November 2008


After Katrina

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Sixty-eight-year-old Lloyd Griffin sits on the verandah of his new house in New Orleans' once notorious Ninth Ward. The house is painted in startling deep orange with white trim, and the two-metre stilts on which it stands give Lloyd a view of the new levy on the canal. Workmen come and go, adding finishing touches to the solar-powered air-conditioning and hot-water system. This is a green house. The workmen are white; Lloyd, like all his neighbours, is black.

Lloyd and his wife were asleep in bed when the catastrophe came, in 2005. It was night and the winds of Katrina had all but passed when the dog jumped on Lloyd's chest and woke him. The dog was soaking wet. Lloyd got out of bed and found himself in water up to his knees. Lloyd, his wife and the dog climbed into the attic. When the water reached them there, Lloyd managed to punch a hole in the roof and, with his wife tied to him with an electrical cable, clamber out. The house came off its stumps and began to float down the street in the dark, down to the tree that still stands on the corner. When it hit the tree, the house began to break apart. Lloyd's wife can't swim, but Lloyd can: he swam to a neighbour's roof and then dragged his wife through the water with the cable.

Their dog drowned. The lady two doors up the street had a heart attack and died. But Lloyd and his wife were rescued and evacuated to Oklahoma, where they stayed for two years, until this house was built on the block where the old one stood. The Griffins have their new house and the Ninth Ward has a new levy. Lloyd looks pretty pleased with the way things have turned out.

Downtown New Orleans has revived. The French Quarter has a pulse again and teems with tourists. The soldiers and Mexicans are on duties elsewhere. The piles of debris, the rusted and abandoned cars, have at last gone the mysterious way of all other American trash. About two-thirds of the pre-Katrina population has returned. The city is a whiter place these days - not that visitors are likely to notice; and when they turn up in their thousands for the first New Orleans Biennial in a few weeks and fill the rooms of the Sheraton and Marriott and Hyatt and Hilton hotels, it will be for the black culture of New Orleans that they come.

Just about everything that makes New Orleans New Orleans is black. The music, the food, the argot, the rituals, the ease of the Big Easy: the city's ‘brand' is black. But when the hurricane washed away half the population and a lot of their houses, New Orleans was left with an all but unutterable, very American dilemma. Eighty miles away, Biloxi's casinos are back and booming, and row upon row of new houses lines the streets behind them. Build, destroy, develop and rebuild: Katrina and all other hurricanes combined are nothing to the (‘creative') destruction wrought on American cities over the past half-century by the relentless churn of American capitalism. The new Biloxi is what you expect to happen in America; but in New Orleans, it hasn't. By rights, they should be building condos along the banks of the Mississippi, turning all those warehouses into apartments, gentrifying those crime-ridden housing projects and inner-suburban bungalows with white middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs. But New Orleans obeys other - almost foreign - instincts and the churn can't get a grip on the place.

The trouble is that the usual mechanisms - the government and its agencies - are not there to answer calls. When Katrina hit, the army was dispatched and arrived just in advance of the media and the churches. The government - in the form of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the president - was distanced.

We will rebuild this city, said the president, standing among the live oaks of Jackson Square. But three years later, Duvaldo, a cool 40-year-old Haitian taxi driver, is not about to believe it. Some parts are rejuvenated; there's a new bridge across the lake (new bridges have been built all along the Gulf Coast); the various layers of government and business are talking and promising as loudly now as they were back in 2005. But there is still no plan for rebuilding New Orleans. Many have been promised, but none has been agreed to. "Money and politics," Duvaldo says, sitting by a pile of wreckage in Lake Pontchartrain that used to be his favourite seafood restaurant. Duvaldo came back to New Orleans within a month of Katrina to find he'd lost everything, and he got not a cent from FEMA. 

Like a lot of black Americans - though not many Haitians - he finds strength and guidance in the Southern Baptist Church. He likes the Baptists, he says, for the emphasis they place on the Bible; the simplicity of their rituals; their direct, intimate approach to God. It's not hard to see his point. In election season the media sea foams with embarrassingly lame professions of understanding, management clichés and stupefying patriotism. While politicians and technocrats of all varieties flounder in phoney empathy, the Bible and the church speak straight to the poor: their metaphors are stronger, their mix of poetry and intellect more potent by far.

People looking for another reason why so many Americans have more use for religion than for politics might begin by listening to a good preacher, and then to the average modern politician. While they're at it, they might ask where the bullshit is deepest and truth hardest to recognise - in religion or a presidential election. And then there's the more practical reason: to quote one taxi driver, representative of the millions without health insurance, "As if I could afford it! God is my health insurance."

