Five years ago today, Hurricane Katrina made landfall and within 24 hours the surge pushed into to breech the levees in the city, flooding 80 percent and creating the diaspora and abandonment that remains today. I left San Antonio, where I worked for the Express-News, for New Orleans by the end of that first day, and soon met among the evacuees Teddy Duet and his family. He was a boat captain and had lived all his life along the Bayou LaFource, so Cajun that his grandmother still only spoke French.
In the course of the following several weeks that I remained in and around the city, I met all manner of the survivors of the storm--a man who, having been rescued from the deep flooding in the Lower Ninth, promptly waded back into the chest-deep water, distraught and disoriented, saying he had left someone back in his apartment, and none of the rescuers could stop him. I saw houses along 17th street literally blasted off their foundations and houses near Pontchartrain so filled with ceiling-high mold after the waters retreated that it was toxic just to open the doors, and yet all the returning residents did, not knowing what they would find. I stayed for a night in an Uptown house used by Hearst for its reporters and guarded by Blackwater security, and traveled across the city daily in what became a kind of witness-bearing.
I drove to Grand Isle, where an entire town seemed to have been sand-blasted away. I saw the forests and communities around New Orleans, the obliteration of beaches and highways into Mississippi. I was one of the first journalists to go inside the Convention Center, where evacuees were forced to stay even against their will, and where bodies were found inside and out; I watched the 82nd Airborne come into the 7th ward and all manner of heavily armed "officials" move into town as though they were entering Baghdad, when in fact it was a city where the only real danger was not being able to help enough. In time, most of the troops figured that out, even if the NOPD didn't.
Every year about this time I go back there in my head, and in my heart. It has taken me most of this time to feel that I could write about it in fiction, which I am now doing for a new novel for NewSouth Books. I can't write about everything in this space, now, but I wanted to leave a note as witness. We all remember what happened, and what didn't happen, and what needs to happen. I hope Teddy and his family are well, and that the BP spill didn't harm them further.
I think everyone who cares about the South can never forget the meaning of Katrina. And not just the damage from the storm. The way the most important city in the South, if not the U.S., was left to die. And that it has not done so.