Cruel Mistress Irony, how you tease me so. I’m writing to y’all this month from a hotel in Chicago. Nine years ago to the day I found myself in this very city, one displaced soul among thousands fleeing Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. On this anniversary, I have to say I’m feeling Katrina’s echoes pretty hard this year. It made me dig out the picture you see below—from my MySpace page, of all places, which is still strangely active. Can you believe that’s how long ago Katrina was? That we communicated through MySpace? How ancient does that sound?
I arrived in Chicago after living through the storm in Bush, Louisiana. Katrina blew right through us.
As it passed and we listened to developments in the city on WWL, my companions and I knew we had to set out for safer land, somewhere with water and electricity at least.
We drove miles through North Shore roads, only to be turned away by fallen trees blocking our way. We drove through Mississippi, looking for hotel rooms to no avail. We slept in a gas station for a minute, then continued driving through the night.
By noon the next day we made it to Memphis, where I saw the first images of the devastation on a USA Today in a Motel 6 lobby (they were out of rooms, too). Roof tops peaked out of the water. In the parking lot, a woman sat in her car and bawled her eyes out.
We reconvened at an IHOP to plan our next moves (and snap! That’s where this picture was taken). My girlfriend at the time lived in Chicago, so I set out immediately, vowing not to stop until I arrived at her apartment (you can make those kinds of drives in your 20s). I remember, racing up I-57, it being so sunny in Illinois, but bawling my own eyes out as the NPR reports came in. I arrived in Chicago after 20 hours of driving, completely exhausted and more broken than I knew.
I was one of the lucky ones. After all, I had a warm bed and sympathy waiting for me. I also had several friends find their way up here, notably a bunch of West Bank dudes. We found the good pho place. I was given work by some film industry peers. I had a Red Cross card and FEMA money. I had resources.
But it was still hard, especially the part about not being in New Orleans.
This city is my inspiration. It has been all my life. And Chicago was a foreign planet, its atmosphere hostile. I was an alien watching their world drow from so far away. Green Day came out with “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” I know it sounds cheesy, but guess what? That song stuck to my ribs.
On the eve of this anniversary, Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika and Gail Glapion wrote an Op-Ed for The Times- Picayune that illustrates a disparity along race and class lines post-K, painting a bleak picture of the city today: poverty is high, wages are low, and too many African-Americans are incarcerated, underemployed, and undereducated. Summing it up, Dr. Sanyika and Ms. Glapion warn us of the path this takes us down: “We will continue to drift even deeper into a tale of two cities: one whiter, richer and stable, the other black, poorer, underdeveloped and marginal. The resulting social instability that results will make New Orleans one of the most unsustainable cities in the country… It’s time that New Orleans does something radically different rather than patting itself on the back about how well it is doing nine years after the storm. To do otherwise is to perpetuate the dangerous illusion of social peace disguised by Mardi Gras fantasies and self-medicating second lines.” Those are some truly sobering, eloquent words.
Oh boy, I got myself in deep for an intro. Katrinaversary will make a New Orleanian raw like that. I hope you enjoy the issue. As we learned almost
a decade ago, a September issue—like relative normalcy in the city of New Orleans and of course precious life itself—should never be taken for granted. —Dan Fox