Category Archives: Hurricane Katrina

“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.


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


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.

“Katrina: After the Flood” by Gary Rivlin— Ten Years Later


Rivlin, Gary. “Katrina: After the Flood”, Simon and Schuster, 2015.

Ten Years Later

Amos Lassen

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana. That was ten years ago. Many have forgotten Katrina but I can guarantee you that those of us who experienced Katrina first hand will never ever forget what it was like. There is something magical about New Orleans especially to those who call it home. I am one of those who once called New Orleans home. It was I grew up and was educated, where my friends were and where I learned about life. But I left New Orleans for a very long time and had just come back right before Katrina hit. I had not been there in a very long time but instead of having the chance to reacquaint myself with the city, I got to attend something of her funeral. I did learn, as I had heard so many times from others, that a New Orleaninan remains one his entire life—New Orleans is the kind of city that it is impossible to forget. New Orleans is Mardi Gras, red beans and rice, jazz and jazz funerals, the French Quarter, Jazz Fest and the Saints and neutral grounds, “zinks” and banquettes. We make groceries on Thursdays, do laundry on Mondays and play all week. Katrina tried to change all that and almost did. She did for me any way. I left New Orleans and I am not going back but New Orleans is with me all the time.

In this book, journalist Gary Rivlin traces the storm’s immediate damage to New Orleans, the city’s efforts to rebuild itself, and the storm’s lasting affects not just on the city’s geography and infrastructure—but on the psychic, racial, and social fabric of one of this nation’s great cities.

I was evacuated out of New Orleans three days after the storm hit and the water continued to rise. I did not return to see what happened until almost five years later having settled in Little Rock, Arkansas. When writer Rivlin first saw the city after Katrina hit, she was still under water and as he traveled into the city proper there were soldiers in uniform and armed with assault rifles that stopped him. Water reached the eaves of houses for as far as the eye could see. He saw that four out of every five houses—eighty percent of the city’s housing stock—had been flooded and proportionally the same amount of schools and businesses were wrecked. The weight of the water on the streets cracked gas and water and sewer pipes all around town and the deluge had drowned almost every power substation and rendered unusable most of the city’s water and sewer system.

People who living in flooded areas of the city could not be expected to pay their property taxes for the foreseeable future. Nor would all those boarded-up businesses—21,000 of the city’s 22,000 businesses were still shuttered six months after the storm and they surely could not pay the taxes and other fees to the city. Some six weeks after the storm, the city unloaded half of its workforce at a time when so many people were turning to its government for help. What about the use of taxpayer dollars to rebuild a city that sat mostly below sea level and everyone wondered could the city possibly come back.

Rivlin looks at the stories of a variety of New Orleaninans—politicians and business owners, teachers and bus drivers, poor and wealthy, black and white as they deal with the aftermath of one of the great tragedies of our age and try to Bring New Orleans back by reconstructing and changing while others abandoned the city.

The questions seem to have never stopped— How is New Orleans doing? Is she back? What about the Lower Ninth Ward? It becomes hard to ask about people and places that were loved. We forget sometimes that New Orleans was not just a place but that there were people there. Trying to answer questions we hear that “New Orleans is doing terrifically and terribly. It’s back but different and currently undergoing a furious transformation. Much of the Lower Ninth Ward is not O.K”. But these are incomplete answers. These questions lead to those that really get to the issue. Those are the questions that Gary Rivlin asks.

Only now, ten years after the storm are we finally getting the story of the recovery of the city. But there is no recovery if we look at the definition of the word. What was lost is gone forever and no one knows what will tale its place. Rivlin shares the decisions that have brought us this far, and to identify those who made them.

To write about Katrina ten years later is impossible to do without going back to August 2005 when Katrina was heading for shore. It was a feeling that I had never experienced before; a kind of curiosity mixed with apprehension and fear. I did not believe it was going to hit on one hand and on the other I was sure we would not get out this safely.

