Après Katrina, Le Déluge

By Rien FertelAugust 29, 2015

Après Katrina, Le Déluge

Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin

ON JULY 24, 2005, New Orleans’s paper of record, the Times-Picayune, notified its readers that, in the event of a major, possibly disastrous hurricane, “you’re on your own.” City, state, and federal emergency officials disseminated the message that it would be your personal responsibility to evacuate yourself and your loved ones from the city, and to take the necessary steps to save yourself. In order to spread this gospel, the local government, in conjunction with the area anti-poverty agency Total Community Action, produced a 30-minute DVD entitled Preparing for the Big One. The video targeted, in the Picayune’s words, “the poorest of New Orleans’ poor,” many of whom lacked access to transportation out of the city and disposable income to spend on emergency supplies and out-of-state hotel rooms. (In 2005, 25 percent of New Orleans families were living on less than $20,000 a year, matching the number of households who did not own a car). “Everybody needs to have their own plans,” New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin emphasized in Preparing for the Big One. “Don’t wait for the city, don’t wait for the state, don’t wait for the Red Cross,” warned the Reverend Marshall Truehill, head of Total Community Action. “Each person is primarily responsible for themselves.”

It’s not as if city officials were unprepared for the big one themselves. One year earlier, across eight days in July, local and federal agencies conducted a simulated cataclysmic storm event named Hurricane Pam. Among other horrific prophecies — one million displaced throughout the region, 600,000 buildings damaged citywide, 60,000 New Orleanians dead — the workshop predicted that transportation problems would plague the city. In addition to Amtrak volunteering its trains to shuttle residents away, local officials planned to help those most in need by dedicating 74 public transit buses and vans to evacuate people to several “refuges of last resort,” including the colossal Louisiana Superdome, perched on high and dry ground.

But when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the morning of August 29 near the mouth of the Mississippi River, around 50 miles southeast of New Orleans, most of those public buses and vans were swamped by floodwaters unleashed by the city’s shoddily constructed levee protection system. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, charged with leading disaster relief efforts, refused Amtrak’s generous offer to ferry evacuees from the city, and the final five trains left New Orleans passengerless. As a leader, Mayor Nagin was dead on arrival: less than 48 hours before Katrina struck the Louisiana coastline, he had been on the set of a direct-to-video kid’s film, Labou, playing the role of the unscrupulous and manipulative Mayor Adams, executive chief of New Orleans. And those Preparing for the Big One DVDs, all 70,000 copies worth, sat unopened and unplayed, collecting dust on the shelves of a Los Angeles warehouse.

Fifteen percent of New Orleans’s population — 70,000 people — remained behind to witness 80 percent of the low-lying bowl that is the city’s topographic landscape fill up with water. Within days, much of the world would be familiar with scenes of individuals and families clinging to rooftops, wading through fetid waters past half-submerged bodies, and reduced to looting groceries and restaurants in order to survive. The great majority of the people who lived in the city’s most flood-prone neighborhoods were poor and black and their plight was the legacy of entrenched poverty and institutionalized racism that spanned generations.


“They say that in New Orleans is to be found a mixture of all the nations,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1832. “But in the midst of this confusion what race dominates and gives direction to the rest?” That quotation appears as the epigraph of the journalist Gary Rivlin’s Katrina: After the Flood, and he has no doubt as to how we should answer Tocqueville’s question. “Katrina was [the] pretext for ridding New Orleans of enough blacks,” Rivlin writes, paraphrasing one local, “so that whites were once again in the majority.”

There’s plenty of evidence for this theory. On Tuesday, August 30, with Katrina still spinning a destructive trail northward and New Orleans gradually filling up with water due to 53 total breeches in the Federal levee system, a group of 200 New Orleanians set off on a six mile walk to safety. Most were Regional Transit Authority employees: bus drivers, streetcar conductors, and mechanics. Many were accompanied by family members, and the majority of them were black. Their destination was the West Bank, a patchwork of suburban municipalities that lay just opposite the Mississippi River, easily reachable by bridge, and largely unsusceptible to flooding. Several police officers led the hungry and heat-scorched crowd along an elevated expressway toward their escape route, the river-spanning Crescent City Connection. Upon reaching the other shore, they were greeted by a blockade. Police officers representing the town of Gretna, the first stop across the river — and an old white-flight enclave, going back to the late 1950s — brandished guns and threats. After being detained at gunpoint for several hours, the contingent was herded onto buses and convoyed hours away to Baton Rouge. Similar incidents occurred in the week following Katrina, often with far more brutal results (see: Henry Glover, Danziger Bridge, and Algiers Point).

