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Arts and Culture

Larry Blumenfeld on New Orleans After Katrina

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Posted on Jul 24, 2009

By Larry Blumenfeld

(Page 3)

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.”

 

book cover

 

Nine Lives

 

By Dan Baum

 

Spiegel & Grau, 352 pages

 

Buy the book

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.

Larry Blumenfeld is working on a book about cultural recovery in New Orleans based on his research as a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Village Voice, among other publications, and his essay “Band on the Run in New Orleans” appears in “Best Music Writing 2008” (Da Capo). He is editor at large of Jazziz magazine.


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By Margrette Peterson, July 25, 2009 at 10:51 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Try as you may, New Orleans is no different from any other large urban city. I lived in New Orleans for 24 years. Please note that New Orleans has five universities and thu the city is not rich, they are not dumb. Many books will be written and more movies made but please remember that New Orleans
is made up with people, people with feelings. They have been through one storm, and I think that the city should be treated with kindness and not contemp.

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By prgill, July 25, 2009 at 12:27 am Link to this comment

A rare, GREAT book review, not because it is theoretical or historically factual, but because you actually hear New Orleans’ voices… in the book review, before you actually read the book.

Before I add my two cents, let me say, “Bravo! Frank Minyard.” Here is a man who is truly representative of our shared values and of what if means to be a New Orleanian. Frank happens to be white. But that, as any true New Orleanian will say is unimportant given Frank’s medical and human skills and his long service in the community.

Somebody should write a history of famous New Orleanians. There are the obvious candidates, the artists and entertainers, and then there are the less obvious community activists, judges and politicians, Frank Minyard among them.

But as I read this review, my own reflection on 25 years in New Orleans color my thinking.

I believe that the New Orleans experience is essentially about rootedness. I hear this in Ronald Lewis story, in Irma Thomas’ anecdote and in Frank Minyard’s outrage.

The cultural foundation and deep values of New Orleans culture were laid-out, not by French and Spanish colonial adventurers or ruffian keelboatmen but by the uprooted and dispossessed, by German and Spanish immigrants in search of a better life, by French Canadians via prison ships off the south coast of England, and most importantly, by refugees from the slave revolt in Hispaniola. It is the latter group that brought refined culture, learning, opera to New Orleans. These people, more than the earlier freebooters wanted stability and needed to reconstruct their lives and livelihoods.

The “white man’s” culture, the “dominant” culture in a city that was bought and sold on the checkerboard of North Atlantic power struggles, goes against this need for stability and rootedness. Economic “liberality” in the American approach to spatial management and only minimalist support for urban and regional planning when it interferes with the American dream of suburban living of government regulation has proven to be unsustainable, antisocial and anathema to New Orleanian’s deep sense of rootedness.

The real tragedy of New Orleans is not that the Federal Governement did not respond, but that the city had allowed itself to be lulled into a false sense of security. The real tragedy is that when the metropolitan area needed oversight and Orleans Parish was desperate for financial assistance to compensate for a diminished tax base and increasing social burden, the neighboring parishes and the state were not listening. Indeed they weren’t even interested. When Dutch Morial was struggling to fund public services with an payroll tax, all anybody wanted to hear about was the latest twist in U.S. Attorney John Volker’s hunt to take down “Robin Hood” Edwards.

Yes, it might all have been different. But what does stand out, and what led in my opinion, DIRECTLY to the Katrina fiasco is the dysfunctional system of metropolitan governance that countenanced this disregard for the welfare of a neighboring Parish and that is implicit in our system of territorial governance. We call it our “home rule charter”.

To make a very long story short, I look forward to reading Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, and what will undoubtedly be a gem of storytelling, a fitting sequel to John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. In concluding, I salute the friendship and interest the citizen’s and press of one great city, New York, have long demonstrated for another great city, New Orleans.

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By CrescentCityRay, July 24, 2009 at 6:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

oldGeezer said: “Lake Ponchartrain is 10 feet above sea level.”

