Hurricane Ida: On the 16th anniversary of Katrina, we get hit again

Asante Salaam, visual artist and NOLA native, stands here in mid-city New Orleans with a mighty oak tree uprooted by the powerfully high winds blowing through the region from Hurricane Ida. Due to petroleum companies’ canal building and steady erosion of soil throughout the state, marshlands no longer protect the rest of Louisiana from the storms the way they used to, and this, coupled with the area’s rain-soaked shallow soil, means trees are uprooted by the dozen all over. – Photo: Kalamu Ya Salaam

by Wanda Sabir, Arts and Culture Editor

Wanda interviews leading New Orleanians Kalamu ya Salaam, Asante Salaam and Malik Rahim.

Wanda: Good morning and welcome to Wanda’s Picks. Is this Kalamu Ya Salaam? 

Kalamu: Yes, and Asante Salaam, my daughter. 

Wanda: We’re glad to have both of you with me to talk about what’s happening on the ground on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this past weekend, and Hurricane Ida just touching down and then leaving – and you all don’t have any electricity, we’ve been told. 

Asante: Citywide we have started getting messages of some sprinkles – and sprinkles as in one drop at a time, not shower sprinkles – of electricity being restored in the metro area. We’ve gotten messages about two places that have power. Other than that, there’s absolutely no electricity for business and economic infrastructure as well as residential.

Kalamu: One of the things that I want to emphasize is that many people know of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina. This hurricane – they assume it’s another hurricane, but this one was very, very different from Katrina. 

One of the things that happened with Katrina is one of the levees failed and so the city was inundated with water; we don’t have that problem now. There’s no water, but Hurricane Ida was extremely dangerous and destructive as far as wind damage goes. 

Panther veteran Malik Rahim formed Common Ground and drew 25,000 volunteers to New Orleans to help the poor survive and recover from Katrina in 2005. He was interviewed again by Democracy Now by phone on Sept. 2, 2021.

Because what we have now is wind damage. You look outside at blue sky, but you try and drive around and there are trees down everywhere.

Asante: And we’re talking old, ancient oak trees that have come topside down, some topside down, some sideways with their root structure just up sideways across streets, across power lines, across houses, across fences. 

Kalamu: So, it’s a very different experience from Katrina that we are suffering through now. A big problem is to be a metropolitan area and you don’t have electricity – it’s worse than Katrina. During Katrina, you turn on your television and you could see images and so forth and so on. Right now when the news people come down here, they can’t even report, they can’t send back images. 

Asante: And we have two components in terms of this difference. One is that, without electricity, our access to the internet is very spotty. For Katrina, it was the invention of texting. Before Katrina, we didn’t text that much – texting was an accessory communication. When Katrina happened, we couldn’t call each other but we could text to find out where each other was, and because we had electricity all you had to do was get to a location. 

Here, no matter where you are – you could be in a fancy place, you could be in a shack – you have no electricity which means you don’t have wifi, you don’t have ATM, you don’t have general news. You have the internet and you get to see how subjective news is on the internet, because it’s limited. You can’t select what you want to see, you just get these little clips. 

The other big difference is that Katrina was a great equalizer. When everyone is flooded, everyone has some similar experience. So even if your house wasn’t personally flooded, if you were in one of those rare dry areas of town, you had a personal relationship with someone who was flooded or someone who lost a family member. 

So, we had a human equalizer across class, across race, across gender, across business, residential, power levels. Everybody had sort of a level playing field in terms of what we were dealing with. 

It ain’t feeling real free and brave for most people in New Orleans.

With the wind being the damage, removing us from power – electric power – it means that the level of class and resourcefulness in terms of options – not just having money, like literally cash or money in the bank – but having options beyond the city limits, having options and connections with family members outside of the city, having options in terms of critical thinking and solution-oriented collaboration. 

This means that we have access to gas, which is powering our generator, which powers our refrigerator, which powers charging our phones, which is our hot spot that gives us internet connection through which we’re talking to you now, which gives us our portable AC, which allows us to not be in the heat index of 103 in New Orleans in August. 

But it also means that, if I use a Katrina analogy, we were all drowning and floating in the water of Katrina. But if we had that same water analogy for Ida – some people are in yachts with captains steering their ships and they’re fully equipped and they got shades and they got water and they got clean whatever and they can get anywhere they want to get. 

