Ten years ago this month, on the day Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I was at Camp Casey, an informal encampment outside George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch, listening to a group of veterans talk about their opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By chance, it was also the day my first feature for Harper’s Magazine went to press, an essay about how people react in the wake of major urban disasters. It wasn’t until the following Easter that I went to New Orleans for the first of at least two dozen post-storm visits. The water had receded by then, and the houses had been searched by teams who left what became a familiar mark throughout the city: a big spray-painted x with data written in each of its four quadrants about who and what had been found inside, when they’d been found, and whether they were found alive or dead. On one boxy white two-story house on Deslonde Street, the word baghdad was also painted.
When I first visited that house, the city around it felt dead. Whether New Orleans would ever come back to life was one question. What kind of life might come back was another. Some people had fled before the hurricane hit, thinking they were only leaving for a few days. Others rode out the storm and then departed for what they knew would be an open-ended exile. Michael White, a jazz clarinetist and a professor at Xavier University, was among the former. After a few months in Houston, he came back to the wrecked, largely abandoned city that his family had called home for generations. As he told me recently, he returned to a profound loss of the past and deep uncertainty about the future. His home, near the breach of the London Avenue Canal, was almost completely submerged. The flooding destroyed a collection of musical material so rich and complex it took him several minutes to describe it: 5,000 CD recordings, 1,000 vinyl records, 4,000 books, 50 clarinets, historic photographs, sheet music, a Louis Armstrong film library, and a trove of artifacts related to early jazz greats such as Sidney Bechet.
Growing up in New Orleans, White, who is now sixty, went to school with Fats Domino’s children. Both a distinguished musician and a historian of New Orleans, he was befriended by and played with musicians born between 1890 and 1910, from whom he gathered the stories and sounds of the birth of jazz. In Houston he feared that the cultural continuity of his native city might be shattered, that New Orleans might never come back. His collection never would. And his octogenarian mother, devastated and strained by the destruction, died in exile.
People like White’s mother, of whom there were many, are not counted as part of Katrina’s death toll, but perhaps they should be. “Katrina” is less the name of a storm than it is a shorthand for a series of largely man-made catastrophes: the lack of an evacuation plan for the poorest and most vulnerable people in the city; the regularly predicted failure of the levees maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the inadequate emergency management of city, state, and federal government; and the corruption and bureaucratic delays that hindered the rebuilding process. The “Baghdad” graffiti was a reminder that the two places were devastated by the same regime — and a suggestion, perhaps, that in the wake of the storm poor black New Orleanians were often treated like enemies.
Katrina and its aftermath can seem impossibly remote. The Bush Administration was then at the height of its powers; political dissent was largely silenced in the name of patriotism while those who thought we could win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still loud and confident. But disasters often undermine the credibility of people in power, and Katrina did a fine job of revealing the callousness and cluelessness of the administration, from the president to Michael Brown, the cheerfully unqualified head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Today, Brown is nearly as distant a memory as the image of George W. Bush as a competent centrist.
In another way, however, that time remains uncomfortably close, because it was the beginning of a series of spectacularly public episodes of American racism. As they were in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Sanford, Florida, and in many other places recently, unarmed black people were shot by police and vigilantes in storm-soaked New Orleans. A vast population of mostly African-American New Orleanians was trapped on the rooftops and elevated freeways of a sweltering city that was 80 percent underwater and bereft of electricity and nearly all commerce and services. They were portrayed by the government and the media as too savage and dangerous to rescue or to allow to leave the city. New Orleans became a prison. The media fell back on the usual disaster tropes of looting, raping, and marauding hordes, and proved eager to demonize black people rather than see them as vulnerable victims of a catastrophe. They made news out of rumors, many of which turned out to be entirely baseless, about people shooting at helicopters from rooftops and corpses from imaginary bloodbaths piling up in the Superdome.
When I returned in February 2007, the Baghdad house looked unchanged. Its windows and doors were still missing, and there were weeds and wreckage all around. But I saw a man on a ladder working on the place. In June of that year, I found that the house had been painted a crisp white. It had a neat lawn and new windows, and the doors and staircase had been repaired. On the wall hung a banner for Common Ground Relief, an organization founded after Katrina by former Black Panther Malik Rahim and other activists. Common Ground was an improvisational organization of the sort that disasters often beget, a group that was able to respond to changing needs and local particulars better than the top-down organizations that arrived from outside. It began as a supply center in the Lower Ninth Ward, the mostly black neighborhood where the Baghdad house stands, but soon added a clinic providing medical care where none was available. It eventually expanded its mandate to gutting and rebuilding houses, coordinating and housing armies of young, radical volunteers, and providing job training.
The storm lifted up some lives and tossed others around and smashed them. Some people picked up where they left off, particularly those in the older, more affluent “sliver by the river” above the flood levels. Some found their lives taking another direction. Five years after the storm, the black population of New Orleans had fallen by more than one hundred thousand. Some who fled found good lives elsewhere; others did not but couldn’t afford to come home. There is no clear or easy story about Katrina’s consequences for New Orleans. It traumatized many of those who survived; it caused the death of nearly 2,000 people directly and many others indirectly. It also shocked a stagnant, corrupt city that was suffering a slow economic and demographic decline into reforming itself.
Naomi Klein coined the term “disaster capitalism” to describe the opportunistic way that free-market evangelists use crises to push their agenda. There was certainly some of that happening in New Orleans, where a conservative elite took advantage of the storm to convert the entire public school system to charter schools and fire all the unionized teachers, to shut down the city’s vast housing projects, and to close one of the country’s oldest public hospitals. (Neither the hospital nor the housing projects were seriously damaged by Katrina.) But Klein’s term doesn’t capture the full picture of what happens after a disaster, which is less a conquest than a conflict over who will determine the future.
