Why the Legacy of Katrina on New Orleans Is Different From Disasters That Befell Other Cities

 

Rescue personnel search from victims as they traverse the New Orleans 8th Ward in the flooded city of New Orleans on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005. Water continued to rise after the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, which pounded the coast on August 29.

How to remember Hurricane Katrina? I consider this each year as the anniversary approaches. I assume it’s something that most people do when the anniversary of a traumatic event draws near.

New Orleans is not my hometown; I grew up two hours northwest from it in Louisiana’s fourth largest city, Lafayette. The day before Katrina reached land, my sister, who was in law school at Loyola University, called me (I was living in New York at the time) and said she was driving home. Everything from news to gossip portended the same: that Katrina was a beast and everyone should get out, or, at the very least, find adequate shelter. She fit as much from her apartment into her car as was humanly possible, boarded up her windows as best she could and called me before she hit the road.

Growing up in Southwest Louisiana, hurricane season is a part of life, the worst up until that point for me being Hurricane Andrew. The damage my family personally suffered was minimal. I remember thinking that my sister was exaggerating, but wished her a safe drive and told her to call me when she reached home.

On August 29, 2005, I woke up to news reports of a city under water: children trapped atop their homes, neighborhoods eviscerated and mass chaos multiplying like a virus. In some televisual images, the waters were tinged pink with blood. Coffins were disinterred from cemeteries. Nightmarish details and stories were reified for weeks on end. Today, ethicists, journalists and others are still studying the ethical issues posited by the storm: What of the people confined to a hospital bed? And what of those residents who, after surviving the storm, were shot while trying to cross the Danziger bridge into a neighboring town?

Immediately during and after Katrina, I felt a surge of complex, visceral emotions of anger and sadness, helplessness and fear. Some years later, I considered the condition of South Louisiana. It was as if residue from the storm congealed into a waterspout and allegations of corruption and malfeasance fell one after another onto the region, continuing until the present day. As the city was literally rebuilding, it also began to crack open and rebuild from the corruption in the New Orleans Police Department and at the highest level of political office. Now, I find myself mulling over how Hurricane Katrina plays out in the national memory.

A few weeks ago, I met a blind date who, between the first and second course, upon learning that I was from Southwest Louisiana, brought up the storm, something that quite a few people still do who are not from the region; I figure it’s a technique used by some, when trying to relate to someone from a place they have only seen on TV, heard about secondhand, or read about in books, to pick something, whether negative or positive, and use it as a kind of common ground.

In an exercise of ego and brashness, he stated that Hurricane Katrina (and, by extension, the devastating earthquake that ravaged Haiti) was a karmic comeuppance, a sort of divine retribution for the city’s sins. This was something that I had heard before, as some had publicly voiced that the storm was “God’s wrath” for the wickedness of the city. He spoke of voodoo and Mardi Gras debauchery, among other things, as seedlings that were planted over time. The storm, for him, was the chickens coming home to roost or, more appropriately, a modern-day vestige of the vengeance taken by God against the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. Taking care not to regurgitate the foie gras in my mouth, I wondered how a practicing Manhattan attorney could believe in something so stupefyingly moronic and cheekily repeat this to a woman he just met?

Weeks later, I was still ruminating over this as the anniversary drew near. On some level, I can understand how the storm is best articulated by some in language that is religious or mythological in nature; the storm was a cataclysmic event. Biblical and mythological language and metaphors seem large enough to handle the enormity of speaking about Katrina. Like many, I am proud of where I come from, and Katrina hit me hard, a jagged scar that reminds those of us who still live there or are from there what we have survived, in ways I imagine the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, did for New Yorkers, the Oklahoma City bombing did for Oklahomans, and the unraveling of Detroit did for its residents.

Still, the devastation of New Orleans, the surrounding cities and the Mississippi Gulf Coast remains set apart in the national imagination among other tragedies defined by place. Why is it that divine retribution remains at the periphery (or is the focus) for some when considering Katrina?

Southern Louisiana has arguably one of the most fascinating, painful and complex histories of all the Southern states. It is steeped in myriad profound intricacies in its mix of race, language, religion, food, history, and the relics, such as Acadian “Cajun” and Creole cultures, that remain from centuries past when the region was once a French and a Spanish territory. (Consider the names of the following cities: Gonzales, Ville Platte, and Grand Coteau for starters.) The hurricane bought the state to full international attention in a way that had never been done prior.

It is now the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And I am considering how it survives in the national memory. For those of us from the area, how do we remember? How do others remember us? Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward, raised on the Gulf Coast, states in a Paris Review interview the following when speaking of “home”:

The word salvage is phonetically close to savage. At home, among the young, there is honor in that term. It says that come hell or high water, Katrina or oil spill, hunger or heat, you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope. When you stand on a beach after a hurricane, the asphalt ripped from the earth, gas stations and homes and grocery stores disappeared, oak trees uprooted, without any of the comforts of civilization—no electricity, no running water, no government safety net—and all you have are your hands, your feet, your head, and your resolve to fight, you do the only thing you can: you survive. You are a savage.

Katrina is personal. Katrina is political. And Katrina was nasty. It exposed the worst and the best about humankind. My family was one of the lucky ones. My sister was able to leave the city safely, and my parents and relatives in surrounding cities were able to weather the storm. But so many others were killed, displaced, or survived losses that I cannot even fathom. I consider Katrina with humility, but also righteous rage. How to remember Katrina…how to remember Katrina, indeed.

 

Comments

I recall the casual hopelessness, fatalism, corruption, and reckless disregard for reality. The majority of the infrastructure that protects the town is managed remotely from DC, as under an occupation. How do you invest in a city that exists only at the whim of a disinterested and distant power? The dysfunctional nature of ignoring water management to put in an obsolete trolley line. Multiple salaried non-existent cops on the city payroll, complete with social security and union cards, just for a slush fund. A water management policy that contradicts proven methods that would protect and mitigate hurricane damage. Smashed FEMA trailers rocketing down the interstate at fearless speeds, with all the wholesale mechanical slaughter that entails. A speed trap (Grand Gulf?, I don't recall...) , no humans left to ticket (other than federal contractors) taking cash through the window of the last remaining asset and income source in town, a cop car.

It amazes me that NO survives, even thrives in the face of such overwhelming incompetence. Perhaps that is what the old USSR felt like, durable people getting by in spite of systemic gubmint failure. Fatalism and optimism rolled together, NO style.

You should have asked him sweetly if he thought that 9/11 and the Great Recession were God's judgment on the Manhattan legal and banking communities.

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