Category Archives: Hurricane 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

katrina

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!!!

big freedia

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”.

big freedia2

“Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans” by Gary Krist— Vice, Jazz and Crime—New Orleans

empire of sin

Krist, Gary. “Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans”, Crown, 2014

Vice, Jazz and Crime—New Orleans

Amos Lassen

New Orleans was once at war with herself and that war lasted some thirty years. The elite of the city were pitted against the powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, perversity, and crime. Tom Anderson ran the city—he was the czar of Storyville, the red light district in the middle of town and he fought hard to keep his empire going even while being attacked from all sides.

This early-20th-century battle centers on one man: Tom Anderson, the undisputed czar of the city’s Storyville vice district, who fights desperately to keep his empire intact as it faces onslaughts from all sides. He was surrounded by prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, dissolute jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all of whom battled for primacy in a wild and wicked city. Yes, my friends this was once New Orleans. While author Krist writes of New Orleans’ vice wars as well as New Orleans’ soul and he celebrates New Orleans’ character. She is a city that has a history of defiance and resilience and as we saw after Hurricane Katrina she can return from almost total disaster. This is the story of New Orleans as she learned how to fight. The story chronicles the history of the city from 1890-1920 and it brings up the shadiest, sexiest and most shameful parts on the history of the city that care forgot. Actually what we read about here could still be going on today. Today there is police corruption, a mayor who promised to root out corruption and fix the police department and is now sitting in jail himself having been found guilty of corruption and that is what makes this book so interesting— the fight for New Orleans is still going on.

Author Krist takes on a big, corrupt city and profiles its most violent era— a time when grandchildren of former slaves are now reaching adulthood, and see an entire new world unlike that of their grandparents. There were intense race riots targeting innocent blacks that were egged on by the ruling whites.

 This narrative starts out with two murders. One victim is the brother of a popular prostitute, the other is the police chief himself. Italian “Dagos” are blamed for the murder, although no juror could prove without a doubt Justice is taken into the hands of Italian-hating mobs that storm the prison. With this f New Orleans police chief Tom Anderson, a man who seemed to foment racial hatred but who was no more a product of the times as the people he was sworn to protect, began his tenure. These early mob riots were the vanguard of the Black Hand over a decade later.

 The book is divided into four parts: from 1890-1891; mid 1890s to 1907; 1907-1917; 1917-1920. The stories in each may not relate directly to each other over the years, aside from police chief Anderson being in charge and instead of keeping the city safe, he and his friends between involved in corruption.

Anderson was a flawed man, and his madam friend Josie Arlington kept the part of New Orleans known as Storyville alive with a sexual liberty unknown in the rest of the country, and it is in Storyville that so many of the crimes described in this book play out. I remember that as I was growing up in New Orleans, there were still many Storyville tales to go around.

 While crime was on the rise so was jazz. It was considered to be the music of the untrained or uneducated and as we read the stories we hear the music in our heads. The city’s music and music makers were part of the action. This is how jazz and cornet player Buddy Bolden came to be born,(albeit with a short career) and jazz gets entwined with stories of crime and passion in a city that had in many ways been one of the more liberally sexual cities at the time. Jazz was played in the saloons where much of the violence originated, and therefore was at center stage.

The story moves on to the characters. By 1907 Sicilians came to New Orleans and they brought in the era of the Black Hand. While this is almost like reading a novel it is also, because of the tremendous research done, a biography of a city beset with racial and ethnic problems. The death of Anderson did not end crime in New Orleans, it only helped it spread across the bigger cities as the Sicilians gained financial support in the 1930s and beyond.

In 1918, Italian grocers Joseph and Catherine Maggio were murdered. This was the work of the infamous Axman and, in order to explain what led up to these events, we are then taken back to the beginning of 1890 when New Orleans was seen as distressingly exotic, morally corrupt and with intense racial divides. We follow the stories of certain characters, such as Josie Lobrano, a brothel owner who craved respectability and did all she could to shield her young niece Anna from discovering the reality of how she made her money, Tom Anderson the unofficial ‘mayor of Storyville,’ and musicians such as Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong. Through their stories, and many others, we learn of the battle with the mafia, kidnappings, racial segregation, vice and the beginnings of jazz. However, this is not a judgmental book in any way – we sympathize with those whose livelihood was reliant on the sinful side of the city, as well as the reformers.

