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.
by Orissa Arend
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. His latest offering is Katrina: After the Flood.
John Barry, author of Rising Tide, says Rivlin’s book is “important as a case study of both how not to handle a disaster and how to survive one. There are real lessons here.”
So many, in fact, that 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 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.
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.
Rivlin’s depiction of the complexity and enormity of post-Katrina problems, not just with geography and infrastructure—but also with the city’s racial and social fabric—leave many wondering how they ever dealt with them, albeit imperfectly. It could also leave many people both angry and grateful for the help they did or didn’t receive.
Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, is another grass roots organizer who played a key role in Ninth Ward recovery. The Common Ground Relief Collective, which Rahim co-founded days after the storm, gutted 3000 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.
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.
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 Landrieu and 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. Her husband Ron Forman ran against Nagin for mayor in 2006.
Rivlin gives a well-rounded description of Gov. Kathleen Blanco and businessman and RTA chief Jimmy Reiss who was part of what Nagin called the “shadow government of New Orleans.”
Then 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 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.
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.”
Today, 10 years out, many New Orleanians have only retained 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 historical memory. Survivors can thus assign a purpose and a meaning to this great catastrophe. They can assign a meaning and a purpose to the myriad ways each New Orleanian dealt with Katrina.
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 email@example.com.