Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Katrina: 10 Years Gone

Two boats passing, on the Mississippi River, New Orleans, LA (R. Schmidt)
Once again I tagged along with Susan to Sage Summit this year, held in New Orleans this past July. While Susan attended the conference, I was free to roam about and explore the city. I was interested in seeing the rebuilding and recovery as the city approached the ten-year anniversary of Katrina. The views of the paddlewheel steamboats plying the Mississippi River also brought back memories of the high school musical production of Show Boat that we put on my senior year. By the end of the trip, I had a veritable frappe of thoughts spinning in my mind, as these topics all became intertwined.

In essence, both New Orleans and Show Boat tell the story of two worlds living alongside each other along the banks of the Mississippi River: rich, poor, white, black, high ground, low ground.

When we got home, I could hardly wait to go rummaging in the garage and lay my hands on my old play book. Just as I remembered it, there were my carefully handwritten edits, crossing out “colored” folks, replaced with “poor” folks, “white” folks replaced with “rich,” such as:

Poor folks work on de Mississippi
Poor folks work while de rich folks play 


Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the musical, some portions of the plot line are revealed below. Skip the next three paragraphs if you want to see the story unfold on the stage.


I think we believed ourselves to be fairly evolved at the time, and were properly horrified at the use of terms such as “colored.” At my Catholic, mostly white high school, it wasn’t lost on us the fact that we wound up having practically an all-white cast. Our director – Jon Rashad Kamal – worked with what he had, and quite cleverly cast sisters in the roles of Queenie, the black cook, and Julie, the virtuous leading lady who turns out to be of “mixed blood.” During one of the scenes, Queenie is surprised that Julie knows the song, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” as she’d only ever known colored/poor folks to sing that song. It was a very clever way to show a resemblance, at least symbolic, between the two characters in that way. He was a man before his time, rest in peace.
Once it’s revealed that Julie and her husband Steve are guilty of miscegenation, or mixed marriage – illegal in those days (set in the 1880s) – Julie and Steve are run out of town. Of course, it also wasn’t lost on us, the fundamental injustice and unfairness of it all. Everyone had loved them before they knew about Julie’s mixed heritage. They were still the same people, nothing had changed, but in that moment, everything had changed.

The show then follows the story of Nola, the Captain’s daughter, who gets moved into the leading lady’s role, and falls for Gaylord Ravenal, a riverboat gambler. Nola is short for Magnolia, but could also symbolize NOLA, New Orleans Louisiana, a city that has had a long love affair with the gamble of living on land below sea level, on the Gulf Coast, and had relied on luck and hope that storms would veer off and avoid a direct hit. Of course, with Katrina, that luck ran out.

While visiting, I found a Katrina tour. I wanted to see and bear witness with my own eyes the land upon which such tragedy visited, truly hallowed ground. Such a tour could be accused of playing to morbid curiosity, and perhaps the same could be said for visitors to other such sites, the World Trade Center, the Boston Marathon finish line. I think it is simply human, an urge to connect. A desire to see, touch, feel, imagine what it must have been like. Consider the Biblical story of the Apostle who asked to see and touch the wounds in Jesus’ hands, and wound up being called Doubting Thomas as a result. Maybe it wasn’t doubt, but curiosity. Maybe he just in a similar way wanted to see and feel the wounds to make it more real, to try to feel the pain himself. I think it is like that. Our neighbor called us the other night. She was watching the 9/11 memorial shows on the History Channel, and asked us, “Why am I watching this? When it makes me so sad?” I said, “Maybe you just want to try to recall and feel their pain.”

The Katrina tour guide was a native of New Orleans, an older woman, who had lived through Katrina. She tried to educate us on the chronology and the reality of how the tragedy rolled out. Homes closest to the breaches in the levees or floodwalls got “fast water.” Water came in so fast and rose so quickly, there was little time to escape. Farther away from the breaches, there was “slow water,” and people had more time to seek escape. Some people went to their attics, and if they could, broke holes through the roof, and ultimately sought rescue from their rooftops.

House adjacent the London Ave. Canal floodwall (R. Schmidt)

It took two and a half days for the city to fill up with water, and three weeks to drain. We drove by the SuperDome (now the MetroDome), which was designated as a shelter, but lacked electricity, flush toilets, and air conditioning. After days of misery there, people were directed to the Convention Center, perched on higher ground along the river’s edge. People arrived there only to find the doors there locked, making a powerful symbolic, metaphorical statement about opportunity equalities. You can go knocking on the right doors, but still find them locked and opportunities unavailable to you.

Sadly, the rebuilding effort is uneven; skewed. Simply, the poorest neighborhoods have had the slowest and most difficult time recovering, and these neighborhoods tend to be predominantly black. A survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Laboratory at Louisiana State University found that blacks and whites had differing views on how completely the city had recovered post-Katrina. While the majority of whites viewed the city as mostly recovered, the majority of blacks thought the opposite (Robertson, 2015). To quote:

“Black residents, and in particular black women, report a harder time returning and rebuilding their lives after the storm. This is in part because of a couple of hard facts: African-Americans were far more likely to have lived in a flooded part of the city, and places that were worse-hit by the flooding, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, have taken much longer to recover.”

The survey also found negative views about recovery in the predominantly white neighborhoods outside New Orleans, such as Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, that were also catastrophically flooded. Black or white, then, the worse the extent of flooding, the more negative people felt about the recovery. But, in New Orleans, in general, the poor, black neighborhoods experienced the worst flooding.
It’s saddening and in ways shocking that the divides characterized in a 1927 musical are still in play today.