Katrina: After the Flood begins with an account of the Gretna blockade. But after this short prologue, rather than offering more on-the-ground episodes that highlight the struggles of those individuals most affected by the flooding of New Orleans, Rivlin chooses to focus on a different class of citizens, those who dominate and give direction to the rest. Men like Jimmy Reiss. Reiss came from old-line New Orleans stock, made a fortune selling electronic equipment to the maritime industry, and served as chairman of the same public transit division whose employees fought to cross the Crescent City Connection. While Reiss rode out the storm at a second home in Aspen, he helicoptered in a pair of Israeli military veterans to stand guard outside his gated New Orleans estate. Just 10 days after the levees had crumbled, The Wall Street Journal asked Reiss his thoughts on the present state and future of flooded city. “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.” His agenda was clear to anyone reading the paper that day: better governance, a smaller urban footprint, and fewer poor people.

In the month following Katrina, Reiss and 16 of his fellow civic leaders were brought together to lead Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission, a delegation tasked with rebuilding a city where over 1,400 people had perished, over 100 thousand homes were damaged, 49 of 73 neighborhoods were swamped with over 250 billion gallons of water, and an eight billion dollar tourist industry had evaporated overnight. The commission’s racial makeup was deliberately designed: half-black and half-white, with a Latino attorney included to round out the balance. There was a university president, a Catholic archbishop and a Baptist preacher, two jazz musicians, and a community activist. But Rivlin elects to tell the story of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission primarily through the lives of two business executives. The first, Joseph Canizaro, engineered the city’s downtown skyline, owned New Orleans’s First Bank and Trust, and had President George W. Bush on speed dial. The other, Alden McDonald, founded Liberty Bank, one of the largest black-owned financial institutions in the nation. The core of Rivlin’s book examines the competing ideologies of the two bankers. Canizaro hesitantly sided with a report issued by the Urban Land Institute, a land use think tank out of Washington, DC. The ULI argued that New Orleans’s hardest-hit residential neighborhoods, which were often but not always the city’s lowest-lying land patches, be converted to public parks, wetlands, and other green space. Many of those communities, including Gentilly, New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward, had high black home ownership rates (the Lower Nine, the most brutally water-savaged neighborhood, enjoyed the city’s highest, at around 60 percent). Not coincidentally, McDonald’s bank carried most of its investments in these same neighborhoods.

The commission’s relevance peaked just four months after the flood, with the release of the so-called “green dot map.” Appearing on the front page of the Times-Picayune, the map showed giant green circles blotting out several neighborhoods then in deep recovery mode. Along with a swath of Broadmoor, a racially mixed section of town in the city’s center, each of the areas scheduled to be released back to nature were historically black neighborhoods. The communities’ response can best be summed up by a remark made by a laid-off city employee named Harvey Bender: “I don’t know you, Joe Canizaro,” Bender said into the microphone at a public meeting, “but I hate you.”

Amazingly, considering his business-before-residents track record, it was Mayor Nagin who saved the day, eventually opposing any program that restricted homeowners’ efforts to rebuild. A week later, during a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech, Nagin asserted that “this city will be chocolate at the end of the day […] a majority African-American city.” The media, along with many of the city’s residents, ridiculed the mayor’s clumsily delivered remark for sounding like Willy Wonka had joined the Black Panthers, but at least he kept racial diversity on the agenda. Still, Nagin’s mayoralty, along with his much-touted commission, would flounder over the next four years. The city’s residents, not its government, would be the ones to bring New Orleans back.


Rivlin spent eight months reporting for The New York Times in post-Katrina New Orleans, and it shows in the structure of his book: after careful attention to the storm and its immediate aftermath, he attempts to squeeze the past nine years into the last 50 or so pages. New Orleans is a vastly different place, 10 years after Katrina, but one would hardly know that from the portrait on offer here. He does trace the fortunes of a family of New Orleans East-area sisters uprooted and marooned in Baton Rouge, and a Ninth Ward resident who launched a community resource center from a largely deserted street in the Lower Nine. But these additions feel like so much lagniappe, as the local colloquialism goes: a little bit extra shoehorned in to fill out the narrative. The poorest of the city’s poor remain all but ignored. (Readers interested in the lives and stories of ordinary citizens and first responders in the wake of Katrina would do well to track down Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, and the McSweeney’s anthology Voices from the Storm. Or one could just watch Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, a documentary that appeared just one year after Katrina, but remains imbued with a sense of purpose that very few of the hundreds of Katrina books and films have captured.)

