It’s Friday morning—the eve of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans and assistant principal Joe Gilyot just welcomed a man many felt was in part responsible for the disaster that followed: George W. Bush.
Gilyot and his students lived through that disaster, that hell. To gain acceptance at Warren Easton High School in New Orleans, students must write personal essays about a life event that affected or changed them.
Katrina, naturally, was one that was a constant theme and Gilyot has read through hundreds of stories from the children of this city, with some stories so horrific and sad, he would find himself sitting at his desk, suddenly crying.
“The kids we had right after the storm, some of them were in the [SuperDome], some of them were in the convention center,” Gilyot said. “Some of them went to hell in some of the places they went to after the storm, where they were not very welcome. It was hard because they wrote it and you read and it you go, ‘Oh my God, they went to hell, afterwards.’”
And that is what has been so glossed over the last 10 days or so as the world’s focus has shifted to this city.
The people, the natives, the victims, the ones who were in the water, in the dome, on the levees, or those whose loved ones were—and still are—the people who are most likely at home, riding this out, waiting for #Katrina10 to pass.
They are the ones this week on the sidelines, watching everyone else remind themselves of how this city has come thundering back, while narratives of redemption and hope are spun so often that any other counterpoint to that gets lost.
“I’ll be so glad when this week is over; I don’t want to see another Katrina memory for a long time,” Gilyot said. “I don’t need any more memories. I have enough.”
Still, despite the deep wounds and unwanted memories, Bush and his wife, Laura, were welcomed to the school with open arms.
Bush’s visit was far more low-key than President Obama’s stop here on Thursday, with a fraction of media and only one protester, who had shown up at 7:45 in the morning, outside.
“I’m standing here to bear witness to the fact that a lot of people still remember his incompetence,” Aaron Grant, 35, told me while holding a sign of Bush—looking out the window of Air Force One—that reads, YOU’RE EARLY COME BACK IN A WEEK.
“The suffering is impossible to quantify. The emotions are very alive and very raw. A lot of people just want this week to be over.”
When I first found out Bush was coming here this week, I started asking everyone I came into contact with whether they were aware that the 43rd president was returning to the city it took him three weeks to visit back in 2005.
The overwhelming response was utter disbelief. And there is arguably no greater disconnect than Bush returning here, to a city that generally loathes him, with a sign outside a charter school that reads “Welcome Back President George W. Bush and Mrs. Bush No Child Left Behind.”
“It’s outrageous that this No Child Left Behind sign is here,” said Serena Sebring, 38, a protester who arrived at some point during Bush’s speech and who stood outside the school. “George Bush left all of New Orleans behind that day.”
Inside the building, Bush addressed the pain but never acknowledged his own role in the response. Instead, he praised the resiliency of the people and the school, that later re-opened with all of its students essentially homeless. And he praised the controversial charter school system— 91 percent of schools here are chartered—that critics have said is decimating poor communities.
“Isn’t it amazing,” Bush told the packed auditorium after receiving a polite ovation. “The storm nearly destroys New Orleans and yet New Orleans is the beacon for school reform.”
Bush first came to this school a year after Katrina; it was one of 46 schools that received funds from his wife’s foundation. And so the historic school, which was flooded with eight feet of water and headed toward closure, was saved, in part, by the Bush family.
It’s why he was welcomed back, but that doesn’t mean that his visit was without strife. Dave Clark, a civics and AP government teacher at the school, lost everything in Katrina, as did many teachers. He said not everyone was happy about hosting Bush.
“A lot of these kids are too young to remember,” Clark told me minutes before Bush took the stage. “Among the teaching staff, it’s been an issue.”
I asked him if he personally was conflicted with Bush’s presence. He took a deep breath and said that he respected the office.
“It’s kind of bigger than any political agenda,” he said.
That wasn’t the case for Grant, nor was it for Sebring and Mary Hooks, who traveled from out of state to be here this weekend in support of the black community.
