So we now have two historic disasters, bookending five years of the greatest changes in this old grande dame called New Orleans’ long and deep life.
Two separate events, joined by location, physical and cultural devastation. Examining them individually, it seems the number of days of the most acute pain were similar. The immediate devastation quantifiable in both cases. The dead gathered and taken to hospitals countable, the causes of their mortality recordable.
Then the bookends begin to separate.
No matter how bad the devastation, we knew we could rebuild after Katrina. It was a matter of bricks and mortar, wooden piers and sills. Determination to maintain family and neighborhood and life continuity.
Reconstruction is an understandable concept here. We’ve been down that road. Epidemics, floods, the deadly chaos of the Civil War, the closing of the magnificent jazz-seminal whorehouses of Storyville, we handled all that pain and grief and destruction. Though I and many others still personally mourn the loss of Storyville.
Even the big storms. We dealt with them and moved forward.
Hurricane Audrey came ashore over southwest Louisiana in 1957 while I was at a children’s summer camp with my two cousins, well inland. It was a simpler time, and a week later, my father and I drove down to the devastated coast, to Holly Beach where we had access to a small beach house and spent time each summer. Holly Beach was a tiny gathering of simple dwellings on stilts just below Hackberry, which is just outside of Cameron, which is southeast of Lake Charles, which is a few hours east of Houston. That’s how small and unidentified the village was. The locals called the slack brown surf and slightly dingy sand the “Cajun Riviera”. We didn’t care. It was our beach, and had been a part of our lives as long as we could remember.
Driving through the flat rice fields approaching the Gulf, my dad kept his eye on the odometer, anticipating a disruption in roads and signs. He was correct to do so. Two miles from Holly Beach a large oil tanker straddled the road, east to west. There was no one on board. We drove very carefully through the drained fields, traveling around the propeller, which towered twenty feet above our car. In only another mile we were at the water’s edge, Holly Beach nowhere to be seen.
It was now at sea.
Audrey had completely erased the village, though we could see a few tattered poles rising at angles from the shallow flat sandbars emerging from the water, well at a distance. From what I understand of longitude and latitude, the original Holly Beach, and our vacation spot, is now closer to two miles offshore. The Gulf’s ongoing coastal erosion has continued the storm’s work, and taken that much more of Louisiana to sea. We found another beach spot on what remained, but it was never the same.
Then in 1965, forty years before Katrina almost to the day, Hurricane Betsy came uninvited directly to the opposite, southeast, quadrant of the state. The eye roared over New Orleans itself, then crashed straight upriver through Baton Rouge. I remember it especially vividly, as Betsy came ashore during my first week at University. I had been on campus for only three days, sleeping on the top portion of a squeaky bunk bed, drinking beer with disparate young strangers in collegiate barrooms, and in the process hoping to parse the very beginnings of an adult life.
Then came Betsy. We had no TVs or cell phones or computers, little interest in listening to weather reports on a radio otherwise filled with the Beatles and Stones. Thus we managed to acquire little or no advance warning of the impending 155 mile-an-hour winds. Eight massive offshore oil rigs were completely destroyed before it even got to us. One mile-per-hour below the ultimate Category Five, Betsy was just, suddenly, there, gusting hard enough from the southeast that the mile-wide Mississippi River rose ten feet on its banks. Water came in over the levees from lake Ponchartrain, but the levees held.
I remember it to this day. Startled to consciousness as roaring winds rattled the room’s wrought-iron windows, I shook sleep from my addled head and comfortably dropped to the floor from my bed. This part of the memory remains especially vibrant. My feet only touched the floor after passing through some four feet of cold fluid and floating shoes. I was drenched awake, immediately levitating straight back up into the bed. As a would-be adult, I reassessed what made up being in the real world, and what was dreaming.
I was awake, I finally perceived, and my ground-floor dormitory room was waist-deep in floodwater. I dropped into it again, splashed forward, and, excited as an innocent would be, looked out the main entrance of the sturdy thick-walled building, fascinated. Cars were rolling down the street in front of the dorm, propelled sideways by the wind to move on their own. Overhead, sprawling uprooted live oaks, three stories tall, flew over low-lying classroom buildings, and crashed into taller structures.
I can still remember what I was thinking at that precise moment in time, as it has never left me. I thought: “So this is what life away from home is like.” This set something of a keynote in the course of my higher education.