 The book ends with the infamous spate of murders by the Axman, with families attacked as they slept and bringing fear to the city. This is quite a read and for me it brought many memories of my younger live in New Orleans where everything happened and no one cared.

“A Quarter Inch from My Heart: A Memoir” by Kevin Scott Hall— Katrina Was More Than a Storm

a quarter inch from my heart

Hall, Kevin Scott. “A Quarter Inch from My Heart: A Memoir”, Wisdom Moon Publishing, 2014.

Katrina Was More Than a Storm

Amos Lassen

I know the devastation of Hurricane Katrina first hand as I was stranded in my apartment in New Orleans for a full seven days after the storm hit. It is something that I will never forget and it certainly made me evaluate my life. Ultimately, as a result, I got to Boston after having spend seven awful years in Arkansas which is not the place for an out gay Jew. Because of my experiences in Katrina, I felt a kinship with the book before I even got into the story. In “A Quarter Inch from My Heart”, we meet the author, Kevin Scott Hall when he a stranger; Maurice, an evacuee from the storm contacts him and Hall invites him to stay for a while until he gets his life together again. Of course he does not get things together and during 2½ years together, a relationship develops between the two men. However, the more they are together the more Hall has questions about his “guest”. He goes back and forth between trust and suspicious thoughts, tough love and understanding and as time passes Hall begins to introspect about his own life. Yes, this is a love story but not one that we are familiar with.

Hall really knows how to tell a story. His descriptions are wonderful and he draws us into the story right away. This is a story of both love and courage and there is a great deal to be learned here. We can learn this by asking questions of ourselves.

As many of you know, I read a great deal and I can honestly say that it is not often that I stop to think while reading something. This is one of the books that has made me do so. The ideas are profound and when profundity is united with good writing, we, the readers, are blessed with something really good and believe me, author Hall does this beautifully. It is the brutal honesty with which this book is written that made me sit up several times as I read. Yet with that there is something very entertaining about this book. Hall’s journey is inspiring and for me especially at this time of year when Jews the world over atone for their sins it had a lot to say about self-forgiveness and self-celebration.

I do not want to dwell on a summary of the plot here and that is because I understood the plot to be just the conduit for the writer to convey his ideas about the struggle between love oneself and love for another. This is a complex story full of twists ands surprises just like life itself. Here we get a story of frustrated love and the compromises made that sustain a friendship that at times we see was not meant to be. In understand this, the reader is asked to do some introspection that can indeed cause him to become dismayed at what he discovers. The questions we ask ourselves have no cut and dry answers and we realize that questions lead to even more questions and only while experiencing life will we find answers. The lesson, for me, at least, is to continue questioning as we wend our way through the good and the bad that life has in store for us.

Having been a philosophy major in college, I could continue these ideas but I want readers to experience them themselves. Let me share a word about the prose—it is gorgeous and this is one of those books that you dare not stop reading once you begin. Hall weaves a story about spirituality, trust, homelessness, love and so much more and it deals with the complicated process of coming out that gay men have to deal with. Hall pulls us into his life and we share his dealing with emotions, specifically with those of love. He recreates the character of Maurice and we share his feelings for the man who changed his life. As Hall deals with the tragedies that come into his life, he takes them on and works with them without pretense. I doubt that I will ever be the same after having read, no, I mean after having experienced “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” but that is ok—we are meant to meet life head-on and I did so as I read this book.

 

 

 

“Salvage the Bones: A Novel” by Jessmyn West— HURRICANE!!!

salvage the bones

Ward, Jesmyn. “Salvage the Bones: A Novel”, Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition, 2012.

HURRICANE!!!!

