Marco Werman: It’s about the flood, not the storm

The World
Holy Cross, New Orleans

Gliding along the rails of the narrow causeway, no guardrails in sight, The Crescent seemed to hover over silvery Lake Pontchartrain.

It was 7 p.m., and the conductor, a longtime New Orleanian, walked up and down my car and warned us passengers about drinks on Bourbon Street like the hurricane and the hand grenade.

“My advice is drink them slowly.” He repeated, “Slowly.”

My goal was to hear some good music, eat some decent food and hear about the changes in the city 10 years after Katrina. I wanted to hear and see for myself where things are.

Even before the train had reached the lake, the passing countryside recalled Katrina because, 90 minutes northeast of New Orleans, you’re in full-on Mississippi Gulf coast swampland, and that’s where, as many non-Gulf residents tend to forget, the storm did some of its most severe damage, in places like Pearl River and Hancock counties whose wetlands I now saw shimmering out the window.

Once on the Pontchartrain causeway, the conductor added this fact to his monologue: During Katrina, the water on the lake would have been a good 15 feet over our train, if the trains had been running.

Pulling into New Orleans’ art deco Union Passenger Terminal, I’m reminded that in the weeks after the storm, the station had become known as “Camp Greyhound.” Several agencies including the local sheriff, police and FBI had turned it into a detention center. An idling Amtrak locomotive became the generator for the prison, a facility converted rapidly by inmates from the notorious prison farm in Angola. One more terrible stain among the many stains left by the storm and flood.

New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal

I took a taxi to the Airbnb I booked in St. Roch, a neighborhood described not entirely accurately online as Marigny-Bywater.

This geographic nuance of naming turned out to be a perfect example of the tension around development in New Orleans 10 years after the storm. Young arrivals who came to the damaged Crescent City were driven in part by optimism and the challenge to rebuild something that seemed so destroyed; also driven in part by a relatively affordable economy. Marigny and Bywater were two neighborhoods along the Mississippi that had the cachet of the adjacent French Quarter.

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And houses that needed work.

Not a lot of work, not like the houses in Lakeview and Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward. But enough that prices were low enough for first time home buyers — often out-of-towners — who wanted to be part of a rebirth.

But now in 2015, gentrification had begun to push north from Marigny and Bywater, up Elysian Fields Avenue into St. Roch, which got cheekily dubbed “New Marigny,” a name that strongly suggests the hipsters from Marigny have invaded the north side of Rampart Street.

Slowly, the neighborhood is acquiring the artifacts of that gentrification.

There’s still High Maintenance on St. Claude Avenue, a narrow beige brick building filled with a massive stock of hair extensions and glitter T-shirts with seductive fringe. But two blocks away, the 100-year-old building that had been Lama’s seafood market on the eve of Katrina, nearly levelled by the storm, and then had sat vacant for almost 10 years, just reopened as an airy food-court with high-end cafés and bakeries, a Nigerian deli, a local organic produce stand and an oyster bar where I saw ladies sipping pink champagne at midday.

St. Roch Market

On my third morning, I stopped for a coffee at the St. Roch market, and saw that someone had gone down one side of the building and systematically smashed a single hole in one pane of glass after another. Young skinhead anger, “crust punks,” was the assessment of some of the people who worked there when I asked them about it. And some class resentment too, they admitted.

I heard more about the general tension over an unforgettable fried chicken lunch at the legendary Dookey Chace’s.

Sarah Debacher joined me. She's a friend of a friend from Boston. Sarah had recently stepped down as head of the neighborhood association for Holy Cross, the little southern corner of the Lower Ninth Ward along the Mississippi that only got partially slammed 10 years ago when the levees burst open, while the rest of the Lower Ninth got existentially submerged.

Sarah and her husband had lived in Faubourg-Marigny, that first piece of the city you encounter when you wander east out of the French Quarter. They evacuated during the storm — the water had come up to just beneath their floorboards, what she calls a “fortunate” situation. And then they came back, but they didn’t just return. They made a decision that baffled many of their friends and neighbors: They would leave this neighborhood known as the “Sliver by the River” and actually invest in a place others wanted to write off, the Lower Ninth.

Anyway, her old neighborhood, as Sarah sees it, was forever changed: The storm, she says, gave landlords an excuse to evict lower income residents and raise the rent.

“That was the case for many of our neighbors,” she says.

But it doesn’t help to explain why you’d move your family to one of the most traumatized neighborhoods in US history.

“I grew up in Atlanta, my family fought for civil rights, my mom has hairy armpits,” was her shorthand to explain her life-long commitment to social justice.

But the commitment to the Lower Ninth Ward is her and her husband Simon’s doing. It’s not just putting their money where their heart and mouth are. She and the Holy Cross neighborhood association launched a lawsuit against the city for a zoning change that now clears the way for the construction of two luxury condo towers along the Mississippi, their backs facing the basin of the Lower Ninth, like some Copacabana tower and favela in reverse.

The lawsuit remains outstanding.

When you walk through Holy Cross, it’s clear it’s not the Lower Ninth, even though it is technically part of it. The Lower Ninth feels deserted, many lots overtaken by vegetation, some homes are rehabbed and occupied, many are not, and here and there are a few hopeful blossoms of development — a rec center, a high school. Whereas Holy Cross with its somewhat higher elevation feels like a convivial country town that the city of New Orleans simply forgot about.

One person who is engaged in both sides of the Lower Ninth Ward is Robert Jackson. Jackson is a 42-year-old contractor, and was helping another acquaintance of mine renovate her shotgun shack in Holy Cross. Jackson’s family several generations back all grew up in the Lower Ninth.

