Unnatural Disasters, or Queering Katrina
By Jonathan AlexanderAugust 27, 2015
LATE MARCH in New Orleans, a bit humid, but not unbearably so for just past midday. I’m about to board a van with a bunch of strangers who have all signed up for a Katrina tour, a three-hour survey of the devastating floods that submerged 90 percent of the city in the aftermath of the hurricane and the failure of the levee system. Folks from New Jersey, Illinois, and even Canada talk excitedly about water damage and urban blight. Almost 10 years to the day and the floods still fascinate.
Besides our guide, I’m the only one from New Orleans. I was born and raised here, but I’m not telling anyone. I’m undercover, a closeted native. I want to experience the tour as a visitor, a stranger, as someone whose family wasn’t impacted by Katrina and the flooding. I want some distance. Or maybe I want to erase the distance I have felt from this place; to remember, to reflect, to live all of it again. Approaching the 10-year anniversary of the event, which memories are important? I left New Orleans over 20 years ago; a queer man struggling with his sexuality in the Deep South, I needed to leave to find myself in less hostile places. I’m torn. This has been home and not home. I wonder — after time, the storm, the flooding, the blood in the water — what it can be to me now.
The tour is one of many you can get in and around NOLA, with visits to the French Quarter and old plantations just upriver being some of the most popular. I am surprised that Katrina tours are still so in demand. I had to call around to a couple of places before finding an empty seat in a van that accommodates about 12. I get to ride shotgun with the tour guide, a guysy guy in a Saints ball cap, a native New Orleanian, someone I could’ve gone to high school with in Metairie, the large suburb to the west, just over the 17th Street Canal. He’s been a guide for well over a decade and knows his stuff, winding the van through the old city’s small streets, up Canal, around the French Quarter (streets closed for one of the many outdoor music fests), and into the Faubourg Marigny, one of the oldest neighborhoods near downtown. He jokes throughout the tour and is particularly playful with the kids on the van, testing their knowledge of historical events. But a certain seriousness lurks in the background. Constant reminders of flood levels, references to famous buildings that no longer exist, details of renovations undertaken since the waters receded. We can’t go into the lower Ninth Ward apparently. According to our guide, city officials have put the area on a “no tour” list. Some of the wood used in the Brad Pitt homes (Pitt’s Make It Right organization built over a hundred sustainable homes in the area) is apparently rotting, not having been treated to withstand the abundant moisture in the area. (Pitt’s foundation is suing the supplier.)
While most of the afternoon focuses on Katrina, our guide weaves in some other local color, particularly the famous above-ground tombs. When your city is largely six-plus feet below sea level, you don’t bury people in the ground. We pull over to walk around an old cemetery, dates in the family vaults stretching way back into the 19th century. As new generations pass, old remains are swept to the back and fall to the bottom, piling on top of one another over the years.
Thinking of the dust of generations easily recalls scenes from almost exactly a decade ago. My sister called on a Sunday, sobbing into the phone, just days after the storm and reports of the flooding were being televised nonstop. My dad wouldn’t live much longer. He’d been suffering from Parkinson’s for well over a decade, his health slowly deteriorating. The last year had been particularly rough, the physical and cognitive debilitation having taken a sharp turn for the worse. I had visited earlier in the summer, at my mother’s insistence, to give her a hand. As his primary caretaker and approaching 70 herself, she was wearing out. It wasn’t a pretty sight. In the middle of the night I found him stark naked and standing over his bathroom sink, water running, his body rigid and paralyzed. The water had woken me up. He had no idea what was happening or how he’d gotten there, but I was able to get him back into bed.
That was about a month before Katrina. I had no reason to doubt my sister’s assessment of the situation or the deep pain in her voice when she told me I should come as soon as I could. Kissing my partner, Mack, goodbye, I was on a plane the next day.
