Known unknowns in New Orleans

“Come on, honey! I need to get laid”, echoes through the hallways of the old building, as I close the door wondering if ‘hotel’ is the right description for the establishment I have just checked in to in New Orleans. As it turns out, these are the parting words of the disappointed woman, as the hotel’s black bouncer escorts her off the premises. The sound of her stiletto heels taps down the street – unevenly.

Later that same afternoon, I once again have the indirect company of the bouncer. As I scribble notes in one corner of the shaded courtyard, he sits in another corner quietly reading aloud one word after another from an English dictionary. Within the first hours of my visit to New Orleans, I am witness to the racial, class and educational divides that Hurricane Katrina brought so brutally to the fore in 2005, as New Orleans first fought to stay alive and then faced the mammoth task of rebuilding the hurricane ravaged city.

An article by Joni Seager unabashedly described how Hurricane Katrina, like so many other natural disasters, exposed race and gender divides. An equally hard-hitting piece by Yvonne Rydin highlighted issues of justice and the geography of Hurricane Katrina. As days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years, stories continue of the on-going struggles to rebuild not just the built-environment but also trust and lives broken.

There is a rawness to this place that is utterly mesmerising and simultaneously utterly terrifying. I find myself in love with life at the same time, as I wish to depart this life-embracing seat of death and destruction as quickly as possible.

Upstream in the Louisiana Plantation Country, I encounter the rich and eye-opening history of Laura Plantation with its extraordinary well-preserved narratives of the life of Creoles in the Deep South. The bleakness of the plantation’s slave eugenics program, the pride of the Creoles and their cultural opposition to the American notion of ‘individualism’, are but a few points that are rarely told in history books. My impressively well versed guide – Joseph, tells me that there is no record of the house ever being impacted by flood water despite its location a mere 600-odd meters from the banks of the Mississippi. I ask if Hurricane Katrina impacted it? Only indirectly, as tourism slowed and the rebuilding of the 2004 fire-ravaged wing of the house haltered, as building supply and manpower dried up with the desperate needs of the city. “This is the house I want to be in in a bad storm”, he confides. This seems to be a common story of these old plantation homes. Their location upriver, their flexible foundation and the materials with which the slaves designed and built these mansions seem to hold valuable lessons.

New OrleansStanding on the banks of the mighty Mississippi in New Orleans’ French Quarter, I look towards the horizon. Will a hurricane akin to Katrina reach New Orleans again? Most likely. The unforgiving floodwater will return one day, one way or another. Will the city’s levees – the old and those repaired – breach again? Quite possibly.

Over dinner, I converse with two couples that experienced the full blow of Hurricane Katrina. There is much laughter, relief that things are “back to normal” but the stories they tell, speak of a different life post-Katrina. Weeks of temporary accommodation followed by no work; then a decision to sell-up and downsize. “What this Hurricane taught me, is that things are irrelevant. I am much happier with less – less belongings, less space”, one woman tells me. She continues, “It’s amazing, you forget what it was like in the chaos and civil unrest that followed”. The everydayness of the hurricane evacuation procedures they describe to me makes it sound just that – normal, manageable. Yet, the way the sparkle in their eyes fade, as they speak of forgetting, tells me that they have far from forgotten.

In the wake of the 2011 triple-earthquake-tsunami-nuclear-disaster in Japan, Gretel Ehrlich wrote (2013, 45):

In a dream I scratch dirt like a dog, panting and frantically working my paws, but the ground is hard-packed and refuses to open. As I travel around Tohoku, I try not to armour myself, but tell me, is there a way to catch grief and tear it open, examine the contents of its stomach? Death stalks us with its internal rain, shed from the same confining canopy that shelters sorrow.

This is as close as I have come to find words to describe the shadow that silently walked beside me in New Orleans.

Christine has written several posts about fire including “Questioning the legality of forced evacuations during the Red October bushfires” and “Reflections from the firefront and research in its ashen wake“. You can watch a recent interview with Christine about her new book “Gender and Wildfire: Landscapes of Uncertainty“. Follow Christine on Twitter @DrCEriksen.

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