Marking Time: Beyond Katrina – A kaleidoscopic collection of fragments

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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New Orleans boarding up

27th August 2005 – Boarding up against the hurricane in the French Quarter

By the evening of Saturday 27th August 2005 the people of New Orleans realised that the Hurricane which had been predicted to turn towards the Florida panhandle was in fact keeping course for the Louisiana coast. Although a number of people left the city that day, for many business continued as normal. The Bourbon Street bars stayed open and French Quarter restaurants continued to serve meals. However, many took the precaution of boarding up doors and windows and the iconic Cafe du Monde on Decatur Street, known for staying open 24 hours except for a brief closure every Christmas, made the decision to stack and chain up its tables and chairs at around midnight, when its only  remaining customers were a small group of tourists who had been reassured by tour guides that the probability of Katrina making landfall near New Orleans remained an outside chance.

Bourbon Street, Saturday 27th August 2005

Bourbon Street, Saturday 27th August 2005

That Saturday in New Orleans, an oppressive heat was accompanied by a feeling of pressure, as though the city were, Atlantis-like, deep below the sea. The wife of a minor Hollywood actor fainted while taking a tour of the Garden District. The city was dry but the people were sweating, their clothes damp upon their bodies, the exposed skin of the paler amongst them burning lobster red.

I was amongst the (fool)hardy band of tourists who were the last to drink chicory coffees and laugh at Cafe du Monde when all the other tables and chairs had been removed and secured. The staff were polite and patient but must surely have been glad to see us leave. It would be two months before they reopened to serve coffee and beignets once more. I awoke in my hotel the next day to notice of the greatest evacuation ever undertaken in America.

A short while later I was looking back towards the city from the interstate. The horizon over the Gulf had vanished, replaced with a dirty-looking darkness rising up into the sky like a giant smudge on glass. Driving over the Lake Pontchartrain causeway, the water was already alarmingly high. There was no doubt that something significant was about to happen.

Saturday 28th August 2015

I mark 10 years and wonder about the fate of New Orleans. An elderly wheelchair-bound man in the old Ursuline Convent. The tap dancing kids, the street hustlers. The couple who had just been married. The horse drawing their carriage and the driver. A kindly and jovial restaurant proprietor. A female taxi driver who had decided to stay and sit out the storm. The Cajuns in shacks on the bayou. So I watch and listen.


Saturday 27th August, 2005 The French Quarter


New Orleans seems uncertain about how to mark this anniversary. It is close enough in time to still feel raw to many, far enough away that to new residents and teenagers it is an experience that belongs to their city but not to them.

The Katrina 10 Project, whose logo is ubiquitous throughout the week of commemoration, is led by City Hall. Its activities began with a series of panel discussions on Tuesday 25th exploring aspects of Katrina’s aftermath, from rebuilding and education, to art, and the exploration of what it means to be a New Orleanian. The panels were restrained and polite but frequently seem to be slightly unsure of their purpose. One session unexpectedly cut through; a presentation by Michael Henderson of LSU Public Policy Research Lab. The research he presented indicated that 60% of New Orleans residents said people like them had no say in the rebuilding process, including 65% of African Americans and 52% of whites. It also showed that nearly a quarter of the current residents of New Orleans have moved there since Katrina; they are relatively younger, more educated, earn more and are more white than the long-term residents of the city. The changes wrought by Katrina are complex, differentiated by race, gender and income, but undeniably demonstrate the maxim that “one man’s disaster is another man’s opportunity.”

The mayor announced during his panel discussion that three presidents would visit the city during the week of commemoration; the current incumbent Barack Obama and his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. When Bush’s name is spoken there is a hiss in the room – possibly an intake of breath or expression of disapproval, followed by what seems to be disbelieving laughter. The mayor explains that he personally invited the former president because “Everyone knows the initial federal response was slow and inadequate… After the initial hiccup we actually had to work together over a couple of years, and I just think it’s really important for us to be gracious, to be thoughtful, to treat the president with dignity and respect because he was our Commander in chief at the time, and say thank you to him.”

In the event, George and Laura Bush visit Warren Easton Charter High School on Canal Street. The predominantly black students pose excitedly for selfies, and Bush receives a standing ovation. Meanwhile President Obama says “What started out as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster, a failure of government to look out for its own citizens”. The center point of President Obama’s visit is a 20.5 million Multi-Service Center with a pool, medical centre, reading room, gym and more. But despite such high-profile developments, many buildings still stand derelict and decaying. The current President seems oddly forced in his manner; the previously reviled ex-President Bush appears relaxed and popular. Confounded expectations abound.

Meanwhile, the Katrina 10 Project also organizes wreath laying ceremonies, a commemorative parade, a block party and a day of community service, an almost schizophrenic array of events all to be held on Saturday 29th August. This is in addition to community-organised events which range from Yoga gatherings, to a ‘Living Art’ exhibition celebrating successful black youth, to an opportunity for people whose photos were damaged in Katrina to have them digitally restored without charge.

Louisiana bayou

The Louisiana Bayou

There is no unified narrative of recovery in New Orleans, 2015, rather a kaleidoscopic collection of fragments, constantly shifting and creating illusions. The only certainty is that time has turned. Younger generations already see the Bush era as history, and City Hall acts, as it surely must, upon economic opportunities. Yet even the notion of ‘recovery’ is dangerously deceptive; the levee system, forced drainage, dredged canals, and flood-control structures are preventing the natural regeneration of the Louisiana wetlands. Every single hour, land the size of a football field is lost to the ocean as the bayous retreat and Cajun towns and culture are steadily eroded. The city of New Orleans itself is sinking. Even the new post-Katrina levees are sinking. What, then, is resilience? What is recovery? The words mask a precarious truth, but the people of New Orleans have a ferocious determination and belief in their city.

The Chronopages will bring you some of their stories, signals from the noise.