Amos Lassen

Esch and her three brothers are preparing for the oncoming hurricane by stocking food. Their costal town of Bois Sauvage is being threatened by the storm that is building in the Gulf of Mexico and Esch’s father is getting worried. He is a heavy drinker and absent a good deal from the home and cares for no one other than himself. Esch is fourteen years old and can’t keep food down which is probably a result of her pregnancy.

Her brother, Skeetah, is sneaking scraps for his prized pit bull’s new litter where the pups are dying one by one in the dirt. Brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim “in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting”.

The novel is set in just twelve days and we meet his family where there is no mother and the children sacrifice for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce.

Aside from the storm we are given a look at rural poverty and familial love. The characters are vibrantly alive— the dog, China,  the father (who is unable to deal with being and a widowed father of four) and the others. This is a story of poverty and strength, hope and love, climaxing Hurricane  Katrina sends the family into the waters and the wind to search for their own salvation from the storm.

 The days leading up to it were epic and filled with the little things that made life normal as well as preparation for the storm’s arrival. Just like reality, no one expected Katrina to deliver what it did. No one knew when the storm came that it was going to have the raw power it possessed. Caught in the attic, with the storm surge rising, the reality of potentially drowning in their own attic gets the family’s attention, and in a desperate bid to find safety, a hole is smashed through the roof, and their escape is planned. It is a risky plan and it comes with loss, but the family all make it to their temporary haven.

 This is a powerful story that ends in chaos after Katrina but there is grace and humanity here but it’s not a pretty story. The entire novel leads up to the explosion of Hurricane Katrina, but it focuses on two parallel story lines: Esch and China. Fourteen year-old Esch has been the woman of the house, caring for her alcoholic father and brood of brothers, since her mother’s death years before. She is also pregnant. Esch dreams of the baby’s father who is an older good-looking boy who is unattainable. Esch is sensitive but matter-of-fact and intelligent but foolish and impulsive like any teenager at that age. China is the snow-white pit bull whom Esch’s brother Skeetah treats as lovingly as his own child (even as he trains her to be a fierce fighting dog). China herself has just had puppies, and the novel explicitly links the fates of Esch and China.

The novel is honest and raw but as I read I found the characters became part of my life and that could be because I also went through Katrina. I found myself experiencing many different emotions ranging from joy to frustration.

“Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas” by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker— Reinventing the Traditional Atlas

unfathomable city

Solnit, Rebecca and Rebecca Snedeker. “Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas”, University of California Press, 2013.

Reinventing the Traditional Atlas

Amos Lassen

Being a native of New Orleans, I look for new books about my hometown. There is something that city that makes everyone who is born and raised there a New Orleanian forever, wherever he/she may live. New Orleans is a city with many faces and filled with contradictions which many saw as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

This book is a collection of twenty essays written by “geographers, scholars of sugar and bananas, the city’s remarkable musicians, prison activists, environmentalists, Arab and Native voices, and local experts, as well as the coauthors’ compelling contributions”.  There are also 22 full color maps of the city. The book explores the various aspects of the city.  Through the maps and text we really get to know about the city and her culture.

Like the city, the topics covered here are diverse and I find there is a little about everything in the city and some “lagniappe” as well. (In case you are not familiar with that term, it means a little something extra).

“Rebecca Snedeker and Rebecca Solnit’s Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas is a book about New Orleans, but it’s also a book about the kind of shared experiences and tensions that could exist in almost any city. Twenty-two maps illustrate ancient and recent histories of the Crescent City, with local tabs that inspire hums of pride. . . . Though many of those labels are specific to New Orleans, the themes they highlight exist in other places, making the book not only a local’s guide to the city, but also an anthropologist’s guide to the idea of metropolis.”  (Jeanie Riess Gambit 2013-11-01).

rainbowolympics

“Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital” by Sheri Fink— The Quest for Truth and Justice

five days

Fink, Sheri. “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital”, Crown, 2013.