Some of us are in boats with rowing capacity; some people can fit with us, some people can’t. Those yachts are blowing up some water on some of those boats so people in the boats are better than the people in the water. Then we got a lot of people in the water and then we got people on shore who never even made it to the water. 

So, we are everywhere feeling the discord and the disgruntledness, and we are in the aftermath of COVID, which already had a lot of fear and unsettledness in our people’s lives, you know. 

If we go into communities, it looks the same. Some people, their places are still damaged from Katrina. They come up, like one of my nephews who said, “I ain’t gotten over Katrina yet. How are you asking me how I feel about Ida?” So, there’s a lot of unrest, anxiety, fear. And the fear is increased by the way news is reported. So it’s better to make the optic seem crisis-oriented and it means that people are rushing around and feeling crisis.

If you ain’t got no gas, you ain’t got no electricity.

I’m mindfully saying: “Okay, we’re present, we have our faculties, we have our minds, we have our spaces, we have our lives, we have each other. Let’s make some thoughtful, mindful decisions.” We don’t have to respond to this fear and crisis being cultivated around us and in our society of reporting and responding. 

Kalamu: Right, and at the same time, make no mistake: This is bad. 

Asante: Oh yeah, we’re not implying that it’s not; at the same time, we have wherewithal. For those of us who are Black – and as you were talking about with your previous guest, unapologetically of African descent – here in America, this ain’t bad compared to, I think Ossie Davis talks about doing his own stunts in “Do the Right Thing,” and somebody says: “You an old man, how are you diving on the ground?” And he’s like: “This ain’t like picking cotton! You know, I can do a little physical discomfort or inconvenience.”

We’re very clear that bad is in proportion to people who have had it way worse than us. And it is bad for what is available in our so called first world, Western society, free country America, land of the free, home of the brave. It ain’t feeling real free and brave for most people in New Orleans.

Wanda: Yeah, well, thank you so much for this overview of where you sit literally. I was wondering if before we continue you could introduce each other so our audience can know who we are speaking to? 

Kalamu: Well, my name is Kalamu Ya Salaam. I’m a native of New Orleans. I’m 74 years old now, and I’ve been through beaucoup, as we say, a whole lot of storms and hurricanes. 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a poet, author, filmmaker and teacher from the 9th Ward of New Orleans. A senior staff member of Students at the Center, a writing program in the New Orleans public schools, Kalamu is also the moderator of Neo-Griot, an information blog for Black writers and supporters. He can be reached at kalamu@mac.com. As an artist-in-residence at A Studio in the Woods, multimedia artist Asante Salaam developed a healing installation and ritual responding to the impact of Katrina and the erosion of the Delta. Learn more about her work at instagram.com/artbyasantesalaam.

Asante: And I’m Asante Salaam and I am Kalamu’s eldest daughter, first daughter, one of five siblings. I’m 51 and I am a visual artist, a creative consultant, and I work with some cultural organizations and I do my own visual artwork. We are sitting in a property that is owned by Ms. Rosita Richardson and her family and my fiancé. You can hear the lawnmower going back and forth because the windows are open despite the heat – in the rebuilding mode cutting grass because in New Orleans, grass grows super fast. 

Kalamu: After every rain you’re gonna have a whole lot of grass.

Asante: So he’s out cutting grass, you know, powered by gas. So yes, that’s who we are.

Kalamu: And I might add that that’s a major issue in the city right now, the lack of gas. And living in a modern metro area, there are two things that you gotta have, electricity and gas. I don’t care how much money you have, if you ain’t got no gas, you ain’t got no electricity, so – you get in line just like everybody else.

Wanda: Yeah, and you know, I think about all the offshore drilling right there in the gulf – New Orleans is part of the Gulf Region. It doesn’t make sense. 

Kalamu: I would add one thing that is not commonly known. The petrol industry, the oil companies, have cut canals all through southern Louisiana. So, there’s soil erosion going on and it used to be marshlands with trees and what have you that would stop storms from slamming into Louisiana. 

A lot of that land is no longer there because of all of these canals that have been dug to facilitate the exploration for petroleum throughout the south part of Louisiana. So New Orleans today in 2021 is a lot closer to the coast than it was 16 years ago with Katrina, and certainly many, many years ago with some of the other more famous hurricanes such as Betsy in 1965. 

