Category Archives: Hurricane Katrina

“Katrina: A History, 1915–2015” by Andy Horowitz— The Definitive History

Horowitz, Andy. “Katrina: A History, 1915–2015”, Harvard University Press, 2020.

The Definitive History

Amos Lassen

One of the defining moments of my life was is having been in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and I found myself stranded on the roof of my seven story building with nowhere to go. Now fifteen years later, with the help of Andy Horowitz’s “Katrina”, I look back at that time (as I do every year). This time it is different because Horowitz gives us the definitive history of the storm.

While Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, the entire United Sates was affected and the repercussions were felt across the twentieth century. New Orleans had dealt with another  major hurricane in 1915 and the city’s Sewerage and Water Board believed that developers could safely build housing away from the high ground near the Mississippi. New Orleans grew in lowlands as she depended on significant government subsidies to stay dry. However, during Katrina, the levee system surrounding the city and its suburbs failed and these were the neighborhoods were extensively flooded. The flood knew no race, no financial conditions of those who lived there and social class.

Horowitz investigates the response to the flood, when policymakers studied and then reapportioned the challenges the water posed. They made it easier for white New Orleanians to return home than it was for African Americans. Profits and liabilities created by Louisiana’s oil industry had been unevenly distributed among the Louisianans for a century, giving rise to both abundance as well as a land loss crisis that still exists today.

We clearly see the relationship between structural inequality and physical infrastructure and get a look at what can happen with future disasters.  Here are the ‘causes and consequences’ of Hurricane Katrina. Horowitz maintains that the  combination of environmental challenges, structural racism, and governmental misjudgment brought about  loss of life. The
destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina was not just a “meteorological event”, it was the result of many years of terrible political, environmental, economic, and cultural decisions.
When Katrina came on land, it carried a hundred years of poor decisions that both preceded and followed the disaster.

In New Orleans, there is always another storm, and it is always only a matter of time until the “Big One” finishes what Katrina began. In New Orleans there is that threat every summer. Horowitz argues that we must look at the relevance of history since these storms are not just about being ready or the fear of catastrophe.

 “What many Louisianans always understood: that New Orleans’s history is America’s history and that Katrina is America’s possible future.” The history of Katrina began in 1915 when the most intense hurricane on record made landfall 100 miles downriver from New Orleans and brought tremendous amounts of rain to New Orleans. It caused what today would be hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and totally destroyed  neighboring towns. New Orleans survived and there were celebrations. The storm which was not named allowed New Orleans to grow and she did.  New Orleans officials put down the groundwork for the transformation of the city and made it “a national symbol of catastrophe.”

Those decisions that were brought into being by Louisiana’s political and business elite systematically made the area vulnerable to disaster. In the early years of the 20th century, local political bosses who were eager to gain from the extraction of newfound oil reserves, used the mantra of “states’ rights” in order to achieve unprecedented powers and change the landscape. They permitted oil companies to work through Louisiana’s marshes and dredge miles of canals. This caused saltwater to come into the marsh with the result of erosion and subsidence. The area was newly vulnerable to flooding from the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1965, Hurricane Betsy flooded the city. The very worst damage was in the Lower Ninth Ward, a 300-block area where 6,000 houses — most of them belonging to African Americans were flooded. The existence of the Lower Ninth was the result of municipal officials deciding that water and swamps would no longer constrain the size of the city and federal subsidies and local policies pushed the neighborhood’s growing black population to these areas. When Betsy made landfall at the end of the summer, it thus devastated these black residents. New Orleans constructed a massive “Industrial Canal” to “funneled tides sixteen feet above normal directly into New Orleans” and to be a shortcut for ships traveling from the Gulf.

With Betsy, government officials claimed that the hurricane was a natural disaster and an act of God. Yet, black residents of the Lower Ninth Ward saw it as a direct result of racist decision making. After the floodwalls broke, government engineers used a siphon running under the Industrial Canal to trap as much of the flood as possible in the Lower Ninth. The truth is that city officials sacrificed black residents in order to protect the rest of the city. Then came the National Guard who was  told to shoot suspected looters “on sight.” Residents were forced to show a deed to reenter their homes, but that deed had probably been lost in the flood itself. Then Congress passed a sizable disaster relief bill, and the press presented a happy story of recovery. This was not  true for blacks living in the Lower Ninth; most black homeowners made too little money to qualify for the federally subsidized loans, and there were no provisions at all for renters, even for those who had lost their possessions.

