The storm landed on August 29, 2005, right as winds mercifully dropped to 125 miles an hour, down from 175. But the real horror came afterward, in the wake of fifty-three levee breaches that caused New Orleans to fill up like a bathtub. When the air finally hung still on August 30, the first photographs and reportage leaked out, filled with horrifying images of devastation. Within months came records, poems, novels, comics, essays, academic and political studies, films, TV shows, exposés, paintings, blogs. Now there are entire academic courses to make sense of Hurricane Katrina through the media it inspired. Twenty-first-century America hasn’t lacked for well-documented, outsized tragedy, but even relative to 9/11 or Sandy Hook, Katrina and the city’s ongoing recovery stand out for sheer breadth of suffering and civic transformation.
Fittingly, the branch of art and literature built around Hurricane Katrina has brought forth some of the greatest American creative and documentary work of this century. Its latest nonfiction achievements, both pitched to the storm’s tenth anniversary, are Gary Rivlin’s doorstop social history, Katrina: After the Flood, and Wendell Pierce’s memoir, The Wind in the Reeds, partially concerning the actor’s experience mounting a production of Waiting for Godot in the still-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward in 2007. Both constitute a Katrina studies event of a kind—Rivlin’s book is the most thorough and up-to-date reported reckoning with the economic and social costs of the hurricane’s mismanagement, while Pierce’s (coauthored by Rod Dreher) is the highest-profile first-person literary account to date of the storm’s aftermath and local significance. Together, they offer a proper summation of the last ten years’ efforts to come to grips with this tragedy, in city hall and flooded living rooms alike.
Most books about New Orleans delight in deep history, but Rivlin provides only what context immediately informs his scenes. He also resists the standard encomia to pat Big Easyisms—Katrina contains no vivid descriptions of gumbo, no paeans to its residents’ heroic backbone, no purple appreciations of second-line vibrancy. Instead, it’s a deeply reported, character-driven procedural, not unlike the classics of its kind, such as And the Band Played On or The Warmth of Other Suns.
Rivlin tells this story of a city through subjects who illuminate aspects of the recovery, including the idealistic Republican businessman Joe Canizaro, the social activist Mack McClendon, and the plugged-in politico Jimmy Reiss. Most touching is his portrayal of Alden J. McDonald, the wealthy, middle-aged owner of Liberty Bank and Trust, the city’s first and longest-running black lender. McDonald started with one branch in 1972 and grew Liberty into a regional chain, but his headquarters and records were nearly annihilated by Katrina. Many of his customers suffered catastrophic losses, and one-fifth of his staff were still missing weeks after the storm. For three years McDonald lived largely in an RV outside the main Liberty branch, rebuilding his business as a leaner, even more profitable operation. He won industry awards and was featured twice in American Banker, but by book’s end he’s still scuffling with crooked, slow-footed government bureaucrats and neighborhood partners who don’t share his talent or vision for social stewardship.
Then there’s hapless Ray Nagin, who had never held elected office prior to running for New Orleans’s mayor in 2002. He surged late to victory on a probusiness, centrist-Democrat platform and a charismatic affect that even his allies derided as “Ray-Ray.” Nagin, too, was a successful businessman, and his election was largely due to the support of upper-class New Orleanians, both black and white. It is certainly true that Nagin was completely overwhelmed by Katrina, but who wouldn’t be, given the three-day wait for federal aid as corpses bobbed in the flooded streets? Rivlin presents Nagin as a man who earnestly feels the pain of his city, but who consistently makes the most boneheaded choices as recovery progresses, whether from shortsightedness, fear, or venality. In 2014, Nagin was sentenced to ten years for twenty counts of fraud and bribery, an event that serves as Rivlin’s narrative and thematic capstone. Nagin’s criminal behavior shows just what went wrong when it came time to rebuild, and his fall from grace is so stunning and final that it nearly mirrors New Orleans’s own.
Rivlin recounts some well-known statistics regarding Katrina’s damage to the city, and yet they have never lost their ability to shock: an estimated $135 billion in damages; 80 percent of the city’s buildings underwater; more than 1,000 dead, many from dehydration or starvation after the storm ended. The federal government identified a disaster zone nearly the size of Great Britain, and spent more than $4 billion on rent assistance for 700,000 displaced families. A year after the storm, New Orleans’s population was only 171,000—37 percent of its pre-Katrina total. Despite all this, federal aid went to Mississippi at five times the per capita rate it went to Louisiana, even though the worst flooding resulted from disgracefully shoddy levee construction by the federal government’s own Army Corps of Engineers.
Of course, Katrina’s impact cannot be conveyed by numbers alone. America’s sole triumph of hedonism and an acknowledged cultural wellspring, New Orleans suffered a near-apocalypse in plain view. Naturally, the first wave of Katrina documentary art is full of live-wire, hyperemotional testimony, such as Chris Rose’s book of daily newspaper columns, 1 Dead in Attic, or the film documentaries Trouble the Water and When the Levees Broke. The photojournalism from the immediate aftermath—including Chris Jordan’s In Katrina’s Wake and Robert Polidori’s After the Flood—contrasts the city’s horrific destruction and eerie, depopulated calm.
Rivlin, whose book is drawn from hundreds of new interviews as well as his own experience as a New York Times correspondent in post-Katrina New Orleans, matches that grave tone but isn’t quite so shell-shocked:
A permanent stench infected New Orleans, even parts that had remained dry—like a seaside community near the end of summer, except that the brackish smell was mixed, not with the odor of rotting alewives, but with hints of oil, sewage, rancid meat, and death. Decaying human bodies were cooking in the intense New Orleans heat along with those of cats, dogs, and other animals that had been caught in the flooding.
