By Rebecca Solnit 3/15/07

Riflemen and Rescuers

On March 5, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama went south to compete for the limelight on the 42nd anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” the day in March 1965 when Alabama law enforcement drove Civil Rights demonstrators off the Edmund Pettus Bridge and back into Selma. Somehow, the far larger and more desperate attempt of a largely African-American population to march across a bridge less than two years ago, during the days after Hurricane Katrina, and the even more vicious response, has never quite entered the mainstream imagination. Few outside New Orleans, therefore, understand that the city became a prison in the days after 80% of it was flooded (nor has it fully sunk in that the city was flooded not by a hurricane but by the failure of levees inadequately built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).

According to a little-noted Los Angeles Times report from that moment, “Authorities in St. Bernard Parish, to the east, stacked cars to seal roads from the Crescent City.” Not only were relief supplies and rescuers kept out of the city, but many who could have rescued themselves or reached outside rescue efforts were forcibly kept in. The spectacle of the suffering and squalor of crowds trapped without food, water, or sanitation in sweltering heat that so transfixed the nation was not just the result of incompetence, but of malice. While the media often tended to portray the victims as largely criminals, government officials shifted the focus from rescue to the protection of property and the policing of the public. There’s no way to count how many died as a result of all this.

The Mississippi-straddling Crescent City Connection Bridge was closed to pedestrians by law enforcement from Gretna, the mostly white community across the river. They fired their guns over the heads of women and children seeking to flee the dire conditions of the Superdome and Convention Center, as well as the heat and thirst of the devastated city, driving back thousands attempting to escape their captivity in squalor. There have been no consequences from any of these acts, though Congressional Representatives Cynthia McKinney and John Conyers have denounced them as hate crimes and called for investigations, and the Reverend Lennox Yearwood said, “Can you imagine during 9/11, the thousands who fled on foot to the Brooklyn Bridge, not because they wanted to go to Brooklyn, but because it was their only option? What if they had been met by six or eight police cars blocking the bridge, and cops fired warning shots to turn them back?”

During my trips to the still half-ruined city, some inhabitants have told me that they, in turn, were told by white vigilantes of widespread murders of black men in the chaos of the storm and flood. One local journalist assured me that he tried to investigate the story, but found it impossible to crack. Reporters, he said, were not allowed to inspect recovered bodies before they were disposed of. These accounts suggest that, someday, an intrepid investigative journalist may stand on its head the media hysteria of the time (later quietly recanted) about African-American violence and menace in flooded New Orleans. Certainly, the most brutal response to the catastrophe was on the part of institutional authority at almost every level down to the most local.

These stories are important, if only to understand what New Orleans is recovering from – not just physical devastation, but social fissures and racial wounds in a situation that started as a somewhat natural disaster and became a socially constructed catastrophe. Nothing quite like it has happened in American history. It’s important to note as well that many racial divides were crossed that week and after – by people who found common cause inside the city – by, for instance, the “Cajun Navy” of white boat-owners who got into flooded areas to rescue scores of people.

Ex-Black Panther Malik Rahim says that he witnessed a race war beginning in Algiers (next to Gretna) where he lived and that it was defused by the young, white bicycle medics who came to minister to both communities; since then the organization Rahim co-founded, Common Ground Collective, has funneled more than 11,000 volunteers, mostly white, into New Orleans.

Parades and Patrols

New Orleans may have always been full of contradictions, but post-Katrina they stand in high relief. For weeks in February, parades wound past rowdy crowds in the uptown area as part of the long carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras. Since June, camouflage-clad, heavily armed National Guardsmen have been patrolling other parts of the flood-ravaged city in military vehicles, making the place feel as much like a war zone as a disaster zone – and perhaps it is. (On March 8, for instance, a Guardsman repeatedly shot in the chest a 53-year-old African-American with mental problems. He had brandished a BB gun at a patrol near his home, in which he had ridden out Katrina, in the Upper Ninth Ward.) New Orleans’ poverty was, and is, constantly referenced in the national media; and the city did, and does, have a lot of people without a lot of money, resources, health care, education, and opportunity. But its people are peculiarly rich in networks, roots, traditions, music, festive ritual, public life, and love of place, an anomaly in an America where, generations ago, most of us lost what the depleted population of New Orleans is trying to reclaim and rebuild.