The city was encouraged to rebuild  homes on flood-prone land. Shortly after Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program in the 1960s, lawmakers loosened regulations, and the program ended up giving incentives for riskier construction and went as far as to subsidize this. The local elite worked for the construction of a massive channel to enable ships to enter New Orleans directly, without passing through the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain. This was approved in the 1940s, and began building in the 1950s. Despite vocal opposition from local residents, a massive piece of land was carved through the marshlands that had long shielded the city and neighboring St. Bernard Parish from flooding. This opened in 1968 and the Army Corps and other authorities used cost to argue against flood protection measures. As local residents had predicted, the channel came to serve as a “funnel for hurricane surges.” Other shipping channels and oil canals further compromised the city’s flood protection system. Yet the Army Corps made little progress with a giant concrete wall encircling the city. By the end of 2004, almost fifty years later, it was still incomplete.

Then August 2005, a hurricane that began somewhere off the coast of the Bahamas and headed toward Louisiana. On August 28, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin warning that Hurricane Katrina was likely to cause “human suffering incredible by modern standards.” An hour later, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued the first mandatory evacuation order in the city’s history. More than a million Louisianans fled, while about 10,000 remaining in the Superdome as a “refuge of last resort.”

When Katrina made landfall at 6:10 a.m. on Monday, August 29, federal emergency officials initially believed that New Orleans had “dodged the bullet” Katrina was weaker than predicted and it had turned east, missing New Orleans by about 20 miles. Then the levee system crumbled and the channel and other canals brought the storm surge to the eastern side of the city. Floodwalls failed and as many as 50 levees were breached. Seventy-seven percent of New Orleans and almost all of neighboring St. Bernard Parish were under water. Some 800,000 people were displaced yet the homes of New Orleans’s wealthiest residents (in the French Quarter and the Garden District) were dry. Very few others were spared, especially those in low-lying, developments. Twentieth-century New Orleans was devastated.

The media used stereotypes with deep cultural histories to imply that “while white people faced the emergency as self-reliant, rugged individualists, black people were devolving into criminal, savage freeloaders.” News sources claimed that black New Orleanians were raping infants and eating corpses. These claims were false yet Louisiana’s governor, Katherine Blanco ordered the National Guard to “suspend their search and rescue mission and instead focus on restoring order in the city.” The police and National Guardsmen came into the city with the determination of protecting property but not people, and in the week after the storm they shot at least nine people, most of them apparently unarmed.

According to polls taken after the storm,  most white people saw Katrina as a natural disaster while most black people saw racism that put people in danger and help was refused. They were also criminalized in their efforts to help themselves.” Black Louisianans saw Katrina as a disaster with deep historical roots and with a response that saw them as expendable.

The process of rebuilding the city further sunk into inequality along race and class lines. Some felt that abandoning New Orleans outright; others felt that New Orleanians should have a right of return and some wanted the status quo to be restored as others wanted the construction of a more equal city. In the end, Mayor Nagin appointed a “Bring New Orleans Back” Commission to decide about recovery composed of seventeen  members included seven CEOs and three bank presidents. They adopted a plan to shrink the city prioritizing saving predominantly white neighborhoods. Soon afterwards there was a rise of black activism that convinced Nagin to abandon that plan and commit to rebuild the whole city. Municipal officials wagered that a stronger levee system could protect them in the future and so they began encouraging displaced New Orleanians to return and rebuild in flood-prone areas.

At the same time, some members of Congress called for hundreds of billions of dollars to launch a New Deal–scale transformation program and proposed the beginning of a sustained effort to erase poverty nationwide. This never came up for a vote and instead Congress allotted just a fraction of the money to rebuild the affected areas. Once again, in order to qualify for federal money, homeowners had to show clear title to their properties and here impacted black and poor homeowners most likely lost these documents in the flood. Renters suffered. Today, New Orleans’s white population is essentially back to where it was before Katrina, but there are 100,000 fewer black people living in the city.

A lot of the city’s public housing survived the flood but not the recovery. Officials demolished much of the city’s public housing. After the demolition, New Orleans had what “was probably the highest homelessness rate recorded in modern American history. The city’s primary hospital, Charity Hospital, likewise survived the flood but not the recovery. After Louisiana State University refused to reopen the hospital and furloughed most of its staff, there was less health care in the city, even as the rate of serious mental illness doubled and the rate of suicide tripled. Local and state officials used Katrina as an excuse to destroy the city’s public schools, transforming it into an almost entirely charter system. The new school regime fired thousands of teachers and staff  and this was a system that had previously been one of the city’s largest employers of black professionals. The percentage of black teachers in the city dropped from 71 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in 2013 and has kept falling. This also destroyed the teachers’ union.

