers, and fishermen downriver in St. Bernard Parish.

Although this deliberate explosion did not innundate the Ninth Ward (despite such claims by historian Douglas Brinkley in his recent book The Great Deluge), the persistence of such a myth points us to a larger truth: that in times of disaster, the poor, the elderly, the disabled are the most vulnerable and the most in need of care. That the government failed to provide timely relief and rescue to those who sought shelter at the Superdome is beyond dispute. That the crowds huddled by the Convention Center on the banks of the Mississippi (in CNN reporter Aaron Brown’s memorable misstatement “so very poor, so very black”) recalls African slaves arriving in the United States on those very river banks generations ago evokes a sadness beyond irony.

This is a hard time in New Orleans. Many residents have not returned and those who have face the daily struggles of living in a still-wounded city. Money for rebuilding homes has only recently begun arriving, and difficult choices must be made about how and where to rebuild.

Thankfully, there are other stories to be told as well, stories of heroism and courage and common human decency transcending race and class. New Orleans has redemptive stories to tell and rituals to celebrate. In a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral the sad procession towards the grave is balanced by a joyful return that often seems inappropriate to outsiders, as inappropriate as celebrating Mardi Gras only five months after the deluge. For New Orleanians, these rituals make a claim of community that transcends sadness, that promises revival, renewal, rebirth, that binds us to generations past and generations yet to come.

A banner hanging from a balcony in Gentilly, a middle-class neighborhood hit hard by the flooding, expresses this indomitable spirit: “We survived the Spanish, French, Brits, carpetbaggers, scoundrels, Butler, Betsy, Edwards, Katrina, & the Corps. 2006 has to be better!” When I drove through my old neighborhood a few months ago, I saw a woman watering her lawn around the corner from my old house. Seven blocks away, I saw one man walking his dog. Meager as they are, these are signs of hope.

House in Gentilly


City Park, November 2005
City Park, November 2005

When I revisited the Lakeview section of New Orleans early this summer, the ravages of the flood that followed Katrina were still evident. The house where I grew up was gutted as were many of those near it. More disturbingly, nearby houses lay untouched where no one had returned. Dirty smudges marked the eight foot high-water mark. Emblazoned on most houses still was the bright orange X that rescue crews left to mark their searches.

In my old neighborhood I saw only two people, a woman watering her freshly-planted front lawn and a man walking his dog. Elsewhere in the city, crews still worked to gather the debris of houses crushed and lives destroyed. As late as May, bodies were still being discovered.

The scope of the destruction is hard to comprehend: 80% of the city lay under water, an area seven times the size of Manhattan. From the air, a sea of blue tarps marked roofs damaged by Katrina’s winds. Television’s graphic images of the Lower Ninth Ward were matched by equally heart-breaking sights in other neighborhoods. Driving along block after desolate block, I imagined the families behind the grim statistics, each abandoned home with a untold story.

Even those who have managed to move back (not quite half of the pre-storm population), everyday life is a challenge. Public services are undependable, crime is on the rise, and looming over every conversation is the uncertainty of this current hurricane season, since the levees will not provide even the flawed protection of a year ago.

There are positive signs: schools reopen this fall with a clearer sense of purpose, initiatives to build new housing are starting to bear fruit, and this summer the first major convention, the American Library Association, returned to town. The historic neighborhoods most attractive to visitors, the French Quarter and the Garden District, sustained relatively little damage, encouraging the tourist industry’s slow revival.

Nevertheless, some wonder why anyone would want to return to such a fragile environment. Some even question whether the old New Orleans should return. Why, they wonder, revive a city dedicated to drunkenness and lewd behavior? Having packaged itself to tourists for so long as a haven of excess and decadence, New Orleans now bears the burden of that image, compounded by a history of political corruption and genteel indolence.

New Orleanians see their city differently. They realize that six blocks of Bourbon Street do not define the city, that sexual excess is the sometimes-messy result of a culture of tolerance and acceptance. They understand that the city’s distinctive music and food and celebrations result from the blending of cultures and peoples: African slaves, French colonizers, Spanish settlers, American Indians, and those brash newcomers, les Americains.

The heart of New Orleans is its communities: neighborhoods and families, churches and Carnival clubs. The traditional jazz funeral, so potent a symbol in the months following the flood, takes place in the streets, gathering the community together to weep and remember. The joyous second-line procession back from the cemetery transforms mourning into joy and celebrates the ties that bind the painful past to the hoped-for future. The glittering floats of Carnival parades make the same claim on a grander scale.

On Mardi Gras this year, the streets of the old town saw fewer revelers than in years past, but they reveled with a heightened intensity. Government at all levels was the target of satire: oneT-shirt bore the simple message “FEMA promised me a costume.” A group of women wore gowns fashioned Project Runway-style from the hated blue tarps, transmuting the harsh reality of damaged roofs into a fleeting bit of magic.

Now more than ever, we know, as in the old song, what it means to miss New Orleans. The New Orleans we have loved is no more. But we also know that the strength of the city, its people, will provide the seeds of rebirth. As my friend Roberts Batson wrote in the days after the storm, “These are difficult times, indeed. But destiny lies within adversity. It falls to us to be the first generation in history to have the duty, the challenge, the awesome, glorious opportunity to rebuild that amazing place, New Orleans.”

Mardi Gras blue
Current Music: Dr. John, Sippiana Hericane

(1 comment | Leave a comment)


Date:August 29th, 2006 01:01 pm (UTC)

rant on media

Thoughtful, historically minded, emotional, and personal editorials. I love how the images tell the stories and you fill in so much context in so little space.

I'm sure the Freep would have published one or both if they didn't need to make room to promote Mitch Albom's new book. Prediction: Albom's fund-raiser at The Fox pushes striking Detroit teachers off front page.

Last night, Dateline ran an hour-long encomium to Brian Williams, by Brian Williams, about how he 1) arrived in N.O. before first responders, 2) represented valiantly "the people," 3) took FEMA and Bush (hard hitting exchnage went something like this -- Williams: "some people say relief would have gotten to Kennebunkport more quickly" Bush: "call me anything you want but don't call me a racist" Williams: "okay") and Nagin to task, 4) was hungry and thirty just like everybody else in the city, etc, etc.

It was interesting to see Katrina unfold through one person's eyes, but disheartening that NBC had to make ITSELF the story. And Williams too boldly proclaimed himself one of the sufferers ("we didn't have special helicopter drops with food just for the reporters"), although he also said he carried around cases of vienna sausage to barter with anybody who might attack him and admitted that he decided to move NBC out of the city and into the safer suburbs when he heard that CNN had done the same. So cases of sausage sat in NBC's van while people starved? He also glossed over the huge amounts of resources that he utilized during the two or three days after Katrina, including a group of armed police who circled him as he traveled through the city (hmmm, maybe those ten or twelve police could have been doing something else?).

--Bill <http://bdegenaro.blogspot.com>

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