Getting into the area wasn’t going to be easy. New Orleans International Airport was completely shut down except for emergency and military traffic. Same for roads in and out of the city. My parents had retired to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to a spot pretty much in the direct path of Katrina. In the dead of night, having stayed up to watch incoming reports about the storm’s predicted trajectory, they’d been able to get across New Orleans and make it all the way to west Louisiana, outside of Lake Charles, near the Texas border, where much of my mother’s extended family still live. She’s from tough Cajun stock, the French country people who, expelled from Canada once the British took over, settled in the swamps and watery byways of southwest Louisiana. It’s remote country, inhospitable, hot and humid. Of the numerous small towns between Baton Rouge and Houston, Lake Charles is among the largest. After a flight from Cincinnati to Houston, and a puddle jumper into Lake Charles, my brother-in-law picked me up at the airport.
My mother and I slept in the waiting room that night, fitfully, having pulled together a few uncomfortable vinyl-covered chairs, surrounded by other evacuees waiting out news of their loved ones. In the morning, my mother, sister, and I stood around my father’s bed, holding vigil over his pitifully wasted form, his breaths coming in slow but jagged. His face pinched in unconsciousness, he wouldn’t ever open his eyes again. The nurses assured us it was only a matter of time.
My father died about 10 hours after I arrived. His frail body and mind couldn’t handle the stress of the evacuation. My mother was convinced the overtaxed hospital staff couldn’t attend to him properly. He was a Katrina victim, one of many old, sick people who didn’t survive the storm. He was fortunate to die in a bed, with family surrounding him.
Days later, we had his funeral and then waited for permission to get back into the affected areas to see what remained. For weeks, many folks were stuck in west Louisiana. My mother, sister, and brother-in-law, along with their three kids, stayed with an aunt and her adult children, many of whom lived in trailers or homes they’d built around their mother’s trailer, off a small road that bore their family name. The water would often run brown for a bit when you turned on the tap. Eventually we learned that my sister’s and mother’s homes had negligible damage. An aunt, uncle, and their sons, though, had lost everything, flooded out of the city.
Photo by Jon Hughes / Photopresse ©
The people in the tour van want to see blight. There’s not as much of it as there used to be. In 2006, I drove to the area with a photojournalist, Jon Hughes, to do a story about the devastation. The storm surge had taken out nearly every building along Highway 90, the beachfront road on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We saw miles and miles of abandoned homes that had sat under 9 to 12 feet of water. Plenty of blight.
Nine years later, driving through the upper Ninth Ward, we see a destroyed home here and there, desolate with orange spray-painted X’s still noting when the building had been inspected for remains, human and otherwise. Mostly we see newer homes now elevated, as much as 10 feet off the ground, with carports holding empty the space for future floodwaters. Our guide points out how older homes had been lifted up, or just moved completely to somewhat higher ground. He talks about his home in Lakeview, flooded under eight feet of water, and the weeks and weeks of driving into the neighborhood with family to salvage, clean up, repair, and rebuild, returning to Baton Rouge after dark when the curfew came.
Habitat for Humanity and the city built the 72 homes of Musicians’ Village, centered on the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, providing music instruction for area youth. Brightly colored in oranges, purples, greens, a creole medley, they house local players, an attempt to preserve the city’s jazz heritage.
The wrecked and abandoned, next to the colorfully new, hopeful for the future.
I was a strange child, gangly and cross-eyed, hardly athletic, bookish, marked as a faggot long before I had consciousness of my own sexual impulses or proclivities. I was fortunately tall for my age so suffered little physical abuse, but the taunts were constant and corrosive. Even some teachers at the various Catholic schools we attended identified me as the class queer. In one awful incident during my freshman year (burned in my brain), the health teacher was recounting stories of a buddy who worked in an emergency room. Worst of all, he said, far worse than the car wrecks, the fistfights, the violence, were the faggots who had stuck things up their asses and couldn’t get them out. Disgusting. The teacher’s buddy had once put a probe up some poor queer’s butt only to find a light staring back, a flashlight in the guy’s ass. The class screamed in raucous, titillated disgust while I, vaguely aware that they were talking about someone like me and everybody knew it, could only squirm in my seat, already ashamed.