“Horowitz uses evidence to argue that the “pain” that came from Katrina was not “fair, or natural, or inevitable,” or the “consequence of some external disaster. It is the disaster itself.”” The storm did not make New Orleans police officers shoot citizens. The flood did not force officials to demolish the city’s public housing or destroy its public hospital, and turn its public school system into what it is. These were decisions made by individuals and not by nature.

The region is vulnerable to another Katrina. The city swapped the idea of stronger levees for the promise of more flood insurance and this puts more people at risk. The Bush administration opted to fund deeply inadequate barriers while fossil fuel extraction continues. Katrina was “neither a natural nor inevitable catastrophe. It was the result of “deliberate choices made by greedy people.”

“Early Thursday: A War, A Hurricane, A Miracle!” by Linda S. Cunningham— A Deadly Fury and a Search for Self

Cunningham, Linda S. “Early Thursday: A War, A Hurricane, A Miracle!”, BookBaby, 2020..

A Deadly Fury and a Search for Self

Amos Lassen

Having experienced Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans fifteen years ago, I was anxious to read Linda Cunningham’s “Early Thursday”, a fictional novel about Hurricane Audrey who preceded Katrina by some 48 years.

The story is told by 12-year-old Walt LaCour, as “he struggles to find himself and learn his true identity amid the backdrop of a terrifying and deadly Hurricane Audrey on the Cajun bayou in post-World War II Louisiana.”  Walt’s coming-of-age story is interrupted by the hurricane.  Writer Cunningham, a native Louisianan, gives us a very powerful look at what happened during the days leading up to the storm and its aftermath. There were times that I was actually shaken as I read since it reminded me so much of how it was to be in New Orleans before Katrina hit and then after.

At twelve-years-old Walt lives a happy existence that is filled with adventure in the Cajun-French area of Cameron, Louisiana. If you have ever been to that area of Louisiana, you know that life there is filled with the joy of being alive. In Cameron, Walt has a colorful and eccentric collection of family and friends. Among them is his alcoholic father Walt Sr. who becomes abusive when drunk and whose alcoholic habit gives his son a sense of constant tension. alcoholic father whose drunken rages lead to constant tension. As the storm nears, Walt discovers his mother’s leading him to question who his real father is. 

Then the storm comes and we witness chaos and destruction as the people deal with feelings of confusion. Walt survives but he is faced with seeing death all around him.. Years later, when he sat down to write his memories of that time, he finds himself haunted by the hesitation he felt in saving his father’s life. The almost five hundred people who lost their lives with the storm are memories that Walt is never able to forget.  souls lost their lives from the hurricane. Those terrible memories would stay with Walt his whole life.

During the storm, it was not easy for Walt. He was able to escape the fury and begin his odyssey for love and the meaning of life. We, the readers, become part of Walt’s search for identity and resolution. 

 Hurricane Audrey was one of the deadliest tropical storms in American history. It came some ten years after the end of World War II and the people of Cameron were beginning to relish again in their Cajun-French culture. People were feeling good and for Walt, life was good. This is aside from this poor relationship with his father and his discovery of his mother’s diary which makes him wonder who his real father is.  returns to southwest Louisiana. Spirits are buoyed, and for twelve-year-old Walt LaCour, life is idyllic—except for the caustic relationship with his father.  As years pass and Walt looks back on his life, he believes that knowing and understanding his history will allow him to find the peace he seeks. During Hurricane Audrey, he faced his own mortality. When he got to college he was taunted by a schoolmate about the secrets he had had never shared with anyone. This caused him to think that perhaps he did not realize all that had happened in the storm.

Cameron is a beach town on the Gulf of Mexico. It is a small town with a close-knit community of inhabitants that have lived there for generations and whose histories are intermixed . It is not far from Lake Charles and I remember that as a young man, I would drive to Lake Charles from New Orleans on Sundays to teach at the religious school of the local Jewish temple. I always made it a point to have lunch in Cameron and listen to stories of the locals. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my young life.

Unless you have ever experienced a hurricane, you can imagine what it is like to wait for it to come and then try to ride it out. I will never forget how I felt when I ventured out three days after Katrina hit. Seeing death and destruction anywhere will always remain with me, much like Walt felt after Audrey.

