I’d set my TIVO to record part 1 of “If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise,” Spike Lee’s follow-up to his documentary, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” But, the bar where my newspaper, NOLA Defender, holds its weekly meetings (don’t judge) hosted a viewing of the special for those who don’t have HBO in their homes. As we were meeting, I noticed the bar filling up far more than usual, then the music shut off and we all turned to watch Phyllis Montana LeBlanc’s impassioned outcry. We tried to continue discussing articles as images of Katrina played out on the television.
This city may be struggling with how to commemorate the 5 year anniversary of something most would rather forget. And we may be struggling with being kicked while we’re down by BP and the familiar non-response of the government to the needs of this region during yet another of the largest man-made disasters to ever hit this nation. But, when we hear K. Gates featuring Ying Yang Twins’ whistle introducing “Black & Gold (Who Dat!!!),” everyone is transported right back in last year’s incredible victory at the Super Bowl. Spike Lee certainly caught the attention of the 30+ patrons who’d gathered to face their memories. People smiled and chanted “Who Dat!” (okay, that was mostly me) along with the TV. Meeting adjourned.
In case you need a Who Dat reminder:
As they showed the montage of touchdowns, the bar cheered each one like we were watching it in real time, like it was a joyous surprise. Then Porter grabbed that pass and returned for a 70 yard touchdown and the bar went wild like we’d just won all over again. Bless those boys for bringing that victory to this city, this region, these people.
For those of you who don’t live here, you can’t know how deeply felt that victory was. If I hadn’t been here, my imagination couldn’t have enlarged to dream of the feeling of being in this city on that day. And I certainly couldn’t have imagined how soul enriching it was to stand in the freezing cold for hours waiting for those warriors and heroes to roll down the street during the Lombardi Gras victory parade. For a small taste, you can watch my Mardi Gras 2010 wrap-up which includes photos and video of the various parades.
It was a rare treat to be watching images from the parade in a room full of people who were most certainly there. How do I know that every person in the bar was there? Because between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people attended that parade – in a city that only consists of about 385,000 people. We were ALL there. And if you count all the souls people brought with them, the ghosts of people like Buddy D., the newscaster who never lived to see the victory but in whose honor the men of this city paraded in dresses (included in the above video), all the armchair quarterbacks who waited for that moment and passed before it came, and all the Katrina victims whose families brought them there in spirit – then we certainly numbered in the millions.
In Spike Lee’s movie, there was a woman partying after the SuperBowl who had lost her home in Katrina who summed up my feelings best, “Living in New Orleans is a privilege. It’s not easy, but it’s a privilege and a blessing.” Living in L.A., I got used to people fearing commitment. Some feared committing to relationships or jobs or identities, etc. etc. etc., but I don’t remember anyone being committed to the city. People who live here are committed to this soil. We’re here for better or for worse. Almost every person born here, died here – until Katrina sent 1,000,000 people to the four corners, looking for somewhere to rest their heads. Less than 75% have returned, though many more would like to have.
I want to be clear, because I heard it several times in the film, the devastation resulting from Katrina was NOT a natural disaster. It is a matter of public record that the storm did a lot of damage to property, but there was almost no loss of life (maybe none – it’s still hard to get numbers) and the neighborhoods were still fine for people to return, patch roofs, replace windows and go on with their lives – until the levees, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, failed colossally. By the same token, the gusher in the Gulf is NOT a natural disaster. Greed and shortcuts have once again devastated this region and its citizens.
I think Rumsfeld, Bush, Rove, Cheney, Chertoff and Brown should have to watch the clip of Kimberly Polk, the woman who lost her 5 year old daughter, over and over and over until they get it, until they see their part, until they understand what it means to have your 5 year old daughter die because people care more about money and politics than 5 year olds.
When my friends and I drove the relief truck to Texas shortly after the storm, we thought we knew what human suffering looked like. After all, we’d just watched it on TV night after day after night until we were too sickened to sit and watch anymore and got active. Words are paltry to describe what I saw, but I will try. I met a family who couldn’t find their grandmother and one of their children. They hoped they were together. They hoped they were alive. They had stood on their roof for days then found their way to the Superdome. They stayed there several more days with no food or water or toilet paper or tampons or light or power. They were put onto busses and sent to Houston’s Astrodome only to find that the Dome was too full. They were then but on busses to go to yet another Dome in Dallas. I met them when they’d been moved once again, this time to a lovely, gated Section 8 community that was allowing groups and families to stay there.
