By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Shirley and the few other friends and family I know there were lucky. They almost surely lost everything but they didn’t die, didn’t have to fight rising water or suffer the indignity of the animal-like conditions of the Superdome or of staying anywhere in the waste of New Orleans left in Katrina’s aftermath. But there were still harrowing stories, bare escapes. Shirley’s older son, Ed, had insisted on staying at his parents’ house and riding out the storm. Shirley begged him to leave; he refused. From the road, in the midst of her own flight, she called him and said that if he wasn’t going to leave, at least take the boat out of the garage. He did and it saved his life. He eventually made it to higher ground and, remarkably, hitchhiked to safety, a town called La Place.
Another younger cousin, Michael, of the generation born and raised here in Los Angeles like me, was working in New Orleans when Katrina was churning its way ashore; he works for the production company responsible for Wheel of Fortune, and they were taping. He and the rest of the crew managed to get to Houston by bus, though it took a trying 22 hours to go 300 miles. An elderly cousin, Helen, lives in a nursing home in New Orleans; my mother doesn’t yet know if she evacuated. My mother’s childhood friend Carisse did, though her house is down the block from Lake Pontchartrain and almost certainly gone, too. My cousin Edra, Michael’s mother who lives in San Pedro, spent several days on the phone attempting to check the whereabouts of the whole New Orleans contingent, which is not simply ourfamily but an entire network of in-laws, friends and relatives of those friends, people who looked after you when you were young. Family in the South is everything, and hardly limited to blood ties. Creoles are especially clannish and mindful of New Orleans traditions, which is why they re-created them here with restaurants and social clubs and Mardi Gras events; the co-founder of the annual Louisiana to Los Angeles festival — LALA — was my Uncle Leon. Only last month my father’s family gathered for our annual reunion in Kenneth Hahn Park off La Cienega; there atop a hill, in the breeze and benevolent sun, we toasted New Orleans with a traditional second-line dance, waving fancy umbrellas, handkerchiefs, napkins, brightly colored beads. We pored over a massive family tree drawn meticulously on cardboard, pieced together and laid across two large picnic tables; as we do every year we studied connections, haggled over their accuracy like money, passed around little-seen pictures somebody brought. This is as much back-home as many of us get, the remnants of ritual that stand in for real experience and the larger meaning of a complex place that is getting smaller before our eyes. It may be gone altogether.
For all the dogged coverage of the Katrina aftermath, I sometimes have the feeling that I am more or less alone in my distress over New Orleans. The callousness of the federal government is, at this point, almost beyond comment. That it would let days crawl by without intervention, that it would instead hold press conferences in which bureaucrats talked endlessly to each other rather than about people most in need was shocking even to cynics like me. Making the nonresponse more irresponsible was that as they talked, conditions in New Orleans got worse. Every hour CNN reported more death in the streets, more looting and lawlessness, more loss of hope. This was no 9/11, a single event that could be replayed on tape and studied from all angles, but a disaster unfolding in real time, seeping into American living rooms just as the foul water that breached the levees was seeping into New Orleans, with no definitive end in sight.
But it was a human disaster that mostly involved humans the government establishment cares little about anyway, except in relation to swing-vote support of various Republican policies. I could just imagine Bush and his advisers huddling daily and then hourly, calculating exactly how many Negroes could die before they needed to appear concerned and the non-Negro population started getting pissed off enough to affect poll numbers. Certainly this is why Bush kept lurching from one bizarre position to another — first condemning the thugs and declaring New Orleans would rebuild into something bigger and better (I very nearly expected him to say that Americans wouldn’t rest until they brought democracy to New Orleans), next encouraging us to buy less gas, next admitting, in a much smaller voice, that perhaps the government had not acted swiftly enough. He seemed drunk, not with drink but with ignorance; minus the usual simple messages about Iraq and Social Security, he totally lost equilibrium. I felt not contempt for Bush this time, but sorrow for us all: The truth that we are morally sinking as a nation hit me like never before.
I started trying last Tuesday to catch up with Shirley in Little Rock; I wanted to find out, among other things, what she took with her. She had been excited in recent months about possibly unearthing evidence of a family connection to a famous writer of last century; she wanted me, a writer and journalist as well as her cousin, to know the story so far. It all came down to a single thing her grandmother gave her as a child, something she said she’d kept in the family ever since, through countless moves and bouts of bad weather. In one of several past conversations about her project, the talk turned to hurricanes, and I asked what she would take with her if, by some outside chance, she ever had to clear out of New Orleans in a hurry. Photographs, she said... and that heirloom.
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