Four years ago, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Nicole Cooley, who grew up in New Orleans and whose poem “The Flood Notebooks” appears in PEN America 10: Fear Itself, reflects on the anniversary.
Go on, I’ve had enough.
Dump my blues down in the Gulf.
—Johnny Cash, “Big River”
It is not you who will speak: let the disaster speak in you.
—Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
In New York, it is raining this weekend—the side effects of Hurricane Danny—and I am wishing I was in New Orleans where I grew up. New Orleans: the easy city to miss—we all know the song, “Do you Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” The easy city to mythologize—and I have done it—Live Oaks along St Charles Avenue, mint juleps on wrought iron balconies, the French Quarter. I know that it is easier to think about New Orleans if you keep your vision of the city romantic, if you align it with the most popular and resonant clichés.
I am talking about a different New Orleans, the one that four years ago endured the greatest “natural”—or not—disaster in US history: Hurricane Katrina. I am talking about the city that my parents and my friends still live in four years after the storm. I am talking about the New Orleans that former president George Bush and his administration ignored and ruined. The city that people have told me—well meaning people, my friends and neighbors in the Northeast—should not be rebuilt. “Who would live there?” one man said to me. “Everyone knows the city is going to be eventually destroyed. It is only a matter of time.” (“The Status of New Orleans: An Update,” in Friday’s New York Times, shows the stark reality of the conditions in the city. )
For me, the anniversary also marks four years since my parents refused to evacuate New Orleans, despite the first-ever mandate to leave the city. “We are not leaving,” my mother said. “This is our home.” And for several days, my sister, brother and I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. We called FEMA, the Red Cross, the Louisiana State Police, the local hospital, begging for help. All the phones were out, circuits busy. We typed their names in Coast Guard search engines. In that first week after Katrina, none of us knew the scope of the damage or how many people were missing or dead. All we could do is watch the news—the roads in and out of New Orleans shut down, the floodwalls cracking open, the city filling like a bowl. In the end, my parents were safe—and this is less a miracle than random luck—though they remained in the city for three weeks after the storm. But so many other people on the Gulf Cost did not survive.
I am also wishing President Obama was in New Orleans. On Friday, the day before the anniversary, many citizens of New Orleans wrote and signed an open letter to the president, asking him to visit the city for this important fourth anniversary, and published this letter in the Times Picayune newspaper. The opening of the letter reads: “Tomorrow we will mark the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Louisianans and nearly killed a great American city. We will miss having you in our midst.” This year, unlike other years, there are several organic commemorative events to mark the fourth anniversary of the storm. They include a ceremonial bell ringing at the Charity Hospital Cemetery at the time of the levee breaches and a festival celebrating the city with food and “entertainment” in Congo Square in Armstrong Park.
In my mind, I return to my experience on the first anniversary of Katrina, August 29, 2006. My parents did not want to participate in any commemorative events—I understand this, as the aftermath of the storm is their daily reality—but it was important to me to be part of the anniversary in any way I could. I went alone to an informal Second Line Parade downtown: a large group of us walked from the Convention Center to the Superdome. Those two sites were part of the worst of the aftermath of the storm, one the shelter that should have never been a shelter and one a shelter of last resort. The walk was a jazz funeral—familiar to me from my childhood. But the parade also brought together so many disparate communities: The Mardi Gras Indians, The Black Men’s Social Club from Treme, out-of-towners who had come down to New Orleans for the anniversary. It was not an orchestrated, rehearsed memorial. It didn’t follow the conventional narrative of disaster and the aftermath with invocation of heroes. But the parade invoked the spirit of New Orleans.
And it reminds me of the words of poet John Berryman in The Dreamsongs: “We are on each other’s hands/ who care.”
Nicole Cooley is the author of two books of poetry, with a third, Breach, forthcoming. She has received a Discovery/The Nation Award and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, CUNY.