Much of Katrina: After the Flood will read like old news for not just New Orleanians, but for anyone with a passing familiarity of the city’s recent changes and challenges. McDonald and Canizaro are still local titans of wealthy and power, but they have been overshadowed by a host of tech innovators, real estate developers, and other entrepreneurial scions. Last year, Nagin was convicted on 20 counts of wire fraud, bribery, and money laundering, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The rebuilding of New Orleans East, Gentilly, and other flooded neighborhoods gradually progresses, despite the early opposition. For several years, not one viable public voice has argued that the city allow these neighborhoods to return to swampland. The green dot map devised by Mayor Nagin and his Bring New Orleans Back Commission is but a blip in the memory of most New Orleanians, or a mordant joke: the once-threatened, now thriving neighborhood of Broadmoor houses the Green Dot Cafe, and “Chocolate City” is now nothing but a popular ice-cream flavor sold in pints all over town. In typical New Orleans fashion, we satirize in order to cauterize our pain.

“The trauma will never fully heal, but Katrina didn’t create all our problems,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Nagin’s successor, said near the beginning of his recent 2015 State of the City Address. “There have been many fits and starts, big sacrifices and incredible successes.” For the next half-hour the notoriously self-congratulatory Landrieu trumpeted the untold billions of dollars in investment, a retail and restaurant boom, the city’s newfound solvency, a reduction in the rate of violent crime, and an increase in graduations. You’d be hard pressed to imagine this mayor telling his constituents “you’re on your own.”

And yet he is still leaving too many to fend for themselves. But it is also a city where the poorest of the poor have only gotten poorer post-Katrina. Rent is up 33 percent for a one bedroom apartment since 2005. Thirty-nine percent of New Orleans’s children live in poverty, 17 points higher than the national average. A 2014 Bloomberg report ranked the city second from the bottom in terms of income inequality nationwide, outperforming only Atlanta, where the median household income is more than $12,000 higher than in New Orleans. The homicide rate is climbing and the overtaxed police department continues to shrink, as more and more neighborhoods — always whiter and wealthier — turn to private patrols. Though New Orleans remains a majority black city, a recent survey finds that it has 100,000 fewer black citizens than before the storm. Over the past several years, the common refrain among residents — young and old, middle and lower income, black and white — is that “the Big Easy is getting tougher everyday.”


On a recent Wednesday afternoon, exactly one month before the date of Katrina’s 10th anniversary, I drove from my house in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, and followed Mississippi’s levee downriver, through the Bywater — one of the nation’s hottest real estate markets — and into the Lower Nine. The journey took all of five minutes. Before Katrina, this neighborhood had 15,000 residents and dozens of locally-owned businesses. Today, the population stands at one-fifth of that number. The streets largely suffer from what some call the “jack-o-lantern effect”: inhabited houses are surrounded by empty, sometimes weed-choked, lots. But, despite protests from residents, there is also a mixed-use, riverfront residential development with over 120 units, as well as a CVS drug store. Today, there is a new fire station and a single high school, but no place to purchase groceries. Along the two main thoroughfares, there were all of three places to eat and, shockingly for New Orleans, not one bar.

I settled in for lunch at Café Dauphine, where the bustling dining room contrasted sharply with the empty streets outside. According to its website, the restaurant’s three owners aim to “provide economic stability to an area where pride and resilience has always been the foundation for its viability.” Their hope is that Café Dauphine “will always stand as a reminder of those long-standing virtues.” A cynic could dismiss this message as feel-good gibberish, but, looking around the dining room, a racially-diverse mix of customers ate from a menu that reflected the city’s diverse culinary heritage. I thought back to the Reverend Truehill’s pre-Katrina declaration that “each person is primarily responsible for themselves.” Here, it seemed, at Café Dauphine, in the Lower Ninth Ward, we could simultaneously be responsible for ourselves and for each other. “In the midst of this confusion what race dominates and gives direction to the rest?” Tocqueville asked. The people do.


Rien Fertel is a writer and teacher who lives in New Orleans. His first book, Imagining the Creole City, a literary history of New Orleans, is out now.

LARB Contributor

Rien Fertel is a writer and teacher who lives in New Orleans. His first book, Imagining the Creole City, a literary history of New Orleans, is out now. The One True Barbecue, a personal/historical reflection on race, labor, and foodways in the Deep South, is forthcoming.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!