Cunningham introduces us to real people who even though are fictional characters reflect the feelings of those of Cameron who faced an either lived or died through the storm. While I was unnerved by what I read (because the book became so personal), I am quite sure that I will read it again and again. You should do the same.

“Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina” by Julie Freed— One Week, No Husband and No House

Freed, Julie. “Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina”, CreateSpace, 2014.

One Week, No Husband and No House

Amos Lassen

Abandoned by her husband, Julie is left alone on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to raise her infant daughter in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. For all of her life, she has been surrounded by the mess of her life and now she’s dealing with loss. Julia Freed’s memoir, “Naked” is a look at the  intimate details of parallel tragedies. Her marriage and sudden divorce are framed by the storm and we see the resilience of a Southern community, a father’s support, and the love and adoration of a mother for her child. This is the powerful and emotional story of a woman who begins to rebuild her life.

Both the title and cover image capture being naked. The raw candor captures the nakedness that Freed felt for my community as her surroundings were destroyed. Her naked refers to the freedom from material possessions and a dying marriage.  

Freed’s parents were strict and always challenged her to do more but they let her fall. They provided all she needed and allowed her to explore and learn on my own giving her the chance to develop a strong sense of confidence. 

 Most people just watched Katrina unfold on the news (except for me who was in New Orleans during the storm). Freed’s story will takes us into Katrina and gives readers hope that when faced with extreme unthinkable situations there is a well of strength deep within that can push us forward. Even though she was left naked on the slab of what was her house, she  was never alone. Going through Covid 19 gives us that same kind of feeling even though we are never alone. 

This is a powerful true story of loss but also of triumph. Struggling to find meaning in her journey, Freed shares her story with humor and tenderness.

“Southern Decadence in New Orleans” by Howard Philips Smith and Frank Perez— A Long Time Coming

Smith, Howard Philips and Frank Perez. “Southern Decadence in New Orleans”, LSU Press, 2018.

A Long Time Coming

Amos Lassen

A couple of weeks ago I posted a short note about this book relying on what I heard about it from the publishing house and from a friend who had seen an advance copy. My copy just came and I spent the whole day reading in and reliving memories of Southern Decadence. After all, I am a New Orleanian in my blood and although I now live in Boston, I am still a New Orleanian. There are not words to describe how much I enjoyed this book (which I think is fascinating since I was always too much of a prude to truly enjoy Southern Decadence. I so loved Howard Philips Smith’s “Unveiling the Muse” that He really not to go some to better himself with this and he did. I gave a rather poor review to Frank Perez on his previous book but he has redeemed himself here. If I have just one word to describe this book, it would be glorious.

Begun in 1972 as a modest celebration among residents of the French Quarter, the Southern Decadence Festival in New Orleans has since then grown into one of the city’s largest annual tourist events. Now a Labor Day weekend tradition, the festival regularly attracts over 100,000 participants, predominantly gay and lesbian, and generates millions of dollars in tourist revenue. Nonetheless, “Southern Decadence in New Orleans,” is the first serious study of the event. Compiled and written by Howard Smith and Frank Perez, the work brings together an astounding array of historic materials, including rare memorabilia from the event’s founders, early photographs and film stills, newspaper and magazine accounts, and interviews with longtime participants, to offer a comprehensive history of the celebration. Along the way, Smith and Perez explore the myth and conjecture that have followed the often derided festival as it has grown from a small party in the Faubourg Tremé to a world-wide destination for gay men that is now lauded by the Mayor’s office as the second most profitable festival in the city’s history, only outshone by Mardi Gras at the other end of the calendar.”

While the holiday is a bit too wild for my taste (and age), it was always a special time in New Orleans and even though I was not around the area for most of the celebrations, the few that I did witness were almost beyond imagination. It is so good to have this volume and I really enjoyed looking at the photos and reliving some of my life. There is not a boring word on a page here and I felt that I was also improving my gay New Orleans history by reading this. It has been quite a year for books about gay New Orleans with this and Robert Fieseler’s “Tinderbox”. Hopefully the definitive gay New Orleans history is also being written.

“The Floating World” by C. Morgan Babst— “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”

Babst, Morgan C. “The Floating World”, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017.

“Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”

Amos Lassen

Set in New Orleans, “The Floating World” powerful novel follows the Boisdoré family . . . in the months after Katrina and gives readers a “profound, moving and authentically detailed picture of the storm’s emotional impact on those who lived through it.” There are three magic words in that sentence—New, Orleans and Katrina. If you follow my reviews you know that I was born and raised in New Orleans and that I was there during Katrina at which time I lost everything and was rescued by the National Guard and evacuated after the worst of the storm had hit. While I am no longer living there I will always be a New Orleanian and I make it a point to read every book that comes out about the city and the storm.

This is a novel about family, home, and grief, Hurricane Katrina and the city of New Orleans. As the storm is fast approaching the Louisiana coast, Cora Boisdoré refuses to leave the city. Her parents, Joe Boisdoré, an artist descended from freed slaves who became the city’s preeminent furniture makers, and his white “Uptown” wife, Dr. Tess Eshleman, are forced to evacuate without her and so begins a chain of events that leaves their marriage in shambles and Cora the victim or perpetrator of some violence mysterious even to herself.

This is at the center of the story. Cora’s sister, Del, returns to New Orleans from the successful life she built in New York City to find New Orleans in ruins and her family deeply alienated from one another. As she tries to figure out what happened to her sister, she must also deal with the racial history of the city and the trauma of a disaster that was not, in fact, some random act of God but an avoidable tragedy that came upon both separately and together, each member of the Boisdoré clan who now must find the strength to remake a home in a city that will never again be what it once was. What many do not know is that in order to understand New Orleans, it is necessary to understand the city’s past. It is also important to remember that Hurricane Katrina is considered to be “the mother of all storms.”

The novel alternates the perspectives of the characters. Tess is a white doctor who comes from money, and her husband, Joe, a Creole artist. They have two adult daughters, Cora and Del. Cora is the only one to stay for the storm; Del is away in New York and the others evacuate. Though Tess will eventually come to her daughter’s aid, and Del will return, Cora sees something in the 25 days she’s without her family that leaves her even more disoriented than before.

Most of the story takes place after Katrina hits land and we get a sense of inescapable loss throughout the novel. At times the sense of loss becomes almost oppressive. In reality the storm’s impact was unrelenting and I can vouch for that having been there as Katrina raged.

Any novel of the South has to deal with race in some way and “The Floating World” does so. Cora is romantically involved with Troy, an African-American restaurant worker whose sister, Reyna, is mentally ill. Though Joe identifies as Creole, and Cora and Del are biracial, they are economically privileged. It was clever for writer Babst to introduce the poorer Troy and Reyna to a book about Katrina — a storm that devastated so many poor African-American lives.. Unfortunately, Reyna rarely rises above stereotype and her fate is too often and too superficially linked to Cora’s story, without recognizing her as a complex character and mother of two. The novel is New Orleans and I believe you have to be from New Orleans to understand what I mean by that. It is an authentic, detailed picture of the physical and emotional geography of the city, before, during, and after Katrina, its social strata, its racial complications and the many cultural details that define its character. You might soon find yourself doing laundry on Mondays while red beans cook on the stove after you made groceries to get the ingredients you needed to make them.

Familial tensions come to a head in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and we get to read all about it. We feel “the devastated and devastating landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans with images that are at once surreal and painfully real.”

“A New Kind of Freedom” by Margaret Wilkinson Sexton— Endurance

Sexton, Margaret Wilkinson. “A New Kind of Freedom”, Counterpoint, 2017.

Endurance

Amos Lassen

Margaret Wilkinson Sexton’s “A Kind of Freedom” explores the legacy of racial disparity in the South and does so through a novel in which we meet a family and its history. For me, as a New Orleanian by birth and a person who was raised there and taught in the school system, this is a very meaningful book. We meet a Black family and stay with it for three generations as the members try to make the correct and best choices even though they are often held back “by constraint, peril and disappointment” and by living in a world in which learning is hard work and life is even harder. We have three different and alternating plot lines. The story begins in 1944, when we meet Evelyn, the daughter of a well-to-do family (her mother is Creole, her father a black doctor who has raised himself to respectability), and Renard, a young man from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works at a restaurant but aspires to study medicine. In their courtship, we see the strictures of a class- and color-driven society “that suffocates ambition and distorts desire”.

Then forty years later, we meet Evelyn’s daughter Jackie, a struggling single mother in the 1980s. She is on love with the father of her child but worries that he will become a drug addict. We then meet Jackie’s son, T.C., in 2010, and he is at a turning point in his life. It is through T.C.’s that we see post-Katrina New Orleans where there is fast cash on the streets and the chances of being arrested or shot are great. T.C., loves growing marijuana and sees doing so as a creative process. Released after a four-month stint for drug charges, T.C. decides to start over but then an old friend convinces him to stake his new beginning on one last deal.

