NEW ORLEANS —Come first to the corner of Flood and North Galvez streets, Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans.
Here, where the unauthorized Lower Ninth tour groups almost never come to gawk and the planning experts rarely do, it’s just silent enough to take it all in. This is not the stretch where Brad Pitt’s charitable organization has rebuilt a series of elevated, solar-panel-equipped homes. This isn’t the site of a big new school. This isn’t the place that President Obama spoke of Thursday, a city that is “coming back better and stronger.” This is where the remnants of sinking curbs and bits of concrete foundation betray the missing homes. They speak of the people lost and places of rest and community obliterated. They hint at what has not — and perhaps will not ever — be replaced.
Katrina is a one-word metaphor for major failing and limited redress, for belated reaction and selective improvement. Katrina, on some level during the storm and in the decade since, became synonymous with government abdication and abandonment.
Ten years after Katrina assaulted New Orleans, that assessment seems likely to follow George W. Bush, the president who called himself a compassionate conservative, into history. Bush and his handlers made the fateful choice to fly Air Force One over New Orleans during this city’s many hours of tremendous need — and never stop. Early requests for transportation assistance went unmet and post-storm efforts to evacuate those in the worst conditions stretched well beyond reason.
As the president who followed Bush, Obama has thus far borne the brunt of those comparisons. The expression, “X is Obama’s Katrina,” came up after the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood and amid revelations about the still-sputtering economy in 2010. It came up that same year during and after the U.S. response to the earthquake that devastated Haiti, as well as after the massive BP oil spill. We heard the phrase again following the Benghazi attack in 2012 and Obamacare’s rollout in 2013. And we’ve all heard the Katrina comparisons in the years since: to the spike in border crossings to Ebola and to domestic spying.
Sometimes the metaphor is overstatement. Sometimes it is part of an earnest attempt to convey the significance and danger presented by current events. And sometimes a reference to Katrina resonates because it connotes an inhumane distance and official desertion that many Americans did not know was possible before Katrina.
Save for 9/11, no event has cost the country 1,700 lives in one fell swoop and billions of dollars in insured and uninsured damage. In the case of 9/11, no one can argue that the government did not muster a full and immediate response to the crisis.
Katrina is perhaps the greatest modern example of a failure to comprehend the vulnerabilities created and deepened by poverty before a calamity. Rarely have Americans been so openly confronted with the still relentless correlation between race and resources.
The very day that Katrina’s floodwaters broke through and overran New Orleans’s levees, the Census Bureau released information about the depths of poverty in New Orleans. The timing was a coincidence, but the information was critical.
That day in Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, 23.2 percent of the region’s population lived on incomes below the poverty line and had negligible personal savings. Close to 30 percent of the area’s residents had reported to the Census Bureau just a few years earlier that they did not have a car, or in many cases, any feasible way to obey the mandatory evacuation order that preceded Katrina’s arrival.
After the storm passed but the floodwaters remained, city, state and federal officials lined up on television to offer the usual assurances of public help. They were confronted in now-famous moments by Fox News anchor Shepard Smith and CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“It is not an overstatement and in no way an exaggeration to say that people are dying and will continue to die,” Smith said during a live broadcast from New Orleans. “We know that because we have seen it.”
Smith reported without hesitation about the barricades set up at the ends of the city’s still-dry bridges and about the police power flexed to keep those from New Orleans out of surrounding towns.
In Mississippi, CNN’s Cooper seemed to reach a kind of personal and journalistic limit when Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) joined him for a live interview and began a litany of thank-yous and kind regards.
“To listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other,” Cooper said to Landrieu, “ you know, I have got to tell you, there are a lot of people very upset and very angry and very frustrated. . . . Literally there was a body on the streets in this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been lying in the street for
What Smith and Cooper expressed amounts to only part of what people in New Orleans and so many other cities endured.
In New Orleans, they lived without potable water for days after the storm. Bodies floated in some city streets, rotted in attics or became a kind of sacred cargo that family members lugged with them when they ventured out in search of help. Those who had no access to transport were virtually marooned.
Some Americans looked at the images out of New Orleans with a kind of defensive and comfortable distance. That was New Orleans and this was happening to those people. They were poor. They were overwhelmingly black. And they had failed in the years before the storm to find and use the bootstraps America ostensibly provides.
Other Americans were disabused of the notion that life in the United States will always include some minimal level of safety, security or access to life-sustaining resources. The images on TV and in every newspaper left those Americans to wonder what inertia and inequality would be exposed if 23 feet of water washed over their city.
And for so many African Americans, watching people on New Orleans’s rooftops waving desperately for help at helicopter crews flying overhead, there were even more profound questions.
Was this our country? If Americans can be stranded, left half-starved and then merely contained, then what does citizenship mean?
