By Leah Bartos
On one hand, New Orleans embodies everything that’s wrong with America. From its colonial beginnings, it has been home to race-based slavery, a failed public education system and a failed attempt to conquer Mother Nature; where homicides are a weekly, and often daily, occurrence and the unemployment rate has skyrocketed over the last two decades.
On the other hand, it may be our one chance to change all that for good—not just for New Orleans, but for America as a whole.
Either way, hurricane season is looming. And with climatologists predicting a greater intensity and frequency of such ‘natural’ catastrophes, ready or not, New Orleans must brace for the next Big One—or Ones.
So, what to do? Is it stubborn to have hope? Is it foolish and irresponsible and unrealistic? In post-Katrina New Orleans, facing the gritty, dismal facts every single day is simply not an option—to have hope is to survive.
“It’s not whether you want to deal with it or you can deal with it—It’s that you have to deal with it. And that’s that,” said Jack Odell, a 21 year-old native of New Orleans.
Odell, who fled New Orleans along with half a million other residents, tells strangers of his experience during Hurricane Katrina as many do: Elaborate the gruesome, heartbreaking, funny, annoying, sad, awful details, and then laugh them off.
“No one can live unhappy all the time,” Odell said. “They get over it. They try to see past it—and that’s what you have to do.”
Odell, however, admits he had a difficult time seeing past it. After returning to New Orleans in December 2005 to do contracting work, Odell decided to transfer to UC Santa Cruz in fall 2006.
“I was not dealing with it well,” said Odell, who rides a bike through Santa Cruz with “New Orleans: Still Proud to Call it Home” sticker slapped on the side and keeps a statue from a house he gutted, which was once home to two old women who drowned in eight feet of flood water. “That’s why I came out here. I started to hit rock bottom.”
For a city so renowned and proud of its spirit of celebration, Odell says that dealing with trauma and depression is especially confusing for New Orleanians.
“People are in weird moods,” he said. “Just angry. Unhappy. Sad. Irrational, sometimes. Crazy. You know.”
There are approximately 255,000 people now living within the Orleans Parish line—almost half the population before August 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, killing about 1,600 people, destroying 200,000 homes, and leaving 80 percent of New Orleans underwater for weeks.
Dealing with the aftermath is not just a problem for the Gulf Coast though, as attested by the tens of thousands of Americans who have donated money and volunteer labor. Molly Porzig, a UCSC undergraduate student, was one volunteer who spent her spring break working in New Orleans.
“There were a lot of serious issues about the United States that became more visible after Katrina happened in New Orleans,” Porzig said, adding that racism, in particular, became more apparent. “Katrina made it so you can’t ignore it. And I wanted to be a part of working with people to see what happens in these next couple years because I think they’re definitely crucial for what will happen in the United States afterwards.”
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Twenty-one months after the storm, recovery is still slow. Entire neighborhoods are practically ghost towns, the only sign of human life are the FEMA markings just above the waterline on the house fronts—which in neighborhoods like Lakeview and Gentilly are often higher than the front door—spray painted Xs indicating the date searched and the contents of the house: Chemical hazards, animal and human bodies, etc.
The now-iconic Lower Ninth Ward, located in the direct line of the Industrial Canal levee breaches, is still virtually empty after the floodwater pounded through the low-lying streets.
All throughout the Lower Ninth, a low-income and mostly black neighborhood, there are signs of nature reclaiming its territory: Backyard pools turning into algae-filled pond refuges for displaced fish and turtles, vines and shrubs overgrowing school buildings. The crumbling houses, or what’s left of them, are empty, sometimes displaying a human cry, “DO NOT DEMO,” sprawled across the side in spray paint.
But just across the infamous canal, in the Upper Ninth Ward, it’s a completely different scene. Surrounded by the constant pounding of hammers and pick-up trucks driving around with beds full of lumber and spackle, a fervor of work has swept up the also predominately black, but higher ground, neighborhood.
