On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast, displacing hundreds of thousands of people in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. New Orleans, a city with an average elevation 6 feet below sea level, was at a particular risk of flooding. By the time the storm subsided, Katrina had claimed almost 2,000 lives.
Project HBW is honored to present to you guest blogger Danny Caine, who gives us a glimpse of the literature that arose from Katrina’s destructive path:
Two of the first books I read about Katrina and its aftermath are Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun and Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge. Both bring to gritty light the struggles and grief of the chaos in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, and I think both are fine pieces of journalism. In addition, both are compulsively readable, feeling more like novels than the well-reported journalistic nonfiction they are.
It is worth noting that both of these compelling stories are mediated from outside the city. Neither Neufeld nor Eggers is from New Orleans, though Neufeld spent significant time volunteering in the aftermath and interviewing survivors. Another issue, perhaps one for another blog post, is the fact that Eggers and Neufeld are white men telling the stories of Black, Latino, and Muslim residents of New Orleans. For now, let it suffice to say that all of these tensions (resident/non-resident, white/not-white) remind me of why Dr. Jerry Ward’s The Katrina Papers is a valuable documentation of Katrina’s aftermath.
The Katrina Papers is an account from the inside, told by a New Orleans resident who lived through the storm’s aftermath. It is the single piece of writing that gives me the clearest view of the devastation. We all remember news footage of the aftermath: bodies in the streets, the Superdome both smoldering and packed with refugees, floodwaters, mayhem, destruction. The Katrina Papers, though, is a telling of the storm’s effect not only on a body but on a brilliant mind. Further, The Katrina Papers is far from neat. The book began as a private diary, only later published after Ward’s friends encouraged him to do so. The novelistic plotting of Eggers’ and Neufeld’s work is not present in The Katrina Papers, and that’s a blessing. The devastation and trauma of Katrina’s aftermath surely was chaotic enough to resist neat narratives.
This, then, is what I keep in mind as I sift through the glut of 10th-anniversary writing about the storm. Are people writing these pieces to impose a neat, “New Orleans has healed” narrative onto the city? Or, are people writing these pieces to bear meaningful witness, even if New Orleans still doesn’t make for a tidy story? I recently visited New Orleans for the first time and saw little evidence of Katrina and her devastation. But then again, (for better or worse) I spent most of my time in areas privileged enough to either bear lesser damage or receive more aid and attention in the aftermath. I know the story isn’t that neat, and I’m going to try to listen to it, as I’m sure it’s far from over.
[by Danny Caine]