Larry Blumenfeld on New Orleans After Katrina
Posted on Jul 24, 2009
Writing in The New Yorker in 2006, Baum had already told the story of Tim Bruneau driving around with the body of a 24-year-old woman rolled up in a waterbed mattress in the back seat of his squad car; with the morgue underwater and the hospitals closed, there was nowhere else to put her. Indelible as that image was in Baum’s previous piece, here, told from Bruneau’s point of view, with imagined dialogue between cop and corpse, it offers a window into Bruneau’s mind through this otherworldly ordeal. It’s riveting stuff.
Nearly all of Baum’s characters emerge as heroes of some sort in the wake of the flood—none more so than Frank Minyard, who finds himself swimming toward his coroner’s office. But this time, Minyard’s well-placed connections fail him. “Where are the bodies?” he asks at the makeshift morgue, and then watches as a succession of officials proves impotent to act: FEMA; the 82nd Airborne; the National Guard; the Louisiana State Police. Not until a representative of Kenyon, a subsidiary of Service Corporation International, the biggest funeral home operator in the United States, shows up can the bodies be touched. “Let me get this straight,” Minyard says. “Dead people rot on the streets of New Orleans for a week and a half so the feds can sign a private contract.”
In revealing the callous intent and many cover-ups that followed the flood, Minyard does what no investigative reporter could—he lets you know what went down, and how it felt. Several pages later, he refuses to allow the bodies to be classified as drowning deaths. “A lot of these people died from heat exhaustion, dehydration, stress, and from being without their medication—from neglect, basically. They were abandoned out there. So it’s political, what killed them.”
Anthony Wells draws us into one version of the Katrina experience, being holed up with, by his account: “motor oil, Courvoisier and Hennessy fifths. Cases of cigarettes. A gun we found in an auto-parts store. Little bit of cash but not much, because most of the places we hit, all the twenty-dollar bills were all moldy and wet.” That is, until National Guardsmen, rifles pointed, force his evacuation. He sits for hours on a bus that idles in a parking lot before heading who-knows-where. Out the window Wells sees a helicopter land, and out walks Dick Cheney.
Billy Grace gives us a seat at the table in a Dallas hotel conference room, a few weeks past the storm, around which sit “a pretty good who’s-who of New Orleans business.” A beleaguered Mayor C. Ray Nagin walks in late and, when asked, says bluntly, “I do not have a plan.”
Wells perhaps best expresses the fears over what a “new” New Orleans might mean: “ … I don’t know what’s going to happen to New Orleans. Won’t be anybody there to sing the blues no more and you need the blues. When you get the blues, you shake off the heebie-jeebies. The heebie-jeebies’ll kill you straight out.”
Baum owns up in his introduction to necessary dramatic license—re-creating scenes and dialogue based on his interviews and research. (“I put words to thoughts and feelings,” he writes.) So we’re left to wonder about even the smallest detail: Did St. Augustine Church really smell of old perspiration and cigarette smoke and were they actually drinking Tang when Frank Minyard was there in 1969? When Billy Grace watches Indians meet on Mardi Gras morning of 2004, an old man in a newsboy’s cap tells him, “That’s how young men should fight! With words and with pretty!” But Baum lifted that quote from his own online New Orleans Journal entry of March 20, 2007, as voiced by an unnamed old man while watching Indians on St. Joseph’s night.
Baum may be right in recognizing how New Orleanians “identify more with the welfare of their families, neighborhoods, wards, bands, krewes, second-line clubs, and Mardi Gras Indian tribes than with their own personal achievement.” But he either glorifies or misinterprets widespread lack of opportunity in casting them as “largely free from the insatiable desire for individual aggrandizement that afflicts the rest of us.” And he certainly treads shaky ground and maybe even stumbles into right-wing rhetorical territory when concluding: “Ambition isn’t a virtue in the lowlands between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. New Orleans.” His own characters prove him wrong, page after page.
At an evacuation center in Thibodaux, La., Ronald Lewis sees “History Channel images of concentration-camp Jews and Nazi guards” when he looks at the displaced neighbors and the state troopers. He has himself branded, with a tattoo commemorating Betsy and Katrina. “These are the bookends of my life,” he says. And Lewis bookends Baum’s narrative, leading us out to the strains of two brass bands during the triumphant return of the Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Club’s annual second-line parade, marching into an uncertain future with evident focus and ambition, unwilling to let the story end.
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