Coming up on another Katrina Anniversary

There's a great moment at the beginning of "The Bourne Ultimatum" where Matt Damon's character tells the journalist whose ass he's trying to save, "LISTEN -- this is NOT some NEWSPAPER story. This is REAL."

I expected to hear at least a few knowing harrumphs from the audience, but the only one I heard was my own -- I was sitting in the mostly empty Prytania theater in Uptown New Orleans, and the dozen or so people there for the Tuesday night late show evidently agreed with Jason Bourne. No wonder there were no gasps heard when the journalist was taken out - he was there for expositional purposes only, and totally expendable.

The last few weeks has seen a return of interest to The New Orleans Story with Katrina's two year anniversary coming up tomorrow. Journalists from Japan to Jacksonville call the marketing office at the hospital where I work, hoping to set up shoots for the story they've decided to tell - overloaded ERs, still faulty levee systems, violent crime rates that continue to climb - balanced by stories of hope and perseverance, of the plucky sorts of people who populate what's left of the city.

What they won't be able to get into are the more complicated stories, of people who haven't stopped suffering, and of those who are profiting from the city's vulnerability - contractors who are here not because they want to be, but because this is where the money is. And as much as some of us resent their big trucks barreling down our broken streets, we need them, too. I've been picking on the construction contractors, lately, but they're hardly the only ones. And they are, for better or worse, part of what's bringing old New Orleans increasingly into the new country's fold, literally - you can even hear it on the new country music station that now graces the airwaves.

I wonder if tomorrow anyone will tell the story of how the highs and lows of New Orleans - the term 'segregated' was often and erroneously used in so much of the early Katrina coverage - are now in fact becoming further polarized (by which I mean 'higher' and 'lower', not further apart.) How, in Uptown at least, it really does seem like more gelato and tapas places could save this city. And how the lows sometimes come first thing in the morning, like they did today when the sound of four gunshots just outside my window woke me up. Evidently no one died, because it didn't even make the evening news.

My friends and often talk about the "high-low" tours we give visitors who come here wanting to a) have a good time and b) truly understand the peculiar purgatory that is life in present-day New Orleans.

Before the recent murder spree in New Orleans East, I sometimes took friends to see the Vietnamese community that did not wait for any government for permits or assistance to rebuild. Powered by generators and a predisposition to enduring hardship with grace, the bakery that serves Vietnamese po boys worth planning around was reopened within a few months after the storm. I heard a Vietnamese priest talk about the elder women in their communities who, not having cars to park next to their FEMA trailers, saw farmable dirt in those 8x10 plots and started growing vegetables, only to learn later that the city had started dumping waste into the bayous nearby. Their mettle and DIY attitude was rewarded with a total disregard for their safety.

Sound familiar? It does to those who live here.

And still, people stay. Recently - at a gelato shop -- I saw a girl wearing a college t-shirt bearing the name of my alma mater in North Carolina. "Did you go to school there?" I asked. Just for a year, she said. "I loved it, but the family was here, so, you know how it goes..." Actually, I didn't. But I know that's how it goes for native New Orleanians. Had that been how it went for me, I guess I wouldn't be here now.

For a little while, the Katrina story will resonate, like it did with my sister in Chicago when storms flooded her basement, causing thousands of dollars worth of damage, and she didn't complain, saying only that it gave her a sense of Katrina's scale.

I didn't know for sure how I'd spend the second anniversary of Katrina. Last year, it was a subject of anxiety in a year chock full of the same, and I felt pressure to make the "right" plans, as though it were new year's eve and next year's tone could be set right by a proper kiss at midnight.

In the end, we -- my community of friends and colleagues -- had dinner at our friend Sara's house. Beans, gumbo -- I think that was the night she made something delicious involving mirliton, too ... The mood was somber, but also grateful. We were the ones who got to be here, in an undamaged house, eating.

This year, it's different. I'm having to actively cultivate gratitude, otherwise, I'm not sure I'd remember that I still have so much to be grateful for. So many more of my friends have left, and time passing doesn't make me miss them any less. And although it's now possible to have a dinner conversation without talking about the storm, it's still pretty unlikely. It's also possible, as outside interest continues to wane and the demands of living in perpetual recovery become increasingly tedious, to find myself missing the intensity of the event itself. It's so much less interesting -- and so much more important -- to talk about insurance and utility regulation and living wages, and still leave yourself with enough energy to fill out all the paperwork.

Those are the things we'll get back to talking about next week, once the news crews have left and the fleeting charge of being in the limelight passes. And we'll drive to work, past a streetcar line that still doesn't run, and past school buses that don't carry even half of the kids in the city, and past a hospital where the ER is full of gunshot victims, and we'll remember -- as though it would even be possible, even just for a moment, to forget -- this isn't some newspaper story. This is real.

August 28, 2007 8:19 PM | | Comments (1)



Wonderful essay, Cynthia. Like the bakery, powered by a predisposition to endure hardship with grace. That, and mirliton.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Culture Gulf published on August 28, 2007 8:19 PM.

Should I stay ...? was the previous entry in this blog.

'Life Since Katrina' feature in the NYT is the next entry in this blog.

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