Rivlin spent much of the first year after Katrina living in New Orleans and Baton Rouge on assignment for The New York Times. While much what was reported by the press then dealt with the faulty levees, the terrible conditions in the refugee camps and rumors of violence, Rivlin found himself more concerned with what was yet to happen to New Orleans and he wondered how the city with one of the nation’s highest rates of poverty and crime would recover from the most expensive natural disaster in American history? If the city was to have a future, who was going to make the calls? Where would the suffering take place and how much worse would the city’s low-income black population be made to suffer?

Rivlin then chose to concentrate on a cross-section of residents: “old-money millionaires, a middle-class black family in New Orleans East, white transplants turned political activists, and Lower Ninth Ward natives determined to rebuild their neighborhood despite deep opposition and deeper indifference”. Three local power brokers are the center of the story and these three allowed Rivlin to gain immediate access to them. We meet real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro, a personal friend of George W. Bush, who talks of “planning” a city, as if to say that there has been no New Orleans before Katrina; Alden McDonald, president of Liberty Bank, one of the nation’s largest African-American-owned financial institutions (The success of the bank and the success of the black neighborhoods go hand in hand); and the former mayor Ray Nagin, whose incompetence is totally visible here in detail. Rivlin compares him to Osama bin Laden, Richard Nixon and Willy Wonka.

It is amazing and heartbreaking to read about the “dysfunctional, tedious and often corrupt horse trading that dominated these early innings — the expert commissions and working groups and meetings” yet Rivlin does so and it seems surreal. “summits”. Here are some examples of what we read here. “Weeks after the flood, newspaper boxes on street corners still taunt residents with the Aug. 28 issue of The Times-Picayune, bearing the headline ‘Katrina Takes Aim’. Workers entering an elementary school near a levee breach discover dead fish on the second floor. A man goes to mow the lawn of his disabled 79-year-old aunt and finds only lawn; her painstakingly restored home has been demolished and hauled away, the victim of a clerical error at City Hall”.

Rivlin’s observations are sharp yet we see that he is a man of compassion even towards former mayor Nagin who is in jail for corruption at a federal prison in Texas. Rivlin writes with sensitivity about the absurd especially about race and economic injustice. He examines the theory of “Katrina cleansing” ( the city’s business elite were conspiring to repossess property and re-establish a white majority electorate). He was told by Lance Hill, a white political activist who serves as a mole, “It was impossible not to pick up on this sentiment that this was our chance to take back control of the city. There was virtually a near consensus among whites that authorities should not do anything to make it easy for poor African-Americans to come back.”

Looking at the Lower ninth Ward in comparison to Lakeview, an well-to-do white neighborhood that is actually more below sea level, Rivlin draws conclusions. Two months after Katrina, even as power and utilities were reactivated in Lakeview, armed soldiers blocked the bridges leading into the Lower Ninth. We see racial injustice that lasted longer than the flooding. Two years after the storm minority-owned businesses had claimed a small fraction of federal aid because of a decision by Congress and the administration to forego affirmative action rules in order so that recovery was speeded up. Black evacuees who went to other cities where they resettled were followed by the discrimination they thought that had been washed away with the storm— in Baton Rouge officers were ordered to “make life unpleasant . . . so that they will relocate elsewhere.”

Looking at class now we see that New Orleans East, a predominantly black middle class, returned much sooner than the Lower Ninth and many other “equally impoverished neighborhoods”. Homeowners benefited from the multibillion Road Home program (that had its own bureaucratic disasters), but renters a majority of the city’s residents, were excluded.

Then there was the big question about the scope of the rebuilding effort. What about those New Orleanians who had lived in lower-lying neighborhoods— should they be encouraged, or forced, to move to higher ground? What many do not know is that before Katrina there were about 70,000 more people lived in New Orleans than today yet the city had declined by about a third from its peak population.

