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The New New Orleans

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Charlie Varley
Ray Nagin (left), mayor of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and Mitch Landrieu (right), the current mayor. Nagin’s 2006 campaign for reelection against Landrieu is the subject of Katherine Cecil’s documentary film Race.

He was reelected in the fall by carrying the black vote and losing the white vote. This is the story that Katherine Cecil tells clearly and effectively in Race, though at a level of craft far below Spike Lee’s.

The nerve that Nagin struck was a feeling in black New Orleans that somebody out there—white New Orleans, the Bush administration, American culture—did not want New Orleans’s displaced black residents to return, so that the city could return to white political control; and that all the arguments about how and where and when to rebuild were really about that. As a white New Orleans expatriate who still goes home regularly, I had access during those years to white opinion as expressed in living rooms rather than in public, and I can report that this feeling in black New Orleans wasn’t entirely wrong. The ancient, ever-present white fear of black insurrection spiked after Katrina, and there was a palpable longing for New Orleans to be reconstituted as another Charleston or Savannah, smaller, neater, safer, whiter, and relieved of the obligation to try to be a significant modern multicultural city. But that longing has to be understood as something far short of a program that was actually (if surreptitiously) put into effect. If white New Orleans were that efficient, the recovery would have proceeded in a faster and more orderly way.

George W. Bush, in the chapter on Katrina in his memoir, Decision Points, quotes a number of statements to the effect that the federal government was slow to respond to Katrina because most of the victims were black, and then says:

Five years later, I can barely write those words without feeling disgusted. I am deeply insulted by the suggestion that we allowed American citizens to suffer because they were black…. The more I thought about it, the angrier I felt.

Bush is not, in my view, being disingenuous here, but his account of his handling of Katrina—which is actually quite interesting and forthright—has more race in it than he appears to realize.

A signal event in the history not just of New Orleans but of the country was the entry, on January 4, 1875, of a column of federal troops under the command of General Philip Sheridan, the greatest cavalryman in the Union Army during the Civil War, onto the floor of the Louisiana legislature, which was located in New Orleans at the time. The state, which was in a condition of low-grade internal civil war over the question of black enfranchisement, had two competing governments each claiming to be legitimate, and the troops removed Democratic (meaning Confederate après la lettre) members of the legislature and replaced them with Republicans (meaning supporters of blacks’ right to vote). The whole country, not just former Confederates, was outraged at this intrusion of federal military power into civil politics; there were large public meetings of the better sort of liberal citizens in Boston’s Faneuil Hall and New York’s Cooper Union, and The Nation and The New York Times published horrified editorials.

This demonstration of how little national support there was for federal troops’ enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment in the South helped set the stage for the end of Reconstruction in 1876, and then for the passage of the Jim Crow laws by Southern states without federal opposition. In 1878 Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which explicitly forbids federal troops from performing law enforcement functions in states. It was nearly eighty years before federal troops again so dramatically entered the South in the name of civil rights, when Dwight Eisenhower sent them to Little Rock in 1957.

In the days after Katrina, state and local authorities were unable to handle the suffering and chaos that enveloped New Orleans. The most significant help the city got was from the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army, under the command of General Russel Honoré (who’s treated as a hero in both Decision Points and If God Is Willing), and the reason Bush took six full days to give the order dispatching the troops was the Posse Comitatus Act. Governor Blanco, according to Bush, repeatedly refused to issue an official request for federal help, which would have been one way around the act. That left him the option of invoking an even older law, the Insurrection Act of 1807, but in that case, Bush wrote,

the world would see a male Republican president usurping the authority of a female Democratic governor by declaring an insurrection in a largely African American city. That would arouse controversy anywhere. To do so in the Deep South, where there had been centuries of states’ rights tension, could unleash holy hell.

Bush finally found another way around the Posse Comitatus Act, which was to dispatch the troops under orders not to engage in law enforcement. That ended the first post-Katrina phase of televised but unabated hell. It’s useful to contrast Bush’s account to that of Bobby Jindal, Blanco’s Republican successor as governor of Louisiana, who was then a congressman. Jindal would have us understand the week after Katrina hit according to an opposition between hapless “politicians and bureaucrats” on the one hand and heroic “private individuals” on the other, and he explains the delay in sending the 82nd Airborne as a failure of organization:

The government needs to establish from the outset a unified chain of command with the power to override the normal process restrictions and get things done.*

Evidently Jindal, unlike Bush, is unaware that this is illegal, for reasons that have nothing to do with “bureaucracy” and everything to do with the history of race relations, in the country generally and Louisiana specifically.

