2005, A great part of the city is below the level of the river during the high flood tides, which last for a few days each year and is protected by levee or embankment

Hurricane Katrina

by Greil Marcus
and Werner Sollors

New Orleans Lost in the Flood

People had seen it before. In 1937, in Faulkner’s “Old Man,” published in sections alternating with “Wild Palms” in the book Faulkner wanted to call If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, a convict is ordered to rescue a pregnant woman who is stranded on a cypress mound the narrator calls “that earthen ark out of Genesis.” The title of the story refers to the Mississippi, and the story captures the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927—a flood that was understood, in the moment, as at once commonplace and biblical, something that would simultaneously disrupt the regular comings and goings of individuals and initiate them into a ritual of history. The convict hears a sound:

He did not know what it was because he had never heard it before and he would never be expected to hear such again since it is not given to every man to hear such at all and to none to hear it more than once in his life. And he was not alarmed now either because there was not time, for although the visibility ahead, for all its clarity, did not extend very far, yet in the next instant to the hearing he was also seeing something such as he had never seen before. This was that the sharp line where the phosphorescent water met was now about ten feet higher than it had been an instant before and that it was curled forward upon itself like a sheet of dough being rolled out for a pudding. It reared, stooping; the crest of it swirled like the mane of a galloping horse and, phosphorescent too, fretted and flickered like fire.

The weirdness of such incongruous similes in this passage as pudding dough and horse’s mane only enhances the awe-inspiring grandeur of the flood. In other passages the vast gray extent of the river flooding that makes streets invisible is described as “a single perfectly flat and motionless steel-colored sheet in which the telephone poles and the straight hedgerows which marked section lines seemed to be fixed and rigid as though set in concrete . . . It looked as though you could walk on it.” As history moved on, people did walk on it, or under it. In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God it is only a year later when the Okeechobee Hurricane walks like a man:

Ten feet higher and far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. Two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to- be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

“The wind came back with triple fury,” Hurston wrote, “and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” In 1974, the singer Randy Newman, who spent his early childhood in New Orleans, went back with “Louisiana 1927.” He saw “President Coolidge come down in a railroad train / With a little fat man with a note-pad in his hand / President say, ‘Little fat man, isn’t it a shame / What the river has done / To this poor cracker’s land.’” Oddly, though, the song seemed loosed from any event, a floating song, waiting as much as looking back. In the days after Katrina it was, as one commentator put it, “a song everybody knows.” Again and again, Newman stepped forth to play it. What did it mean? Where was history, and what did it want? Tom Paine proclaimed in Common Sense: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.” Hoping for a completely new, postdiluvial, free American beginning, Paine did not seem to think of God’s pronouncement before flooding the world: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.” It was more the divine blessing of the chosen survivors that seemed to fit: “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” That was America, Melville insisted in White-Jacket: its citizens “the peculiar, chosen people” and the nation itself the “ark of the liberties of the world” on which they sailed.

But what was New Orleans? In 1909, the second edition of Baedeker’s United States with Excursions to Mexico, Cuba, Porto Rico, and Alaska advised travelers that “passports, though not necessary in the United States, may be useful in procuring delivery of registered and poste-restante letters,” and praised the country’s 286,000-mile railroad grid (“more than half the total mileage of the world”), with eight great lines leading to and from the five stations in New Orleans alone, a city with “picturesque” French and Spanish street names (“the Anglicized pronunciation will sometimes puzzle a stranger”); the reader also learned that “a great part of the city is below the level of the river during the high flood tides, which last for a few days each year, and is protected by levee or embankment.” That was New Orleans; but imagine now that it was any place, any great city, any small town, on which, for a moment, the attention of the nation was fixed. The place then becomes a mirror, the face of the nation itself. In the national imagination the place becomes the nation, or its negation—the face the nation faces, or the face from which the nation turns away.

Those were the circumstances as, beginning on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, and then Hurricane Rita, overwhelmed the city. Preparations made by the mayor and the governor were swept away as they pleaded for help from the national government, representatives of which either claimed that everything was under control or that they could not confirm what the world was watching on the news. Fifty-three levees were breached. Eighty percent of the city went under the water. Citizens climbed to the roofs of their houses, called for help, and were told that nothing could be done. Hundreds and hundreds of people drowned; no one knows how many. The city was left to drown. Countless Americans, from National Guard units from every state to relief organizations to solitary engineers, firefighters, medical workers, and aid workers from foreign countries, went to Louisiana to help; most of the nation decided it had seen enough, that there was nothing to be done, that there were more important things to think about.

If, for that moment, New Orleans was the nation, did the nation still exist? If it did, did it deserve to? The community would flourish if its members “make others Condicions our owne rejoyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together,” John Winthrop told the nation as it was in the company before him in 1630; it would justly disappear if it did not. Did it?

“They passed a dead man in a sitting position on a hummock, entirely surrounded by wild animals and snakes,” Hurston wrote. “Another man clung to a cypress tree on a tiny island. A tin roof of a building hung from the branches by electric wires and the wind swung it back and forth like a mighty ax. The man dared not move a step to his right lest this crushing blade split him open. He dared not step left for a large rattlesnake was stretched full length with his head in the wind.”