“Of course you know this is a—I don’t want to say poor community—but we know it’s not a well-blown community,” said Tyrone Taylor, a middle-aged Upper Ninth resident, standing outside the corner grocery and cafÃ©, K&P Magee’s, that his parents have owned for over 40 years. Standing with a broom in his hand before entering the boarded up shop, Taylor recalls the cafÃ© as “kind of like Cheers,” where neighbors would gather to watch the Saints on TV and where his mother would cook for the community on the weekends. Taylor hopes that the reopening will inspire people to move back to the neighborhood.
“I’m going to be looking forward to getting back in, putting the barbeque out here again,” Taylor said, motioning to a pile of rotted wood and a single white plastic patio chair along the side of the building. He laughed, shifting to a semi-ironic third-person tone: “Something about those folks in New Orleans, all they want to do is party.”
Just around the corner, A.J. Perkins, a 62 year-old homeowner and resident of New Orleans since 1952, takes refuge in the shade of his front porch, where he smokes a cigarette and sits on a green bench beneath the cryptic FEMA markings, “NE,” “Ã˜,” “O,” and “9-14” inscribed in each wedge of the X.
Perkins is still living in a FEMA trailer in the driveway, which he says he’ll move out of as soon as just one room in his house is livable.
“The rest of my house looks like a tornado just left there, but at least that give me some inspiration when I see flowers blooming and things like that,” Perkins said, his eyes unblinking underneath a baseball cap with a fleur de lys embroidered on the front. “So I went out and bought me some flowers and put them out here, so the house won’t look so sad when I walk up to the door.
“And that helps. That helps mentally.”
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Like Perkins’ garden of magenta geraniums, others in New Orleans have come up with a whole range of coping mechanisms—perhaps the most common being an almost maniacal devotion to the city’s party spirit.
Indeed, many locals have asserted that annual Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest celebrations have taken on a completely different meaning and have made living in post-Katrina New Orleans worth the effort.
“If you told people not to celebrate, if they had not had Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest last year, people would not have come back to the city,” Odell said. “And it’s not just us having a good time; it’s giving people a good time and saying look, this is New Orleans. New Orleans still has soul. It’s not going away.”
Though the partying spirit has undoubtedly contributed to local willingness to stay in New Orleans, not to mention re-boosting the tourist industry, not all the implications are positive. Nearly 25 percent of New Orleans locals reported that Katrina-related stress has increased their alcohol use, according to a Kaiser survey released May 10.
Kerry Bailey, a 22 year-old University of New Orleans undergraduate and residential assistant at the school’s Bienville residence hall, said that he and many others began to drink excessively after the storm.
“It was very depressing and hard, you know, but we did have fun. We partied every single day of the week,” said Bailey, who was only one week into his first year of college when Katrina hit. “I never partied like that before. But we had nothing else to do. We had nowhere to go.
“The bad thing about that was most people were numb. It was like they had no feeling. We just couldn’t believe what had happened.”
Today, Bailey assesses, his peers are still reluctant to talk about the storm and its continuing aftermath. Bailey, who is black, continued that the implicit racial tension is one of the main reasons people avoid the topic: “People just don’t want to deal with it.”
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If so-called Katrina fatigue is bad in New Orleans, it’s epidemic elsewhere. But, of course, not all are infected.
Forgoing margaritas and bikinis in Cancun, a group of 19 UC Santa Cruz students spent their spring breaks working in New Orleans through the school’s Student Volunteer Connection. The local Times-Picayune newspaper estimated that there were approximately 10,000 college and high school age volunteers who spent spring break working in the Crescent City.
Cat Lamorena, a UCSC volunteer, said that Katrina fatigue, or the general public’s apparent lack of interest in the continuing recovery, persists because many don’t feel connected to the Gulf Coast.
