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THE DROWNING OF NEW ORLEANS

Bestselling Author JOSEPH BOYDEN on the tragedy of his adopted city

JOSEPH BOYDEN September 12 2005
Cover

THE DROWNING OF NEW ORLEANS

Bestselling Author JOSEPH BOYDEN on the tragedy of his adopted city

JOSEPH BOYDEN September 12 2005

THE DROWNING OF NEW ORLEANS

Cover

Bestselling Author JOSEPH BOYDEN on the tragedy of his adopted city

JOSEPH BOYDEN

I’m in an airplane high over the Atlantic as hurricane Katrina heads for, then smashes into, the Gulf Coast. Nothing I can do up here. Useless. Last I heard before climbing onto the plane at Heathrow was that Katrina was steaming right for New Orleans as a category 5, the strongest storm there is.

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SUCH A NIGHT - DR. JOHN

MONDAY, AUG. 29

I’m in an airplane high over the Atlantic as hurricane Katrina heads for, then smashes into, the Gulf Coast. Nothing I can do up here. Useless. Last I heard before climbing onto the plane at Heathrow was that Katrina was steaming right for New Orleans as a category 5, the strongest storm there is. Sick with worry. I found out that my wife, Amanda, evacuated to Houston two days ago. She’s safe, at least. But what about all my friends? My

students? My home? Nothing I can do. And so I sit and wait and try to imagine what’s going on in my city so far away.

I’ve ridden out hurricanes before. The first week I moved to New Orleans back in 1992 as a young graduate student, hurricane Andrew came screaming right for us. My welcome to this crazy place tourists call the Big Easy. Last minute, the hurricane turned away and hit west of the city instead.

I wandered the city streets later that night and made a note of the fallen trees, the water-soaked streets, the broken windows.

No big deal. A sense of elation, that I was brave and silly enough to stay put rather than run, washed over me.

And that remained the pattern in the following years, always a hurricane heading for the city, always the chatter that this was the Big One, always the storm turning away at the last moment and hitting somewhere else, usually Florida or Alabama. Amanda and I stayed back, battened down the hatches, and got invited to hurricane parties. Something exhilarating in staring into the face of mother nature’s strength and living to tell. Something addictive in the gamble.

Until last year. Hurricane Ivan built up immense power over the warm waters of the Gulf, and Mayor Ray Nagin got on TV

and said this is it, the one we’ve been dreading. Get out while you can. For the first time, Amanda and I heeded the advice. Something felt awfully wrong about this one. We packed our animals and a few important documents and sat through 12 hours of mind-numbing crawl, making it 120 miles into Cajun country and the comfort of a friend’s home on the bayou.

Once again, the hurricane turned away from New Orleans at the last minute, devastating the Florida Panhandle instead. We all crept back into the city, only to find out no more than an inch or two of rain had fallen. New Orleans is Lady Luck. Yeah, we’re below sea level, living in what amounts to a big bowl, but we are too special a place, too blessed with voodoo gris gris and soaked in bourbon for anything to happen to us. As I sit on this airplane high over the Atlantic, I convince myself, despite the gigantic grey ghost swirling over the gulf on CNN and Fox, bee-lining for southeast Louisiana, that this is just another Ivan.

Off the plane and in Toronto I am desperate for information. Yes! Yet again, the hurricane’s eye veered at the last minute, took a turn to the east, the worst of it missing my city. Oh, but the destruction I see in Mississippi is bad. I say a prayer for those people,

JOSEPH BOYDEN

The 38-year-old author of the acclaimed novel Three Day Road, released in April, has lived in New Orleans for 11 years. Shown here at Audubon park, he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of New Orleans.

Born in Toronto, he’s of Irish, Scottish and Metis descent.

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thank the Creator for sparing us once more. I sleep easier tonight than I have in the past few days, a little guilty in my clean bed.

