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‘Katrina: After the Flood’

July 29, 2015

Review by Orissa Arend

A man carries a baby after the Superdome was evacuated following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. – Photo: U.S. Navy

A man carries a baby after the Superdome was evacuated following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. – Photo: U.S. Navy

The New York Times sent Gary Rivlin to Baton Rouge and New Orleans, days after the storm, to cover Katrina as an outsider. While most people were looking backward in those weeks trying to figure out what went wrong, Rivlin’s instincts had him looking forward “to the mess ahead. Eventually the flood waters would recede. How would New Orleans go about the complicated task of rebuilding?” This carefully researched, beautifully written book describes that process from then until now.

“Katrina: After the Flood” could have been several books. There is the story of Alden McDonald and his family. It is a personal and intimate look at the backgrounds of the couple, Rhesa and Alden: their courtship, their relationship, their values and goals in life, the creation of Liberty Bank and the deft creativity and business acumen that allowed it to survive and re-emerge vitally after the storm.

Rivlin’s instincts had him looking forward “to the mess ahead. Eventually the flood waters would recede. How would New Orleans go about the complicated task of rebuilding?”

Woven throughout is also the story of Ward “Mack” McClendon and his fight, despite having lost everything personally, to save the Lower Ninth Ward. The Lower Ninth Ward Village Center, as McClendon called the abandoned building he and many volunteers fixed up, just kind of happened. “I never did anything to spread the word,” McClendon says. “People just found me.” The center housed religious groups, college organizations and groups of high school students for years.

In a photo taken Sept. 14, only two weeks after the storm and before the government or major charities had done anything but make life hell for Black New Orleanians, this sign set the tone for Common Ground. Inside the converted mosque were donated supplies, from toiletries to baby food to batteries, plus medics dispensing health care – all for free. A media center was being set up. It should be noted that Malik Rahim didn’t give a preference to white volunteers. The initial call for volunteers, made by Malik via the Bay View, drew Blacks first, but they were forced back at gunpoint at a checkpoint coming into Algiers. The first truck, loaded with Black medical volunteers and supplies, had to return all the way to Atlanta. Whites were allowed through, however, and from then on, they recruited their friends. – Photo: Bradley, Indymedia

Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, is another grassroots organizer who played a key role in Ninth Ward recovery. The Common Ground Relief Collective, which Rahim co-founded days after the storm, gutted 3,000 homes, businesses and churches in the Ninth Ward. Rahim started by hosting slews of mostly white volunteers across the river at his Algiers home. He set up a health clinic at an abandoned storefront mosque. “The little clinic that could” – the Common Ground Health Clinic – The New York Times declared two years after Katrina, is an oasis in a “shattered health care system.”

In early September 2005 white vigilantes were patrolling the streets in Algiers. Rahim says he saw bodies of several Black men who had been shot. Police had set up checkpoints at the Algiers-Gretna border. It was a perilous time. “My own version is that New Orleans was on the verge of a race war back then,” Rahim said. “What stopped it was that we had young white kids that came down and did what nobody else would do.”

The immediate post-storm story of what happened Uptown revolves around Lance Hill, a white activist-turned-scholar-turned Katrina super-activist. He dispensed practical help both uptown and downtown on his bicycle and from his large, beat-up car, delivering water, checking on the elderly and caring for people’s pets. He reported on what the Audubon Place blue-bloods were plotting “behind enemy lines” as Rivlin calls the chapter about Hill.

Rahim set up a health clinic at an abandoned storefront mosque. “The little clinic that could” – the Common Ground Health Clinic – The New York Times declared two years after Katrina, is an oasis in a “shattered health care system.”

In addition to the drama of the storm, the flood, and the evacuation or sheltering in place of the people he follows, Rivlin also tells the political story about Mayors Ray Nagin and Mitch Landreau, police chiefs Eddie Compass and Ronal Serpas. Nagin’s advisor, Sally Forman, is quoted extensively as she tried to bring balance to the public image of a mayor who many thought was coming unhinged. Her husband Ron Forman ran against Nagin for mayor in 2006.

Malik Rahim works with a Common Ground crew to gut a house to prevent the city from demolishing it. Gutting involves tearing out the flood-soaked and rotting sheetrock, insulation and the like. This photo was taken March 14, 2007, over two years after the flood.