Evelyn grew up with the reality of Jim Crow but now there are newer threats and dangers. The descriptions of New Orleans are wonderful and could be written by someone who grew up and remembers the corner grocery stores where for a nickel one could get a “baloney sandwich” or “make groceries”. She remembers the language that we spoke there and the crawfish boils, wooden markers on city buses requiring “colored riders” to sit behind them and going to the movies to sit in the second balcony, the “Negro balcony”, after going through a separate entrance on the side of the building.

Sexton’s characters face tremendous choices while hoping that is little to hope for. There are few options and coping with this is exhausting. The characters try to gloss over the hurts of the past and endure as best they can.

This is a portrait of a family and their sufferings and we soon are able to identify the character by the prose that describes each of them. For example, the stories of Evelyn and T.C.’s are written distinctly different and one cannot help but wonder if there is more than one author of this book. But then, we catch on and realize that the different prose forms emphasize the different characters. Each character is also vividly portrayed and we get to know them so well that they stay with us even after we have finished the book. We see the omnipresent forces of society that undermine and suppress the success of blacks in New Orleans. I often found myself emotionally exhausted as I read even though Sexton deals with some very important topics with great sensitivity. The fact that she captures seventy years of a family’s history in just 288 pages is a major achievement in itself but also to read about

each generation’s possibilities and deferred dreams coming to fruition is an amazing accomplishment. We see that hard work does not guarantee success and that progress never movies in the ways that we think.

Through the interconnected narratives of three generations of a New Orleans family, we get more that seventy years of history and we still want more. Here is an American family who is able to endure the challenges of an ever-changing society. I love that Sexton’s characters are who we are and their journeys are our journeys. When I taught in the Black schools of New Orleans way back when I learned a lot about New Orleans Black society having first taught in a school that was almost exclusively made up of those who were considered to be “high yellow” and then in a high school in what was then the Desire project and my students were far away from societal acceptance. But those twelve years of teaching in New Orleans were nothing compared to what I read here.

We see here that the choices that we make are our choices are influenced by our familial histories, whether we’re aware or not, and this is just one way of how the present connects to the past, especially with reference to the societal weight of race and class. Through the family narratives in this book, Sexton shows us the complexities of fate and that our desires might be the opposite of practical living and even a shot at upward mobility. When dealing with the emotion of love and the ability to survive, things change. Even with the best intentions, disappointment can follow. “Promise and possibility can sometimes yield to circumstances shaped by the limits to freedom.”

“Landfall” by Ellen Urbani— The Storm

landfall

Urbani, Ellen. “Landfall”, Forest Avenue Press, 2015.

The Storm

Amos Lassen

Has it already been ten years since Katrina? Time usually flies when you are having fun so quite naturally I find it hard to believe that time moved so quickly as I am still rebuilding after losing everything in the storm. But then again, had it not been for Katrina I might never have moved to Boston. I have tried to read everything that has been written about the hurricane, both fiction and nonfiction so I was very surprised to have missed Ellen Urbani’s “Landfall”.

The story is about two mothers and their teenage daughters, whose lives come together and collide in a fatal car crash. Set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, eighteen-year-olds Rose and Rosebud have never met but “they share a birth year, a name, and a bloody pair of sneakers”. Rose is on a quest to atone for the accident that kills Rosebud, a young woman who was so much like herself aside from race. Rosebud has her own problem—she fights to survive in the terrible flooding in the Lower Ninth War of New Orleans as a result of Katrina and she needs to find help for her mother who is no longer stable. It is through these characters that show us that the dead are not gone forever and that what we think we know is not how something really is. Sometimes thinking causes blindness.

It is important to remember that the destruction caused Hurricane Katrina was not just physical. Families were torn asunder, lives were ruined, dreams were smashed and memories became difficult to deal with. I do not think that people have no idea of how terrible it was and those that do are the ones who were there what it happened. This is where writer Urbani’s wonderful and very careful research comes in. This was a difficult book for me emotionally because it brought so many memories that I had relegated to the back of my mind and suddenly I was reliving those terrible days but then again, had it not been for Katrina, who knows where I might have ended up.