There are a lot of complications to talking about this and we really appreciate you at least introducing this to people so that they understand what you see on television is not even the tip of the iceberg. You don’t fully understand what’s going on, because they’re not going to sit down and explain to you that a lot of the damage is done because of the petrol industry. You’re not going to see that on television. 

At night, it’s black; you can’t see anything.

Asante: Right. Now we’re talking about the environment and the treatment of the land and our Planet Earth as much as we’re talking about our neighborhoods and our people.

Wanda: Yeah, but we’re people of African descent, so we know the land is an energy, it’s a life, so you think about years ago what happened to the land – and the land was also injured. And we wonder about those stories. The land is continuing to have a discourse with us, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

I mean that’s why the hurricanes are doing what they’re doing – coming off the west coast of the continent called Africa – that discourse around, you know, “You took our beloved and carried them across the oceans, and we’re coming for you.” 

We think about Oyá and those stories. I was just wondering, I haven’t looked at any visuals, but I’m seeing these trees lying, like so many toppled human beings, because trees in certain cosmologies are people. So, I’m just looking at these felled people unburied.

Kalamu: Right. Part of what you’re seeing is not apparent if you don’t understand it. When Ida came, it was a lot of rain; it was a slow storm, and the ground in New Orleans and in southern Louisiana is not very deep. You go six, eight feet down, you’re going to hit water sooner or later. And what has happened is this ground was saturated with rain so that when the winds hit – forceful winds – the trees just could not stand. 

And that’s why when you see these trees, you will see trees and the roots of the trees – because the ground could not hold it together. 

Wanda: So what are people doing who don’t have gas or don’t have generators? What I was hearing was that you are not going to have electricity for a long time. What’s going on? 

Kalamu: We don’t know what’s going to happen. We do know there are certain efforts being made by the city administration and the state administration to, in some cases, move people; in other cases, to make changes so that people can survive. 

For instance, the SNAP program, the food stamp program, was extended down here in New Orleans so that people could actually use their food stamps to buy hot food or prepared food already which was not the case in general for SNAP. So, I don’t want to make it seem like, one, we’re helpless and, two, that nobody is coming to the rescue. 

This photo illustrates the Wikipedia entry about Kalamu ya Salaam. It was taken in 1998 when he was active with OBS, the Organization for Black Struggle.

I think that there are people in the federal government who are trying to do things and certainly the people of New Orleans are not helpless, but – it is rough. And the roughest part for me personally is between midnight and 6:00 a.m. Because at night, it’s black; you can’t see anything. 

You’d be surprised. If you live in a metropolitan area, you are so used to seeing light, even if it’s in the distance. When there’s no light, you’re totally disoriented. I mean totally disoriented. And that’s what happens. We’re here and we’re struggling. As the Ghetto Boys said: “Your mind plays tricks on you.”

Wanda: Yeah, Malik Rahim just joined us. Malik, I know you only have moments. Do you want to add to the conversation?

Malik: Oh, Kalamu, oh hey, how are you doing my brother? 

Kalamu: I’m hanging on; I was just trying to hold it down to make room for you! 

Malik: Oh yes, those hours that you were talking about from 12 to 6, oh, man – those are the roughest hours. But don’t think that you’re alone. I don’t follow no basic religion, but I’m very spiritual. And I think that this happened for a reason.

“In Louisiana, if a white gets a cold – we get pneumonia … We need to come together and form a strategy on how can we survive this,” warns Malik Rahim. We must come together as a people, as a community, and work together to prepare for a livable future during increasing crises. Here, folks came together in Baton Rouge to fill sandbags in August in anticipation of Ida. – Photo: Khalid Hudson

Sixteen years later, on the anniversary of Katrina, we get hit again. I believe the most high is trying to tell us something. And one of the things that this shows me, more than anything else, is we as a people are still ill-prepared for when the disaster hits us. We’re doing just a little bit better – I mean I wouldn’t even say 10 percent better – than when Katrina came. 

We could’ve survived this. I mean it shouldn’t be that it’s as brutal as it is upon us. I mean, there’s no such thing here as an emergency disaster team. Not among Blacks. Now, the Cajuns got it, you dig? 

