When the levees broke in New Orleans in 2005, so did the veneer of racial harmony in the United States. Black families were left stranded on roofs, appealing to the heavens because no relief was coming from federal helicopters. Bodies floated down the streets. The Superdome – an arena made for dreams – became a nightmare of squalor as ‘refugees’ were herded in like animals.
Meanwhile, in a classic case of blaming the victim, the media ripped into the African American community. They identified Blacks as “looters” while Whites–doing exactly the same thing–were “looking for food.” Black men were falsely accused of a litany of crimes ranging from wide-scale theft to rape.
Perhaps the most disgusting action of all was perpetrated by the residents of St. Bernard Parish, who blockaded the streets to prevent fleeing Blacks from entering their neighborhood.
As for George Bush, he took a helicopter tour with the Director of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown, whose ineptitude and slow response infuriated pretty much everyone. On camera, Bush said, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” and this became shorthand for total incompetence. It was soon followed by Kanye West announcing on live TV, “Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
In short, African Americans became refugees in their own country. Would the response have been so slow had Hurricane Katrina occurred in a White, middle-class neighborhood? Unthinkable. And as for those peddling the idea that this was “a natural disaster”, there’s nothing natural about leaving the poor to die in the richest country on the planet.
Numerous works of sociology, poetry, biography, fiction and theater came out of this tragedy. Here are five of the best.
Revacuation by Brad Benischek. This inspired graphic novel channels Orwell and Art Spiegelman. It depicts the Katrina evacuees as surreal one-armed pigeons, while a host of other beasts – dogs, cats and coyotes – represent the powerful. The swirling artwork is mesmerising, although the text could have used a keener editorial eye (typos abound). The book is published by Press Street, which came into being in 2005 to focus on New Orleans writing and art, and has been the midwife to delightfully subversive work ever since.
Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum. This is a multi-voiced biography of New Orleans spanning forty years of the city’s history. It’s based on a series of interviews with nine residents who range from a transsexual bar owner to a rich accountant to a jazz musician who also serves as the Orleans Parish coroner. The voices are in turn feisty, hilarious, and moving, and make for a terrific post-Katrina portrait of the city.
City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. Ostensibly about two families – one Black, one White – dealing with Hurricane Katrina, the novel transcends, becomes epic, almost Biblical in scale. In its examination of lives lived though tragic times, the novel has been compared to The Grapes of Wrath. While it cannot yet claim Steinbeck’s classic status, it is still one hell of a book.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. This tells the extraordinary story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, an American business owner of Syrian heritage. In the wake of Katrina, Zeitoun rowed around New Orleans in a used canoe, rescuing people and abandoned dogs and handing out provisions. For his efforts, Zeitoun was arrested and imprisoned for looting. What happened next was something straight out of the Stalin/Pinochet School of Compassionate Policing. Read it and weep.
Jesus Out to Sea by James Lee Burke (short stories). Burke is better-known for hardboiled detective novels, but the title story in this collection envisions a pair of musicians reminiscing about New Orleans while waiting for rescue on a roof. The story shows Burke at his finest – a master prose stylist with the ear of a poet:
“You woke in the morning to the smell of gardenias, the electric smell of the streetcars, chicory coffee, and stone that turned green with lichen. The light was always filtered through the trees, so it was never harsh, and the flowers bloomed year-round. New Orleans was a poem, man, a song in your heart that never died.”