At a ceremony in this city commemorating the five years since hurricane Katrina, a brass band played a final round of music Sunday, and out of nowhere, Mayor Mitch Landrieu sprang from his seat to join the musicians onstage. What he then did would be almost unthinkable for most buttoned-up leaders, but here, it’s as much a part of the job as fixing potholes and cutting ribbons.
Dancing, singing, mourning, and crying mixed throughout New Orleans this weekend as the city worked overtime to balance showcasing the progress made since floodwater covered 80 percent of its streets with honoring the 1,836 people who died in its wake.
In a city where funerals are often masked as street parties and jazz music is played in church, commemorating and celebrating can cross wires.
To Louis DiVincenti, a cabdriver, the storm is “hyped so much.” The city, he worries, will refuse to move on and will turn Katrina into another industry.
He points to the bus tours that shuttle tourists to gawk at the desolation of the Lower Ninth Ward. “The more you do that, the more it won’t die down,” he says. Yet for a city that depends so much on tourism, he understands the compulsion: “Half the people in the country think New Orleans is still underwater.”
The fifth anniversary was dissected this weekend through panel discussions, political speeches, film screenings, book signings, neighborhood tours, barbecues, and, of course, late-night jam sessions.
At a Saturday-afternoon block party in Holy Cross, a neighborhood that is still rebuilding, people dined on free red beans and rice while bands performed under a tent. A craftsman cottage was open to exhibit black-and-white photographs and in the back room was an art installation featuring a refrigerator – an object that came to symbolize the decay brought on by water entering homes.
But for some musicians playing to a familiar audience, a mixture of locals and out-of-towners, something felt different.
“I don’t want to celebrate it. I just want it to be a memory,” says Wade Wright, a drummer. “I don’t want it to come up three, five years from now and have it be a party for the world to come down for.”
Mr. Wright says he and his wife stayed poolside in the backyard of their Lakeview home before Katrina landed, but then moved to their roof once the water rose 12 feet high. He won’t forget the waiting.
“You can’t call for help. It’s quiet and it’s dead. There’s no animal life. They’re gone,” he says.
Harsh memories like that certainly shadowed events throughout the city, but they are now being set aside for, or being combined with, discussions having to do with more urgent concerns – such as the strength of the levee system, jobs, school reform, and the ongoing effect of the Gulf oil spill on the local economy.
Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, who also has a club that bears his name on Bourbon Street, attended President Obama’s speech at Xavier University Sunday and says all he expects to hear from the federal government is what it plans to do about pressing for better levee protection. The system is being built to sustain a 100-year storm surge, which critics say is still not enough for a storm like Katrina.
“For the president, the levees are his job,” he says. “I would love the 500-year level because I want the best for my kids. But the 100-year is better than what we had before.”
The weekend’s events led up to a Sunday-night ceremony at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in Louis Armstrong Park. There, speeches and songs summed up where the city had come from and where it wanted to go – singer John Boutte singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the blazing colors of Mardi Gras Indian headdresses, political strategist James Carville asking to “remember the people who just want this culture to live.”
Mayor Landrieu called for America to “face the truth that ... for four horrific days, there was anarchy on the streets of America.”
The good that resulted, Landrieu said, was a lesson that this city, for all the economic differences in its neighborhoods, needed to learn: “We are all the same.... Whether we believe it or not, our fate is intertwined.”
Earlier at the block party, as Wright, the drummer, packed up his gear, he reflected on the possibility that the anniversary may be commemorating not just the worst that happened, but also maybe better things on the horizon.
“New Orleans before Katrina, it was struggling. Katrina came and almost said, ‘Look, I’m gonna renew this place,’ ” he said. “And that’s what’s happening.”