Racial issues were also at the heart of the toxic politics of rebuilding that emerged as soon as the floodwaters receded. Both If God Is Willing and Race tell the story of the unveiling of the first comprehensive rebuilding plan, in January 2006, by Joseph Canizaro, a Republican real estate developer assigned to the task by Mayor Nagin. The plan, which suggested that some of the poorest, most devastated low-lying areas of the city not be rebuilt right away, got an outraged reception from many temporarily exiled blacks, who felt it was being purposely presented in their absence so as to ensure that they could never return to their homes. (This reaction may have led Nagin, just a few days after he had helped unveil the plan, to make his “chocolate city” speech.) Because it was impossible after that to create a zone of trust between blacks and whites large enough to allow for the creation of a different plan, there was no plan at all, except the universal individual right of return.

As of a year ago, more than a quarter of the housing units in New Orleans—50,000 houses—were still standing empty. Mitch Landrieu has indicated, carefully, that he is willing to begin tearing these houses down, and that raises the possibility of his launching some more comprehensive departure from the policy of simply waiting for every displaced resident to come back while proclaiming that every neighborhood in the city—especially the Lower Ninth Ward—must be restored. Whether he can do this, and whether he can retain black support, aren’t just related questions; they are the same question.

The best of the Katrina documentaries thus far, to my mind, is Trouble the Water, which was released in 2008. A young New Orleans couple, Kimberly and Scott Roberts, poor sometime drug dealers living just across the Industrial Canal from the Lower Ninth Ward, began shooting home videos as Katrina approached New Orleans. They made an astonishingly vivid record of themselves and their neighbors preparing for the storm, then huddling in their attic when their narrow wooden house was flooded. They managed to evacuate to Alexandria, Louisiana, where they met and joined forces with Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, documentary filmmakers who had come to Louisiana for a different post-Katrina project that had gone awry.

The result of this accidental partnership is an extraordinary record of one family’s entire Katrina experience: the storm itself, the immediate aftermath in New Orleans, exile in Alexandria and Memphis, Tennessee, and finally the return. It helps that Kim Roberts has a generous measure of cinema verité star quality: she never says anything dull or rote or false, and something about her commands the viewer’s eye. She and Scott make for an ideal vehicle for telling the basic story of the storm. Their own lives hit most of the major points (a grandmother dies in the hospital, a brother goes missing in prison, troops deny them sanctuary at an empty, clean New Orleans military facility), and Lessin and Deal sketch in the rest with a light, strong, undidactic touch.

Documentary filmmaking is a craft that is highly dependent on access to good material; having Kim and Scott’s filmed life experiences means there’s no need to have any official personages appear on camera to tell us what their story means. What it means is obvious, and Kim and Scott’s consistent toughness, optimism, humor, and kindness give them far more emotional power as characters than they’d have if they were stolid socialist-realist victims being ground under the boot heel of society.

Lessin and Deal spin out the tale of Kim and Scott as a counterintuitive man-bites-dog story: the storm visits every conceivable misfortune on them but their lives wind up evidently transformed for the better. Before Katrina, they are quasi criminals; after, they are clean and sober, politically active, and pursuing musical careers. That may just be their luck, and it may just be temporary. In no way does Trouble the Water present a misleadingly positive picture of the condition of New Orleans; toward the end there is a very funny (because it resists the temptation to be heavily sarcastic) segment about the bouncy, patently false promotional materials being prepared by the local board of tourism.

Still, five and a half years after the storm, there is something inspiring about seeing people in New Orleans simply getting on with their lives, despite all the reasons this shattering experience has given them to succumb to bitterness or despair. That’s what thousands and thousands of people in New Orleans have done. They’re not defeated. They inhabit their city. They don’t have many illusions about how things have gone or how they’re likely to go now, and there is honor—even hope—in the choice they have made.

  1. *

    Bobby Jindal, with Peter Schweizer and Curt Anderson, Leadership and Crisis (Regnery, 2010), p. 123. 

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