Headline of the day: “Stop Blaming Me For Hurricane Katrina”
Ten years past disaster, former FEMA head Michael Brown—“Brownie,” as we came to know him—paused to reflect. Here’s what he came up with, in Politico:
“Had I left the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the spring of 2005, my life would be very different today. And I really wish, in retrospect, that I had. But after the 2004 hurricane season, when FEMA’s excellent responses to hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne in Florida were widely praised, White House chief of staff Andy Card persuaded me to stay on as director through the 2005 hurricane season. I didn’t want to disappoint President George W. Bush. We’d developed a good relationship. Heck, he even gave me my own nickname: ‘Brownie.’
“By the end of the summer, it was a nickname the whole world would know. I, in turn, would have learned many lessons in how Washington fails—and how it assigns blame. People are still saying now, as they said then, that what went wrong in New Orleans a decade ago was all my fault. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now….”
You just can’t make this stuff up, folks.
Here’s another headline, from the blog of trumpeter and New Orleans native Nicholas Payton, whose independence and forthrightness with both his music and his words makes him an unconventional but also essential voice in both arenas:
“An Adversarial Katrinaversary And The Delusional Post-Diluvial New Orleans — A Manmade Disaster”
Payton effectively captures a sentiment that’s fairly widespread right now in New Orleans:
“It took a while, but I’m finally convinced. New Orleans will never be what it was. This 10-year Katrinaversary has forever sealed this city’s fate as a shell of an existence. It is destined to be a post-diluvial distortion of the values it once espoused. The Crescent City has successfully become a cable TV version of itself. By the way, what is Treme? We never called it that when I grew up there. To us, it was the 6th Ward….
“I’m also tired of hearing how resilient New Orleans is. No, it is not. That just furthers this lie that somehow the traditions and the values of what made this city great are not on the verge of extinction, and they are. And let’s be honest, they were suffering well before August 29, 2005. We’ve become those “resilient” folks who exorcize away every tragedy with a second line or a pot of red beans.”
When Payton says the following, he does so from the perspective of having soaked up New Orleans musical tradition from banjoist and bandleader Danny Barker, who founded the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band:
“The Real New Orleans of old would never have a second line as a 10-year commemoration for a flood. Today marks the 50th “anniversary” of Betsy. I don’t see no second lines for that. I guess Betsy wasn’t as sexy of a hurricane as Katrina.
“The Real New Orleans would boycott and/or picket this second line. This Katrinaversary is all media hype. It’s sick and twisted thinking. Disaster capitalism is alive and kickin’. A second line to honor the dead used to be a solemn occasion. It was respectful to the deceased and their families. The first line used to be the family. The second line was those who came to pay homage. They should call this Katrinaversary parade a third line in honor of all the carpetbaggers we’ve turned this city over to, thus making a caricaturization of this once sacred land.”
By early afternoon on Thursday, I was seated among the press corps, awaiting the arrival of President Obama at the Lower Ninth Ward’s Andrew P. Sanchez Community Center—a $20 million, 65,000 square foot facility that includes an indoor swimming pool, senior center, health clinic and NOPD sub-station, and that opened three months ago.
White House pool reporters tracking Obama’s moves arrived with fried chicken in take-out boxes from Dooky Chase’s, the Tremé restaurant that is de rigueur for visiting statesmen, and where Obama lunched (he apparently has either a hearty appetite or a savvy media planner: he also stopped at Willa Mae’s Scotch House, a Seventh Ward restaurant whose fame is based on its fried chicken recipe).
Before the president took the stage, before the introductory speakers, came student musicians from Roots of Music, a nonprofit program co-founded by Rebirth Brass Band snare drummer Derrick Tabb that offers music education, academic support and mentorship to children in need. It’s one of the homegrown, bright-light examples of recovery—resilience, if you must—that addresses cultural continuity in a context of community empowerment.
The Roots of Music musicians played the “Star Spangled Banner” as well as a medley that included “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” Markell Montgomery, a senior at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, who also attended Warren Easton High School, stepped up to the podium, which was yet to have the president’s seal affixed. He described how Roots of Music “helped us cope with Katrina” and how it offered “strength and discipline and a sense of character to our lives.”
Marc Morial, former New Orleans mayor and current CEO of the National Urban League, described this moment in late August as “halftime”—New Orleans being the football city it is. “The game is far from over,” he said of recovery, “this is a day of continuation and commitment.”
In introducing Obama, Congressman Cedric Richmond said, “This president has been better to the state of Louisiana than the state of Louisiana has been to him.” Mayor Mitch Landrieu praised Obama for “putting his shoulder to the wheel” regarding aid to New Orleans. “He loved us, and we are going to love him back.”
As we waited for the president in a rec center, with a half-dozen backboards and basketball hoops stood retracted, at half-mast, a soundtrack of local music played. I caught the Eureka Brass Band in there, and Trombone Shorty. I saw Irma Thomas, seated in the front row, mouthing along with her 1964 recording of “Time Is On My Side.”
I wondered not how Obama’s speech would play to the national media, but whether the locals filling the makeshift orchestra seats really did feel like, at last, time and circumstance were going to swing their way.