NEW ORLEANS IS SINKING

TRAGICALLY HIP TUESDAY, AUG. 30

I wake up a little late, make coffee at my brother and sister-in-law’s comfortable house in Toronto. The plan for today is to check in with Amanda in Houston, then head to northern Ontario for a canoe trip with my son, Jacob, to get back in touch with the beautiful bush that I’ve been away from for the past few months while teaching and book-touring in Europe. I have a ticket to fly back to New Orleans next week, where we will celebrate Amanda’s birthday. CNN reports the devastation in Gulfport, in Biloxi, all along the Mississippi coast. Like a nuclear bomb went off. Horrifying images. Complete destruction. The few images of New Orleans this morning show a city that took quite a punch. More destruction than I thought. Cars crushed by a fallen brick building. Gorgeous old oaks shattered. The skin of the Superdome ripped away, but the monster pretty much intact. No reports of lost life, though. I see video of a drunken tourist on Bourbon Street with a massive go-cup of beer in hand walking the wind-ravaged French Quarter. Already life is returning to this crazy, beautiful, dangerous city.

And then Amanda calls me. A levee has been breached on the Industrial Canal. Water is flooding into our bowl. Don’t worry, I tell her. The Army Corps of Engineers is ready for exactly this kind of problem. But then another levee is breached, this one on Lake Pontchartrain. If it’s such a problem, I tell Amanda, surely the news giants will report it. The real story is to our east in Mississippi. Almost nothing is being reported about the Crescent City. We’re okay. The hurricane has passed.

By noon, though, the cameras begin to focus on New Orleans. Is that water I see crawling up our streets? Oh my god, that’s Lakeview right near the University of New Orleans, where I teach, water up to roof gutters. School will be out for a week or two at least. What of my friends Neil and Eric, who just bought a house in that neighbourhood? The little thing is their pride and joy. And my professor friend Kris Lackey? He lives in there, too, in a beautiful house full of rare books and art. They had the sense

TUESDAY AUG. 30

WEDNESDAY AUG. 31

to leave, didn’t they? They must have ...

I can’t remove myself from the television. Images of the city quickly filling with water as the afternoon advances, scenes of Coast Guard choppers pulling people from rooftops in the Ninth Ward, one of the poorest, and therefore lowest, parts of the city. Slowly, as the afternoon unfolds, it’s becoming clear that the Army Corps of Engineers can’t do much. The bowl is filling, low areas first, crawling Uptown to where Amanda and I live. It’s not really happening. It can’t be.

But oh, the Ninth Ward. A big part of the dangerous soul of this city. Rundown houses on the tough side of the French Quarter. A place brimming with musicians and artists and blue-collar workers. So many friends live here. They’ve lost everything. But they got out with their lives. Didn’t they?

It was here, when Betsy hit decades ago, that stories began circulating of people drowning in their attics, pressed up against their roof beams, trapped. That’s where the folk wisdom—to always have an axe in the house when a hurricane heads your way— comes from. If your attic fills with water, you’ve got to chop your way out.

Now I’m watching people on their roofs in the hot sun. Ninety-three degrees in the glare. Crushing humidity. No water. No food. Making makeshift signs. Help. Please help. Help Please! Almost all of them are African-American. Black people. Sixtyseven per cent of my city is black. Thirty per cent of my city lives below the poverty level. I won’t bother to do the math, but suffice to say that these ones on the roofs didn’t have the means to get out. No car. No money. Just ride it out. We’ve done it before a hundred times. Surely more helicopters will come. But no, they’re all in Iraq. Don’t swim in that water, kid. It is a foul chemical stew of backed-up sewers and dead rats. Why are the kids smiling? Some wave happily to the cameras in the helicopters. The parents aren’t smiling, though. The reality, the horror that this is the Big One, crawling slyly in the back door once we let our guard down, is beginning to make my stomach feel sick.

First reports of bodies floating in the water. And what of my friends? So many of them with the same attitude as me. Ride it out. We’re blessed. The University of New Orleans is a state school. Many of my students look just like the faces I see on TV. Many of them don’t have the means to escape. What of

them? Communication lines to the city are down. I can only watch the glow of the television late into the night, the same loop of images, the voice-over commenting again and again that the levees can’t be fixed, that my city is filling with the waters that surround it. In 72 hours the city will be covered if something can’t be reversed, an American Atlantis, a blistering wound covered in oilslicked water.