The Quest for Truth and Justice

Amos Lassen

Having been in New Orleans and experiencing Hurricane Katrina has to have been a turning point in my life and in the lives of so many others. I have never understood why the book market was not flooded with after things calmed down and now eight years later, there are is still not a lot written about what went on as a major American city struggled to survive. Having been born and raised in New Orleans, I discovered that no matter where we may go, New Orleanians have something of the city that is always with them and still now, living in Boston after seven years in Arkansas, I still think of myself as a New Orleanian. I read everything I can about the city and I have been back twice to visit but I realize that I had to move on.
I had heard about Sheri Fink’s “Five Days at Memorial” and was very anxious to read it. What is strange, for me, at least, is that those of us who lived though the storm seem to know the least about it and it is impossible to describe the feelings I had as I stayed in my apartment, as the waters rose, for a full week after Katrina made land fall. I remember the fear but not the details and I really believe that had the National Guard not forced me out, I would have died there. We knew nothing of what was going on outside of us and it was not until I was taken to a shelter in Pine Bluff, Arkansas that the story began to be told to me.

Now Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink has reconstructed some of what happened in New Orleans and it is an amazing read that kept me at home this past weekend. Fink writes about the deaths of patients at the Memorial Hospital and as she does, she (and the reader) searches for truth and justice. Using just five days, she pulls us into the lives of people who fought hard to live as craziness surrounded them. What so many find hard to understand about going through a storm like Katrina is that so many were forced to make choices and many of these were difficult because they involved life and death. We can only imagine what was going on in the hospitals as power was gone and the waters rose. It became a necessity for hospital staff to decide who to let go and who to try to save. Manpower was short and the hospitals were full. Just as some patients fought for life, so did the hospitals. Death was soon rationed challenging the belief that only God has the option of deciding between life and death. Sheri Fink looks at the situations that hospital staff members were thrown into and also shows how America was not prepared to deal with a disaster the size of Katrina. In doing so she changes the way that we think about people in crises.

Those who were sheltered in the New Orleans Memorial Hospital during Katrina soon realized that the crisis inside the hospital was worse than the storm. Since there was no power, there could be no evacuation and leadership was nil. Caring for the sick was chaos and the medical staff faced difficult decisions and some of the choices made were failures. Some of the patients who seemed to have no chance of survival were given lethal shots even as a form of evacuation began. Fink recreates the storm, what happened afterwards and the investigation and as she does, we are forced to consider questions of ethics, race, resources, history and the greater good. We need to read this just to understand human behavior during crisis. By using Katrina and the New Orleans hospital we see what can go wrong and we see the difficulties faced during a catastrophe. Even today, there are just a few hospitals with disaster plans or enough supplies to get through a storm. There are not enough back-up generators and when elevators go out floors of people are lost. Hospitals rely on scare tactics and greed becomes the way of the day. Rumors rum rampant and family input is neither available nor heeded when it is.

This is a very hard book to read especially for someone who was there but it is also a very important book. Modern American medicine did not know what to do when it was most needed. Things have not yet improved and there seems to be few lessons learned. We are therefore quick to believe that this could all happen again. There was no organization during Katrina and the result was a loss of life and total chaos.

The first half of the book is about the first five days but then it moves to the legal and political aspects of what happened and the homicide investigation brought on by the state of Louisiana. We see many people divided over whether crimes had indeed been committed or not and these people are depicted as decent and honest. Many of the narratives just end with no conclusions and no regard for the legal ethics of the medical profession. The research here is amazing and there are no claims without evidence. Most of us are very lucky that we will never have to deal with choices that were made here.