The very origin of the name Katrina, pulled from a list of storm monikers set by the World Meteorological Association, remains unsettled. Most agree that it is derived from Katherine or Katharina. But its etymology is the subject of some dispute. It may flow from the Greek for “each of the two,” hekaterine. It may come from the Greek, aikia, meaning torture. Or perhaps, other linguists argue, it stems from the Greek, katharos, meaning pure. Pure torture seems as reasonable a summary as any.
The storm’s name, Katrina, has gone on to a permanent place of rest, retired by the world’s weather authorities, as New Orleans has been reborn.
It is certainly true that the French Quarter’s seemingly constant stream of tipsy revelers has returned. They and the business travelers, the social-experiment-idea-sellers and international travelers still gaze at the city’s massive, almost old-world cathedral spires and can be heard congratulating themselves for finding one of the many places where $4.50 draft beers can be had on tap or to go in lidded cups with straws.
All told, 9.52 million visitors pumped a collective $6.81 billion into the economy here last year and helped to sustain more than 77,000 jobs, according to the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau.
But in Orleans Parish, the share of people living below the poverty line has only grown. Poverty shapes the lives of more than 27 percent of the population now; in 2013, 19 percent of the area’s residents did not have a car. Both figures sit well above national averages and point to a still-critical need for quality public transportation and careful evacuation planning in the event of a storm.
Perhaps that’s why Obama came to New Orleans this week and spoke of this city’s resilience, the plentiful evidence of recovery and all that remains undone. “Our work here won’t be done when almost
40 percent of children still live in poverty in this city,” the president said. “That’s not a finished job. That’s not a full recovery. Our work won’t be done when a typical black household earns half the income of white households in this city.”
On the practice field at the former Francis T. Nicholls High School is another reminder of the many ways in which New Orleans was nearly eviscerated and has, at first glance, recovered.
There, under the Bywater neighborhood’s World War I memorial — a massive stone arch where the names of white soldiers who served and died are listed first and out front, while “Negros” are listed in back — the football team labors through snap drills and repeated sled pushes in 90-plus-degree August heat. Only now, they are the KIPP Academy team.
Today, charters serve almost all of the city’s public school kids — over 90 percent. The city’s graduation rate has climbed from just past 50 percent before the storm to nearly 75 percent today, charter advocates have grown fond of boasting. But there is evidence that even this bright story and its numbers are not real. Top performers are openly recruited by the city’s charters. Many other students seem almost to have disappeared, entering neither other schools nor the workforce. No one can describe the group of people worried about what will become of New Orleans students when the faucet of extra aid turns off or slows.
Those same concerns now extend to almost all institutions in New Orleans. The city’s parks, the city’s hospitals, the city’s neighborhoods have all become pet projects and grant recipients connected to an assortment of funders public and private. Yet for all the ideas and initiatives made real in New Orleans,this is not a city filled with hopeful expectations.
This is a city that, unquestionably, has its reasons.
Almost everyone in New Orleans has suffered some irreparable loss — some loved one, some pet, some friend, some quietly comforting routine, some sense or place of safety.
It’s the vulnerability of lives never quite ideal, then forever altered, that Rob Florence, the playwright of “Katrina: Mother-in-Law of ’Em All,” pushed his novice cast of Katrina survivors to capture and bring to the stage this week in New Orleans. When earlier versions of the play went up, one character’s monologue on conditions in the Superdome created an almost churchlike call and response between actor and audience.
In New Orleans — where the Superdome has been refurbished, rebranded and cloaked in luxury now as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome — that actor’s soliloquy became a homily on maltreatment, on dashed hopes in the nation-state and on self-care in squalid conditions.
It is the ubiquity of loss that has made images of rescue-crew graffiti a totem of survival hung in hotels and homes, in bars and restaurants, in community centers and in museums, in churches and in private offices all over the city and the region. In the days after the storm, the “X-codes” were quickly spray-painted on some 80 percent of the cityscape. As help finally made its way into and through New Orleans, rescue crews marked an X and meted out spare assessments. In the quadrant to the left, the crews identified themselves and used the space to the right to record the date and time. In the next quadrant, they used shorthand to warn of the hazards inside — live wires, rats, snakes, raw sewage, body parts. Then, in the space between the X’s bottom legs, rescue workers listed the number of people found inside, alive and dead.
But the storm’s worst effects, its indelible remnants, do not live simply onstage and in documentary art. Even now, a kind of deeply personal knowledge that officialdom will not save you transforms small talk about the weather into an animated, anxious conversation about weather-tracking apps. During hurricane season, asking someone in a grocery store checkout line or at a church fellowship hall’s buffet about the survival goods that their household possesses is not understood as an indicator of an odd fixation. That’s just care.
And inside the Lower Ninth’s very own Katrina Museum a few blocks from that corner of Flood and North Galvez, a clear theme punctuates every one of the testimonials played in a continuous loop. Katrina survivors speak plainly about their dashed faith in the national community.
“Sometimes,” one Katrina survivor says, “I think they forgot about us. Or, they try to.”