The women heard the night before that Bush was speaking and on Friday tried to gain access to the building but were denied. They held signs that read CHARGE GENOCIDE and GEORGE BUSH STILL HATES BLACK PEOPLE.
“It’s so fucking disrespectful,” Hooks, 33, said. “How disrespectful, how arrogant. Unacceptable. When you come to the school when the money was channeled through your wife’s foundation to fund the school and you leave thousands of other children without public education. Are you kidding me?”
Gilyot, the assistant principal, lost everything: his house, his mother’s house, his brother’s house and his aunt’s house. His grandmother and great aunt died in Katrina. He understands why Bush’s return would upset some, but he also says without the Bush family, Warren Easton wouldn’t have its lights on.
“Whether you like him or not, respect the position that he was able to get us what we needed,” Gilyot said. “Thank you, and we move on.”
Gilyot, the school, the children and the community are all trying. But as this weekend closes out #Katrina10, and as things like Bush’s return reflect a cognitive dissonance, a feeling of exclusion that—even 10 years later—still exists for many.
“It’s been about everybody who helped us,” Gilyot said. “Not about those of us who helped ourselves. We also did a lot for ourselves; and that part isn’t really celebrated. We kind of have been left behind. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but it kind of feels that way.”
The evidence of the disconnect between different parts of the city are well beyond the school’s walls.
A friend who is very active in the black community in New Orleans offered this example: a link on Facebook to a Yoga retreat a white woman is hosting Saturday—the 10th anniversary —on the 9th Ward levee. The same levee that broke, that failed the city, the neighborhood, the one that washed her city and its people away.
The event is billed as a day full of healing and all proceeds will go to a charity that benefits the neighborhood. But it’s a white woman asking people to lay down yoga mats on ground where black bodies lay, uncollected and abandoned, 10 years ago. My friend, a black woman, was aghast at the seemingly complete and total disconnect of an event that will be celebrated by people who were most likely not from here, and certainly not from that neighborhood.
“What the flying fuck is this?” she wrote. “Do people not understand grief, mourning and trauma? Literally dancing on people’s graves.”
A few nights ago I dropped by the studio of my friend Alex Glustrom, a filmmaker whose documentary Big Charity details the needless and arguably criminal demise of Charity Hospital. It’s one of the most important yet underreported Katrina stories and Glustrom’s work had garnered a lot of attention. Because of that, he’s often asked to sit on panels and said he had yet to participate in a #Katrina10 event that included people who were abandoned.
“I don’t think any panel I’ve been on has had someone who was actually stuck here in the water,” he told me. “This anniversary is like one big media photo opp, but the people who were the true victims of the flood, the people who were stuck on their roofs or in the Dome, who have been systematically kept from returning home, they haven’t been invited to be in the picture.”
Sebring and Hooks, two of the protesters, have seen the disconnect all week.
“There are two very distinct conversations [being had by those] here,” Hooks said. “Those that suffer and those that profit off their suffering.”
Grief, pain, trauma are all things that were real and still are for so many. Yet it feels as though that is a reality this week best left untouched.
“I’ve been hoping there isn’t something that triggers a bad feeling in me,” Gilyot says. “I think at some point all of us were post-traumatic.”
My friend’s post on Facebook reminded me of a woman I photographed a few weeks ago who was put on a plane thinking she was flying to Texas, and instead landed in Utah, alone and with no idea where her family was.
She eventually reunited with them and built a life in a Utah suburb as the only black family in the neighborhood. She’s back in the area now, having rebounded from being homeless a year ago.
But she suffers still from extreme anxiety and PTSD. She struggles with making it to her doctor’s office to refill her anti-anxiety medication because just being around other people sometimes is just too much. You won’t see her parading or second-lining or ribbon-cutting this week, the same way you won’t see hundreds and thousands more who like her, would prefer that this just all go away.
“I’ve been in my house all week,” Mary Jefferson, 55, told me outside the school on Friday morning, stopping to chat with Grant and compliment him on his Bush sign. “I just haven’t dealt with it.”