Lamenting and celebrating in New Orleans: I’m in New Orleans with my son today. On Sunday, we spent several hours with a life-long resident of New Orleans visiting the areas of this city that were devastated by the floods of Katrina one year ago. Nothing will capture what we saw. No words. No pictures. No video. No documentaries. Nothing can communicate what has happened to New Orleans. I’ll post a few photos and some video and write a few paragraphs, but, frankly, there’s little I can do to add to the comprehension of what Katrina did one year ago — and what has taken place since.
Like I wrote in March after my son and I spent a couple of days doing volunteer construction work on the Mississippi gulf coast, the scale of the devastation is incomprehensible. The statistics of relief efforts and volunteer support are enormous — perhaps unprecedented — but when viewed in the context of the devastation and need, all that has been done seems like a spit in the ocean compared to all that remaining to be done.
In New Orleans, lamenting and celebrating have always been paired. Even in the Where magazine sitting in my Hotel Room, New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, who is leading a part of the recovery efforts, has this quote about why the ironic word “celebration” is being used to describe many of the one-year anniversary events taking place over the coming days: “In New Orleans, lamenting is a form of celebrating. With our funerals we lament, and then celebrate. Many times when you get stripped down, you get a chance to see just who you really are. And in the most painful times, that’s when it’s time to celebrate and rise up even stronger.
I’m in New Orleans as a guest of a magazine publisher, Romney Richard, who I did not know this time last year. But, for several months throughout the fall and winter, my colleagues and I at Hammock Publishing pitched in to help Romney and her small staff publish their magazine, Louisiana Cookin’. Romney and her staff lived close to one another, but after the flood, they found themselves in five states. Their homes were flooded and their lives turned upside down. I couldn’t begin to imagine what they were going through, but I knew that the folks who work with me at Hammock Publishing could help them coordinate putting out a magazine — it’s what we do. When I talked with Romney the first time, it was a couple of weeks after Katrina and she and her husband were living in an RV at a relative’s home in Baton Rouge. She was in shock and dealing with so many issues, her magazine seemed the least of her problems. But I could only think of was another small publisher (like us) with a few employees who needed a little back-up — frankly, they were all eager to do their jobs: writing, designing, holding together a means for their advertisers — the great restaurants in this region of great restaurants — to continue reaching readers who love the various cuisines of Louisiana. We enjoyed helping them out on some technical, administrative and marketing ideas.
Tonight (Monday), my son and I — along with Hammock Publishing’s John Lavey and his wife — are Romney’s guests at an annual benefit dinner Louisiana Cookin’ sponsors to honor five up-and-coming regional chefs and to benefit a wonderful restaurant and training program for future New Orleans chefs, Cafe Reconcile. It is a celebration of the chefs who have returned to New Orleans, as well. For the local, chef-owned restaurants have been the first to display their commitment to rebuilding their businesses and their lives and the life of this community.
Yesterday, Romney drove us around New Orleans — through all of those communities and neighborhoods we’ve heard about this past year. There is no way one can drive around this city without being angry. Or stunned. Or inspired. Or confused. In the end, it’s overwhelming to drive the breadth of the area flooded and to see the extreme nature of the destruction.
A lot of the debris has been cleared — the one thing FEMA gets praised for — so in some ways, the scene is moving away from one appearing like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb and more like one from the aftermath of neutron bomb, where all the buildings are left standing (or leaning) and the people are gone. And while I have gotten the impression from TV coverage that the devastation was mainly concentrated in inner-city low-lying areas, a three-hour drive around town convinced me that “poverty” and “low-lying” may be synonymous but in New Orleans, “middle-class” and “low-lying” are also synonymous and “upper-class” and “low-lying” are also synonymous. Katrina was a an equal-opportunity disaster that wiped out massive neighborhoods of all races and economic stratas.
Lamenting and celebrating are part of the same in New Orleans. I was in a restaurant last night with my son, one of my favorite restaurants in this city of world-class restaurants. The restaurant is one of those favored by characters out of Faulkner wearing seersucker suits and discussing how many cigars in a box one should expect to draw well (that actual conversation was taking place at the table next to me). It was a Sunday night at six p.m. but the restaurant was filled with different groups of celebrants. I say celebrants, because they were celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and reunions of one sort or another.
I overhead enough of the conversations around me, however, to realize that a lot of lamenting was going on, as well, as people were discussing their living in temporary quarters, or they had traveled back to New Orleans from some place they had been for months. But for this evening, they were smiling in this one-hundred-year-old restaurant with waiters they recognized and food that is familiar.
I am but a visitor to New Orleans. It is a foreign land to me, so I do not know enough to comprehend whether the pervasive celebratory nature of the place — the charm and aura of the place — has always been based on denial or innocence: Denial that one day it would all be under water; or the innocence that comes from believing some power, divine or governmental, would keep the water out.
It’s hard to be here for more than a few minutes and not feel like some individual or divinity needs to be blamed. The locals I’ve talked with most universally blame the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Government. I’m happy to join in with the chorus of those who blame the ineptitude of leaders at all levels of government, from George Bush down. Or the mayor or dogcatcher, for that matter. However, at the end of the day, when all guilty parties are blamed, all punishment has been parceled out, what will be left? Innocence? The belief that a city built below sea level will not flood again? Denial? Acceptance? In the end, everything related to Katrina will be up for debate by historians centuries from now.
I can’t begin to comprehend what I see now.
I do know this: I will look for any opportunity to travel to New Orleans and to do business or to have fun here and in the gulf-coast area. I love the people, the culture, the food, the spirit. I want to support the economy. I want to do my very little part by sticking one little finger in the dike.
But this is a place where lamenting will continue for a long, long time.
Update: As I blogged before, there are lots of folks who have been blogging from New Orleans and continue to provide a local perspective.