“I saw a man rowing a boat, vigorously pulling on the oars, his back turned toward two bodies that were piled in the bow, his face set with stoic determination, as though his efforts could undo fate’s worst cut,” police detective Dave Robicheaux says in James Lee Burke’s Tin Roof Blowdown, his Katrina murder mystery— but the real murder was not who shot the looter in the back or tortured the woman to death. Burke was calling down the cadences of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and, unlike in that song, in his pages the rain was rain before it was symbolic: “I saw a black baby hung in the branches of a tree, its tiny hands trailing in the current, its plastic diaper immaculate in the moonlight. I saw people eating from plastic packages of mustard and ketchup they had looted from a café, dividing what they had among themselves.”

It was an event in which every word turned into poetry; the event was just that charged. The front page of the New York Times, September 2, 2005: beneath the headline despair and lawlessness grip new orleans as thousands remain stranded in squalor is a photo, stretching almost the width of the newsprint. On the right, on an overpass strewn with garbage, a woman pours water from a glass bottle into a Styrofoam container of dry dog food, trying to interest her brown and white dog, which hangs its head, as if it can no longer see, hear, taste, or smell, or no longer wants to. The image has deep gravity; you could look at it for a long time without noticing that on the left, on the water, is a body floating face down, arms outstretched, someone dressed in a white garment that covers the body from the top of the head to the knees. The woman on the overpass has either looked away or not seen it. What matters? As John Adams wrote in 1790 in Discourses on Davila, given the choice between feeding himself and his dog, a man will always feed his dog, because then at least someone will be left to look up to him.

And President Coolidge will always come down to take a look.

“What did you think of Lyndon Johnson?” Sheriff Helen Solieau asks Dave Robicheaux in Tin Roof Blowdown.

“Before or after I got to Vietnam?”
“When Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans in ’65, Johnson flew into town and went to a shelter full of people who had been evacuated from Algiers. It was dark inside and people were scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to them. He shined a flashlight in his face and said ‘My name is Lyndon Baines Johnson. I’m your goddamn president and I’m here to tell you my office and the people of the United States are behind you.’ Not bad, huh?”

Do you, can you believe this story? If you do, is it because it is a story that is pointedly not about a photo opportunity, with directors and lighting technicians and makeup artists and dressers securing the site, but rather about a dark room and a man enacting the odd, violent, finger-snapping clap-of- thunder gesture of shining a flashlight into his own face, combining vanity with nakedness? Or did James Lee Burke put this story into the mouth of his hardest-to- fool character simply to let it stand as a rebuke to all the stories from Katrina that were not rumors, tall tales, folk legends?

On September 3, 2005, five days into the horror movie that was now called Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush arrived in New Orleans. On Air Force One, he met with the Democratic governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, and attempted to force her to turn the Louisiana National Guard over to the federal government, thus signaling that she was incapable of governing her own state; he met with New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Republican, and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat. Then, in a helicopter, they toured the city. There had been no federal help for the living or the dead, but now, at the 17th Street Canal, the site of the most disastrous levee breach, the Army Corps of Engineers had begun the work. “I was so excited,” Senator Landrieu later told the historian Paul Alexander, “because they were finally doing something.”

The next day, Senator Landrieu again toured the city by helicopter, this time with the television correspondent George Stephanopoulos. “We still have people stranded on their roofs,” she said; he had to see it. They saw it. But she felt she had to show him that there was hope; he had to see what was happening at the 17th Street Canal. “I swear as my name is Mary Landrieu I thought that what I saw with the president was still there—people working, trucks, sandbags, everything. Then I looked down and saw one little crane. It was like someone took a knife and stabbed me through my heart. I lost it.”

“I could not believe that the president of the United States,” Senator Landrieu remembered, in words that communicate how hard, years later, she was still trying not to believe the nakedness that she had seen with her own eyes, “had come down to the city of New Orleans and basically put up a stage prop. It was like you had gone into a studio in California and filmed a movie. They put the props up and the minute we were gone they took them down. All the dump trucks were gone. All the Coast Guard people were gone. It was an empty spot with one little crane. It was the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life. At that moment I knew what was going on and I’ve been a changed woman ever since.”

She had seen the country, the United States of America in all its power, seen it plain, read its symbols, saw its history, her history, playing out before her eyes, past and present. She had seen the country, and saw it disappear.

Bibliography:

Paul Alexander, Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove (New York, 2008). James Lee Burke, Tin Roof Blowdown (New York, 2007). William Faulkner, The Old Man (New York, 1948); The Wild Palms [If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem] (New York, 1995). Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia, 1937). International Katrina Aid, eccentricstar. typepad.com/international_katrina_aid. Discography: Randy Newman, “Louisiana 1927,” on Good Old Boys (Reprise, 1974); recorded with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra with members of the New York Philharmonic on the anthology Our New Orleans 2005 (Nonesuch, 2005).