Saturday, August 29, 2015

The City That Care Remembered

The first post I ever made to this blog was about New Orleans, and Katrina, and the Saints.  Hey, they were about to win the Super Bowl!   As I sit here now, late on the eve of the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I’m listening to WWOZ, the best radio station on the planet (don't ask me, ask Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol).  And, sacrilegiously, I’m drinking an amber beer that is NOT Abita*, out of my K&B Drugs pint glass.  I'll probably also spend some time seeking out beignets or Popeye’s tomorrow.  I'm pretty sure there's a study published somewhere which found that NOLA ex-pats like myself put forth upwards of 30% of our daily energy expenditure in a constant attempt at recreating what we were taught was “normalcy.”

And of course, as I swelter to the languid grooves of Dr. John and Galactic, my thoughts are on New Orleans.  At the moment, I’m thinking of the night of August 29th, 2005, watching CNN’s coverage from my home just down the coast in Pensacola.  We had experienced twin catastrophes in the prior few months, in the form of two direct hits from Cat 3s (Ivan and Dennis), so my own experiences had left me almost numb to it all.  But I was quickly, painfully, made to feel again, and to realize that what was going on in New Orleans was to be unprecedented. 

I stayed up late, becoming progressively more horrified with each word of correspondent Jeanne Meserve’s emotional, heroic, report, live from the Lower Ninth Ward.  Only able to broadcast audio, she’s choking back tears, and fear, telling of crying and screaming voices... voices calling for help from attics as the waters rise, as she moves through the rooftops in the pitch black, in a small boat.
People were drowning.  People in the neighborhood I was born in.  People in Lakeview, too, the neighborhood my brother lived (and still lives) in.  People by the hundreds.  My people.

I knew then that this was going to be far worse than the spate of hurricanes we in Florida had endured during the prior year.  Worse than Andrew, whose effects in Louisiana I felt first-hand, and whose tremendous Cat 5 devastation I saw weeks later in South Florida.  Worse than Camille, whose 190 mph winds (Cat 6 if there could be one) and 23-foot surge wiped my family’s summer vacation paradise of Clermont Harbor, Mississippi, off the map.  Worse, even, than Betsy, whose surge gave me my very first memories, as traumatic experiences are wont to do.  I can still see the view out the window of the attic we had sought refuge in, onto floodwaters that had engulfed the neighborhood.  I can still remember falling, toddler feet not quite finding purchase on the attic steps, into those same waters, as they took up residence in my home.  Not very long before Alzheimer's would steal such memories from his mind for good, my father told me the story of how we were rescued by a kid in a boat, days after the storm, and taken to high ground at the local school.

Unfortunately, many, many, more first memories (and some last) would be made the night of August 29th, 2005.  And yes, Clermont Harbor was wiped off the map, again. 

Change is inevitable.  Trauma is often a part of it.  Both of them shape what we, and the world, move on to become.  And so catastrophic change has shaped – and is shaping -- what New Orleans will become.  It’s happened before:  from the hurricane in 1722, which spurred adoption of the grid pattern we still see in the Vieux Carr√© today, four years after the city’s founding, to great fires later that century, to yellow fever in the 1800s, to the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. 

Perhaps a catastrophe was the only way possible to make real change in a city known, and proudly so, as the one that “care forgot.”  Some have said this change is for the worse, some have said it’s for the better.  I know that the loss of large segments of mostly poor and black NOLA residents has and will continue to negatively impact the culture of New Orleans.  But I also know that there has been a tremendous upsurge in appreciation and conservation of many elements of that same culture.  You can call it Disney-fication.  You can say gentrification has gone overboard.  And there are cases to be made on those points.  But one thing that has been consistently apparent in every one of my many visits back since the storm:  Care has remembered.  

Nothing stays the same, much as we would often like it to.  But now, in New Orleans, people have remembered how to care.  On every issue.  On every side of every issue.  From the upswing in public interest to the influx of young artists and entrepreneurs.  From breaking backs rebuilding homes and neighborhoods to breaking down the doors of public officials.  I love the city that I grew up in.  But this part of NOLA is not like the one I grew up in.  And that is good. 

Another thing on my mind tonight are, well, two things – rather, two groups of people:  the hundreds who lost their lives (in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast), and the countless thousands who have gone down, and continue to go down, to New Orleans to help rebuild.  From Brad Pitt and his Make It Right Foundation, to Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis’ Musician’s Village, to the barista who told me recently that she was about to go on her third trip with her church group to help with recovery. 

While looking through my Katrina-related photos to post for the anniversary, I found the one at the top of this page, which perfectly brings together those two groups of people.  It’s an installation called “Remembrances of Katrina”, by New Orleans artist Mitchell Gaudet.  It was on display some time ago as part of a Katrina-related exhibit at the Presbytere, the New Orleans history museum on Jackson Square.  The artist stated that he wanted visitors to feel as if they were “moving up and out from being underwater.” Each of the 1,600 bottles held a prayer for those who died (in New Orleans), and the glass hands honored the many who came from around the country, and world, to help.  To me, this embodied the yin and yang of Katrina, the very worst and very best of the human experience.  Despite all of the bad things Katrina wrought, it also brought – and continues to bring – some good.

They say we’re made by our experiences.  Perhaps as time goes on, the good from Katrina will start to outgrow the bad, as New Orleans and the Gulf Coast grow beyond this disaster, and become better than they ever were before.  Those there see it, in fits and starts.  It’s a process, for sure.  But it is happening.

Everyone from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast -- even those like me who weren’t living there at the time -- measures the world Pre-K and Post-K.  The question is:  will the Post-K era be better than the Pre-K one?  I hope, I believe, that it will be.

(*So sue me... I couldn’t find Abita Amber this week!  But I’m starting to think the Dos Equis gives me headaches.)

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