I’ve long been interested in ruins, in cities and civil society in the wake of disaster, and so I’ve been to New Orleans twice since Katrina hit and I’ve tried to follow its post-catastrophe course from afar the rest of the time. On this carnival-season visit, even my own response was contrary: I wanted to move there and yet was appalled, even horrified, by tales of institutional violence that people passed on to me as the unremarkable lore of everyday life.

If New Orleans is coming back, it’s because a lot of its citizens love it passionately, from the affluent uptowners who formed Women of the Storm to massage funding channels to the radical groups such as the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund dealing with the most devastated zones. Nationally, there have been many stories about people giving up and leaving again because the reopened schools are still lousy and crime is soaring; the way people are trickling back in has been far less covered.

Of a pre-storm white population of 124,000 more than 80,000 were back by last fall, while about the same number of African-Americans had returned – from a pre-storm population of 300,000. Though some have chosen not to return, many are simply unable to, or are still organizing the means to do so. Other roadblocks include the shuttering of all the housing projects in the city, including some that sustained little or no damage in the floods. A few have been occupied by former residents demanding the right of return. It’s little noted that not all those who are still in exile from the city are there by choice. And while, once again, the mainstream media story of exile has been grim – that refugees from New Orleans have brought a crime wave to Texas, for instance – one longtime Austin resident assures me that they’ve also brought a lot of music, public life, and good food.

I visited New Orleans 11 months ago, during Easter Week 2006, and it was then a ghost town, spookily unpopulated, with few children among the returnees; 10 months later, after more than 50 of its schools had reopened, there were dozens of high-school marching bands in the pre-carnival parades. But the bands were mostly monochromatic – all white or all nonwhite — and 30 of the reopened schools are charter schools. Of course, in the slogan “Bring Back New Orleans” lurks the question of how far back to bring it. Once the wealthy banking powerhouse of the South, New Orleans had been losing economic clout and population for decades before Katrina hit and already seemed doomed to a slow decline.

With Katrina, no one can say what the future holds. Many fear the city will become just a tourist attraction or that it will simply go under in the next major hurricane. The levees and floodwalls are being rebuilt, but not to Category 5 hurricane levels, and the fate of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, the shipping shortcut that funneled the storm’s surge right into New Orleans, is still being debated. The Associated Press just reported that more than thirty of the pumps installed last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drain floodwater are defective. (The manufacturer is a crony of Jeb Bush’s and, like so many looters of the rebuilding funds, a large-scale donor to the Republican Party.)

The city’s major paper, the Times-Picayune, recently revealed that the maps people have been using to represent the amount of wetlands buffer south of the city are 75 years out of date and there are only 10 years left to save anything of this crucially protective marsh-scape, which erodes at the rate of 32 football fields a day.

Signs of Life in the Lower Ninth

That doesn’t mean people aren’t trying all over the city. It’s easier, however, to get out the power tools than to untangle the red tape surrounding all the programs that are supposed to fund rebuilding or get governmental agencies at any level to act like they care or are capable of accomplishing a thing.

“Are you trying to rebuild?” I asked the woman who’d come into NENA, the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association in the part of New Orleans most soaked by the floods Katrina caused. She politely but firmly corrected me, “I am going to rebuild.”

I ran into this kind of steely will all through my eight days exploring the city. NENA’s office in a small stucco church building in the heart of the Lower Ninth, the neighborhood of black homeowners that sustained several feet of water for weeks after the storm, is full of maps and charts. The most remarkable is a map of the neighborhood itself with every home being rebuilt marked with a green pushpin. They are lightly scattered over the map, but there are green dots on nearly every block and clusters of them in places, about 150 in this small neighborhood that looked as dead as anyplace imaginable not so very long ago.

