Ten Years After the Levees Broke

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I am from Louisiana.  People from there usually have an ambivalent attitude about home; there is so much to love and celebrate, but also much that leaves a bad taste in our mouths.  Local government is corrupt and often worse than ineffectual, an agent of hurt – all of which was laid bare during the storm Katrina and its aftermath.

While I was not living in New Orleans in 2005, my sister and niece were and both lost their homes.  My sister was one of many New Orleanians who died shortly after Katrina, a victim of cancer.  I am not sure but suspect there is a connection; she was not alone in this coincidence: deaths from heart attacks and cancer have spiked in the years since Katrina, as have suicides.  Along with the toxic conditions that arose after the storm, including some provided by the FEMA trailers, the stress of losing everything, being displaced to far flung places (my sister to Huntsville, Alabama) and being denied even the opportunity of going home and rebuilding has resulted in increased rates of suicide, drug use and yes, even terminal disease.

katrina4On Sunday August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was just south of New Orleans as a Category 5 storm, Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation, but tens of thousands of people had no way to get out of the city and ended up in the Superdome (only to be stranded there for a week without food or water) – or worse, stranded in the attics of their homes.  On Monday, August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans as a strong Category 3 hurricane (with winds briefly reaching Cat4 levels).

Then, on April 20, 2010, less than five years later, the BP oil spill occurred.  Just when people had gotten a good start on getting back on their feet, they took another punch to the gut with the Gulf coast oil spill.

So how is New Orleans doing ten years after?  It depends upon who you ask.  A new poll conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University shows that when it comes to how residents view post-Katrina recovery the racial divide remains.

katrina2The poll’s results, released during the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, found that nearly four out of five white residents believe that the Crescent City has mostly recovered while nearly three out of five Black New Orleanians say it has not, a divide that reflects different views of economic opportunities for residents, privatization of the city’s public schools, ongoing efforts to reform the city’s police department, a lack of affordable housing and overall quality of life.

While mainstream media have largely focused on the progress made over the past decade, many of the city’s African-American residents remain concerned about the future of Black New Orleans.

The displacement of more than 100,000 Black residents— some of whom opted not to return because of better opportunities found in other states — and an influx of young white professionals, along with the mass firing of 7,500 Black public school administrators, educators and paraprofessionals after Katrina, have significantly reduced the Black population and diluted Black political power in this majority-Black city. (Louisiana Weekly, 8/31/2015)

But what I wish to highlight in this article are four artistic responses to the storm: A book, a documentary, a television series and a recording.

katrina6When the Levees Broke; a 2006 documentary film directed by Spike Lee about the devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana due to the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina. It was filmed in late August and early September 2005, and premiered at the New Orleans Arena on August 16, 2006 and was first aired on HBO the following week. 

The film also looks at a community that has been through hell and back, surviving death, devastation and disease at every turn. Yet, somehow, amidst the ruins, the people of New Orleans are finding new hope and strength as the city rises from the ashes, buoyed by their own resilience and a rich cultural legacy.

“New Orleans is fighting for its life,” says Lee. “These are not people who will disappear quietly – they’re accustomed to hardship and slights, and they’ll fight for New Orleans. This film will showcase the struggle for New Orleans by focusing on the profound loss, as well as the indomitable spirit of New Orleaneans.”

Three months after Katrina struck, Lee, cameraman Cliff Charles and a small crew made the first of eight trips to New Orleans to conduct interviews and shoot footage for the film. With so many people affected, Lee had a wide range of subjects and opinions to choose from. “Spike wanted to offer multiple points of view,” says his longtime editor, Sam Pollard. “He needed to represent the voices from the community, the different levels of government, activists and the celebrity element to provide a balanced take on the issues facing New Orleans.”

tremeThe HBO television series Treme (2010–2013) details the experiences of New Orleanians trying to rebuild their lives and musical culture in the aftermath of the storm.

From David Simon, creator of ‘The Wire’ and ‘Generation Kill,’ and Eric Overmyer, writer-producer of ‘Homicide’ and ‘Law & Order,’ ‘Treme’ is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. It chronicles the struggles of a diverse group of residents as they rebuild their lives and their city. ‘Treme,’ pronounced Truh-may, takes its title from the name of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, an historically important source of African-American music and culture.

tale of god's willTerrence Blanchard’s excellent recording A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).  For all the anger and devastation trumpeter Terence Blanchard has felt in the months since Hurricane Katrina ravaged his hometown of New Orleans–and the federal government failed it so shamefully–this elegiac orchestral work is remarkably clear-eyed, restrained, and, in the end, hopeful. That isn’t to say pieces like “Funeral Dirge” and “Levees” don’t impart deep and dark emotion. But even with strings at their back, Blanchard and the members of his first-rate working quintet (all of whom contribute compositions) never indulge in sentimentality. Blanchard’s debt to Miles Davis is pronounced in his pinched lyricism and the economy of his virtuosic effects. The richly hued work washes over the listener, revealing more with each playing. (Album notes, Lloyd Sachs)

Blanchard first composed four of the album’s themes for director Spike Lee’s HBO documentary “When the Levees Broke.” Blanchard also appears in one of the film’s most poignant scenes, when he accompanies his mother, Wilhelmina Blanchard, on her first post-Katrina visit to her flooded Pontchartrain Park home. She cries out in grief as her son struggles to maintain his composure.

“But one of the things we’ve understood as a band is that this music, unlike any other CD that I’ve done, has been meaningful for people to experience. So we understand the responsibility as artists to play this music. But it takes us to some dark places emotionally.”  (By Ann Maloney, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) 

wind in the reedsAnd while there have been several good books about Katrina and the aftermath, I want to highlight one by Wendell Pierce, actor and New Orleans native, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken.

On the morning of August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled into New Orleans, devastating many of the city’s neighborhoods, including Pontchartrain Park, the home of Wendell Pierce’s family and the first African American middle-class subdivision in New Orleans. The hurricane breached many of the city’s levees, and the resulting flooding submerged Pontchartrain Park under as much as 20 feet of water. Katrina left New Orleans later that day, but for the next three days the water kept relentlessly gushing into the city, plunging eighty percent of New Orleans under water. Nearly 1,500 people were killed. Half the houses in the city had four feet of water in them—or more. There was no electricity or clean water in the city; looting and the breakdown of civil order soon followed. Tens of thousands of New Orleanians were stranded in the city, with no way out; many more evacuees were displaced, with no way back in.

Pierce and his family were some of the lucky ones: They survived and were able to ride out the storm at a relative’s house 70 miles away. When they were finally allowed to return, they found their family home in tatters, their neighborhood decimated. Heartbroken but resilient, Pierce vowed to help rebuild, and not just his family’s home, but all of Pontchartrain Park.

In this powerful and redemptive narrative, Pierce brings together the stories of his family, his city, and his history, why they are all worth saving and the critical importance art played in reuniting and revitalizing this unique American city.

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