Mentions of looting and violence. Our neighbourhood isn’t so bad compared to many, but only a month ago the poor Vietnamese woman who runs the corner store right across the street from me was shot to death by a robber. She was a nice woman. Violence has always bubbled just below the thin skin of this place. I’m surprised the National Guard isn’t pouring in yet. But there are people to be rescued. Hundreds. Thousands. I hope someone tells the government that New Orleans is not your average city. An official announces early in the evening that there’s no need yet to call in the National Guard. That’s a last option. Whoever he is has no idea about this city. Violence follows tragedy quickly here, and vice versa.

The situation can’t be as bad as the TV says it is, can it? These are just isolated pockets: Mid-City, Fakeview, Canal Street, the Ninth Ward. No, not isolated pockets. These are huge parts of the city I’m hearing about. I know from experience, too, that a camera rarely captures the grim reality very well. I’m useless here. They’ll stop the flooding. Those left will act courageously in the face of desperation. It’s not too late.

LIGHTS OUT - LIL WAYNE WEDNESDAY, AUG. 31

Cash Money Records is a homegrown New Orleans rap label that is a source of pride for so many young New Orleansians. Rappers like Lil Wayne, Baby and the Big Tymers pen rhymes about life in the streets of this city, about growing up in projects like Iberville and St. Thomas, about living the American Dream of rags to riches their own way. Their music is filled with images of violence and of retribution and of domination that capture the underbelly of a place so few French Quarter tourists ever see. But it’s a big part of this city a resident can’t escape, no matter how tall the fence or barred the window. Get rich, or die tryin’—the Cash Money subculture represents one level of this city. And the rappers on the label are

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fabulously rich. A new pair of sneakers every day rich. But the young men and women I see everywhere are dirt poor. The poverty here astounded me when I first arrived years ago. Projects that look like they should have been condemned filled past capacity. One man killing another as casually as if he were shaking hands. But I get away from myself. The sheer number of rappers here are the latest in a long line, in a rich musical heritage that is this city.

Buddy Bolden is the Daddy of Jazz. Everyone knows who Louis Armstrong is. Dr. John and Professor Longhair and the Wild Tchoupitoulas and Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Kermit Ruffins and Better Than Ezra only scratch the surface of the art that seeps out of this city. The music of life. I’ve been to “second lines”—dancing, shuffling, fluid parties led by brass bands that snake through the streets of Uptown, people shaking it and laughing and sweating and drinking. Sharing the love. We all dance together, black and white, on the same streets I see this morning submerged in brown water. People I saw

at second lines are now staring up at helicopter cameras. I keep looking hard for faces of students and friends.

The situation turns dire as night turns into today. The breaches have only grown. Reports that thousands of gallons of water a second are flooding the city. Looting in the streets. Gangstas breaking into gun shops and walking openly, brazenly, with weapons in full view. The police have no control. They certainly have control during Mardi Gras, when the city swells to many times its normal number with revellers. The only revelling going on in the streets right now, though, is by the bad, bad few. The city is slipping into chaos.

Amanda and I were married in an outdoor ceremony in Audubon park the semester we graduated from our master’s program. October 1995. A gorgeous sunny afternoon, under a giant oak tree the locals call the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is massive. One hundred people can rest comfortably on its limbs. A Jesuit priest and an Ojibwa healer helped to marry us. Yes, our wedding ceremony was a bit of an anomaly, just like our

city. A cello player as we walked down the grassy aisle, a brass band and a blues band rocking the reception. As crazy as this sounds, five days before the wedding, a hurricane was heading right for us, adding considerably to our pre-nuptial stress. This one had a pretty name. Hurricane Opal. Lamily was on the way from Canada, from all over America, straight into the jaws of a potential beast. But as always, last minute it veered away, knocking out Pensacola, delivering us sunshine and cool breezes. New Orleans was blessed. We were convinced.

Audubon park is a green space as great as any city I’ve seen has to offer. A two-mile track for runners, rollerbladers and joggers, most of it shaded by live oak trees. Statues and fountains, an amazing zoo, a place the locals call the Ply where groups congregate on sunny weekend afternoons to barbecue, play Prisbee and watch the Mississippi roll on by.