There is a great article in the Wall Street Journal by Leslie Eaton and Cameron McWhirter that chronicles the disparities in recovery. There are some bright spots, in that tourism – measured in terms of both the number of visitors and dollars spent per year – has practically returned to pre-Katrina levels.  However, this has spawned an increasing number of low-paying jobs in the restaurant industry, most typically held by black workers, “widening the economic divide between whites who are generally richer than before, and blacks, who aren’t.” It’s worth checking out the entire article:

It really is about opportunity inequalities. And the answer in terms of how best to level the playing field may come from a simple, but surprising corner: each other. Dr. Daniel Aldrich had just moved to New Orleans when Katrina struck, and as a result of that experience, has redirected his area of study from political science to disaster recovery and community resilience. He is now serving as Co-Director of Northeastern University’s Masters in Security and Resilience Studies program. In an interview with Bella English of The Boston Globe, he’s quoted as saying, “What I found was that the strength and cohesion of a community before the disaster was one of the best predictors for recovery after.” Ms. English writes: “It was social capital – not money poured into infrastructure – that most quickly led to recovery, no matter how poor the community.” And: “The power of friends, family and neighbors means that they, in effect, are the real first responders.”

So, it was appropriate and sobering that the last stop on the Katrina tour was the tomb of the unknown, 83 souls lost who were never identified. Maybe everyone who knew them, who could have identified them, also perished in the flood. The tomb of the unknown victims is doubly sad. It is almost a universal fear, the thought of dying alone, and lonely, and that is the death they experienced. It is the least we can do to remember them, mourn and honor them now.  


Post Script – Show Boat
Show Boat was based on the novel by Edna Ferber, with music by Jerome Kern, and playbook and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2nd. The musical spans riverboat life in Natchez, Mississippi from the 1880s into the early 1900s. 

Locally, the North Shore Music Hall put on a production of Show Boat in 2008.

And, ironically, I played the part of Parthy, the captain’s wife, who was from Boston. Here’s a great line: “In Massachusetts, where I come from, no decent body’d touch this show boat riffraff with a ten foot pole…”

Happy 35th high school reunion to the class of ’80!

And happy one-year anniversary to Rosebud’s Blog!


Post Script – New Orleans
Bravo to Sage for hosting its Summit in New Orleans this year, helping to bring 2015 tourism numbers up to pre-Katrina levels. And we certainly tried to do our part, by doing all the touristy things while we were in town. I committed myself to trying as many different beignets and eating as many as possible during our week-long stay. The Best Beignets award goes to: Le Croissant at the Hilton Riverside. They had the crispest exterior crust, and the softest, most tender dough inside.

Beignets at Le Croissant, Hilton Riverside (R. Schmidt)
We made the obligatory walk down Bourbon Street. It was hot, steamy, and smelly. For a city known for Mardi Gras and drunken revelry, the sidewalks are in shockingly poor repair. It just seems like another bad combination – inebriation and tripping hazards. Or, maybe once you’re drunk enough, they seem even. Maybe we were too sober.


We also enjoyed the art galleries off Jackson Square and along Royal Street, lunches at Emeril’s and Muriels. There was dinner, dancing, fried alligator, and live music at Mulate's, too. We made our way to the French Market, and Frenchmen Street as well, enjoying the local artisans displaying their crafts there.

Emeril's banana cream pie

Muriels' shrimp creole


French Market
Frenchmen Street

Frenchmen Street
At the end of the Summit, we were treated to a concert by Walk The Moon, which was delightful, but loud. I was standing, holding my ears, when a woman came over and offered me ear plugs. I didn’t know who she was, or where the ear plugs came from, but I didn’t care. I gratefully accepted the gift and enjoyed the rest of the concert in my newfound peace. A smile crept over my face, as I recalled a line from another play set in New Orleans:
“I have always relied upon the kindness of strangers.” We rode the streetcars, but I never did see one named Desire.
Walk The Moon

At the end of the day, though, as a tourist in New Orleans, I still couldn’t help feel a bit like one of the “rich folk playing on the Mississippi.”

Coming Next
We Are All Immigrants

Advance Notices:

Art Exhibit: Out of the Earth
Artist: Joe Caruso
Sep. 2 - 27, 2015
Reception: Sep. 27
Galatea Fine Art, 460B Harrison Ave., Boston, MA

Oct. 3 - 10, 2015
Boston, MA
Check out the events posted so far, advance registration is available. Some are free and some require paid tickets. It’s an opportunity to get together with some of the great minds of Boston, use various locations across the city to gather in these various living rooms. The week-long event is described as “where art, science and technology collide” – or is it more of an intersection? Meeting? Merging? Fusion? What is the relationship between art, science and technology? What is our relationship with technology?

Registration is now open. My top picks right now are:
Sunday, October 4 – De-Stress Boston (hosted by Massachusetts General Hospital).
Sunday, October 4 – Fenway Forum: What’s The Right Thing To Do? A philosophy class at Fenway Park by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel.
Monday, October 5 - STEM Event (MGH)

Women In STEM Summit
Oct. 22, 2015
Bentley University, Waltham, MA

Boston Book Festival
Oct. 23 - 24, 2015
Copley Square, Boston, MA

Eaton, Leslie and Cameron McWhirter. 2015. An Unfinished Riff: New Orleans’ Uneven Revival in Decade After Katrina. Wall Street Journal. August 26, 2015.

English, Bella. 2015. How to bounce back. The Boston Globe. September 1, 2015.

Robertson, Campbell. 2015. In New Orleans, blacks, whites differ on Katrina recovery. The Boston Globe. August 25, 2015.

© 2015 Rosemary A. Schmidt

Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life.” Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted. If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact me. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author, and do not reflect those of any other entity, person, agency, or organization.