Given that meandering path, I started to realize how many people must have been separated from their loved ones between all of those busses and Domes. I went into their “home” with them. There was a blanket on the floor and a 4 month old laying on top of it. That’s it. No furniture, no cookware, no clothes, just a baby and a blanket. I sat on the floor and tried to interact with the beautiful baby girl. I hoped to elicit a smile from her angelic face. But she wasn’t giving out smiles. I lay on the floor, face to face with her, trying to decipher the look on her face, a look I’d never seen on a baby’s face. Babies usually smile plentifully at me, but her face held this steady look I couldn’t place. Then it hit me, it was pain, heartbreak. I can’t tell you how that cracked me and I can’t imagine how it must have hurt her family to see that in her cherubic face. Maybe the numb exhaustion they were experiencing was mercy that protected them from seeing it as they faced solving a mountain of problems starting with finding the rest of their people.
We were setting up the community center at the housing as a free store full of clothing, toiletries, food and school supplies. I walked into the toiletry room and found 4 children with guilty looks and hands behind their backs. They’d clearly taken something and were afraid I’d take it back. I asked what they’d found and they slowly revealed their hands. Clutched in each tiny fist was a… toothbrush. I’ve seen a lot of things but I’ve never seen children so desperate to brush their teeth that they bypassed free toys and clothes to “steal” toothbrushes. I told them they could keep the toothbrushes and brought the kids out to the comic books, generously donated by my friend, Josh Henaman. There were literally hundreds of comic books and I told them they could take as many as they wanted to and they each selected 1 or 2. I get so angry when I hear things about the victims of this disaster and the oil disaster that imply that they are somehow benefitting from these catastrophes. Not one person I met was “looking for a handout.” They were proud, helpful, American citizens whose tax dollars should have assured them good levees. After all they’d been through, they helped us empty the truck and set up the store and break down the boxes, etc. One boy decided to help me with all the box opening. It gave him joy to be part of all the activity. Look for his photo at the bottom of this page. For a reminder of Barbara Bush’s incredibly insensitive remark as well as some other Katrina doozies:
I couldn’t possibly articulate all that I saw and how deeply it affected me, I can only say that I was the lucky one, the volunteer with the truck and the resourceful friends and an intact home to return to with familiar photos and clothes and cabinets full of food.
I wish I could say that Katrina taught us lessons, that what didn’t kill us made us stronger, except us should mean America, not the locals who’ve got enough to deal with. America should have learned the lesson of building better levees (we haven’t), of being better prepared for another category 5 event (we aren’t), we should have done what we could to rebuild what was damaged, to show that America is the kind of country that can admit its mistakes and make things right. Instead, Trent Lott’s house is rebuilt and the 9th Ward still has tour busses showing people how it looked after the devastation – 5 years later. (Brought to you by the same government that allows Ground Zero to stand as a monument to our inability to rebuild.)
If, while watching the documentary, you wondered what you might be able to do to help the people trying to reopen Charity Hospital, click here and sign the petition or become a supporter:
I wish Spike Lee had been so impressed with our recovery that he’d chosen to call the documentary, “Rebuild, Renew, Rebirth.” I wish we, as a country, would quit letting people distract us with non-stories about non-moments in history when we have real problems that need real solutions. Today’s headlines on TV are about Shirley Sherrod turning down a job offer – meantime, a second food recall (last week eggs, this week, lunch meats) has been issued because the FDA and USDA are a mess, and hundreds of women and children were raped in the Congo as a war tactic.
I wish that Katrina and the job losses created by the oil catastrophe had led to a renewal of Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA built, among many things, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and City Park in New Orleans. It put able bodies to work and gave people seeking steady employment an alternative to the military. I, for one, think it would be cool to have been part of building the Griffith Observatory, watching it featured in “Rebel without a Cause” and many other movies, picturing families bringing their children to lift their eyes and see what a small space we take up in this giant universe.
Only love lasts. The pennies saved by doing crappy work on the levees or on the safety features of Deepwater Horizon have already been spent. Those levees are gone, that rig is exploded, nothing was saved and massive devastation and human bodies were left in the wake.
I have a friend who decided to lend his expertise during the Katrina aftermath. He slept in his car then got up day after day and used SCUBA gear to help find dead bodies trapped in drains and under cars. One night, he found a kitten alone and took it back to his car. He and the kitten, Kismet, got through the aftermath together and live in Israel now. Katrina gave my friend nightmares and mental health issues but it also gave him Kismet. Only love lasts because it’s really what we’re all made of, made for. It is our true nature.
I want to live in a country that puts people before profits and politics. There’s still hope for us to learn from Katrina, to grow from it, but first we have to recognize it for the man-made disaster it was and demand better from our government. I, for one, plan to worry less about digging in my heels about divisive news “stories” and spend more time thinking about making this country better. My efforts after Katrina always felt paltry in the face of what we were hoping to fix, but at least I was part of the solution, not the problem. Let’s all start with that.