Malik Rahim works with a Common Ground crew to gut a house to prevent the city from demolishing it. Gutting involves tearing out the flood-soaked and rotting sheetrock, insulation and the like. This photo was taken March 14, 2007, over two years after the flood.

Rivlin gives a well-rounded description of Gov. Kathleen Blanco and businessman and Regional Transit Authority chief Jimmy Reiss, who was part of what Nagin called the “shadow government of New Orleans.” City Council President Oliver Thomas and Joe Canizaro, a wealthy white real estate developer and financial supporter of Nagin, figure in as well. Also, of course, there is George Bush and the FEMA bureaucracy and the many planners, developers, contractors and “visionaries,” each with their own agenda.

Schools, healthcare, housing, jails, boards, hurricane protection – everything was up for grabs. Rivlin deftly dissects every grab and attempted grab through the lens of race, economics, power and personality.

The genius of the book is that he balances these factors. He gives us the actual dialogue, so that the narrative has a kind of intimacy that allows the reader to feel that s/he is in the room as decisions are made. He quotes Canizaro as saying: “As a practical matter, poor folks don’t have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn’t have the resources to get out of our city. So we won’t get all those folks back. That’s just a fact. It’s not what I want; it’s just a fact.”

Another story that Rivlin follows over the 10 years is about the affluent Wall sisters, Petey, Robyn, Contesse, Tangee and Cassandra. They personalize several variations on the New Orleans East experience with their close family ties, intergenerational obligations and differing feelings about how the East should come back. A large part of the family tension revolved around Cassandra’s decision not to come back to New Orleans at all.

Schools, healthcare, housing, jails, boards, hurricane protection – everything was up for grabs. Rivlin deftly dissects every grab and attempted grab through the lens of race, economics, power and personality.

Connie Uddo, a tennis instructor turned relief worker, provides the personal narrative for Lakeview and, later, Gentilly. “I feel like 90 percent of the homes I work on in Gentilly involve some kind of contractor fraud,” Uddo said. Her role as a second-responder evolved. In Lakeview it was more about community, whereas in Gentilly, it focused on individuals. Nobody seemed to mind that she was white.

After Katrina, police were told they could shoot looters. New Orleans Police Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann aims his gun on the Claiborne Overpass on Sept. 1, 2005, two days after the storm, while the people around him on the bridge are desperate for help. – Photo: Alex Brandon, New Orleans Times-Picayune

After Katrina, police were told they could shoot looters. New Orleans Police Lt. Dwayne Scheuermann aims his gun on the Claiborne Overpass on Sept. 1, 2005, two days after the storm, while the people around him on the bridge are desperate for help. – Photo: Alex Brandon, New Orleans Times-Picayune

Rivlin’s depiction of the complexity and enormity of our post-Katrina problems – not just with our geography and infrastructure but also with our psychic, racial and social fabric – leaves many of us wondering how we ever dealt with them, albeit imperfectly. It also leaves us both angry and grateful for the help that we didn’t or did receive.

John Barry, author of “Rising Tide,” says of Rivlin’s book: “It’s important as a case study of both how not to handle a disaster and how to survive one. There are real lessons here.”

Today, 10 years out, most of us blessedly have retained just sound bites etched into our memories of public events and our own private Katrina stories. Rivlin’s book provides the historical context, fills in the blanks, and gives us the specific facts and figures to assist our historical memory.

We can thus assign a purpose and a meaning to this great catastrophe that we all lived through. We can assign a meaning and a purpose to the myriad ways each of us dealt with it. Only then can we take to heart those urgent lessons that Gary points to as we rebuild our lives and our city that were almost destroyed by the flood.

Rivlin’s depiction of the complexity and enormity of our post-Katrina problems – not just with our geography and infrastructure but also with our psychic, racial and social fabric – leaves many of us wondering how we ever dealt with them, albeit imperfectly.

Gary Rivlin, a journalist, is the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, GQ and Wired.

Orissa Arend is a mediator, psychotherapist and author of “Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.” You can reach her at arendsaxer@bellsouth.net.

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  11. Jason Renwick

    Good read, I was in Karina working 2005 in Biloxi MS. We went to New Orleans and saw first hand the devastation. Amazing how far this city has come back and what a task it was to rebuild. Still surprised how many things have not changed such as levy system still not good enough to withstand another Katrina.
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