Damage Assessment

For me, the takeaway from Spike Lee’s If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise was that he was celebrating the people of New Orleans and the prickly, wily spirit that it takes to deal with the monumental task of rebuilding a city. Admittedly, I’ve only seen the first and last hours, but throughout, the people he interviewed were real, idiosyncratic and unafraid to be themselves. They were bitter, sarcastic, flirty, rapturous and every emotion in-between, and their vitality was more resonant than any political point made (or left unmade, according to friends who’ve seen more).

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I’ve missed most of the Katrina-oriented television, largely for prosaic reasons, but also because my wife still struggles with Katrina stories, Katrina memories, and can’t watch images from it (including fictional ones in Treme). If the choice is between watching and my wife, it’s easy.

Katrina marked her in a very clear, direct way, and it marked all of us. When I watched If God is Willing …, I wondered about how Katrina had affected Douglas Brinkley. Jarvis DeBerry wrote recently in The Times-Picayune:

Lee’s documentary reminded me of just how tired I am of former Tulane historian Doug Brinkley, who’s been an unreliable source on life in New Orleans for quite some time now. Dismissing our civic pride, our love of place, as mindless and knee-jerk boosterism, Brinkley diagnoses us all as having an inferiority complex. We celebrate ourselves, to hear him tell it, because deep down we hate ourselves.

That’s psychobabble of the highest order. New Orleans has problems now and had problems before the storm. That’s indisputable. But our high regard for ourselves, our traditions and our city is hardly a facade. Our love for this city is not a pathology and does not deserve to be treated as such.

New Orleanians’ love of New Orleans is too complex not to have both positive and less savory roots, so I don’t dismiss Brinkley as easily as DeBerry does, but he’s unquestionably a sour note in the documentary. Since I’ve never known Brinkley to be that harsh and relentless in my dealings with him, I wondered if his hardening was a byproduct of his Katrina experiences.

We’ll likely all spend the rest of our lives checking ourselves for Katrina scars. Publisher Jan Ramsey wrote about her damage recently, and I’ve been thinking about mine. I now lose my sense of humor in situations that I once didn’t. I once could listen to politically conservative friends and family members say things that I thought were absurd and say nothing because of my affection for them. Now, having watched a city flood because of a political ideology of crippling government rendered ours unable and unwilling to respond to our catastrophe, I snap – even at my mother on occasions. Because President Bush moved FEMA under the then-recently formed Department of Homeland Security and shifted the department’s priority to border defense, FEMA wasn’t ready to respond. And because politicians on both sides of the aisle chose political expediency for decades over focusing attention on the levees – in effect, gambling that nothing would happen in New Orleans to test those levees – it’s hard for me not to respond mercilessly toward all political hemming and hawing. These things aren’t just business as usual in Washington; they’re decisions that killed people, dispersed families and destroyed homes and businesses. Politics may play out on television as a Republican vs. Democrat pie fight, but that’s not the way they manifested themselves here.

The debut of Treme prompted me to re-read some of the writing I did in 2005 and 2006 for No Depression, including a series of “Letters from New Orleans.” Now I read them and the anxiety about the possibility that we were going through this alone radiates through every line.

As time has passed, I’ve realized something else was at play, a sense of alienation. In retrospect, having people question whether or not to rebuild a major American city – my major American city, particularly – sent subtle shock waves through my system that I’m only starting to work out. What do you do with the knowledge that parts of your country are ready to write you off? And does the same moralistic approach to geography extend to people crazy enough to live on the Mississippi River’s flood plain? Or those out west crazy enough to live near forests that catch fire yearly? Or as far north as Oklahoma, where powerful, debilitating freezes are possible? Or was such approbation special to us and code for, “You’re sinners who drink in the streets, and this God’s judgment on you”?

These are some of my scars, and I try not to act on them. I’d rather bite my tongue and be kind to people I care about, and dealing with alienation is a heavier load than I want to carry on a daily basis. Thankfully, the converse of that thought seems to have kicked in as well, and I love communal moments more than ever, which made last year’s Saints season particularly moving.

As I said, we’re still in the process of assessing our wounds, and likely the best thing any of us can do on this anniversary is be a little easier on ourselves.