Abandoned home in New Orleans. Photo: Brice A. Miller
“New Orleans is an illusion,” says local Lower Ninth Ward resident and writer J.F. “Smitty” Smith. “There’s the reality of New Orleans and the illusion of New Orleans. Most of what you see is the illusion.” A local mother of two in a snow cone line in Tulane reiterates Smitty’s words when she acknowledges, “New Orleans has many layers.”
It’s impossible not to notice how the sediment of New Orleans has settled post-Hurricane Katrina. Not just literally in the marshes and wetlands, but also figuratively in the sifting of culture and reconstruction. Walking through the tourist destinations of Bourbon Street or the French Quarter, Hurricane Katrina has been re-appropriated into a silver ring in the shape of a wave from the storm or a colorful photograph of oaks and cypress trees submerged in sable water.
Yet, upon entering the Lower Ninth Ward, after you pass by Brad Pitt’s (in)famous Make It Right-homes and drive deep into the grid of crumbling houses still branding X-codes, trash heaped in abandoned lots, and the potholes (that force one to drive under ten miles an hour simply to avoid bottoming out), you see the side of New Orleans that does not decorate the pages of a Conde Nast travel magazine. Ironically, it’s the part of the city that is in dire need of visibility and exposure beyond the alcohol fueled haze of Bourbon Street.
This tension between reality and fiction is teased out in Trouble the Water, a 2008-documentary film that follows a New Orleans couple’s struggle for survival after the levees broke. The couple, Scott and Kimberly Rivers Roberts, capture candid, first person footage of the storm’s aftermath juxtaposed with New Orleans’ tourism center’s glossy promotional video of po-boys, brass bands, and alligators – the smiling, sparkling jazz singer in the video deflects and underscores the harsh realities that pervade New Orleans.
Harsh realities such as those parts of the Ninth Ward that are still in shambles and the wetlands that continue to erode at a dramatic rate (erosion the size of a football field, on average, every hour), with nary any national coverage in sight. While Barbara Bush may have believed in 2005 that the people of New Orleans “had it better” sleeping in NOLA’s airport in the days after the storm, there could be a loud collective agreement that many never had it better – and still don’t.
Visual reminders, ongoing neglect
The government census shows that as of July 1, 2014, the Orleans Parish of Louisiana had a total population of 384,320 – nearly 60 percent of which were black or African American, by far and away the largest demographic based on race alone, with white at 35 percent and Asian in third with just over 3 percent. According to the Data Center, “ten years after Katrina, more than half (40) of New Orleans’ 72 neighborhoods have recovered over 90 percent of the population they had before the levees failed.” However, the Lower Ninth Ward is one of four neighborhoods that has “less than half the population they had prior to Katrina.”
Previously, the Lower Ninth Ward — mostly African American working class — had one of the highest home ownership rates in the city. The lack of urgency in repairing the neighborhood in lieu of its high home ownership rates and the fact that many have still not returned after their initial displacement, suggests an institutional racism at work in the city’s (and country’s) historical epicenter. In the days and months after racially fraught events in Baltimore, Charleston, and McInney, TX, it sadly comes as no surprise that the violence of racism isn’t just in our churches or at our pool parties – it’s in the very topography and architecture of our country.
The visual reminders of Hurricane Katrina and the government’s ongoing neglect are a constant in the Ninth Ward: from painted street signs proclaiming “This is a neighborhood, not a trash dump”, the deplorable roads (evocative of a developing country), to the eerie silence that descends with the gloam of evening in what used to be an area known for its pot-lucks and collective community, not its poverty. The specters of our negligence waft through the air.
Toni McGee Causey confirms this immediate neglect in the days following the hurricane in his story “Where Grace Lives”, from the collection Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?. He writes:
I cannot understand how media crews could show the devastating events down at the Convention Center and the Superdome, and FEMA or our federal government did not ‘know’ the people were there. How do we live in a country which can drop aid to everyone else in the world, and no one could drop water and food to the people trapped there?