The story comes to us from four different perspectives and moves back and forth over time. This was a wonderful choice by the author and although it sounds like this might lead to confusion, it does not. Almost right at the beginning we become aware of Rosy’s (Rosebud) tremendous courage and strength. She copes with her mother Cilla’s descent into manic depression and everything else that was going around her. When she goes to look for help and for her father’s family, the tragedy happens and everything changes.

Like Rosy, Rose shows strength especially when she is determined to find out whatever she can about Rosy. We have two girls with great similarities—they are the same age, share the same name and neither knew their father. However Rose is Caucasian while Rosy was African American. However, this not a novel about race and it is really only dealt with when we get to the makeshift shelter at the News Orleans Superdome and realize that the majority of the people were Black and these were those who did not have ways or means to evacuate. Urbani’s description of the Superdome is heartbreaking. Throughout the novel we read of the beauty of humanity as well as its ugliness. It is through Rosy that we learn about Katrina and I think that if I had to choose a single part of this book that really hit me, it would have to be reading about New Orleanians beginning to feel a sense of relief only to learn that the levees broke and the city was under water almost everywhere. It was at this point that Rosy and her mother began to look for shelter after having ridden out three days of rising water. It was then that they got to the Superdome and seeing the horror that was there. I must stress that regardless of what you might have seen on television, it comes to nowhere near the hell that was the Superdome. I was lucky enough not to get there but then I was stranded on the roof of my building for the National Guard to rescue me.

As I sit here and write this review I realize that as important a character as Hurricane Katrina is, this is not a book about the storm. Rather it is about the human spirit and the way we bounce back after terrible ordeals. We see that we really need to understand the world in which we live and make sense of it.

Let me give you a piece of advice. Before you begin to read “Landfall”, clear the rest of your day because this is not a book that reads well in sections but then again I doubt that anyone would read it that way. You will find it extremely difficult to stop reading once you have begun and what you read will stay with you for a long time after you close the covers. Urbani is a brave writer who does not hide from the issues and in this book she touches on them all—poverty, race, racism and the destruction of a great American city. She as also created unforgettable characters that come to a life in a plot that sweeps us away to another time and another place where good and evil coexisted side-by-side and the world watched helplessly from afar. Ellen Urbani really shows her skill in writing fiction that is based on fact and I feel honored to have read this amazing book.

The book also has a section with questions for discussion thus making it an ideal choice for book clubs. Just in case you want to read a bit more about the storm, there is a list of suggested readings.

Above  all else is the gorgeous prose of the author in a story that tells us not to forget to look for hope even on the darkest of days.

“The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken” by Wendell Pierce— Healing New Orleans

the wind in the reeds

Pierce, Wendell. “The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken”, Riverhead Books, 2015.

Healing New Orleans

Amos Lassen

Wendell Pierce is an actor by profession, a New Orleanian by birth and a man who was not about to let Hurricane Katrina define his city. In his book he looks at the transformative role theater played in healing New Orleans post-Katrina. He had a plan to put on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans after the storm and to help bring back his old neighborhood. This is at the center of the book. The book is part memoir and part history lesson as it takes readers through Pierce’s own connection to the city and his “role of a lifetime” in the HBO series “Treme”. We feel his love for the city New Orleans on every page and I must admit, being a former New Orleanian myself, I got a little teary eyed more than once.

Pierce’s family came from Assumption Parish and he writes his own childhood there where his mother, a strong-willed person pushed him to excel. He did this as an actor but he has never forgotten whence he came. About Katrina, he says, “In the wake of tragedy, loss, and dislocation, it’s our art that will help us survive.”

I suppose I had been gone from New Orleans for too many years to know of Pierce but today his name and New Orleans go hand in hand. I knew of Pierce from “Treme” and from another movie I had seen but I never knew until this book was published that he was indeed a New Orleanian. And he is as good a storyteller as he is an actor.

He takes us back to August 29, 2005 (a day I will never forget having just returned to New Orleans a couple of days before). On that day Pierce’s family was in Pontchartrain Park in New Orleans East. From here we go back and forth in time and we hear the story of Pierce’s family— he is the fourth-generation grandson of a slave who became an important dramatic actor. We also read his reaction to the devastations of Katrina and how he became involved in the restoration.

Pierce’s work mixes memoir, social psychology, literary analysis, and political and religious philosophy together to bring us his story. Regarding Katrina, Pierce and his family were some of the lucky ones: They survived and were able to ride out the storm at a relative’s house 70 miles away. When they were finally allowed to return, they found their family home in tatters, their neighborhood empty. Pierce promised to help rebuild, and not just his family’s home, but also all of Pontchartrain Park.

“Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans” by Don Brown— Emotional Memories

drowned city

Brown, Don. “Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans”, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015.

Emotional Memories

Amos Lassen

It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. For those of us who are New Orleanians and were there for the storm, this is an emotional reminder. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s tremendous winds and raging water destroyed a great American city. Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water. Property damages across the Gulf Coast topped $100 billion. One thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives. I still have a hard time making any sense of it. On one hand it was one of the most horrific events of my life but on the other hand, I am happy in Boston today because of it. The story of Katrina is one of selfless and heroic people who have had the courage to stay and rebuild yet it is also the story of incompetence, racism, and criminality. The story of Katrina is a story of tragedy and triumph and in the same breath.

I have many memories of Katrina and have had many nightmares about it. I have been working on a presentation about the storm and as I have been thinking about it and reviewing written material, I still find it hard to believe what happened in New Orleans. I have seen hundreds of pictures that have reopened some of the wounds I felt as I watched from my window as New Orleans went under water. It is still hard to conceive of anything like this could have happened yet we all know that it.

Don Brown brings us a wonderful book about the storm for young readers and in it he captures both sides of Katrina and does so through art and through narrative. His graphic novel is totally accurate and as I read I relived the story. Every cartoon panel is based on a direct quotation from a victim of or participant in the storm.

I learned that 5,000 children were separated from their parents and that some rescuers had to deal with living, poisonous snakes and that family pets were helpless and lost their lives to drowning and/or starvation. The dog I have today, Sophie, a Jack Russell terrier was found by rescuers and I adopted her in Arkansas. I still see the fear she exhibits when she gets close to water.

Brown’s book is simple and beautiful with a strong message that we not forget Katrina.

“Drowned City” is both a somber and totally engrossing read about the events that led up to Katrina, what happened during Katrina and what has happened since Katrina.

“We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City” by Roberta Brandes Gratz— Hope in the Rubble

we're still here

Gratz, Roberta Brandes. “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City”, Nation Books, 2015.

Hope in the Rubble

Amos Lassen

Hurricane Katrina ushered in one of the darkest periods in American history. It brought with it destruction unparalleled in America along with “government neglect and socioeconomic inequality” yet among the rubble, there is hope. In “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards” we get a look at New Orleans’s revival in the years following the hurricane. Here are the stories of people who returned to their homes and have taken the rebuilding of their city into their own hands. New Orleans is recovering even with the governmental policies that actually cause the rise of

“disaster capitalism” instead of the public good. Writer Roberta Brandes Gratz looks at the most fiercely debated issues and challenges that face New Orleans and these a violent and corrupt prison system, the tragic closing of Charity Hospital, the future of public education, and the rise of gentrification. The stories we read here are not the ones we got in mainstream media. Instead of the usual same old, same old we read of the

strength and resilience of a community that continues to work to rebuild New Orleans and in doing so is revealed what Katrina was not able to and did not destroy: “the vibrant culture, epic history, and unwavering pride of one of the greatest cities in America”.

The book shows us the most shameful machinations of city government. We learn what really was responsible for the closing of the hospital and how neighborhood residents were railroaded.

We also read of citizens who are fighting the problems alone. There has been so many mistakes made and there has been so much neglect and apathy in the city, it is a wonder that anything is getting done but surprisingly it is. I was born and raised in New Orleans and I will always be a New Orleanian regardless of where I live and I have not lived there in many years. It hurts when someone has nasty things to say about New Orleans and the fact that so much went wrong that an American city was almost washed right off the map.

This book is an investigation and reportage of a city in trouble and it is a wonderful tribute to a wonderful city. We read of the ugly, the good and the bad and even though I found some historical mistakes as well as information that has since been contradicted by Congressional testimony, it is still a fascinating read. It would have been that much better if the dates were correct, I love the stories we have not heard before and I love seeing that the citizens really care about bringing the city back, It is just not the place I want to be at this point in my life yet I still love my hometown. It is possible to love a place and not live there. It hurts to see New Orleans today because it does jive with the memories I have.

We really have had so much written about Katrina that I am not sure that we need any more but in the case of this book, it provides what others have been not so fortunate in doing. Gratz writes about education, healthcare, urban development and environmental preservation and does so from the voices of the people. She shows us how the people of New Orleans are rebuilding their city. Those New Orleanians who are saving their city while big money and bad government try to do the opposite.