What were referred to as “quicksand” neighborhoods contained 80 percent of the city’s black population. Rivlin points out that the irony here was that white conservatives like Canizaro proposed that the government assume a paternalistic role, deciding where people should resettle. On the other side was the largely Democratic population that advocated a “free-market, almost libertarian approach” meaning that residents should build wherever they want. Reducing the city’s size might make sense “from a planning standpoint,” as one member of the mayor’s city planning commission claimed. “But from a human standpoint, it made no sense at all.” Nagin gave in to public sentiment, as has his successor, Mitch Landrieu. “To shrink the city’s footprint,” Landrieu has said from the beginning, “is to shrink its destiny.”

The book also covers the major stories of the last five years and these include  the decline in public housing stock; the anxieties about gentrification and economic inequity; the take over of the public Charity Hospital to clear the way for an extensive new private hospital complex; the revelations of profound institutional rot in the police force and prison system, (both of these have been taken up by into federal consent decrees); the persistence of an alarming crime rate; and the continued deterioration of the coastal wetlands. We see that the most expensive levee system in the world is worthless without state funding the plan to rebuild the marsh. Unfortunately, New Orleans is never just “after the flood”; it is also always before the next flood.

What is so interesting is that the local economy is thriving, poverty rates are lower than before the storm, graduation rates are higher, and after a flirtation with bankruptcy the city has a surplus in the budget. New Orleans is now filled with young people, many of whom are rising to positions of influence in public life. Mayor Landrieu in his “State of the City” said, “We are not just rebuilding the city that we once were, but are creating the city that we always should have been.” “New Orleans has always been a place where utopian fantasies and dystopian realities mingle harmoniously. May New Orleans always remain so. Or at least may it always remain”.

What we can learn here is that every American has to demand reform before disasters strike.This is quite a read and while for me it made my eyes tear up several times, it showed me the truth about the city I still call home. To understand New Orleans, Katrina and what happened there in the last ten years, this is the book you want and need to read.

“Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!” by Big Freedia and Nicole Balin— What a Memoir!!!

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Big Freedia and Nicole Balin. “Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!”, Gallery Books, 2015.

What a Memoir

Amos Lassen

Big Freedia was born Freddie Ross and today she is a New Orleans hip-hop musician known for bringing “bounce” from the underground music scene to the forefront of the industry. “Known for her supreme star power and charismatic charm, Big Freedia has performed alongside such artists as pop duo Matt and Kim, Wiz Khalifa, and Snoop Dogg”. She has her own reality show “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce”. This is her first book. I suppose we can call it a memoir as it tells the story of this gay momma’s boy (as Big Freedia calls herself) who came onto the music scene where she found acceptance, healing, self-expression, and stardom! I am surprised that I am unacquainted with Big Freedia but I suppose our times in New Orleans have been different.

Bounce music, I understand, is based in New Orleans and Big Freedia is its “undisputed ambassador” and she is not afraid to twerk, wiggle, and shake her way to self-confidence, and encourages her fans to do the same. In this book she shares the inside story of her path to fame, “the peaks and valleys of her personal life, and the liberation that Bounce music brings to herself and every one of her fans who is searching for freedom”.

Big Freedia tells us that being a “twerking sissy” is not just a job, she says, but a salvation as she yanks us into her personal life and as she says her career as an artist. She finds solace and comfort in her work and because of it she has been able to

escape from the battles she faced growing up in the worst neighborhood in New Orleans. She has had to deal with losing loved ones to the violence on the streets, drug overdoses, and jail. She survived hurricane Katrina by living on her roof for two days with three adults and a child. Sometimes to truly enjoy living, we have to deal with difficulties.

I must be honest—I never heard of the Bounce music movement—I guess I have been gone from New Orleans for too long (but it is nice to read of someone from my home town making good). Big Freedia has made her mark and made some incredible friends, characters of all kinds. She has a lot of enthusiasm. We learn how she got to this

defining moment in music, and how Bounce ultimately has allowed her to become her own version of diva, “one booty-pop at a time”.

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