I’ve noticed over the years how the park is prone to flooding during thunderstorms. I don’t want to think about what this place so special to me looks like now, if the Tree of

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Life, which has stood for more than 200 years in that sacred spot, still stands. Maybe I will use this as a symbolic thing to hold onto. Amanda and I have been talking on the phone, trying to figure out what we should do now that it’s becoming obvious we don’t have a city anymore. At least not for the next months. If I find that the Tree of Life still stands, I will rebuild in our city. If not...

The streets are filled with brown water, oily water. People everywhere, almost all of them black, continue to be stranded on rooftops or in a Superdome squalid enough that few cameras are allowed in. I can only imagine. No, I can’t, really. Toilets overflowed. No electricity, which means no air conditioning. Not enough water or food. People not being allowed out. Gangstas running the show. Unless you’ve spent a summer in such a city, you can’t fully comprehend the crushing wet heat. Like living in the mouth of an overheated dog, someone once told me. It’s not the heat, it’s the stupidity is a popular phrase when the question of the violence, bad driving and selfishness New Orleans seems to breed like mosquitoes comes up.

Proud to call it home has become one of the most popular bumper stickers in this city. Some comic genius counterattacked with his own line of bumper stickers. Proud to crawl it home. That captures a big part of this city’s attitude. Laugh at yourself with a drink in one hand. Flip a bird with your other at all the poor suckers who aren’t fortunate enough to live in such a place.

Such a place. The architecture is like none other I’ve seen. Shotgun houses, Georgian mansions and brick warehouses turned into loft spaces. Creole cottages and 18th-century convents. The French Quarter on a pretty spring day truly is all you’ve heard it is with its wrought iron fences, antique shops and mint juleps.

I always tell people who plan on coming down that they have to get out of the French Quarter and experience the “real city.” The Marigny, the Garden District, the Warehouse District. Uptown. Get away from the adult Disneyland of Bourbon Street for the places where the rest of us live. Where the rest of us lived. That’s not sinking in fully. I can’t let it just yet. The levee in my head holds out the worst of it, but the levee feels like it’s going to be breached soon.

My levee breaks late in the day when Mayor Ray Nagin, a decent, hardworking man who is not prone to panic, announces

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that he believes hundreds, if not thousands, are dead in New Orleans. Hundreds, if not thousands. In a small city like mine, with just 500,000 people, that’s incomprehensible. That means some of my students are dead, friends are dead, parents and grandparents and grandchildren of friends are dead. I don’t want to believe him. But Nagin isn’t prone to hype. Too stunned to even cry. I call Amanda. She’s already heard.

I spend the rest of this night trying to remember all the places I love in the city as the networks spin the same reels. Tipitina’s,

where I’ve seen so much amazing music. CC’s, the coffeehouse where I wrote most of my novel. Taquería Corona, where I’ve shared so many meals. The Milan Lounge, where I first wooed my wife. The Riverwalk. Aquarium of the Americas. Decatur Street in the Quarter. Café Brasil. Faulkner House and its rare first-edition books. The Parkview, where my students and I meet every Monday night.

My students. A friend emailed and told me he saw footage of my university by the levee along Lake Pontchartrain. Two of three stories of all of the campus buildings under

water. That’s 20 feet of water, at least. What of my career there? Can’t worry about that now. People are dying in my city. People are dead.

THE UNDERTAKER MAN

KERMIT RUFFINS THURSDAY, SEPT. 1

When I think of the New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, I think of good times. I think of Jazz Fest. Kermit Ruffins is my city’s contemporary Louis Armstrong, the new swinging ambassador of goodwill for the city that care forgot. One sweltering early May night last year, Amanda and I were driving home from a day at the fairgrounds, where Jazz Fest unfolds every spring. Many thousands come here for the music at this time each year, for the food, for a small bite of America’s most original city. Our day had been one of the better Jazz Fest days we’d experienced. And we’d experienced many.

