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The Fight For Home

In 'The Fight for Home,' Daniel Wolf lets Katrina survivors tell their stories in their own words, and the result is revelatory.

By Richard Horan / August 21, 2012

The Fight for Home By David Wolff Bloomsbury USA 352 pp.

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The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina has few equals in the annals of US natural disasters: The third strongest hurricane ever recorded to make landfall in the US when it struck on the morning of August 29th, 2005, it quickly submerged 80 percent of New Orleans under water, destroying over 140,000 homes, killing 1,836 and causing $81 billion in damages, making it the most costly hurricane in history.

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So it’s no wonder that there are a rash of films and books and songs and works of art devoted to Katrina popping up all over. And I don’t expect this trend to let up anytime soon considering the fact that this natural disaster exposed aspects of our nation and our culture that many had ignored for far too long.

Hence The Fight For Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back. Author Daniel Wolff chronicles the trials and tribulations of an interesting cross section of people and communities throughout New Orleans as they struggle to rebuild their lives and homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Wolff, who was initially part of a documentary film crew, got permission to go into the hardest-hit neighborhoods of New Orleans after the floods receded and record what he found.

For five years Wolff visited and revisited the devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans, mostly in the Lower Ninth Ward, talking to the same dozen or so folks, narrating their stories through their words. More a transcript than a reportorial account, "The Fight For Home" tenaciously and colorfully, like the survivors themselves, exposes the initial trauma and despair, and the subsequent anger, frustration, joy and exaltation of their plight. This is a historic document.

Among the noteworthy people featured in the book is Malik, a former Black-Panther-turned-volunteer organizer, who founded a group called Common Ground Collective that recruited thousands of college students and brought them down to New Orleans to help rebuild communities. Common Ground also was instrumental in exposing questionable police shootings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (featured in the Frontline special aired on PBS, “Law and Disorder”).

Brandon, Malik’s chief negotiator and aide de camp, is an athletic, white 28-year-old Texan who often waxes revolutionary by railing against the government, but who later turns coat and becomes a snitch for the FBI. Pastor Mel is a former addict who selflessly ministers, round the clock, to an ever-growing flock of ex-addicts and homeless in his Gentilly neighborhood. Mike is a white resident of St. Bernard Parish who used to fly a Confederate flag on his front lawn, but who transforms within the pages of the book into a sympathetic pillar of the community.

And Carolyn (the central figure in the complementary documentary film that Wolff produced and that Academy Award-winner Jonathan Demme directed for PBS’ POV, "I’m Carol Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful," coming September 20, 2012), who overcomes endless obstacles – from losing her insurance money to an unscrupulous contractor to living in a toxic FEMA trailer for five years to almost dying during surgery to repair both knees – before finally getting her home and family back into working order. These people, authentic and guileless and heroic all, mince no words in expressing their thoughts and feelings from start (January 2006) to finish (October 2011).

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