When Hurricane Katrina moved northwest through the Gulf of Mexico, hitting the Gulf Coast of the US in late August of 2005 I had only the briefest of connections to the city: my parents had attended a convention there in the late 60s, a friend I had grown up with lived there with his wife right after graduating from the seminary, and a former co-worker had grown up there. Otherwise, I knew it only as “The City Below Sea Level”, the home of Mardi Gras and cajun/creole cooking. And Dixieland Jazz.
After the levees had failed and the enormity of the situation became inescapable to any caring, thinking human, I became one of the people who, along with my wife, spent our evenings watching the situation grow from bad to worse to something beyond worse. It wasn’t so much the flooding that shocked and saddened me, that was almost an inevitable event. What astounded me was the inaction of the government to assist fellow Americans in their greatest hours of need.
As those hours stretched into days and into weeks my feelings of sadness and anger turned to a desire to do something. Exactly what, I didn’t know. I wasn’t able to go to New Orleans to volunteer for various reasons and I doubted the notion of donating money as a ‘real’ solution. In the days after September 11, 2001 we were all said to have become New Yorkers. In the days after August 29, 2005 it was becoming clear there might not be much of a New Orleans for the country to belong to.
The following June I was asked to attend the Association of American University Presses yearly conference in New Orleans and the two-day IT conference before the official conference started. The conference was held in a hotel along the edge of the French Quarter, an area that had only minimally been affected by the flooding. At the time New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was making an effort to encourage tourism and conventions to come to New Orleans and help bolster the city’s economy.
During the days I attended all of the sessions, learning from my colleagues and even participating in a general session on web sites. Once the official part of the day was over, I hit the streets with my camera in my satchel and my tripod slung over my shoulder.
The hotel sat on Canal Street, a six lane road divided by trolley car tracks. Just blocks from the shining glass and bright lights of the hotel and the neighboring casino were clear signs of problems, but these seemed more urban blight than flood damage. Katrina may not have helped here, but it wasn’t likely the full cause of what I saw.
I heard from other participants at the AAUP conference that some people were hiring taxi cabs to drive them around the worst-hit areas so they could see it for themselves. This was want I wanted, too, but doing so from the back seat of a cab seemed touristy and disrespectful. Seeing the progress that had been made was one thing, but I wanted to understand what had happened and why.
It was my roommate for the conference, our Editor-in-Chief, David Perry, who made the suggestion. One of our authors, Lance Hill, (author of the acclaimed The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement) was a professor at Tulane University, a figure cut from the whole cloth of sixties radicalism and a long-time New Orleans resident. David and his son had come down to New Orleans several months ago to do some volunteer work and Lance had driven them around the area. Would I like to see if Lance was available to do the same again?
Lance met us at the hotel and we drove quickly away from the clean and showy section of town into a neighborhood that could have been from any older area in the US where the older suburban neighborhoods start to meld into the blue collar working districts. We started with a dive into true N’Orleans cuisine via a Po’ Boy and an introductory discussion about the history of race relations in the New Orleans area.
After lunch we drove off with Lance continuing his socio-economic and political history of the city he loves so much. I sat in the front passenger’s seat with my camera out the car window taking as many pictures as quickly as I could.
Not all of New Orleans is below sea level. There is a gradual incline to the streets and the apex is an all-but invisible dividing line between the lower and the mid-to-upper socio-economic classes. The side closest to the levees, the side where the flood waters rose, was home to the lower classes. The side farthest away, the side that saw the waters rise on the streets on the other side of the rise, are where the wealthy live.
We drove down that apex street, then turned right towards the levees. In neighborhoods where houses were separated by the just a few feet of metal fencing, where people had lived for years, watching their children and their neighbor’s children growing up and eventually starting families of their own, there was nothing but the shells of houses. These were no longer homes, these were broken stick frames with smashed-in windows and flood water scars marking a straight, brown line across the fronts. And each had the large, red spray-painted coded markings of having been officially checked for people and animals.
I didn’t understand the houses with the doors taken off their hinges. Weren’t people afraid what little possessions they had would be stolen? No, these were homes where the people had lost everything. The doors were open to try and fight off the mold problem that the receding flood waters had left behind. Even a house with just a few inches of water damage could be completely ruined by the mold. Looking more closely I could see these houses inside were down to the bare studs. Wet drywall being a favorite breeding ground for black mold.
As bad as the more urban neighborhoods were the Ninth Ward, where the levees first failed, was even worse. They looked like they had been picked up and tossed to the side or thrown back down where they had once stood, their frames splintered and crumbling but still trying to not completely collapse to the ground.
There were entire neighborhoods, long suburban streets, where we were the only people. Block after block of an empty, eerie silence coming from the buildings and the overgrown lawns, touched only by the steady explanations from Lance as to what had once been here, what little was now left, and what was happening behind the scenes to remake the area into a very, very different type of city.
It was 41 weeks after eighty percent of New Orleans had been flooded, since Ninety percent of the residents of southeast Louisiana had been evacuated. 41 weeks and so little had been done other than to pile high the trash along the roads and to force open all the doors and windows, inviting in what little hope there was to be found.
There were some people fighting, however. Despite the odds we did see the occasional group of people working together on a house, working to make it livable again, working to rebuild a home. We would see only one or two in a ten minute stretch of driving, making their nearest neighbors a long way away. They were still going to be lacking clean water and electricity, but they were going to have their homes back.
I took my photos back home with me and posted them online, sharing them and my stories of being in New Orleans with my friends around the world. I don’t believe my meager efforts made any great changes to the city, but I felt it was important to show people what nature can do to a city and how the failures of government can compound the ruin. There is really very little that separates any of us, wherever we are, from the people of New Orleans. Sections of New Orleans were wiped out by a hurricane that hit three years ago today, but the same sort of disaster could strike any city in any one of a number of different events: fire, gas explosions, a virulent virus… The lessons of Katrina are not that we must be prepared the next time another hurricane threatens the Gulf region, but that we must recognize and own our connections to one another, that we must never allow any city, any community, to suffer alone like that ever again.
On my last night in New Orleans I walked down Canal Street to take more pictures of the city streets and to have a midnight plate of beignets at The Café Du Monde. This bronze statue was outside a store’s doors, safeguarded by a metal pull-down gate. She struck me as an angel, trapped behind a locked fence. Imprisoned by something not of her own making she was unable to escape and could only look down at the city and the people around her with a tear in her eye.