The car windows were rolled down. The night was warm and dark as velvet. Ahead of us, in the middle of the quiet street, we saw two men, one dragging the other, across our path. We slowed to let the one on top drag the other out of our way. We stopped to see if things were cool. By this time, the two men were beside me, five feet away. The one on the ground was skinny, panicked. His white T-shirt was covered in red. The one standing above him, no older than 17, looked at me, then began to raise the handgun I hadn’t seen till that moment toward me. My eyes held his for what felt like 10 minutes, but it was only seconds. His eyes didn’t look startled or guilty. Just calm. In control. I screamed to Amanda that he had a gun, to drive drive drive! And as I shouted this he lowered the gun and aimed it at the head of the skinny man below him, and pulled the trigger. The sound was more a pop than a bang. The young kid ran away.

I jumped from the car and held the dying man’s head in my lap, stroked his forehead as he moaned like a sick child, whispered to him that it will be okay, it’s okay, just breathe, breathe. He died a few minutes later. I stared at the neat hole punched in his cheek, at the chest wound he’d received just before Amanda and I arrived, at the blood pouring from below him into the gutter. His eyes were open, but glassed over. I’d watched

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THURSDAY SEPT. 1

the life drain from them. The police, after they’d arrived and taped off the area, then driven Amanda and me separately to the station for questioning and kept us apart for three hours, apologized to us. It had been a busy night for them. This was just one of three murders tonight. But we were the only ones who stuck around to talk.

The next morning, after a night of crying and shock, we decided, without reservation, that we were not going to leave our home. We were here because this city is magical in its ability to foster creativity, because we’d decided long ago it was our home, because we had students, the majority of them black and walking that razor’s edge of poverty, who were good, who were great, who were not the stereotypes that outsiders expect.

And now, today unfolds in a sickening convulsion of news reports. This morning when I awake, dirty water still bleeds into the city, and stories are emerging of looters gone mad, of armed gangs of thugs in running firefights with each other and the police. Worst of all, Charity Hospital, that last-chance refuge for the vast number of residents who have no medical insurance and no choice, the hospital that trains army medics how to deal with gunshot victims culled from our streets, our city’s angel of mercy, came under sniper fire as doctors and nurses tried to evacuate the sickest of the sick to a safer place.

City descending into madness. All social order gone. Police attacked by mobs. Thousands feared dead. Thugs firing randomly into crowds of the old and sick and wounded. I recognize streets I drive and walk and bicycle every day under disease-infested water: Claiborne and Napoleon, Canal Street, Jeff Highway. I see faces I recognize trying to make it somewhere, getting nowhere. The image of an old dead woman in a wheelchair, covered by a blanket and waiting stiff by the side of the convention centre, plays over and over. I live a walk away from the convention centre. The image of the blanket-covered woman comes on again, and then cuts away to President George W. Bush declaring that he will make sure gas prices across the country stabilize. Something’s fundamentally wrong in my city. Something’s fundamentally wrong in America.

I check email today for the first time in

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days. I’m surprised by the number of new ones. Friends wondering if I am okay, if I am in New Orleans, if Amanda is safe. Yes, I’m okay. Thanks for your kind concern. I am safe in Ontario, and Amanda in Houston, I tell them. Had to change my return flight from New Orleans to Houston, I tell them. Amanda and I will come back to Ontario for a while. I don’t have any other words. Emails from students and friends trickle in. They, too, are safe, but wonder if anyone has heard from others. I haven’t. We haven’t. I feel useless. And now guilty. Guilty I am here in a comfortable home with a comfortable bed, removed from my dying city.

It continues to sink as the day progresses. Death. Chaos. Senseless violence. Confused, angry, numb and broken faces on the screen. I sit paralyzed by the TV. Watch my home through the glass. Eleven years of my life I have spent in this place. New Orleans is an island surrounded by swamp and water. What short-sighted fool would ever live there? New Orleansians say the same about Californians who will one day fall into the

sea. No, New Orleans isn’t an island anymore. It is the inverse. A bowl of putrid water. And I sit here looking at it through a TV screen, wonder about the poor bastards who desperately wade through it, wonder when the government will do something.