John, a craggy white barman, grew up in Ohio, but since leaving the military 20 years ago he has called New Orleans home. He wouldn't live anywhere else. People live in New Orleans because they like it, he says: they like to live here because it's where they live. To John, that seems a reasonable proposition, if not an inalienable American right. But it's not good enough for a lot of Americans, he says. After Katrina and Rita, out-of-towners were always asking him why he lived here. They meant, he believes, "We are not responsible for you."

This might help explain why the president took five days to make the short trip from his ranch. A president can't stand in Jackson Square and pile on the usual schmaltz about freedom or hunting or autoworkers or Joe the Plumber or the sufferings of the middle class. If some local Castro (like Duvaldo) had taken over, or Chávez had invaded, the rhetoric would have come easily and the resources would have flowed in the same abundance that they flow to Iraq. In the absence of such events, New Orleans remains akin to a foreign land for which no passport is needed.

Mark Twain would have been happy to find John at one end of the Mississippi. He is warm, obliging, commonsensical and liberal: a generation ago he might have as easily voted Republican as Democrat. He bears no resemblance to the ignorant, frightened patriots now cast as archetypal - and for whose benefit, presumably, Barack Obama now drops his ‘g's. John pronounces his, as clear a sign as any that his own version of the American common man does not figure any more.

He keeps his bar's TV on CNN, but when tourists turn up he's quick to offer them any station they like. "I have to be careful," he says, and from behind his beard grins his daggy grin. Over three days, including the night of the second pre-election debate, Obama stretches his lead and John McCain looks more and more like a mangy old buck squirrel that can't find its tree. The shouts of the McCain-Palin crowds grow more malicious and hysterical, until for decent reasons or desperate ones McCain takes the microphone from a woman imploring him to deal with the "Arab", and says - to boos - that his opponent is a good American and deserves to be treated with respect. There can have been few more dire political moments in his career.

We watch this play out on the Rachel Maddow Show. Maddow is young, progressive and gay. She is talking to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln's most recent biographer, and Goodwin is comparing these Republican rallies to Germany in the thirties when two women who have just driven in from Chicago pull up stools at the bar. Even before they order drinks, John offers to change the channel - "I know she's very left," he says.

"We love her," the women say.

The next day, John gets a different response from a couple of twenty-something boyos who don't like Obama - "No reason, jest don't like him." "OK," John says, and switches to college football. 

It might be just the election, but the United States seems even more divided than it did two years ago: divided by race, religion, class and ideology; by ‘issues' only partly real and partly media confection. It is as if one large slice of the population does not recognise the other slice, or sees in the other, not the faces of their fellow Americans, but their most terrible enemies. That Friday night in the hotel bar, as the stock market plunged into the unknown and John McCain felt the abyss opening beneath his feet, fear and hatred were palpable and you could have been forgiven for thinking that Doris Kearns Goodwin was right.

But that was only on the television. In New Orleans the drama feels a long way away. Whoever a person votes for in Louisiana these days, the Republican will win, and an economic crisis is just more of the same. It might be an illusion, a cultural museum whose chief exhibits are only pretending to represent the real thing, but the French Quarter looks and sounds alive like no other place and is singularly undivided. It is a puttering T-model alternative to main-street USA perhaps, but a place from which the rest of the country could learn something.

They won't be seeing him before the election, but Obama has set a murmur going. One man on the street slaps another's hand and says, "Help is comin', man. Obama on the way!" Another, selling T-shirts showing Obama as a sort of James Bond, tells me that the election will decide whether America is intelligent or America is stupid. When I ask him which way he thinks it will go, he shrugs and says, "Only God knows that. We got to pray."

Chances are, they won't vote. God will look after the presidency as he looks after their health insurance. Lloyd Griffin begins by saying he hasn't made up his mind who he will vote for, but when pressed a little he begins to speak of all the things "maybe" Obama will do for the country: for the poor people, for the schools, for "giving the people hope", for New Orleans. "Maybe," he says, "Obama get in, America be America again."

Standing among the vacant lots, there are just six new houses in Lloyd's block. Two of them have Obama signs out the front. "Jetsons' houses", a local calls them - "all they need there is a rocket ship." "They must think this all a dream," Duvaldo says. "They go to sleep one night and the dream still goin'." It is true that New Orleans is different, but their dreams are as American as anybody else's: the houses have nothing to do with the government. They were all built by Brad Pitt. 

23 October

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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