The president was scheduled to show up at 2, give a speech, visit a Hope Six’d housing project. The mayor was booked to lead a parade at dusk from the French Quarter to the Superdome, scene of fateful unhappiness five years ago today.
But the weather served to remind us who’s really in charge down here.
As the president spoke, the heavens opened up yet again, soaking the two dozen or so housing activists waiting for him at the former St. Bernard project, now known as Columbia Parc. Knocked down and rebuilt, it looks for all the world like a pillared condo cluster from which a retiree from Greenwich, Conneticut, might emerge at any moment with tennis racket in hand. “Fight, fight, fight. Housing is a human right,” the protesters chanted from under ponchos and umbrellas as Obama chatted inside with the tenants’ council reps.
We streamlined city government. Passed a master plan with force of law. Built neighborhood health clinics. Rousted an astonishing number of corrupt politicians. Opened more restaurants than had been here even before Katrina.
The Obama visit—Michelle, Sasha, and Malia at his side—went well. People hung on the president’s words to the end, seeing if he would cave in to industry pressure and rescind the unpopular moratorium on deepwater drilling while rigs are tested for safety. He didn’t cave, but the speech, at historically black Xavier University, drew thunderous applause. It also coincided with release of a poll revealing that the president’s popularity in majority-black, majority-Democratic New Orleans is sharply at odds with his statewide numbers in this still very Southern part of the world. Need proof that attacks on Obama’s policies—any policy—have become code for uneasiness with... well, let’s just say uneasiness about something else about Obama?
Here it is: The poll results in the news this morning show likely Louisiana voters have now convinced themselves that Bush—Bush!—did a better job with Katrina than Obama did with BP. They believe it by a 12-point margin.
The rain also drove Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s parade indoors, to the refurbished Mahalia Jackson Theatre, across Rampart from the French Quarter.
A whole weekend of countless events commemorating Katrina’s fifth anniversary got pounded off and on with rain torrents of an intensity weird even for this generally sodden, subtropical latitude. I walked out back of the house at dawn to find 25-foot stalks of bamboo bent over in giant green arches.
I had been of two minds about the anniversary. Like a lot of us, I wanted to celebrate the city’s survival—and celebrate it only more crazily now that the BP well seems capped and the damage is contained. (Or is it just less visible?) Jubilation’s flip side are memories that I’d also like to keep capped, the ugly, nightmarish ones that come up out of the murk like a water moccasin.
I had made plans to do the day with Patrina Peters, one of many people whose stories I wove through Breach of Faith, my book about Katrina. Patrina first served as a poster child for resilience rewarded. She had survived the inundation of the Lower 9th Ward by climbing up on the roof of her house and singing hymns loudly as it floated away, bearing her and her daughter, Keia, to what she was certain would be their death. After her rescue and a year in exile upriver, she had rethought her vow never to return. She invested sweat to gain equity in one of the houses Habitat for Humanity sponsored for musicians and community members.
Gallery: Hurricane Katrina Anniversary
And then, after the book hit the stands, everything went bad for Trina. First her beloved granddaughter—Keia’s baby—had sickened and the electrical appliances in the new house corroded and stopped working. The culprit: sulfurous gas from Chinese drywall. The house would have to be vacated and rebuilt. Then came the unspeakable moment just a few months ago when I came across an obscure item in The Times-Picayune. A bullet-riddled corpse had been found on one of the brushy streets where houses once stood in the Lower 9th. Police didn’t yet have an ID., but the report said the dead teenager had two names tattoo’d on his pecs: Trina and Keia.
I was sad, but not surprised, when Trina called Sunday morning to say she had thought better of doing any of the parades and prayer services. She wasn’t even sure she would make it to church. Damond’s death weighed too heavily on her. She spent the day in the shadows of her own bedroom, wiping her eyes, reading her Bible, mulling over all that has been taken from her.
• Sarah Carr: New Orleans’ School Miracle• Nicole LaPorte: The Haunted Symbol of New Orleans• Bush’s FEMA Chief Michael Brown: How We Prepared for KatrinaMy wife and I went without Trina to the whoop-la closest to the empty lot in the Lower 9th that had been the Peters’ home for three generations. Former Mayor Marc Morial, now national head of the Urban League, gave a stemwinder that went over well. Oddly, the honor of a keynote address had been accorded Congresswoman Maxine Waters—“and I don’t care what they’re saying about me in Washington,” Waters told the few hundred people who turned out to hear her, this in a city that has had to overcome its own reputation for corruption.
Otherwise, Waters' speech was more of an encyclopedia entry on Katrina: number of dead, square miles laid waste, houses destroyed as if residents of the Lower 9th needed to be told. Conversation had broken out so freely as the congresswoman rattled on that few seemed to notice when, midway through her account of how she had bravely ventured into the city to see the damage firsthand, her microphone went briefly dead. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you just saw it on television,” muttered a towering and worn-looking Lower 9th native as he strode away from the rostrum toward platters of beans and rice church ladies were dishing up under a tent.
Amplification restored, Waters saw fit to fault public education’s post-Katrina enthusiasm for charter schools. Whether she realized it or not, she was within earshot—or had been until her mike gave out—of MLK Charter, one of the great success stories of the post-Katrina era, a place where parents from all over the city—low-income African Americans prominent among them—line up before dawn to enroll their kids on the day school starts.
Instead of dithering about whether New Orleans should be rebuilt at all, too bad Congress didn’t authorize rebuilding the city’s flood protection as effectively as that school rebuilt itself. But the naysayers were defied anyway. We streamlined city government. Passed a master plan with force of law. Built neighborhood health clinics. Rousted an astonishing number of corrupt politicians. Opened more restaurants than had been here even before Katrina. Elected an energetic and well-focused mayor. Won the Super Bowl (with a little help from the Saints). Sat around on Sunday nights delighting in HBO’s homage to the city, called Treme.
But as this weekend reminded us, weather is God down here. We’ve been lucky for five years. We beg for mercy in the hurricane season that lies ahead.
Jed Horne moved to New Orleans from New York in 1988 with plans to stay a year and a half. His books include Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City.