The elites don’t always win. New Orleans has seen a number of progressive victories over the past decade. Exposure of the murderous corruption of the New Orleans police force resulted in a federal overhaul of the department. Alternative institutions like Common Ground still serve the needy. Katrina energized New Orleanians not just to reclaim their city but to rethink it.
The civic engagement of old-timers and newcomers alike has given the city an unprecedented dynamism, a practical democracy that’s rare elsewhere in the country. People in New Orleans always did show up: for parties and parades, for christenings and funerals, and for neighbors’ barbecues. A great many people have a deep sense of place and local history. They talk convivially with strangers and cultivate a wide set of acquaintances in the city. Now they show up in force when policy is being made and the city’s future is being charted.
Prisca Weems, an environmental scientist who has the confounding title of stormwater manager for the city, is trying to figure out how to build resilient water-diversion systems for the next century. That means engaging with climate change, coastal erosion, rising oceans, and the ways that the city’s storm water and groundwater have been mismanaged since the late 1800s.
For more than a century, New Orleans had been at war with the water that surrounds it. The groundwater that remained in its marshy center was pumped out, deepening a below-sea-level basin that rainstorms and breached canals filled all too easily. At the same time, the city had pulled water in to ease shipping — notably through the Industrial Canal, which cut the Lower Ninth Ward off from the rest of the city and flooded that neighborhood during Katrina, and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, nicknamed the Hurricane Highway, which gave cargo ships and storm surges from the Gulf a shortcut to the city. The outlet also allowed salt water to reach the swamp cypresses that had served as surge buffers; their skeletal white stumps still stand on the far side of the levees at the north end of the Lower Ninth Ward. The Hurricane Highway was shut down in 2007, and a system of barriers has been built to replace it. Just as China built walls to keep out human invaders, so New Orleans now has its own great wall to keep out the water, what Weems calls a “one-hundred-thirty-three-mile perimeter-defense system, with levees, flood walls, pump stations, and gated structures.”
Weems told me that New Orleans is now hoping to take advantage of water in the city instead of being forever at war with it. Large numbers of New Orleanians routinely talk about subjects like hydrological management and study maps of potential transformation. It’s the rare urban area in which many citizens have become avid urbanists. Weems praised the city’s populist approach to recovery. “We had the downside of taking longer to recover,” she said, “but the upside was citizen engagement in planning processes, in discussing the future not only in the city but in specific neighborhoods. The government is accountable to the citizens of this city in a way it wasn’t before. We have worked hard to shape the future.” Post-Katrina New Orleans, she added, “was like a viral laboratory.”
I’m not sure when the new houses started going up around the Baghdad house. In 2008, the place stood alone. By June 2010, a bright-pink house on stilts stood next door. It, too, had a Common Ground banner on its balcony. Lately, dozens of colorful new houses have gone up nearby. (They’re known locally as Brad Pitt houses, after the founder of the Make It Right foundation, the nonprofit that built them.) These houses are architecturally adventurous and ecologically sound, with solar panels above and stilts below that are built to ride out the next flood. There is a new energy in the city, albeit one that leaves some people out — it has raised housing prices, hurting those who’ve been left behind in the new economy. The Make It Right houses were subsidized for returning residents of the Lower Ninth; many others displaced by the storm could not find their way through the bureaucracy that was supposed to help pay for rebuilding or find funds to reclaim their homes. The neighborhood now includes a hundred pink, orange, green, blue, and yellow Make It Right homes, as well as a lot of green space where houses used to be tightly packed. It’s become a de facto wildlife refuge, thanks to the unpopulated landscape and its position near the bayous on the edge of town.
In 2007, I interviewed an older woman from the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth. She was one of the losers in Katrina’s reshuffle. Her house was swamped in several feet of water, her family was scattered, and her job as a high-school teacher had been eliminated. At the time, she was fiercely determined to rebuild her home and to reclaim her life, but wading through the bureaucracy and living in a ruined neighborhood had worn on her. She still lives in her house, but when I asked her recently about the past eight years, she said, “Oh, honey, I don’t want to talk about all that, about the devastation. I want all that behind me.”
After Michael White came back, he oversaw the gutting, cleaning, and restoring of his house, but he found he could not live there. He had nightmares about water, and about friends who’d drowned nearby. “Some people are back to where they were before, or better,” he told me. “Some are not quite back yet. I bought a house four years ago, but I’m not quite back yet, and I’m trying like hell to get back. In the next year or two I’ll be able to get to a state of normalcy, though I realize things will never be the same.” New Orleans is in transition, he said, and it is still impossible to know how the changes will affect the social clubs, brass bands, jazz funerals, and second lines of the city. White is still teaching and playing music in New Orleans and on the road, and he is still a conduit between the old world of the early twentieth century and the present. But he lost something.
Disasters begin suddenly; they never exactly end. You might be cured of your cancer, but you can never again be the person who never had cancer. New Orleans on August 28, 2005, was a city in many kinds of trouble. The fallout from the storm prompted soul-searching, transformation, and reform. Many things have been gained in the years since, but only after so much was lost. And so many. The city is in the process of becoming another place, and the answer to whether that’s a good or a bad thing will always be — both. There’s a garden across the street from the Baghdad house; it’s green and Edenic, but it’s also where several people had homes before they got swept away.