Remembering Katrina's forgotten
Selected columns by Times-Picayune's Chris Rose recount life and death in the soggy Big Easy.
Devastation, death, and heartache. It's what you might expect from the title 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina. Perhaps too, a scathing criticism of New Orleans' and federal officials in the wake of hurricane Katrina.
But Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose's collection of inspirational personal vignettes presents much more than a typical third-party analysis of Katrina's aftermath. Reading "1 Dead in Attic" is like walking hand in hand with Rose through his stages of grief: crying, raging, questioning, and eventually smiling as he describes the unbreakable soul of the Big Easy.
In his opening column written just days after the storm, Rose introduces South Louisianans to the rest of the nation. "You probably already know that we talk funny and listen to strange music and eat things you'd probably hire an exterminator to get out of your yard," he writes. "When you meet us now and you look into our eyes, you will see the saddest story ever told. Our hearts are broken into a thousand pieces."
Rose's collection depicts those "thousand pieces" and shows a side of the city apart from the revelry typically associated with the French Quarter. Originally self-published, the book recounted post-Katrina struggles through the end of 2005. This newer version extends to Thanksgiving of 2006 and what's most striking here is the way the aftermath continues to find its way into Rose's columns even 15 months after the storm.
But the heart of the book focuses on Rose's recollections of those first days. In the column "Life in the Surreal City," he compares Salvador Dali's painting of a melting clock to the reminders of Katrina's landfall.
"Our clocks melted at 6:45 the morning of August 29," he writes. "That's what the clocks in the French Quarter still say. That's when time stood still."
And time continues to stand still for Rose, as he notes New Orleans' stagnancy with immense frustration, anger, and stark details of soggy city life.
Rose devotes an entire column to "The Smell," in which he attempts to describe the overwhelming "foulness" that "just flat out stinks." "First-Timer Syndrome" brings just-returned neighbors to his front porch. They come "shaken to their very core" after seeing their houses, neighborhoods, and beloved city in an indescribable state of despair. "Where are we now in our descent through Dante's nine circles of hell?" Rose questions.
Hidden treasures in "1 Dead in Attic" are fragments of humor and hope. In an effort to ensure normalcy and routine schooling, his wife and children moved to Chevy Chase, Md., for the fall of 2005. After speaking with his wife on the telephone, he learns that his daughter is growing mold for a science project. "Growing mold," Rose muses. "If my New Orleans daughter doesn't get the blue ribbon for that project – the state prize, in fact – then there is no justice in this world."
But perhaps Rose's best comedic relief is evident in his "Civil Unrest" chapter about the "Uptown Refrigerator Wars." Consider returning home – in say, October – to a powerless refrigerator filled with what was to be dinner on Aug. 30. The standard protocol for removal: Duct tape the doors shut and give to garbage workers taking hazardous waste. Not so acceptable: dumping a fridge in front of someone else's house. Rose became so angry he loaded up the deposited fridge on a dolly in the middle of the night and returned it to its rightful owner. "Keep your stinking fridge to yourself," he ends the column.
But the sadness in "1 Dead in Attic" certainly outweighs the humor.
While driving through the Eighth ward, an area of massive destruction, he sees numerous spray-painted symbols on houses. The police and National Guard used the symbols to mark inhabitants and their outcomes. But one has no cryptic symbol, just a clear "1 Dead in Attic." Rose wonders if anyone even removed "1 Dead in Attic." But it also makes him wonder: "Who grieved over '1 Dead in Attic,' and who buried '1 Dead in Attic?' " he questions. "Was there anyone with him or her at the end?"
Rose's book is a poignant ode to the nameless and faceless victims of the storm. They may not have received jazz funeral processions or obituaries but Rose gives them their place here, just as he does the spirit and soul of the city he calls his own.
• Amy Brittain, a Louisiana resident, was an intern at the Monitor.