My mother did what she could to encourage and help me defend myself, but my father could not. He was the first relative to ask me if I was queer. He’d probably always wondered, and he let me know he was repulsed. I learned later that he suspected I wasn’t actually his child — a feat of real denial: from the shape of my face, not to mention my thinly fine hair, anyone can see I am an Alexander.
When I was younger, even as a teenager, I dreamed about leaving. I knew I didn’t belong. I retreated into books and church. Fantasy and science fiction transported me to other realms of possibility, while thrice-weekly church services (Sunday morning and evening, plus Wednesday night prayer meetings) fortified me to turn the other cheek, to forgive those who hurt me, to trust that I too would one day inherit the earth. I hoped for just a little piece of it that would feel safe.
Photo by Jon Hughes / Photopresse ©
When folks learn I’m from Louisiana, they often remark first on my relative lack of accent, and then about how wonderful it must have been to grow up in such a fascinating place. Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras, letting the good times roll. But my experience of New Orleans involved little revelry. As in many old European-esque cities with carnival traditions, periods of excess are strictly contained, kept within strict spaces and times. Sure, as a young man, I could head to the French Quarter and drink myself into stupidity about the boy who wasn’t going to love me back, but then I’d have to return to the suburbs of flesh-denying self-hatred. I escaped in my mid-20s before slitting my wrists in a bathtub.
In a beautiful poem about the city, “before the storm: geographers in new orleans,” Romanian-born American poet Andrei Codrescu writes about how his adopted city instills in its inhabitants a “knowledge of finitude that is intimately woven into our psyches / and that urges us to live intensely before the assured cataclysm.” Growing up, we always felt the “assured cataclysm,” quite physically. Nearly every hurricane season we’d be packing the car to head west or north, fleeing a storm. We always knew that the city would eventually flood. The protecting levees were destined to fail. The waters that receded would surely rise again. New Orleans knows the cycles of life, celebrates them in its many festivals and its contradictions: its intense love of pleasure and its tolerance of corruption, its nurturing of the bon vivant and its deep racial segregations, its sexual openness and its intense homophobia.
The schools and churches that gave me a love of reading and music also taught me to hate myself. The relatives who fed me their delicious food withheld their love. Even after the storm, as we huddled in my aunt’s trailer outside Lake Charles, my father just passed, my mother and sister wondering if their homes still existed, one relative offered that Katrina was God’s punishment on New Orleans for its sinful ways, and another complained to my aunt that Mack, my partner of 15 years, who had made it into the area for my father’s funeral, shouldn’t be allowed to stay in her trailer. We ate our boudin and shrimp creole, and I could only thank the god who had struck my hometown that I’d escaped, however scarred.
One of New Orleans’s nicknames is “the city that care forgot.” I felt I knew those forgotten cares well. I can sometimes still feel them, ghost bruises.
Photo by Jon Hughes / Photopresse ©
But in our tour guide’s tone I hear a care that I’d not noticed before, or perhaps one that I didn’t know how to hear. Maybe it’s one that only Katrina and the failure of the levees could make audible for me. We stop at the 17th Street Canal, site of the most devastating levee breach of all. The guide’s voice strains a bit. He’s been talking for nearly three straight hours, but I sense something else happening. He’s getting riled. He points out the massive construction — new walls, new pumps, new floodgates — but he’s not proud. He wonders why all this wasn’t here before. The van slows down so we can see the historical plaque marking the location of the breach. It’s a typical brown piece of metal, and the guide reads the words with increasing emphasis, his voice cracking at the end:
On August 29, 2005, a federal floodwall atop a levee on the 17th Street Canal, the largest and most important drainage canal for the city, gave way here causing flooding that killed hundreds. This breach was one of 50 ruptures in the federal Flood Protection System that occurred that day. In 2008, the US District Court placed responsibility for this floodwall’s collapse squarely on the US Army Corps of Engineers; however, the agency is protected from financial liability in the Flood Control Act of 1928.