The heart of his book is its depiction of the city’s rebuilding. Rivlin includes a massive cast of locals and outside players, but there are just as many examples of selflessness and altruism as there are of wheel-greasing and abuse. Rivlin’s primary attitude toward New Orleans’s last ten years is disappointment tinged, but not overwhelmed, by despair. He notes, for example, that after September 11, “the state and federal governments had set aside $500 million to help small businesses in New York,” whereas all of Louisiana received only $38 million after both Katrina and Rita, the smaller storm that arrived a few weeks later. The villain in Katrina isn’t President George W. Bush or Michael “heckuva job” Brown, the ineffectual head of FEMA, or even the Army Corps of Engineers—it’s a sense of inevitability that things couldn’t have gone otherwise, as if the mistreatment of low-income black residents and the plainly underwhelming humanitarian response couldn’t have happened any other way.
This remains one of the central tragedies of Katrina. Not only did it devastate a metropolis, it revealed a host of disturbing American realities that preceded it for decades, and which seem only to have worsened since. The city’s blight, de facto segregation, and violence didn’t start in August 2005, and the years that followed haven’t done much to change or improve them. “Katrina didn’t mean a do-over for a city that had too many problems prior to the storm,” writes Rivlin. “Instead … history was destiny: the hurricane and the flood that followed would only amplify New Orleans’s problems.”
With those problems in plain view, however, they became impossible to ignore, and in the past decade the country has grown progressively disgusted with them. On September 2, 2005, during the televised “A Concert for Hurricane Relief,” Kanye West famously went off script and declared, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” But his complaints were broader than that one line conveys. “I hate the way they portray us in the media,” West also said during the broadcast. “You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’” That same observation would become commonplace in the wake of more recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, which similarly revealed a longstanding state of urban affairs that the mainstream media (and most Americans) had grown adept at ignoring. West correctly insisted on a racial reading of the government’s Katrina response, and a decade later, that insistence has proved prophetic. In its blatant injustice as well as its thorough documentation and impassioned response, Hurricane Katrina anticipated #BlackLivesMatter.
Debuting in 2010, David Simon and Eric Overmyer’s HBO fiction/documentary hybrid Treme follows a half-dozen characters who collectively embody the major Katrina-recovery story lines, from the mistreatment of prisoners to the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of residents and the obstacles facing debt-wracked small businesses and homeowners. In a show full of rich acting, Wendell Pierce stands out for his sensitive portrayal of Antoine Batiste, a ne’er-do-well trombonist trying to make ends meet.
On screen, Pierce has a subtly expressive face that can swing from boyishness to deep resignation with only a slight smirk or shift of his eyebrows. His voice on the page is more one-note (and full of the food-and-music celebrations that Rivlin eschews), but The Wind in the Reeds conveys just how indebted he is to New Orleans as an artist and man; in its focus on family, artistic origins, and homecoming, his book echoes Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina, an elegiac mixture of memoir and poetry which does for the Mississippi Gulf Coast what Pierce attempts here for New Orleans. In particular, he credits the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a conservatory high school, which offered “the first time I ever experienced a commune of artistry, of people who knew they were in a sanctuary where they could do what they had only dreamed of doing.” But even before that, he grew up in lower-middle-class Pontchartrain Park, in a history-conscious family full of storytellers who clearly influenced the earthy, vulnerable braggadocio he brings to Antoine Batiste and his earlier Simon character, Detective Bunk Moreland, in The Wire.
“The only image I can compare post-apocalyptic Pontchartrain Park to is Hiroshima after the atomic bomb,” Pierce writes of his first return home after the flood. “Making our way over to our beloved Debore Drive was like homecoming in Chernobyl.” The Wind in the Reeds shows just how disorienting it was for lifelong residents of this singular and self-contained city to suddenly grasp for outside comparisons. New Orleans is synonymous with joy and endurance, and here came a catastrophe that tested those qualities above all. It was yet another outsider, Samuel Beckett, who ultimately spoke to Pierce’s own despair: “Godot—that is, the government, FEMA, insurance companies, and so forth—isn’t coming to save us.”
It is the New Orleans way to find comfort and meaning in art. No other city is so defined by its residents’ unceasing, everyday creativity—parade floats, home cooking, storytelling, and music. The Wind in the Reeds testifies to New Orleanians’ need for such sustenance in the storm’s aftermath, and to the great inspiration that their resilience provided.
The sheer volume of Katrina-inspired art allows readers and viewers to see this tragedy from innumerable angles. In his comic A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge—a sort of proto-Treme based on interviews with multiple real-life survivors—cartoonist Josh Neufeld briefly mentions the devastated Memorial Medical Center, which was later the setting for a massive prose narrative of its own, Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial. You can see one harrowing depiction of the Superdome in Trouble the Water, where it briefly haunts the backdrop of an intimate story of two characters, and another in When the Levees Broke, where it serves as one of the chief sites of suffering in a traumatized city. Wendell Pierce’s own efforts to rebuild Pontchartrain Park come up late in Rivlin’s Katrina.
As the Katrina syllabus expands—Rivlin’s own bibliography doubles as a useful summation thus far—it has begun to feel as if the residents and scholars of New Orleans are writing a sort of collective encyclopedia of a single day, in which a hurricane serves as the pivot point for a massive cultural history that extends indefinitely into the past and future, encompassing some of the most lasting and urgent social issues in American history: racism, class inequality, immigration, government corruption, and poverty. Katrina will only become more significant as time passes, because it will remain a fount of brilliant thinking in every discipline, creative or academic. Chris Rose, writing for the Times-Picayune on, of all days, September 11, 2005, took note of the abundance of cameras and notepads suddenly in town. “One thing’s for sure, our story is being told,” he wrote with uncharacteristic hope. He couldn’t have known that we’ll probably never finish telling it.