The International Writers Magazine: Comment

New Orleans - One Year On
Jack Shenker

llan Mercadel has spent the morning jostling amongst the crowds, enthusiastically shaking his tambourine in time with the music and shouting greetings at passers-by. “Love you all too, take care of that little one now,” he grins as a smiling pregnant woman pushes past us. “And don’t fall!” he yells after her, slapping the tambourine against his thigh in delight as she makes her way down onto the muddy path beneath us.

“I’ve been knowin’ her all my life, she a childhood girlfriend from 7th grade,” he confides. He gives the tambourine a final, more doleful shake and adds quietly: “She lost her grandmother due to the storm.”
We’re standing on a non-descript patch of grass, gazing out over what remains of the lower 9th ward. A year ago, the name of this metropolitan district meant nothing to most Americans outside of New Orleans; today it is national shorthand for poverty, racial division and the evident failings of federal government at a time when its citizens needed it most. Hundreds of people, many sporting t-shirts or bandanas emblazoned with the photos of relatives killed by Katrina, flocked here for an unofficial anniversary rally but they have now moved on, snaking down the crumbling road next to the canal on their way back to the city centre.
Pic: Allan Mercadel

Row upon row of deserted, dusty roads spread before us to the horizon. In some places the vista is sprinkled with the wreckage of houses and the bright glint of crushed car parts reflecting the morning sunshine. But for the most part the roads border nothing but emptiness, with grass and weeds having overgrown the plot where a home once stood. “Hard to believe ain’t it,” chuckles Allan softly. “This little bitty ass city is where the whole world wants to come.”

A year on from Katrina’s devastation, New Orleans is apparently back in business. Restaurants are throwing open their doors, tourists are returning and in less than a fortnight the New Orleans Saints will begin a new season in the infamous Superdome – an event heavily advertised on local TV with images of the American football players huddling together in the venue’s changing room, repeatedly chanting ‘There’s no place like home’. In St. Louis Cathedral, a beautiful, understated white brick building at the heart of the city’s French Quarter, the city’s political elite have welcomed President Bush to a special mass, remembering the dead and marking the progress made since rising waters overwhelmed the creaking levees and flooded 80% of the area. “The signs of progress are not always easy to see, but they are here,” announces Norman Francis, chairman of the state recovery authority. “Schools are in session, people are rebuilding, businesses are reopening and the music of life has begun to return.”

Less than four miles away, with our backs to the point in the newly-rebuilt levee wall where the Industrial Canal gushed in, Allan tells me a different story. Maligned by politicians for its crime levels and sidelined in some visions of the city’s rebirth, the lower 9th ward, with its community scattered across America, is on the defensive. “Over here we all homeowners, there ain’t no project [public housing] here, no apartment complexes – these are homeowners,” explains the 28 year old, whose family have lived in the lower 9th for seven generations. “It’s a majority black neighbourhood and people didn’t deserve to die here and lose everything. These are people who spent their blood, sweat and tears building their homes and a year later the place looks like the city dump. A year later, and there’s still debris on the streets.”

One year on, and rubble remains

Allan’s anger is shared by most of the residents I speak to. Such is the disillusionment with the city and federal authorities at their handling of the disaster and the bungled efforts at reconstruction since, poor locals are convinced that the powerful are mounting an orchestrated attempt to seize their land. Amidst the bleakness of the lower 9th, the barbed wire and boarded up windows of the housing projects and the vibrant fury of protesters in Congo Square, rumours of developers eyeing up potentially lucrative real estate and forcing out the black community are common currency. “After the storm Donald Trump and his guys were over here buying shit up and playing monopoly,” spits Allan. Whilst services such as transportation, garbage collection and social services are beginning to return to more central parts of the city and the whiter suburbs, the 9th ward seems devoid of any government presence at all save for the occasional military vehicle patrol. “We’re being left behind for a reason. They want this land. I believe there’s oil on this land, hell I used to swim in that swamp over there – I know this is good ground.”

In a seemingly inescapable cycle of chicken and egg, the city insists it cannot begin putting social infrastructures back in place without people there to make use of them. But, as Collins pointed out to me yesterday at the St Bernard housing project, how can people think of returning without schools, doctors and shopkeepers available to them? It’s difficult for underprivileged African Americans not to feel discriminated against as the city tries to pick up the pieces. Liberal whites are appalled at the suggestion that the mistakes made during and since Katrina have a racial element to them – one friend at a party bitterly chastised the British media for framing post-Katrina reporting in a black vs. white narrative – but when prominent politicians continuously disparage the value of your community to the city as a whole – albeit without directly referring to skin colour – it’s inevitable that blacks in New Orleans feel as if they are being deliberately ignored. Allan doesn’t believe that New Orleanians themselves are racist, but he is fiercely indignant at the portrayal of the pre-Katrina lower 9th in the media. “Was there crime here? Yes. But I tell you what the biggest crime is and it’s not done by the people of this city. It’s injustice – you take a group of people and put them in poverty, don’t give them jobs, don’t give them food, well then you take a pastor, a preacher, or a god damn rabbi and let him watch his wife and children starve – then watch him go steal. Everyone is a product of their own environment.”

