Ten years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeastern Louisiana, the primary emotion for me is still sorrow, not the triumph of resiliency laid out in the narrative of recovery.
Like one of the other seminal events of the last decade, the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Katrina cleaves a clean line in history — a time before that seemed more innocent, and an after-time that would never be the same again. While the Iraq war was unfolding as an international catastrophe, Katrina confirmed that on the domestic front, the minor economic boomlet of George W. Bush’s presidency was a hollow charade for many low-income people on the Gulf Coast who were barely hanging on before the storm completely untethered them.
Although I visited New Orleans several times before and after the storm, my recollection of it is primarily mediated by others’ experiences, including a refugee in Colorado who told me her family’s harrowing story of escaping neighboring St. Bernard Parish as the floodwaters nearly subsumed their house. Impressions are also supplied by historian Douglas Brinkley’s masterful book The Great Deluge.
If I’m honest, I must also admit that I remember my colleague, Brian Clarey’s response far more than my own feelings, as we absorbed reports of the storm and the flooding that followed the failure of the levees from the newspaper where we were employed in Greensboro. He reminded me that he had to leave the office early because he was so upset. But what I remember was his palpable grief as he watched video footage of the flooding on his computer monitor, shaking his head in disbelief, and later how he listened and sang along to Randy Newman’s poignant song “Louisiana 1927,” which though written in 1974 about a much earlier natural disaster seemed to perfectly capture the horror of Katrina.
It seems almost immodest to pick up a media megaphone to revive memories of the storm without having a tangible link of family relationships and friendships staked down as a personal investment. For me it was a carefree place to visit for marathon poetry readings and plentiful Abita Turbodogs slid across the bar; for Clarey, it was home for many years.
Reflecting on New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast all these years later risks allowing it to become an abstraction. I carry a certain kind of shame in having moved on, not unlike how I relate to Palestine, which I visited in 2002, or Mexico, where I traveled in 2009. When you’re there face to face with tragedy and struggle, the policy questions and real human lives are immediate. But for me, commitments to distant places are difficult to sustain over the years, and more local concerns eventually take precedence.
The last time I was in New Orleans was for the Association of Alternative Newsmedia convention in 2011. From the riverfront near the French Quarter and the genteel Garden District, there were few evident signs of destruction, and it was easy to believe that New Orleans had completely rebuilt. The restaurants and bars were full, and new retail seemed to be humming along. I knew better, of course, being familiar with the derisive term “sliver by the river” to refer to the high ground where the city’s more prosperous classes settled. I knew there was a vast portion of the city invisible to tourists where people make do with poorly paying jobs to scrape together enough income to make house payments and hang on to a tiny bit of equity — or not, as the case may be.
We almost reflexively talk about resilience when disaster strikes, but the truth is that the poor and powerless are often swept aside while the privileged return and reinforce their stake. Katrina only made quick work of the gentrification that had already reshaped cities like New York and San Francisco. The radical culture, communalism and eccentricity that made me love the Lower East Side when I first lived in New York in 1995 was all but erased by condos and high-end retail catering to the well-to-do when I returned in 2000. And only a few years after Katrina, the foreclosure crisis rippled across the nation, ripping the guts out of the middle-class dream of homeownership in a cruel wave of dislocation. The melancholy I feel for all three displacements is roughly the same.
Katrina conditioned us to dysfunction. When the Great Recession generalized the pain that had been acutely felt in the Gulf Coast, we all learned that the recovery would leave many behind.
While city leaders in New Orleans celebrate “one of the greatest urban revivals of our lifetime,” Gary Rivlin writes in the new book Katrina: After the Flood that the recovery looks vastly different to the city’s black population. A city of 455,000 before the storm, two thirds of whom were black, had become majority white within five years, Rivlin writes, with 118,000 blacks and 24,000 whites leaving never to return.
People carry stories and culture.
The Gulf Coast survived Katrina, but something important was lost.