Do we owe something to someone for our past injustices? Or does karma take care of it all? The politicians congratulate each other on reacting so quickly, so decisively, to America’s worst natural disaster. The media jockey for righteous position as the same video loops play over and over. My head buzzes as the day wears on. I think of slavery as I look at all the black faces that are now officially victims, sitting crumpled on the pavement by the Riverwalk or taut with anger and screaming at the camera. Why do I think of slavery at such a time? At such a desperate time? Undoubtedly, many of these faces are descendants of slaves. Is this a jump of logic, a skewed math developing in my head?

Why didn’t you evacuate when you could, the interviewer asks a lucky one who’s been

taken to Houston tonight, to another dome. The refugee’s voice is exhausted. Her answer is rambling. You’ve lost everything, haven’t you, the interviewer asks.

DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? - LOUIS ARMSTRONG FRIDAY, SEPT. 2

You’ve probably seen photos or videos of the intricately costumed and feathered black men and women, dressed up like Las Vegas Indians, chanting and singing and shaking tambourines in the streets of New Orleans around Carnival time. Collectively, they are known as Mardi Gras Indians. The Wild Tchoupitoulas. The Wild Magnolias. The Ninth Ward Hunters. The Creole Wild West. Legend has it that these people are the descendants of runaway slaves taken in by local First Nation bands hundreds of years ago. At the turn of the 20th century, they were actual gangs who battled each other for turf. Now their battles have taken a symbolic turn. Instead of fighting each other with

FRIDAY SEPT. 2

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sticks and knives and fists, they meet in the streets of our city at certain times of year and battle with voices and song. These meetings are one of the great spectacles the Crescent City has to offer.

A Mardi Gras Indian doesn’t wear the same “suit,” the same incredibly intricate and carefully constructed costume, two years in a row. On Ash Wednesday, the day after Carnival has ended, he will retire his old suit and immediately begin creating a new costume, one bead, one stitch, at a time. I’ve seen beautiful beadwork from Indians all across North America, and the Mardi Gras Indian beadwork is some of the best. Men and women sit patiently in their living rooms and sew together over the course of a year, just for the chance to strut proudly and prove themselves on Fat Tuesday. That’s dedication, that’s focus, that’s love. That’s New Orleans. One bead at a time. One brick, one wall, one house re-built at a time.

Amanda fled for Houston with a weekend’s worth of clothes and a few important papers. I have my summer’s travel suitcase with my eagle feathers tucked safely inside.

That’s about it. That’s about all we own anymore if we are to believe the TV. But we’re lucky. We won’t forget that.

I wake up early this morning, able to sleep only a couple of hours. A chemical fire is burning out of control. The President is supposed to visit the disaster zone today. Thousands are still stuck in the city with little or nothing. Corpses continue to rot and swell in the sun and water. Martial law has been declared. As slow as the water drains from the city, the people have begun to trickle out. I turn off the TV. The Fats Domino song Walking to New Orleans has been running through my head lately. His house was in the Ninth Ward. I hum this song to myself. I hum an Anishnabe heart song for my city.

My brother-in-law, Tom, has a coffee with me. We debate the most efficient way to rebuild New Orleans. Rebuild New Orleans. I’m surprised I am talking about this.

Whenever I’m away from that city, and people ask me where I live, I always answer

the same way. I spend a lot of my year in the Crescent City. I always get the same look, the same smirk that says, you lucky bugger. It must be fun. I tell these people it isn’t Mardi Gras every day of the year there, you know. New Orleans has some serious social, environmental and racial problems. Yeah, whatever, their smirks say. It must be fun.

In a week, in a month, in a year, this crisis will be replaced by a new one. America has become the land of crisis. Al-Qaeda and terrorism. Gas shortages. Social strife. Natural disasters. It seems to me this morning that America is addicted to these crises. You aren’t forced to deal with your fundamental problems if you are always in a state of emergency. But something tells me this one is different. Katrina tore away the thin membrane separating civility from social breakdown as easily as she ripped the white Teflon skin from the Superdome. We will be forced to care for the city that care forgot, and for the people who are so often forgotten. I?1

ON THE WEB For up-to-the-minute coverage of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, visit www.macleans.ca/hurricane