Traffic is stuck on the Claiborne Street bridge, caught behind the parade to the city centre. As I’m weaving in and out of the cars on foot, a woman winds down the window and offers me a lift, clearing a load of papers from the back seat so I can get some respite from the exhaust fumes. Her name is Janet and she used to live just over the canal in the upper 9th. Like Allan, who was evacuated to Houston (although he prefers the term ‘kidnapped’), the mother of three has travelled hundreds of miles today to commemorate the anniversary. We swing off the main road and she shows me her house, to which she returns from Arkansas (an eight hour drive) once or twice a month to work on rebuilding. “I met President Clinton, I got pictures!” she beams, keeping one eye on the derelict side road whilst fumbling around in the seat pocket for evidence.
Her husband, a forklift tuck operator, was trapped in the Superdome after the flooding; it took two weeks for Janet to discover he was alive. Despite being fearful of another hurricane, she has thrown everything into reconstructing her home, even though her chronic asthma makes it hard to stay in the house for long. They have gutted one half of it and hope to make habitable again within three months. “Most of the homeowners I talk to, they wanna come back,” she explains, exhibiting that same pride that Allan burned with – that this was a house they owned themselves instead of relying on government handouts; a pride fuelling disbelief and resentment that so little is being done by the authorities to help them rebuild.
J. Tobias

But her anger lacks the ideological edge that Allan’s contained – a sadness at mismanagement and bureaucratic incompetence rather than a sweeping vision of oppression and inequality.
By the time we catch up with the others in Congo Square, a man is hollering to the crowd from a stage in the blazing midday sun. “Brothers and sisters, you are making a statement by being here today, and by being there at the levee,” he shouts. “Say it: ‘We wanna come home!’” he cries, and the crowd dutifully returns the call, surging forward from the isolated spots of shade under the trees and by the sno-ball van. “The proof is in the pudding,” murmurs Danatus King approvingly, President of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP. “And what you see in this pudding is the actions of the people – not the federal government, not the local government, but the people themselves.” His words reflect a righteous excitement at the rally; the city ain’t doing nothing to help us but look what we’re doing by ourselves. “I think what we see now is a stirring of the people, the beginnings of a fight back,” adds Leon Waters, curator of the flooded Louisiana Museum of African American History, just a few blocks away. “But this is not enough. I see this as a period of gathering the forces.”

That evening, Janet has got her hands on tickets to the day’s big official event, an all-star ‘remembrance’ concert at the New Orleans Arena. The glittering stage is a million miles away from the simple apparatus at the gatherings in Congo Square and the lower 9th, but strangely the mood is somewhat similar – a joyful triumphalism, with genuine mourning shot through with a determination to make the city great again. “This city gonna come back stronger,” yells one of the comperes, and the fans lap it up, screaming their approval as the spotlights roll over them. But there is a moment of uneasiness as the crowd awaits Stevie Wonder and the same compere makes a plea for residents to get involved with the latest incarnation of the city’s recovery plan – Mayor Nagin’s ‘Unified New Orleans’ proposal, which gives each neighbourhood a chance to input their own strategies for regeneration. “This is important,” pleads the presenter as he vainly tries to make the website address heard above chants for Stevie. “The Mayor’s in the house tonight and I know you’re gonna wanna show your appreciation.” After a few seconds of doubt the crowd do break out into enthusiastic applause. “He tried to do his best,” said Janet. “Cos this never happened before and most people, they not giving him credit.”

One anniversary, but a myriad of different commemorations, each reflecting different priorities and alternative mindsets as the city moves into its second year of recovery. Tomorrow some members of the public housing projects will burn effigies of Nagin and other dignitaries, like HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson. The message of unity in progress propagated from City Hall has little resonance in Iberville, or CJ Peete, or on the other side of the Industrial Canal. Everywhere there is the same determination to come back stronger, but in these areas the determination is all the more potent, borne out of a feeling that residents are fighting a second battle after the storm: first they had to survive the waters, now they are resisting the city’s attempts to abandon them.

“Of course we’re gonna rebuild,” concluded Allan as we left the levee wall behind us and went our separate ways. “We could rebuild with a fraction of the money that’s been misappropriated. But its the citizens keeping each other together, no one else. We saved each other with stolen boats, now we saving each other again.” He looked down at my ticket for the evening’s concert and smiled, shaking his head. “Just don’t believe the hype,” he said, and walked off into the emptiness. 
© Jack Shenker Sept 1st 2006

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