quoteage (originally published Sept. 4, 2010)

“Because Hurricane Katrina devastated 90,000 square miles along the heavily populated Gulf Coast, it’s truly impossible to capture the morose terror endured by each and every survivor.  Certainly the people trapped in attics, desperately punching holes in their rooftops with axes and hammers hoping to be rescued, cannot be forgotten; they’ve earned a special spot in our collective memory.  Neither can the indomitable Coast Guard helicopter pilots and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries boatmen who hoisted stranded people out of the muck.  But in the weeks after the hurricane first made landfall near Buras, Louisiana, on Monday, August 29th, dozens of other horrific words and repellent images became part of our national discourse: feces contamination, storm surges, toxic soup, pervasive damage, highway triage, police suicide, FEMA’s indifference, and so on.

“The general feeling emanating from New Orleans–at first–was that the storm could have been worse; outside the region, this was interpreted as meaning that it wasn’t too bad.  Once Katrina had passed, everybody patted themselves down, pleased that their vital organs were in place and that their pulse registered.  Most New Orleanians who survived Katrina felt eerie, though, as if something ominous still lingered over the port city like a gothic shroud.  Katrina had been a palpable monster, an alien beast that had gotten under the goose-fleshed skin of those who lived through the storm.  Many of these non-evacuees felt vaguely ill that Monday evening.  They sensed that something was horrifically wrong with their beloved city, something deeper than surface wounds.  The ornate St. Louis Cathedral and the elegant Garden District mansions were only slightly battered, however, looking as opulent as ever.  If there was a wave of post-storm optimism at first, it was because the pallid veil of Katrina had lifted, prematurely assuring residents in trickster fashion of their supposed safety.  Unbeknownst at first to anyone but the Katrina victims within neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview, Hollygrove, Gentilly, and New Orleans East, large areas of the city were gone–perhaps gone forever.  With the exception of WWL radio, nearly all communication within the Greater New Orleans area had broken down.  People were left to rely on their own firsthand experiences, hunches, and instincts.  Virtually nobody in New Orleans knew what had happened just a few lonely blocks away.

“…This book attempts to document what novelist Saul Bellow in Ravelstein called ‘the freaky improvisations of creatures under stress.”  Hurricane Katrina had created widespread anarchy.  In helter-skelter situations, citizen-heroes like Reverend Willie Walker of Kenner; Mama D of New Orleans; Sara Roberts of Lake Charles, Louisiana; and Mayor Eddie Favre of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, rose to the forefront of first responders and performed beyond expectations.  In New Orleans an ex-con, a newspaper reporter, an animal-rights activist, a reggae dreamer, a states’ rights advocate, an AIDS doctor, and a prep-school teacher became civic leaders while the New Orleans Police Department, with notable individual exceptions, was the face of fecklessness.

“…If I gleaned one pertinent insight about human nature from writing this book, it’s that love of geographical places is more all-encompassing than most of us imagine.  When reading about the horror of the St. Bernard Parish ‘Wall of Water’ or the Bay St. Louis ‘Lake Borgne Surge,’ you might think only a crazy person would rebuild there.  Yet people are rebuilding and they are not crazy.  I interviewed more than three hundred people, and none, not even those who lost everything they had, want to live anyplace else.  They were born in Pascagoula or Ocean Springs or Belle Chasse, and they plan on dying there.  It’s their unflappable spirit, with private-sector and federal help, which guarantees that all of these devastated communities–even poor Chalmette, Louisiana–will be back.

“…Perhaps, someday, I’ll write a sequel titled After the Deluge, about how the Mississippi coast, with casino gambling, came back, I hope–stronger than ever–and how Louisiana flourished once the rotten politicians and corrupt cops were flushed out of the system.  About how New Orleans reimagined itself as the Afro-Caribbean capital of the world with a New South self-confidence and how Plaquemines Parish reclaimed its land from the sea in a saga as glorious as that of the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands.  But maybe not.  History is still being made in the Gulf South, and only a foolish booster would try to sell you a ‘Better Than Ever’ paddle.  Really, it’s too early to say.  Before the Gulf South can rebuild, it needs time to heal.  While entrepreneurial zeal is the rightful engine to rebuild, the Gulf South needs to take a breath, to pause, and to remember what transpired on August 29th, 2005–the day it was so gravely wounded.  History, in the end, is homage; it’s about caring enough to set the record straight even if reliving the past is painful or disappointing.  Buried history leads to rank defilement of the human spirit.  Any politician involved with Katrina, who espouses the cliché that ‘the blame game’ is unnecessary is probably harboring a chestful of guilt.”


–Douglas Brinkley
March 17, 2006
New Orleans
from the introduction to his book The Great Deluge

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