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.
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).
Wolff keeps the reader updated on all the key facts and relevant statistics throughout. Unfortunately there’s not a whole heck of a lot to be proud of in the first year or two following the disaster. Some 73,000 toxic FEMA trailers housed people in appalling, sardine-like conditions. Nearly 90% of the public schools were damaged and shuttered, many never to reopen. Money from insurance companies failed to materialize because insurers declared that damages were due to high winds and mold rather than flooding. A federal relief program called “Road Home” was responsible for distributing as much as $150,000 per home to 124,000 applicants.
After one year, not one check had been issued, and within that same year, the $150,000 payout had been reduced by two-thirds. Fraud, waste and abuse were rampant: “….the blue plastic that dots many neighborhoods was nailed up at an average rate of $1,200 an hour.” Even the local governments contracted to out-of-state removal and construction companies, so jobs were not nearly as plentiful as they should have been. But most ominous of all, residents were not returning to their homes, leaving many in the Lower Ninth Ward to believe that New Orleans would become a predominately white, boutique city.
But by 2011 New Orleans was coming back, still a gumbo, still predominantly African American, albeit five percent below its pre-Katrina numbers. Its 345,000 inhabitants represented just three-quarters of its pre-flood population, but at least the FEMA trailers were gone, and people were back and living in their homes.
So the question “Are they better off than before the floods?” begs an answer. For Carolyn, that answer is a resounding “Yesss!” But for many others, the jury is still out. Too many public schools are still closed. There are 9,000 homeless in New Orleans, the most of any city in America, and a quarter of the city is living below the poverty line. Nearly 72,000 homes remain vacant, ruined, or unoccupied. At least Road Home awarded some $8 billion to 124,000 homeowners. “Not smart growth; smart decline,” aver the city planners. But the Louisiana Speaker of House recently commented, “I’m fearful that we’ll end up being like Detroit.”
"The Fight For Home" is probably better suited for the documentary film, pictures, in this case, being more informative than words on a page. Yet to read the words of those living through the devastation is powerful and revelatory, and Wolff doesn’t let us miss an “er” or an “um”. As Malik points out in a final visit to a reconstruction site teeming with young, white college volunteers, “.…it’s the first time since Reconstruction that a large white presence has been in the black community ‘for anything other than oppression and exploitation.’”
Stay tuned. There’re more post-Katrina stories still to come.
Richard Horan is a novelist and the author of "Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton." His latest work, "Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms," is due out this fall from Harper Collins.