“Fink’s descriptions of the flooded hospital, her extensive interviews with those who were there, profiles of investigators and study of the history and ethics of triage and euthanasia come very close to a full airing of how a disaster can upset society’s usual ethical codes, and how that played out at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center….Fink has written a compelling and revealing account.”– Seattle Times

Five Days At Memorial unfolds in two parts—an impeccably researched reconstruction of the events inside the hospital during the disaster, and a gripping account of the investigation and trial that followed. Pulitzer-Prize-winning Sheri Fink, who is also a physician and a former relief worker in combat zones, lays out every shred of evidence, but leaves the final judgment to the reader. Five Days at Memorial treats the chain of events at the hospital as a microcosm that raises vital and increasingly relevant questions about end-of-life care, and the ethics of euthanasia in extraordinary circumstances.”– Macleans

This is a book that cries out to be read and we must all make ourselves aware of what happened. I would never have believed that I would live through something like this but I did and it could happen to any or to all of us.

rainbowolympics

“I’M CAROLYN PARKER: THE GOOD, THE MAD, AND THE BEAUTIFUL”— Rebuilding New Orleans

“I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful”

 

Rebuilding New Orleans

 

Amos Lassen

 

On Thursday, September 20th on PBS, we will get a chance to see an amazing new documentary from Jonathan Demme about what has been happening in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This is the story of Carolyn Parker who, along with other Ninth Ward residents, was told to “Look and Leave” but she decided to “Look and Stay”. What so many do not realize is that there is something about living in New Orleans that holds people to stay in the city and as a former New Orleanian (who did not go back), I totally understand what Parker feels.

 

“When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August 2005, the hardest-hit neighborhoods were also the city’s poorest. But nowhere was devastation greater than in the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood bordered by the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River, home to a vibrant African-American community and one extraordinary woman. Several months later, Academy Award®-winning director Jonathan Demme set out to document the devastation and rebuilding of the Crescent City”.

 

When Demme met Parker and spoke to her about Katrina, he quickly saw that what was supposed to have been a political documentary was going to also be a very personal story and a character study of a woman who defied the odds. Parker is a highly opinionated woman and a community activist who was not going to let anyone take her city of New Orleans from her. During five years Demme shot his film and gives us a look at Parker as she worked her own crusade to save her home, her church, her community and her life. This is a true profile in courage.

 

When the levees broke and the floodwater came over them, Parker’s home (some eight blocks from where I lived) and neighborhood went underwater and the people there (like myself) had to be rescued by helicopters. When no trace of Parker could be found, she was pronounced dead in the local media but it later was discovered that she had gone to the Superdome with so many others who had to flee their homes. These people were to become the new homeless population of New Orleans. When Parker was reunited with her brother and her children, she became a voice of the displaced who were all over the United States (I was in Arkansas) and were waiting to go back home. What propelled Parker into the spotlight was her very public rebuttal to the mayor, Ray Nagin, and said that her house would be demolished only over her dead body. Suddenly the world noticed Carolyn Parker and even the president, George W. Bush, heard her words and replied with a simple “no comment”.

 

When the water began to retreat, Parker was one of the first to move back into the Lower Ninth Ward and as she waited for funds to rebuild her house, she lived in a FEMA trailer for four years. Her daughter, Kyrah, came home from college to help her and her son; Rahsaan began to live in the shell of the former family home. Parker immediately began her campaign for the rebuilding of her church which was the only Catholic Church that welcomes blacks when she was a girl. That same church had held the community together and the rebuilding was Parker’s primary concern.

 

Parker became involved in dealing with some get rich-quick tradesman as she was recovering from knee surgery. Her daughter picked out the colors for the remodeling and the family began the task of rebuilding their lives and their home. We get to go on a tour of the house and see the destruction and hear Parker’s memories of New Orleans during segregation; stories that I remember so well (but from the white perspective). Parker was raised poor but she was resourceful. We hear how she and her husband moved into her home, a home that was built on love. After her husband was murdered, Parker raised her family and made sure that they had a stable home life. After Katrina she says that she did not cry like everyone else because she realized that she was alive and her little house was still standing.

 

Starting a few months after Hurricane Katrina, Jonathan Demme follows the strong matriarch from the Lower Ninth Ward named Carolyn Parker as she struggles to rebuild her home over several years. Parker is a retired hotel chef with disabilities yet she makes the most of what she has— a bold sense of humor with a fierce activism and a pervasive spirituality. A few months after the flood waters receded, filmmaker Jonathan Demme met Parker outside her damaged home while he was interviewing locals. From their casual introduction grew this poignant documentary which was filmed over five years of one family’s struggle to rebuild from devastation.

