I don’t normally suggest a soundtrack for one of my blog posts, but like everyone else this weekend, you should be listening to a double-Zeppelin-shot of When the Levee Breaks and Ten Years Gone.
Hurricane Katrina, which struck Louisiana ten years ago this weekend, was an exceptional event: it was the ne plus ultra of weather calamities, an environmentalist cautionary tale, a natural disaster abetted by extraordinary human failings, a rare window into an American city given over to anarchy, a frightening lesson regarding anti-government ideology, and a horrible exposure of ongoing racial double standards. Exceptional it was, but I don’t personally claim to have had an exceptional Hurricane Katrina. Yet based on everything I’m seeing, it’s a week of sharing stories, and so here’s mine.
In the quaint pre-Web 2.0 world of 2005, I was spending way too much time in a livejournal.com community called debate, which boasted one vocal, often right-wing, military-oriented member who provided us live updates from New Orleans. His job involved security for a New Orleans firm housed in a downtown skyscraper which my, uh, friend refused to vacate, and things got particularly interesting in the days immediately following the storm, as anarchy seemed to overwhelm America’s bayou. I’ll never forget his posts (though I’m not sure I should share them here): somewhat of a jambalaya of Die Hard, American Sniper, and Escape from New York.
Six months later, I attended the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. This was more difficult than it sounds, because I was living in the U.K. at the time. This was my first attempt at working on vacation, or what’s called “voluntourism” (though not my first time in New Orleans; I’d danced on Bourbon Street pre-Katrina). My friend Almira set us up with a pet shelter that still needed extra hands. Almira and I spent two days with storm-orphaned canine and feline amputees, and we mostly cleaned up poop. I loved it. I knew that consciously giving feels ten times better than receiving, but this was more than usual. Cleaning my tenth mountain of cat litter, I felt my endorphins at something of an all-time high (really).
Later, Anderson Cooper and his CNN camera crew stopped by the animal shelter (I thought: does that guy ever leave New Orleans?) and I took a picture with him a few years before EVERYONE always took a selfie with EVERY celebrity EVER. I featured that photo on my eharmony.com profile, and the woman who became my wife later told me that the photo seemed to suggest I wasn’t a serial killer (I’ve never bothered to correct her that Cooper hangs out with serial killers), so one could say that Hurricane Katrina led to me finding the love of my life.
Mardi Gras 2006 wasn’t all scraping pet poop. It was watching the parades, throwing the beads, drinking the rum, and feeling the incredible, palpable sense of resilience and vigor and yes, African-American pride. (In the weeks after Katrina, which saw the also-devastating Hurricane Rita, many had said Mardi Gras would have to be cancelled.) Our visit included the Lower Ninth Ward, which truly looked as though a nuclear bomb had hit it. (I’ve also been to Hiroshima and its museum.) What was once a bad neighborhood was now no neighborhood at all. We got out of the car and touched the remains of people’s lives and homes, and tears came and went like gulf winds. Almost ten years later, I still flinch when I see that someone is named Katrina.
Almira and I drove around many, many other parts of the city, staring at the almost-biblical surfeit of Xs on doors and cardboarded entryways, occasionally accompanied by tableaus of things like boats left on roofs, trees shoved through windows. We toured above-ground graveyards, we examined damages way outside the confines of the city itself. We spent hours, days, hanging out and talking with Almira’s friend Adolfo, a longtime New Orleanian who bears a passing resemblance to Frank Langella. Adolfo literally drove us to the levees, to show us the cracks and the watermarks and explain exactly what had happened. His house in the Garden District hadn’t emerged unscathed, but the damage was only in the high five figures – nothing compared to many, many people he knew. Adolfo and his wife weren’t going anywhere. He explained it to us as San Franciscans: would we really abandon the City by the Bay after the inevitable 9.0 hits it?
San Francisco and New Orleans bear comparison: they’re both medium-sized, distinctively diverse cities of the American imaginary, blessed with temperate climates, rich history, terrific cuisines, fantastic musical traditions, and a sumptuous 19th-century beauty that’s only enhanced by their fragility. Yet it’s hard to imagine the week after California’s Big One resembling the week after Katrina leveled the Big Easy. One factor is that there won’t have been a pre-disaster evacuation that leads officials to feel that whoever stayed behind was, ah, asking for it. (My house lies exactly on the Hayward Fault, and I know we’re asking for it.) There won’t be a sense that the only people left are…how to put this nicely?…disenfranchised anyway. Another factor is that Sacramento would never wait for Washington the way that Baton Rouge had (nor get caught in a partisan anti-turf war – “no, this land is your land!” – as Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu did with George W. Bush): we have a long and recent history of deploying our state resources to fight fires and such, while Louisiana had the ostensible guarantees of the U.S. Army (and its core of engineers who built and rebuilt the levees). San Francisco, now long accustomed to leading the world economy, will neither wait for nor bow to D.C. to save itself.
Wandering through the Lower Ninth, and later on my laptop, I have wondered what might have happened if Hurricane Katrina had struck Louisiana on the same weekend in 2004, when Bush was in the midst of his re-election fight, or if Gore or Kerry or Clinton had been President. (Many have speculated that Clinton would have hugged everyone in the Superdome.) Timing is a bitch, not just for the more than 1800 people who died because of Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent mismanagement, but even for Bush himself, who mistimed his whole approach to Katrina, to the detriment of his base and his Party for a decade now. (For one thing, peering out the window at New Orleans, two days after the storm hit, while flying from San Diego to D.C., wasn’t a great move.)
Grover Norquist had said he wanted government reduced to a size where he could drown it in a bathtub, and after the 2004 election results, Bush appeared to take Norquist exactly at his word – at least domestically. (We weren’t supposed to notice our hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq that couldn’t be spared for Gulf work.) Bush in 2005 probably wouldn’t have sent tons of troops quickly into a similarly devastated Miami, even if his own brother Jeb was suffering. If you picture a map of red states and blue states that shows the Republican base, the Southern strategy, it’s not hard to draw the political cartoon yourself: Katrina as the puncturing of a balloon. Another cartoon might show blue spreading over red: because of the hubris of the Bush Administration (including Karl Rove, who claimed the 2004 results were a harbinger of a new GOP-dominant alignment), tens of thousands of largely African-American Democrats were displaced, spread all over the New South, and positioned to disrupt Republican politics for decades to come. Drown this in a bathtub, guys.
Anyone who wants to know more, to feel more, should watch this.
I would see Adolfo in two more visits to the Crescent City. The most recent time, in March 2011, we began at his house, strolled past Anne Rice’s place, sauntered down St. Charles Street, and arrived at a Garden District garden party (it wasn’t Mardi Gras time). Adolfo’s friend’s fridge was laden with stickers celebrating New Orleans pride and nominating Brad Pitt for mayor. (Pitt has built dozens of homes and brought all kinds of production to the city.) Adolfo is older than me, and his friends, most of them in their 50s, were wonderful people, full of life and laughter. I’ve heard that post-2005 Nawlins has gentrified with young hipsters – and obviously, they had too – but I was most struck by what an amazing place it must be to grow old in, an American crown jewel that gets repolished with each storm. Adolfo still had that somewhat bemused Frank Langella smile accompanied by an unrepentant attitude that sometimes said “this is the greatest place to call home” and other times said “please, come back, spend your money here.” Anytime I smell the Cajun cooking and hear the jazz music, even just in my mind, it’s hard to disagree on either count.