When I visited the Lower Ninth six months after Katrina, the gaping hole where a barge had disastrously bashed through the levee above the Industrial Canal was still there, as were the cars that had been tossed like toys through the neighborhood when the water rushed in so violently that it tore houses into splinters and shoved them from their foundations. The Lower Ninth was a spooky place – with no services, no streetlights, no inhabitants.

That nothing had been done for six months was appalling, but so was the scale of reconstruction required to bring the place back to life. Throughout New Orleans, even homes that have no structural damage but were in the heavily flooded lowlands have severe water and mold damage. Along with the Ninth Ward, many more middle-class neighborhoods near Lake Pontchartrain also took several feet of water and they too are now but sketchily inhabited. Even the tacky row of condos alongside the Southern Yacht Club on Lake Pontchartrain are still mostly wrecked, though some are being rebuilt. Sunken pleasure boats are still in the surrounding waters and one wrecked boat remained on the street in a devastated middle-class neighborhood nearby.

Across from NENA’s headquarters was a FEMA trailer with a wheelchair ramp in front of one house. In front of another, right next door, a sign spray-painted on plywood read, “NO TRESPASSING NO DEMOLITION. WE ARE COMING BACK.” And printed signs, scattered among those for demolition and building services, bore this message in red, “Come hell and high water! Restoration, revitalization, preservation of the Ninth Ward! Now and forever!” These signs mean something in a neighborhood so gutted and abandoned that many of the street signs disappeared, some of which have since been replaced by hand-painted versions.

That people are even making their own street signs is one sign of a city that has gotten to its feet. Or of citizens who have anyway. Failed by every level of government from the Bush administration and its still barely functional FEMA to the Louisiana bureaucracy with its red-tape-strangled Road Home program to the city government, people are doing it for themselves. NENA was founded by Patricia Jones, an accountant and Lower Ninth homeowner spurred into action by the dire situation, and it’s co-directed by Linda Jackson, a former laundromat owner from the neighborhood. People are doing things they might never otherwise have done, including organizing their communities. Civic involvement is intense – but individual volunteers, no matter how many, from outside and local passion can’t do it all. It’s been said before that New Orleans represents what the Republicans long promised us when they spoke of shrinking government down.

The returnees, Jackson told me, are mostly doing their own rebuilding – but sheet-rocking and plumbing are far easier to master than the intricate bureaucracies applicants must fight their way through to get the funds that are supposed to be available to them. Even those who are not among New Orleans’ large population of functional illiterates, or whose lack of electricity and money means that sending off the sequences of faxes required to set things in motion is arduous, or who lack the phones and money to make the endless long-distance calls to faceless strangers shuffling or losing their information have problems getting anything done – other than by themselves. Louisiana’s Road Home program, for instance, is such an impenetrable labyrinth that the Times-Picayune recently reported, “Of 108,751 applications received by the Road Home contractor, ICF International, only 782 homeowners have received final payments.” Rents have risen since the storm and home insurance is beyond reach for many of the working-class homeowners who are rebuilding. Others can’t get the homeowner’s insurance they need to get the mortgages to rebuild. In February, State Farm Insurance simply stopped issuing new policies altogether in neighboring and no less devastated Mississippi.

The disaster that was Katrina is often regarded as a storm, or a storm and a flood, but in New Orelans it was a storm, a flood, and an urban crisis that has stalled the lives of many to this day. Katrina is not even half over.

The Great Flood and the Great Divide

Volunteers have been flooding into New Orleans since shortly after the hurricane, and they continue to come. Church youth groups arriving to do demolition work were a staple for a while. This time around, I ran across a big group of Mennonite carpenters, some from Canada, doing rebuilding gratis.

Many young people – often just out of college and more excited, as several of them said to me, by “making a difference” than by looking for an entry-level job – have come to the city and many of them appear to be staying. Some have compared the thousands of volunteers to Freedom Summer, the 1964 African-American voter-registration drive in the South staffed in part by college students from the North. Most of the volunteers in New Orleans are white, and one concern I heard repeatedly is that they may inadvertently contribute to the gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods such as the Upper Ninth Ward. Others see the outreach of white activists as balm on the wounds inflicted by the racism apparent in the media coverage of, and the militarized response to, Katrina.