“Of course, it’s not in our state, it’s not as close, but it’s also a part of our own country. It should affect us no matter what,” Lamorena said. “For people to say there’s Katrina fatigue, they can only say so much. If they’re saying all this stuff, why aren’t they out there?”
The group mostly gutted houses of low-income and elderly people, many of whose homes had been virtually untouched since the hurricane struck a year and a half earlier. The first home the group worked on, a modest ranch-style home in the swampland that is now New Orleans East, looked as if the hurricane had hit the day before: A washing machine still full of clothes, an unfinished watercolor painting, a calendar on the refrigerator turned to the August 2005 page. The absolute rank of mold, though, might have been the best indicator of just how long this house has been soaking.
During breaks, the crew members discussed and debated their role in the Gulf Coast’s recovery.
“People hide behind the [solutions] they see in changing public policy.
And not that that’s a bad thing, but if you don’t get your hands dirty, how are you really going to be that effective?” said Mike Wilson, as he stood with fellow volunteer Ian Andersen, in front of a pile of drywall and insulation nearly taller than they were.
Andersen said that raising awareness about the ongoing Katrina aftermath at home will be one of the biggest impacts of the group’s efforts.
“For me, it’s most important so that we can start to spread the story about how this place is not nearly done,” Andersen said. “As far as our volunteering, we’re putting a very little dent into something that is huge. Of course we’re helping, but I think our experience speaks for itself when we go back and show pictures and encourage people to do the same if they can.”
Although volunteers have undoubtedly had an immense impact for the physical rebuilding of the city, many worry about the cultural future of New Orleans.
Nick Spitzer, radio host for the Public Radio International (PRI) distributed “American Routes” radio show, says rather than telling people what to do, we should help create conditions that will allow them to do what they want and need to do.
“Let’s face it, New Orleans’s greatness did not derive from some progressive plan. It derived from being culturally different, religiously different, linguistically different, economically isolated in a post-colonial slave and then indentured servitude society,” said Spitzer, who is also a professor of folklore at the University of New Orleans. “It was all a human response to the difficulty of environs and social orders. I think that’s a key question in life for Americans: You cannot plan your way to a great culture.”
Spitzer speaks from the third-floor of the Basin Street Station, next door to the 18th century tombs of the St. Louis No. 1 cemetery, overlooking the historic French Quarter and Rampart St., where many of the Jazz Funeral and Second Line parades begin.
“So, it seems to me, the big question here is, how do we help not recreate the old culture of New Orleans, but how do we find creative continuity to a future that is based on that, but is not that? Because it’s never going to be quite the same here ever again,” Spitzer said.
Though New Orleans has already gone through a multitude of dramatic and permanent transformations since Katrina, there remains a great deal of controversy about the extent that things should continue to change. At the heart of the debate: whether the literally sinking city of New Orleans should rebuild at all.
Susanne Moser, a scientist based at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, visited New Orleans for a conference in December 2006 and explained the dilemma she saw for the future of the city.
“Quite frankly, it’s a very difficult situation to relocate people at a time when the worst just happened to them,” Moser said. “On the other hand, moving it right back exactly where it was, in light of on-going hurricane activity and maybe it getting worse with climate change, I don’t think we can afford that.”
Moser, whose research focuses on the human dimension of global climate change, says that it would be wiser to offer safer locations for people to relocate, but still allow people to create and recreate their culture of their communities. Though Hurricane Katrina cannot be definitively linked to global warming, Moser and other climatologists predict a “pattern of more extremes,” which will affect various regions of the United States. “We’re going to have lots of New Orleans’s across the country,” she said.
Though Moser’s predictions may seem bleak, she has a great deal of admiration for those who continue to love and live in post-Katrina New Orleans.
“I find it an enormous feat of human spirit that people can say ‘We want you to have a good time here.’ Or, ‘We want to have a good time here. We’re trying to make the best of it,’” Moser said. “It’s just too hard to live in the full awareness of how dreadful the situation really is. It is, in a sense, a symptom of the resilient mind.”