Because, if anything happened in Louisiana, if a white gets a cold, we’ve got pneumonia. So, we’re supposed to be prepared as a community, especially those who classify themselves as community leaders. Whether it’s spiritually – and I’m talking about all the faith-based – or all those who say they’re community leaders, we need to come together and form a strategy on how can we survive this. 

This photo of Malik Rahim handing out ice and ice water – survival gear in HOT New Orleans – on Sept. 3, 2005, a few days after Katrina, and his story, “This is criminal!” about vigilantes shooting Blacks with impunity, launched the Bay View’s coverage of Katrina, a harbinger of the atrocious and blatant anti-Black aggression that has intensified nationwide ever since. Black families, forced from their homes by the flood, were forced onto planes by police and flown to farflung cities, penniless, with no one to take them in – all to whiten one more Chocolate City. The Bay View’s Katrina coverage was ranked second only to that of New Orleans’ daily paper, the Times Picayune.

It shouldn’t be that we need any outside support. We should’ve already come together and developed the mechanisms to help ourselves. I’ve seen all these people running to get gasoline for a generator that very few of us have experience in operating. 

That’s the reason why it’s killing us! There’s a house up in Harvey that burned down because the person had the generator too close to the house, and he tried to fill it up and didn’t give it a chance to cool off and it caught on fire.

We could do solar. There’s one thing that we have right now – an abundance of sunlight. With solar – that would cover us. But we have to come together, we have to develop that strategy. I’m sitting here with Gen. Rico Ford, the former president of the Republic of New Afrika, and we have our offices in Hattiesburg, Miss.; and the reason we aren’t flooded is because we’re 100 miles inland. Every mile that you have of land can absorb a foot of tidal surge.

So again: We have to prepare. As an organizer, I learned what we used to call the “five Ps”: proper planning prevents poor performance. We have to plan, and we have to come together and do it. Especially for the elderly, who are sitting up in these houses right now without any air conditioning, without electricity and with the little food they have had stored. 

There is no food giveaway.

Kalamu: I would say that lives on the West Bank – I live currently at Asé Cultural Arts Center, and I’m now staying with my daughter on the East Bank. One particularity of Louisiana and New Orleans in particular: If you’re standing on the East Bank and you want to look to the West Bank, you got to look to the east, because the river bends and curves and so the West Bank is actually to the east of the metropolitan city. 

Malik and I have been knowing each other since Katrina. Malik and I would run across each other in airports and everything. This situation is not going to change by itself. Malik is absolutely correct: People are going to have to organize to make a change. 

Because the powers that be, even those politicians on a national level who want to make a change, the petroleum companies who give the politicians so much money, are not going to let them make a change. 

Listen to the full interview here

Follow up from Wanda Sept. 4

I just spoke to Baba Malik Rahim who said the electricity is slowly being restored in the Westbank – Algiers, Westwego etc., and the city of NOLA has parked buses serving as cooling stations and COVID-19 incubators—the numbers are 1,000 new infections a week.

Malik is still without electricity. Robert King in Westwego, also on the Westbank, is also without electricity and so is Albert Woodfox. (King and Woodfox are the survivors of the Angola 3, three Black Panther veterans held in solitary for over 40 years at the dreaded former plantation, Angola State Penitentiary.) Both say they are weathering the storm.

There is no food giveaway and though ice has been given out since Sept. 2, the food in most if not all refrigerators has spoiled. People are also given opportunity to evacuate, almost a week after the storm hit. The inefficiency is baffling.

When I spoke to Baba Kalamu and Asante this morning, they told me about their new generator purchase — $1,000 – and their current search for pizza.

My family is all safe. My cousin is in a hotel with his family, and other family members are in Texas, Alabama and Georgia. The electricity is back on for my cousin in Slidell (near New Orleans). The hospital where his wife works was allowing employees to shower and eat. They had a generator and were able to stay home. My cousin works offshore and when he arrived home Aug. 28, it was too late to evacuate. The traffic was horrendous, he said. However, his brother picked up my aunt and took her to Bay St. Louis.

Malik said a man cut the line at a service station; there was an altercation and one person was killed. “No one stopped pumping gas.” The shooter escaped.

Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.