Using the personal approach, Demme conducts conversations from behind the camera. We first meet Parker when her house is in shambles and needing new walls, electricity, windows, and more but Parker cannot consider living anywhere else. Over the next several years, Parker’s toiled to save her home and church and we see her as alternately good, mad and beautiful.

Demme takes pleasure in Parkers company, whether she is reminiscing about her early days in the civil rights struggle or just cooking dinner. “Parker is a friendly, welcoming and observational woman whose passion for her home and community in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans led to an angry and powerful speech at a meeting about the recovery plan after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

After being told about plans to buy out residents and knock down the Lower Ninth, one of the worst hit areas, Carolyn S. Parker is mad as hell, and she lets them know about it. “I don’t think it’s right that you try to take my property. “Over my dead body. I didn’t die with Katrina.”  And she did not die—she lived and lives just as New Orleans has returned.

Demme successfully shows the viewer an intimate portrayal of how Katrina impacted Carolyn’s family and the reasons why her home is so important to her. Carolyn Parker is a force to be reckoned with and watching her in action is an inspirational and emotional journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast” by Douglas Brinkley— Having Been There

Brinkley, Douglas. “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast”, Harper Perennial, 2006.

 Having Been There

 Amos Lassen

 Six and a half years ago at this time we knew the name Katrina as a beautiful feminine name. Suddenly on August 27, that changed and Katrina became known as one of the great disasters of the world. I know that to be true—I was there—and so was Douglas Brinkley who wrote Katrina’s biography. I have put off reviewing this book because I thought it might be too painful but now that I am sitting down and writing, I realize that this review could become the catharsis I have needed. It is hard for me to believe that it is already two years ago and that I am in Little Rock, Arkansas and not back in New Orleans. Be that as it may, reading about Katrina is not easy but I did notice today at Barnes and Noble that I may be reading about her for a while—it seems there are a slew of new books out about the storm and this is just the beginning.

       Douglas Brinkley wrote one of the first books about the storm and what a book it is. It captures the human aspect of Katrina and gives a close up view of what really went on. Looking back now, I realize that in five hours on August 29, 2005, America changed completely. 150 miles of coastline and one major American city as well as some smaller ones were hit by a powerful storm and it changed the way we look at weather, government, tragedy and each other. Two years later and not much has been done. A half-million homes went underwater, the government mismanaged the entire business and many Southerners lost not only their homes but everything.

       It is still too soon to have the definitive book on Katrina. The scope of the storm was so large—there was such chaos, denial and misinformation that it will take a long time to sort the entire affair. Brinkley’s book was the first and will probably emerge as the best as it brings us the narrative and gives the big picture. Reading “The Great Deluge” forced me to remember a lot of what I had chosen to forget. As I read the book I became literally numb but hopeful. Brinkley writes of the heroes and the good guys. This shows me exactly what Anne Frank said that people are basically good.

       There is a great deal of background in the book and it thereby provides ways to achieve a greater understanding of what happened. It was hard for me to know what really went on as I had no access to the outside world as I looked out of my fourth floor window and watched the waters rise as New Orleans sunk beneath them.

       Brinkley gives a far and unbiased look at what went wrong and it is harrowing to read. His book is well researched and his tales of heroism are amazing. The book s based primarily on first person accounts and media reports. He also conducted intensive interviews with many survivors. There are tales of terror and stories of valor. There is also the author’s analysis of what happened but I am not sure that this is accurate as the book was written very early after the storm. Brinkley lets us know where his own sympathies lie. There are mistakes as we would expect there to be but by and large, this is one of those books that I could simply not put down. Here is a great book that should be read by every American. The writing is fluid and rich in detail and Brinkley breathes life into New Orleans. Here is a story of struggle, redemption, survival and struggle.