Actually, Lake Pontchartrain is ZERO feet above sea level.

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By Old Geezer Pilot, July 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There’s an old saying that New Orleans politicians are about as crooked as the Mississippi.

True true.

Money has been flowing into NOLA for decades ear-marked for levee repair and maintenance. Were repair and maintenance done?

Oh no.

The money went to build docks for local pols so they could have better access to their boats.

Lake Ponchartrain is 10 feet above sea level. NOLA is a few feet below. And the 9th ward, Chantilly, and NO East are all below sea level. So when the levee at the 17th st canal failed, the lake emptied out into the city.

So preventable.

So typical NOLA.

I blame BushCo (Heckova job, Brownie) for failure to respond to the emergency. But the blame for the emergency itself falls on too many to mention.

It is sad, because NOLA is one of the few American Cities left with an originality all its own.

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By CrescentCityRay, July 24, 2009 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Larry had reservations when Dan said: “Ambition isn’t a virtue in the lowlands between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. New Orleans.”

Dan has a point. For example, which city councilman would you vote for, the corrupt cadidate or the corrupt and ambitious candidate? Have you ever worked at a very successful business employing 50 minimum wage workers where the the three owners are making bazillions of dollars. Guess what, 50 out those 53 people might feel oppressed by those three ambitious owners.

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By LakeviewGirl, July 24, 2009 at 3:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Maybe you should trying to focus less on the lower ninth ward and perhaps more on the lakeview area…new orleans’ tax base.  That’s a real eye-opener.  Ask me, I can tell you all about it….lost it all…...especially the tax money for the city to spend on the lower ninth residents to live on.  The ninth ward doesn’t really look that different…even with Brad Pitt’s ridiculous houses.

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By CrescentCityRay, July 24, 2009 at 2:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a New Orleans resident, I really enjoyed the article and want to read the book. I wanna see the movie.

Like hippy4ever said, ‘Americans don’t get it.’ They never have. We accept that. Books like this don’t even make a dent in the misunderstanding, but the effort is always appreciated very much.

Yea, it ain’t the food, jazz or architecture that makes New Orleans great - it’s the residents. Who do you think makes that food, music, architecture, etc.?

Most New Orleanians feel like a fish out of water anywhere but New Orleans.

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By Spiritgirl, July 24, 2009 at 11:36 am Link to this comment

New Orleans is like a wonderful Gumbo, it’s a mix of old/new, religion/spirituality, spicy/sweet, rich/poor, cultured/trashy - it’s all tangled up and cooked just right!  If you live there, your roots are there and that’s all you need to know!  It’s something about the place that’s in your nostrils, and your blood!  And though Katrina may have knocked it down, it’s not out!  While people are “playing politics” with the city and her people, once again they will rise!

Almost 5 years after, and far too many residents aren’t even back into the homes they were forced to leave!  Enough, enough, enough!!!

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By Loretta Pyles, July 24, 2009 at 9:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This article is called “LB on New Orleans after Katrina.”  Not a very fitting title, is it?  It’s mostly about pre-Katrina and a few paragraphs about the time during Katrina, but virtually nothing about life after Katrina.  Kind of a misleading title.

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By hippie4ever, July 24, 2009 at 8:40 am Link to this comment

“Charles Duplessis of the Mount Nebo Bible Baptist Church, standing not far from Lewis’ place—wife by his side, baby in his arms—watching an anchorwoman in a setup shot framed by their devastated home. “The producer said he doesn’t want us in the picture,” he told me.”

Americans don’t get it. Great cities are profound not because of their buildings, but because of their people and culture. New Orleans has our nation’s first multinational society, and a history rich in colonialism and native peoples of the Caribbean. The food is incredible and expressive of the origins of people, as is their own brand of jazz.

Most importantly, it (like Charlestown, Athens) is an enclave in an ass-backwards part of the country. If one has to live in the South, better there than Alabama or Mississippi.

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