“I was born here. I never had any thoughts of leaving,” he says.

Robert Jackson, 42

Robert rebuilt his own two properties after the storm. And he’s since invested in and renovated rental properties. “I want the best for the Lower Ninth,” he says. “When you love something, it’s hard to depart from it.  It’s like a mother’s love.”

He says he doesn’t understand his friends who grew up in the Lower Ninth, went to school there, and then left after Katrina and spoke bad about the neighborhood.

He says he knows it’s not been easy for everyone, especially for the ones who’ve been priced right out of town. He mentions the bad reputation the Lower Ninth had before the storm. “But now when I see a white person riding a bicycle along the levee around here at night or early in the morning,” he says, “it makes me feel good.”

Whether it’s those who stayed and rebuilt, or those who came to help, they all know the big narrative of the disaster that befell the city: Man-made levees that failed in the face of an unprecedented storm, leading to a more lethal catastrophe, compounded by a chaotic emergency response. In the aftermath, urban activists have become specialists in single strands of the big rope that broke.

Sandy Rosenthal had moved down from Boston nearly 35 years ago because she married a local, although she still swallows her New England “R's”.

She raised all her kids in New Orleans.

And after the storm, angered by the mistakes of the Army Corps of Engineers, and frustrated by the missing facts of the story of the breached levees, she focused her time on that. She created, which, its mission statement says, is “educating America on the facts associated with the 2005 catastrophic flooding of the New Orleans region.”

But in reality, it’s much more than a website and Sandy’s blog. It’s been a lot of FOIA filings. And people.

I met Sandy one morning for breakfast at Betsy’s Pancakes on Canal Street.

Even before we had ordered, she had laid out on the table blueprints for a park — “it’s not a park technically because it needs a different permit, so the city calls it a ‘levee exhibition and garden’” — that would be open the following month for the Filmore Gardens neighborhood of Gentilly, which had been severely damaged with the breach of the London Avenue Canal after Katrina.

The “garden” features a permanent exhibit explaining what levees are, how the ones in the neighborhood had been compromised and what happened to them after the storm, and a nearby rain garden that offers another perspective on how cities can live with water.

“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” Sandy tells me. She gestures across the racially integrated restaurant, people conversing and scarfing down pancakes, bacon and eggs, and she tells me that successes like that are all because of the people in New Orleans she’s met since the flood, united over the same determination to make the city better.

“I’ve got relationships with people all over this city that I never would have had, never if it weren’t for what had happened. So for me and everyone in this room if they’re from here, they’ll tell you there are ways in which their lives are better, qualitatively better, than before the flood.”

Rosenthal tells me she’s been working with under-privileged families pretty much since the day she arrived in New Orleans. She knows for example that “you never ever address an African-American woman over the age of 30 by her first name. Missus. Always. Unless they tell you. If you know these things, they’ll notice that you know these things, and it was helpful for me working with people outside my neighborhood.”

As an activist, Sandy is on point.

She rarely talks about “the storm.” She talks about “the flood.” The storm, after all, only precipitated the man-made disaster. She’s writing a book in fact called “Don’t Call It Katrina.”

Holy Cross, New Orleans

“Right after the flood, the Army Corps of Engineers sold the American people a bill of goods,” she explains. “They told them this story about a monster storm, city below the sea, local corruption. And from that assumption, they were going around saying that for years that they had been wanting to build stronger levees and locals had told them to do it cheaper.”

Sandy has dismantled those myths one by one, in clear technical detail. And perhaps more importantly, she’s laid bare the basic calculus that the Army Corps of Engineers and others favored cheapness over safety when it came to years of levee construction.

As for the possibility of another deadly storm, Sandy Rosenthal has no doubt New Orleans is safe. Most New Orleanians seem confident that improvements to the levees mean that another catastrophic flood won’t happen, not even with a category 5 hurricane. What many don’t talk about is “sea rise” all over the world, and what effect that would have on a city that’s about 50 percent below sea level.

If you bring that up, some locals might betray a momentary look of bemusement as if they know that living below sea level is kind of crazy these days.

But there’s a lot about New Orleans that’s always been a little crazy — with an arresting dose of charm — like the unexpected moment when you hear blind 90-year-old accordionist Norbert Slama bring his French chanson chops from World War II Paris into the Japanese bistro Yuki Izakaya on Frenchmen Street. Or the tales regaled to me by John Blanchard, owner of the Rock ‘N’ Bowl lanes and bar, about how another accordionist, the late Beau Jocque, was utterly non-plussed when Mick Jagger sat in the first row of his gig at the bowling alley sometime in the early 90s.

And let’s not forget when the Fontainebleu Hotel filled its pool with salt water in 1972 so the Super Bowl visitors from Miami would have a place for their dolphins to swim.

So do you stay in New Orleans because you love it? Because you’re crazy? Because for whatever reason, you need to see it work?

I asked Sarah Debacher about this, and just about the wisdom of investing her family and its resources in what could be the site of another potentially worse disaster. She replies slowly, but the words come easily because she’s thought about it a lot.

“Of course I think about my family. What if we have to evacuate again. I feel stupid. And wise. And brave. And naïve," she says.

A few weeks before the 10th anniversary of Katrina, Sarah had been eerily transported back to 2005 when Holy Cross and the Lower Ninth Ward flooded. The house she and her husband Simon purchased later as a single family had been a shotgun-double before the storm. The man who rented one of them didn’t know how to swim, and drowned in the apartment. That much Sarah knew. What she only recently heard from her neighbors is that they could hear his screams when it happened. And lately, that’s been keeping Sarah awake at night.

Not to mention, as she wrote me, “All the hundreds of people who died just a few blocks away.”

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