An “ooh” escapes from the back of the van, but we are otherwise silent until someone points to some of the houses around the levee, asking why anyone would want to live here again. The guide almost loses composure. Sitting in the front with him, I see his hands clench and unclench, the healthy pink of his face reddening a bit more. “This is the important part. We didn’t ask to be flooded. Blame Uncle Sam.”
I have to admit, I like his anger. I’m glad he’s pissed. He should be. And he shouldn’t tolerate the questioning from the back of the van, wondering why and what someone would choose: this is his home.
I am trying to understand how Katrina changed things for me. It’s complicated. The storm, my father’s death — a welter of ambivalent feelings and memories of my boyhood. Perhaps abandonment is a key here. I had abandoned New Orleans, feeling it had abandoned me, just as I had been emotionally abandoned by my father, and by a social world and Catholic doctrine that bullied and degraded me. I had decided to leave this place, that had left me first, and parent myself in another state.
In the aftermath of the storm, as I sat with my family, flooded out, my particular relationship to New Orleans was exposed, requiring an accounting of the bodies I’d left behind. And how could I think of those bodies, those intimacies bloating in my mind, and not think too on my own queerness, the queerness that drove me from my home?
As I held my father in my arms while he died, I realized his lack of affection hadn’t completely damaged my own ability to love. Finally, nearly two weeks after the storm, my father’s ashes packed in the car, we were able to get across the city back to our family houses — my mother’s outside of Bay St. Louis in Mississippi, directly in the path of the storm, my sister’s in Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Some shingles missing, some food wasted. Otherwise everything was all right.
I rode back with my cousin, just a couple of years older than me, someone I hadn’t seen in two decades, possibly more. A devout man, he was generous of spirit, unlike many Christians I’ve known. He told me that he and his siblings had often wondered about me. I braced myself, but then he clarified. They’d wondered, but not because I’d been cast out: I was the one who had gotten away. They were intrigued, curious. They’d often imagined what it would be like to leave, though few of them ever did. I’d never even imagined such a perspective: that others, my cousins, could envy, even in a small way, my having moved on. That they identified in me a courage I couldn’t acknowledge myself; I’d felt it, not as courage, but as the only way to survive.
A small thing? Maybe. But Katrina enabled me to hear it.
There is part of me that thinks of Katrina all the time.
Part of my fascination is its avoidability. Surely a Category 5 hurricane is a force to be reckoned with. But the damages exacerbated by human failing, by human negligence, demand an accounting. So do the damages done to me, a young queer man, drowning in waves of homophobia.
There are many Katrina stories. Jed Horne’s Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City offers a compelling overview of the personal and political dimensions of the catastrophe. Sheri Fink chronicles the experiences of medical staff and patients trapped in a hospital in her Five Days at Memorial, based on her Pulitizer Prize–winning journalism. In the form of a graphic novel by Josh Neufeld, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge presents multiple stories of folks surviving the flooding and trying to rebuild their lives. Others had it worse. If Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke makes anything clear to me, it’s the extent to which our family was lucky. My immediate family, at least. We lost my father, but that loss in itself seemed a relief, given how long he’d been ill. We were with him when he died, in a hospital, not belly down in some toxic sludge of floodwater, left for dead days after the storm came and went, the waters rose and fell. We were luckier than we knew at the time.
I still feel lucky, sitting in this van, touring the damage, having survived.
Katrina has affected my feelings about New Orleans. I have started to fall a little bit in love with NOLA and the Gulf Coast. I remember one day, months after the storm, walking along the beach in Bay St. Louis, surveying the sustained damage. Someone had set up a Christmas tree on the beach amidst the debris. Hope in the middle of destruction.
I want to hope, but mine is a cautious love, for sure. Love is risky, isn’t it? Perhaps there’s nothing more here for me than the beginnings of a change of heart. A strange sense of protectiveness about the place I had stopped calling home. A strange desire to call it home again, or perhaps for the very first time.
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