The Ninth Ward symbolizes the abandonment of African-Americans by the government in a time of dire need, and bringing it back is a way of redressing that national shame and the racial divide that went with it. But if it does come back, it will be residents and outside volunteers who do it. The government is still largely missing in action – except for the heavily armed soldiers on patrol and the labyrinthine bureaucracies few can navigate.

To rebuild your home, you need a neighborhood. To have a neighborhood, you need a city. For a viable city, you need some degree of a safe environment. For a safe environment, you need responsibility on the scale of the nation; so, every house in New Orleans, ruined or rebuilding, poses a question about the state of the nation. So many pieces need to be put in place: What will climate change – both increasingly intense hurricanes and rising seas – do to New Orleans? Will its economy continue to fade away? Will the individuals who are bravely rebuilding in the most devastated areas have enough neighbors join them to make viable neighborhoods again? Will the city government improve itself enough to make a better place or will incompetence continue to waltz with corruption through the years? Will the nation revise its sense of what we owe our most significant cities (before my own city, San Francisco, undergoes the big one) or recognize what they give us? Will the solidarity of many anti-racist whites across the country outweigh the racism that surfaced in Katrina and still lurks not far from the surface?

Despite its decline, New Orleans remains a port city and a major tourist destination. But it also matters because it’s beautiful, with its houses – from shacks to mansions – adorned with feminine, lacy-black ironwork or white, gingerbread wood trim, with its colossal, spreading oaks and the most poetic street names imaginable; because the city and the surrounding delta are the great font from which so much of our popular music flows; because people there still have a deep sense of connection and memory largely wiped away in so many other places; because it is a capital city for black culture, including traditions that flowed straight from Africa; because, in some strange way, it holds the memory of what life was like before capitalism and may yet be able to teach the rest of us something about what life could be like after capitalism.

One of my friends in New Orleans was telling me recently about the generosity of the city; the ways that churches and charities kept the poor going so that poverty wasn’t quite the abandoned thing it too often is elsewhere; the way that people will cook up a feast for a whole neighborhood; the ways the city never fully embraced the holy trinity of the convenient, efficient, and profitable that produce such diminished versions of what life can hold. The throws – glittery beads, cups, toys – from the carnival floats are a little piece of this. Life in New Orleans is grim in so many ways now, and all the beauty with which I end this letter coexists with the viciousness I began with. But the recovery of the city from this one mega-disaster could do much for the longer disaster that has so long now been part of our national lives – the social Darwinism, social atomization, the shrinking of the New Deal and the Great Society and the attacks on the very principle that we are all woven together in the fabric we call society. If New Orleans doesn’t recover, we aren’t likely to either.

We all owe New Orleans and those who suffered most in Katrina a huge debt. Their visible suffering and the visibly stupid, soulless, and selfish response of the federal government brought an end to the unquestionable dominance of the Bush administration in the nearly four years between New York’s great disaster and this catastrophe. In China, great earthquakes were once thought to be signs that the mandate of heaven has been withdrawn from the ruling dynasty. Similarly, the deluges of Katrina washed away the mandate of the administration and made it possible, even necessary, for those who had been blind or fearful before to criticize and oppose afterwards.

One hundred and one years after my city was nearly destroyed by the incompetent response of the authorities to a major earthquake, we are still sifting out what really happened. In a hundred years, we may see Katrina as a crisis for the belief that the civil rights movement had moved us past the debacle on the Edmund Pettus Bridge – and as a crisis of legitimacy for a federal government that had done nothing but destroy for five years.

Rebecca Solnit’s essay for Harper’s Magazine on disaster and civil society went to press the day Katrina struck New Orleans. She recently trained to join San Francisco’s Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams in the next big earthquake and hopes to return to New Orleans for a more extended stay in a few months. She is the author of Hope in the Dark, among other books.