Acclaimed writers Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon probe these faulty blue prints of our socio-economic and political system in their respective books Men We Reaped (2013) and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America (2013), as does Smitty in his first book Exiled in Paradise (2012) and director Spike Lee in the chilling four part requiem-like documentary When the Levees Broke (2006).
But words cease to console when your home is in disrepair and the country where you’re supposedly a citizen (though many were labeled “refugees” in the initial weeks after the storm and those who traversed Gretna Bridge to escape from the Convention Center were turned away by police officers with guns and snarling dogs, unable to walk into another district on American soil) does nothing to rebuild, restore, or recover your home, your job, your livelihood, your history.
Thom Pepper, the executive director of Common Ground Relief, moved from Miami to New Orleans fourteen months after the storm hit. Common Ground’s approach of working with and among the community as well as the services it provides were a major draw for Pepper, as was the city itself that reminds him of “Miami in the 70s.” Common Ground was an essential organization for a lot of the reconstruction of the Lower Ninth Ward (including local legend Fats Domino’s house). Yet, today, Thom would argue that the biggest problems of New Orleans are “policing and potholes.”
In his book 1 Dead in Attic (2006) Chris Rose describes the potholes, trash, and refrigerators that festered and proliferated in the months and year after Hurricane Katrina. He notes:
… on many streets, refrigerators are duct-taped shut and lined up along the curbside, calling to mind nothing so much as the image of empty Mardi Gras parade ladders all in a row. All these structures, just waiting for something to happen. Only problem is, there are no cleanup crews following these imaginary paragraphs to remove the debris. So they stand, sturdy sentinels, fortress walls. We should rename the streets around here Whirlpool Way, Amana Avenue, and Kenmore Court, because that’s what it looks like. The streets are paved in appliances. Where trees once stood, they are sometimes the only shade on a block. Where are they going to put all these things? I don’t suppose they can be used to buttress our wetlands as they do with discarded Christmas trees every year, huh? Do we even have any wetlands?
This passage, written only a few months after the storm, feels tragically current. “There’s a lot of debris down here,” Pepper says, referring to the Lower Ninth. “Since July 2012 we have probably picked up 400 cubic yards of illegally dumped material not including another 1000 illegally dumped tires. Contractors are doing demolitions of houses all over the city and rather than going to the dump, they bring the debris to the Lower Ninth. We’ve been yelling at the city to come down here and pick this stuff up for years.”
While Pepper acknowledges that the city has “gotten a lot better, it’s really only been in the past year that they’ve developed these hot sheets that you can fill out and give to the police department reporting the location of dumped waste.” He pauses and then adds, “that’s almost ten years after Katrina.”
Now we can not only dodge potholes, but also fill them with various paraphernalia as actor Steve Zahn comically does on HBO’s Treme – the contractors’ waste becomes Zahn’s artistic fodder and our neighborhood detritus. Sans cable TV, the joke wears thin.
The stars we need
Filmmaker, rapper, speaker, and New Orleans native Kimberly Rivers Roberts (aka BlackKoldMadina with Born Hustler Records) adds, “New Orleans needs more programs that target low income families – that educate them and help them get jobs. That’s the real problem.”
While Common Ground aims to do this through its work with local residencies and school programs and Roberts through her motivational and inspiring talks (and informative soon-to-be released documentary Fear No Gumbo), there still aren’t enough resources (or money) to reach all the people in need and the endangered environment of New Orleans – or, at least, that’s what the government’s continued inaction would suggest.
In late June, dining on the epicurean appetites of Southern cuisine (red beans and rice with sausage), the sun sets low on the brow of the river in the NinthWard, partially obscured by the concrete levees. A few Cyprus stumps rise from the brackish water, mere shadows of their former selves. The hum of mosquitos still swells in the onset of dusk. The yucca bushes flare.
As the light seeps out and Fats Waller wafts through the air, one can’t help recall another line from Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans? when resident Strangebone was asked about the post-Katrina sky. “You’re able to see the stars,” he replied. “It’s wonderful.” Somewhere in the city there is violence and heartache and a band blaring and a red plastic cup frothing with beer. But there are also still the stars, immutable and visible – for some, that’s all we have, for some, that’s all we need.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/katrina-new-orleans-10-years/