Hurricane Isaac is taking out its frustration on New Orleans. This, exactly seven years after Katrina.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the southern coastal region of the US. I was still living in Denver at the time, and I watched the news anxiously as Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana were battered and flooded by the storm. And what I saw happen in the aftermath of the storm…well, that tragedy unfolded over countless days, weeks and months, and frankly diminished my faith in our government’s ability to handle a natural disaster of such a magnitude.
The one and only time that I visited New Orleans was in late December of 2001. I was there for the Modern Language Association’s annual convention, not to attend the conference myself, but to support those people who were, at the time, a significant part of my life as they interviewed potential job candidates or were interviewed for potential teaching jobs in the field of English. As with all MLA Convention trips, I was on my own a great deal, which suited me fine as I enjoyed exploring new cities without the constraints of schedules or meetings, especially the constraints of schedules and meetings that were not mine. I find that it is sometimes much easier to get lost, and then found, when one is on their own…
New Orleans for me was the St. Charles Ave. Line streetcar to Riverbend, Lafayette Cemetery #1, and Anne Rice’s First Street home (her limo idling out front). New Orleans was also the muffaletta that I had from Central Grocery, the homeless man outside my hotel (who I checked on every day and maybe even gave some money to a couple of times), the little boy tap dancing in the street with his bottle cap taps on the bottoms of his shoes, the frozen daiquiri I had with Satina Smith at the French Market, and later the absinthe I had, again with Satina, at The Old Absinthe House on Rue Burbon as we waited for her then-husband Craig Arnold to finish up with his MLA obligations. Everywhere I turned, New Orleans was intoxicating green foliage, a preserved decay, and a people who enjoyed seeing you enjoy their city.
New Orleans sits below sea level. After Katrina hit in August of 2005, eighty percent of New Orleans, not surprisingly, was flooded when the levees that protected the city were breached during the storm surge. It was difficult to watch the flood-waters rise to the roofs of homes in the Ninth Ward. It was even more difficult to watch the rescue operations being conducted by other citizens of the city because, as far as I could tell, the government wasn’t sending any help anytime soon.
A few days after Katrina hit, people began to grumble about the rescue effort costing the U.S. so much money, and “Why didn’t those people evacuate in the first place?” Then there was grumbling about the increasing cost of fuel, this because of Katrina’s interrupting the oil refining in the Gulf…
One morning, as I was pumping gas at a downtown Denver filling station, I was approached by a television news crew that wanted to know if I was bothered by the rising cost of fuel. I politely declined their on-camera offer of an interview, but I was willing to share my thoughts with them. I told them that I was originally from the south, and had relatives who were somewhat impacted by Hurricane Katrina. I went on to tell them that I was less concerned with the price of my gas bill that day but more concerned about was the fact that New Orleans, a city that willingly opens itself up to tourists who gorge themselves on its food, drink its liquor until they vomit, expose themselves during Mardi Gras and even urinate on its streets, was being treated like a third world country where aid has to be approved before it was doled out. No, that was unacceptable in my book. The news crew walked away before I could preach to them about how most of the folks who were costing us so much in rescue dollars were people who COULDN’T LEAVE New Orleans because they were the poor blacks and whites whose numbers are so great and their resources so limited that they had nowhere to go and no means to use to get there. Don’t EVEN get me started.
And then, on September 4, 2005, Anne Rice wrote a NY Times article entitled “Do you know what it means to lose New Orleans?” that said it best:
“Now nature has done what the Civil War couldn't do. Nature has done what the labor riots of the 1920's couldn't do. Nature had done what ‘modern life’ with its relentless pursuit of efficiency couldn't do. It has done what racism couldn't do, and what segregation couldn't do either. Nature has laid the city waste - with a scope that brings to mind the end of Pompeii.”
Seven years later, New Orleans is still struggling to recover from the devastation of Katrina. Clean-up efforts continue, but it is a monthly, weekly, daily struggle. Just read this March 21, 2012 article from the NY Times Magazine, Jungleland: The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans Gives New Meaning to ‘Urban Growth.’ Does anyone else out there have a problem with this, or is it just me?
Eric and I are fans of HBO’s series Treme. It focuses on life in a New Orleans neighborhood after Katrina. We can’t get enough…
One more thing before I go, I found a short documentary that focuses on eyewitnesses who were stranded in a New Orleans hotel during Katrina. The documentary is made from footage captured by James L. Bills and is entitled Refuge of Last Resort. Please give yourself about an hour to watch it. Please watch it.
Oh, and of course you cannot go wrong with Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which may be found on Youtube.