Forty years passed, and suddenly one Sunday there was an overabundance of meteorological information and instruction. The dozen or more screens in my life lit up, all screaming the same message: “Get out of there.” For the first time in my life, as the violence of Katrina rapidly approached, I followed the “mandatory” order of politicians and evacuated the city with hundreds of thousands of other residents. In this dire case I went back home, to my parents’ house, some two hundred miles northwest of New Orleans. The forced march took fourteen nightmarish hours locked in a VW bug with three cats, no food, and no change of clothing. During the first ten hours we were able to travel only thirteen miles, to finally connect near the airport with Interstate Highway 55, heading due north across the swamps from the grid-lock to Natchez, Mississippi, where we then cut back southwest cross-country to the family house on Bayou Robert.
There followed two weeks of waiting, fear and frustration, and finally a furtive return to the city. A recollection of that experience inspired the first narrative, entitled “Disarmed”, in what became a series of written purgative exercises detailing the personal effects of Katrina’s aftermath. openDemocracy.net cared, and continues to care, enough about the city and its people to give it voice, prominently posting the continuing series over these last five years.
And now, this.
In 2010, as we neared the fifth anniversary of that event, comes the horror again, this time in the form of millions of gallons of suffocating crude oil, thrown in a deadly wave at one of the most fragile, and most productive, eco-systems in the country. This time it was not the vagaries of a planet’s natural, uncontrollable weather systems which attacked south Louisiana.
This time the villain was human-spawned, hundreds and maybe thousands of individuals embodying the greed of a conglomerate parent. An uncaring cadre of soulless business-trained corporate despoilers had thrown themselves completely at the generation of numbers by the Macondo well. The accountants and executives worried over generating more barrels, making more money, and doing it in less time, with fewer workers, fewer expensive safeguards. The corporations involved gloated over the unfettered ease they encountered in bypassing governmental regulations and agencies, to develop an ever larger bottom line. Not much else mattered.
This was, after all, a matter of oil. Oil money is consciously protected by the walls of politics, bureaucracies, governments, and of course, 9/11.
Human and environmental safety did not seem to weigh heavily against the dwindling portion of the safeguard numbers, and protection diminished daily, even as the Deepwater Horizon was being rushed toward an early completion. Reduce investment, maximize profits.
Then the well blew up in their faces, without a single warning from a weatherman. The disaster was just there. People died, fetid oil came up unrestrained into the living waters of the Gulf.
The oil came up for months. A week or so ago, the well flow seemingly stopped, and with the oil reservoir capped, the same number-crunchers who created the situation were immediately working The Big Room of world opinion, hiring ever more PR firms to minimize perception of the damage. Full-page color ads in all the big market newspapers, showing regular folks at work to “make it right”. Get the press embarrassed to be there. Get them to voluntarily go away. Find something else to divert Anderson Cooper and CNN.
There is, after all, Afghanistan and Iran and India and Somalia. There are other floods, earthquakes, pictures of hungry children to be taken. The less oil seen on the surface of the Gulf, the fewer people are shocked. The fewer dead birds and turtles are seen floating ashore, the less reaction animal rights groups will get into print.
Lower the quantity of perception and the quality of perception will follow.
Then the world will forget what is still out there, will collectively forget, once the number of people watching gets low enough. And the viewing public does get bored with tragedy easily. We in New Orleans can bear first-hand witness to that.
But for us this will not easily go away. Because now, now we people who live here are stuck with years, maybe decades, of waiting. Waiting to see what rises from hundreds of thousands of square miles of polluted water column. Waiting to see how many whale sharks are able to feed through and survive the surface petroleum sheen. Waiting to see how many new crab larvae emerge from the tar balls in the marshes. Wondering whether the oystermen will ever be able to purge the petroleum muck from beds now filled with dead unoccupied shells.
Will the shrimp come back untainted? Will the redfish and speckled trout swim through a misguided government’s man-made sand berm maze to spawn and thrive again, as they did just months ago, in the once-fertile coastal waters of Gulf Louisiana.
We who live here will have to wait to discover our fate. This storm will not go away in a day, or blow itself out.
The natural disaster of Katrina was horrific, but house and levee construction was relatively easy in comparison to the rebuilding now required. And which we cannot do.
This was not nature attacking man, but the opposite. And the final bookend will not come on a human schedule.
We will have to wait.
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