Five Years Later, In Honor of New Orleans

Today makes the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall and devastating New Orleans. I feel pessimistic admitting it but I have no doubt that the exact same disaster - or a similar one- could happen again. And I have no doubt that wherever or whenever that disaster occurs, images of poor black folks on rooftops begging for help will yet again be accompanied by the unfair "looter" label.

Five years later, most people think Kanye West's most outspoken moment came at the 2009 VMA's with his evisceration of Taylor Swift. I disagree because I remember this:

I remember watching Kanye talk, watching Mike Myers' increasingly uncomfortable posture, and then feeling something I still can't name as the camera made a rapid cutaway to Chris Tucker. I remember thinking Kanye didn't have eloquence or tact at his disposal, but he was naming something real. And I remember thinking about how in the United States of America, there's a whole lot of folks that don't care about black people.

I never visited New Orleans till 2007, and during that visit, ever present in my mind was the context for why the city grew in the first place. Nowadays we don't like to talk about the role of slavery and cotton in New Orlean's population explosion, how slaves were shipped in and cotton was shipped out. We don't like to talk about the role of racism and segregation in creating the circumstances and living conditions that Hurricane Katrina embarrassingly exposed to the world. That storm and it's aftermath peeled back the veil and revealed America's disdain and disregard for the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of poor people of color.

On that first visit in March 2007, I fell in love with New Orleans. It's built on a foundation of those slaves spilled blood, those for whom the words, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity," did not apply. Yet, a spirit of perseverance, of generosity, of community, permeated the city, and as I gazed across the Ninth Ward, it wasn't hard to imagine what once was, particularly when it came to the porches. And so, on March 14, 2007, I wrote this:

Sitting on the porch is an art that's mostly been lost in Los Angeles. I don't know about your city, but in LA, I rarely see a neighborhood busybody out on her porch, surveying the going-ons of everyone and their mother.
In the past two days in New Orleans, I've fallen in love with the way folks sit out on their porches.

Porch size doesn't really matter. It only needs to be big enough for one, maybe two chairs.

I imagine that once upon a time, in an existence not so long ago, some old lady sat on this particular porch in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. She probably admired the wrought iron on her porch railing and gazed up at the proud stature of the old oak trees that once stood everywhere. She probably spoke to her neighbors and inquired about what was going on in their lives. She might have read her Bible on that porch. I'm sure she contemplated all the dreams, desires and disappointments she'd had in her youth. I'd like to think she never got to a place where she accepted that the way things were was the way it would always be.

How could our old lady have known that the levees, merely that concrete wall in the background, would be breached and her home would be destroyed? No fortune teller could have told her that the site of countless conversations and events in life would be reduced to mere remnants. What was once her home, her neighborhood, her heart, is now uninhabitable, a ghost town of epic proportions.

Imagine what you would do if your neighborhood was vibrant and thriving, bustling with both happiness and heartache, and then became this...

I'd like to think that the strength and spirit of the people who once lived in the Ninth Ward lingers even though they're gone.

It makes me wonder, how would I react in the face of such devastation, such adversity? Could I respond with such courage? Could you?

Today I ask myself the same questions, and today the names of Katrina's New Orleans victims were read in the Ninth Ward. Former residents remain scattered across the country, and New Orleans remains a third rail intersection of racism, gentrification, black on black crime, skin color politics, police brutality, abject poverty, low-performing schools and the all-pervasive attitude that the city is better off than it was before, which is essentially code language for "before the storm came and washed away all those black people who were ruining everything."

I'm glad people want to make change, but I readily admit my bitterness when I wish the so-called "creative class" that's now transforming New Orleans would've cared about poor black people and felt inspired enough to overhaul school systems and build new housing prior to Katrina's ravages.

I wish their current efforts didn't sometimes reek of savior mentalities and the attitude that New Orleans is a great place to experiment and learn before jetting off to Harvard for a public policy graduate degree.

Five years later, even with all the experimentation, reform and levee rebuilding, if another storm hit the city... what would happen? I don't know how much things have really changed - after all, I'm just an outside observer, but I have a feeling, that until we decide to really address those third rail issues - and the urban pathologies they breed - we'll have the same result.

To those who died in Katrina, whether in New Orleans or beyond, may you rest in peace.


Jameil said…
The NYT had a startling article last week about confirmation of reports of vigilante whites INCLUDING POLICE OFFICERS killing and threatening the lives of innocent blacks in the lawless days following the storm. Chilling. And infuriating that it took FIVE YEARS of yelling in the dark before charges were finally filed.
Chos said…
You are a powerful writer. Thank you for this. This is exactly why I read what you write. You shake me. I know you don't write for my benefit, but I appreciate that I have the fortune to find meaning and encouragement within your truth and challenges.
nick said…
New Orleans is a tragic tale of official neglect and indifference and belated half-measures. Not nearly enough has been done to rebuild the city and I'm sure another severe storm or hurricane would cause more destruction. I read Zeitoun recently, which is a sobering story of how one man trying to survive in the city was victimised and harassed by those who were meant to be helping him out.
Anonymous said…
The land of hope and glory! Freedom, democracy and enterprise. Lies and more lies. You would be a more popular writer if you stuck to the script, you make people feel uncomfortable about their homeland and what the underlying issues are. Great writing, you are not after fame or praise, you challenge the system in an open and honest way, you cut to the bone and expose things for what they are without ever forcing your views upon the participant. Note how many people view your topic compared to how many people make a response? One day you will be sectioned, or locked away or become a celebrity! Lol! Blessings and protection. x
Liz Dwyer said…
I hadn't seen that one - went and looked it up. - makes me so angry and sad.

Thank you so much for saying that - and for reading. I always see what I write as a shared experience. It's therapeutic for me - which might sound weird but it's true - and I learn from the experience of putting the words out there. The experience and stories surrounding Katrina break my heart. I think about it quite frequently, not just on the official anniversary. Some images just get seared into your psyche, you know?

The neglect and indifference are, I think, fueled by how little people care about certain populations in America. I always think about what will happen here in LA if and when we do get a big earthquake. It's gonna be insane who gets protected and rescued and who doesn't, I'm sure.

I hope I don't get sanctioned or locked away -do they have chai in the locked-away-zone? ;) - but I'm sure I'll be continued to be labeled as too "militant" by some. Lack of popularity is OK with me. We do too much lying in this country, to ourselves, to each other. It has to stop sometime. Thanks for the blessings and protection. ;)
Rose's Daughter said…
Thanks so much for writing this post. I just mentioned New Orleans and Katrina in mine today and I think I made a lot of people uncomfortable. People see what they call "progress" happening in New Orleans and think everything is ok. But in reality, until the underlying issues are confronted and worked on, nothing will change.
Liz Dwyer said…
Rose's Daughter,
I think I probably made a few folks uncomfortable too. That's OK, because I figure when we're uncomfortable, we ask ourselves hard questions - and maybe we get to the answers. It just seems that our culture isn't exactly willing to ask the hard questions anymore. We just want the quick fixes.
Unknown said…

You did a beautiful job here.

This anniversary, I simply could not write about it. For some reason, it just hurt.

You speak about the history, and as is so common in many of our stories, both my maternal and paternal great-grandmothers were servants of some sort in New Orleans and its surrounding areas. They were raped, or stringently encouraged to submit :-), by their "masters" or "employers" was married and had six children of her own with her husband. For some reason, this year, with all that is going on in our ravaged political arena - and with all the hatred being spewed, I am so grateful for gifted, thoughtful writers like you who can speak the pain, and sentiments in a way that they are truly heard.

Hugs girl!

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