I’d covered Obama’s visit to New Orleans in 2007, when he spoke from the Essence Festival main stage at the Superdome, for Salon. Then a senator and presidential candidate, Obama said:
“After Katrina hit, we had to realize that we were no longer the America we had hoped to be. All the hurricane did was lay bare the fact that we had not dealt with the problems of racism and poverty. The biggest tragedy was that desperate hardship was known here before the hurricane. Poverty double the national average was here before the storm. But here’s the good news: America was ashamed and shocked. Our conscience was awakened. We realized that our politics were broken. Suddenly, the curtain was pulled aside to reveal all that.”
Now, as a second-term president nearing his administration’s end, Obama played to the locals, opening with a “Where y’at?” and making quick references to po’ boy sandwiches from Parkway Bakery, the Rebirth Brass Band’s weekly gig at the Maple Leaf Bar, and that fried chicken at Willa Mae’s.
He took an interesting tack to his opening comments, one that might well have lost the locals thirsting for answers to their neighborhood needs and kudos for their hometown accomplishments. He attempted to fold the “resilience and recovery” narrative of this week into a context (and a bit of a stump speech) about a larger national recovery. He touted statistics attesting to a robust economy and to job growth. “We recovered faster and more steadily than just about any economy after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” he said. “The United States of America, for all its challenges continues to have the best cards. We just have to play ‘em right.” Then came a direct appeal to Congress to “protect our momentum, not kill it” with another government shutdown scare over budgets. “Do not cut us off at the knees with mindless austerity.”
Down the street from the Sanchez Center, and in many pockets of New Orleans, people now know and have known something I suppose we might call mindful austerity, for its inevitability as a direct result of policies of the lack thereof.
Obama got to all that, sort of.
He didn’t offer what Harry Shearer had asked for in his Advocate ad—specifically “own up to the culpability of an agency under his control (The Army Corps of Engineers).” In fact, he again failed to acknowledge that culpability. Yet he did address the fault and responsibility of local, state and federal agencies for ongoing suffering.
“We came to realize,” he said, “that what started out as a natural disaster became a manmade disaster due to the failure of government to look out for its citizens. Like a body undernourished, when the storm hit there were no resources to fall back on.”
“The progress you’ve made is remarkable,” he said. “That gives us hope. But that doesn’t allow for complacency. It doesn’t mean we can rest.”
When someone deep in the audience shouted out something about “…mental health!” Obama said, “I’ll get to that.”
He didn’t, but he did cite some specific needs and troubling realities. “Our work here won’t be done when over 40% of children live in poverty,” he said, “when a typical black household earns half what a typical white household does. When too many African American men can’t find a job…. New Orleans has for too long been plagued by structural inequality.”
Those words, coming from the country’s first black president, hold meaning. And yet, just as a decade ago, there was no specific talk of a jobs program targeted at that population and aimed at the continuing work of recovery. I wondered why.
Soon enough, Obama was back to familiar themes and to, well, resilience. “There’s something in you guys that’s irrepressible,” he said. You know the sun comes out after every storm. You’ve got hope.”
That played well to the locals, who mostly smiled and cheered.
I’d love to meet the staffer who decided that, while Obama shook hands and posed for photos, the PA should blare Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Sure, it’s full of uplifting lyrics and maybe even appropriate references: “This train carries saints and sinners/this train carries losers and winners/this train carries whores and gamblers/ this train carries lost souls…” But still, there’s a boatload of local music that says such things better and with a New Orleans beat. In a music city, one clinging with ever more passion and a hint of fear to its local legacy, that was a tin-eared move.
Outside the Sanchez Center, two elderly black men pounded out a rhythm on cowbell and djembe drum for a half-dozen others who sang “Help us, Obama” to the tune of a Mardi Gras Indian anthem, “Shallow Water, Oh Mama.”
Later that evening, I was back in the 9th Ward, at St. Maurice Church, a wondrous building in a semi-glorious state of disrepair that might be considered another flood casualty: It was deconsecrated and shut down in 2008, 151 years after its construction. For two nights, the church served as venue for a “9th Ward Improv Opera,” one of the many performances and presentations meant to represent and interpret the post-Katrina experience. This one, produced by Jeanne Nathan for the Creative Alliance of New Orleans, was, according to a program note, meant to “relive the terrifying moments of the levee breaks, but more so the grinding horror or the days, months and years after the breaks, when citizens fought to return to the place where they belonged.
The acoustics were loud and echo-laden, thus blurring the contributions of a truly stellar band—including tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan and his son, trumpeter Marlon Jordan—as well as the deft spoken-word poetry of Chuck Perkins and the soulful singing of Lonell Simmons. For all of the show’s interpretive dance and inventive theatrics, its most riveting moments arrived when via residents who rose from audience seats from time to time to tell straightforward tales—banks cards that didn’t work, strangers that lent a hand to safety. One man, wearing a suit and a tie laden with happy-face logos ended his testimony by saying, “through it all, god was smilin on us.” Similarly affecting was a trio of OperaCréole Singers, who walked the aisles singing refrains that became all too common during the past decade: “You don’t have your paperwork”; “We don’t have a program yet for rental properties”; “Your contractor took your money and ran.” This was the libretto of the so-called recovery for many, and there was a beauty beyond irony to hearing these lines sung in pure and rounded tones.