The City of New Orleans

Journal Entry. New Orleans.
December 25th, 2005

** Editor's Note.

It's been two years and four months since Hurricane Katrina came ashore 50 miles south and east of New Orleans.

When the levy walls collapsed the next day a flood of Biblical proportions destroyed much of the city. Over a thousand people died, hundreds of thousands were left homeless, and one of America's great communities - the home of rock 'n roll, went silent.

Imagine the town or city where you are right now flooded to the second floor.

Every home. Every car. Every corner store. Every strip mall. Every school. Every old folks' home. Everything you know and cherish is suddenly under fifteen feet of oily, fetid, rat-swimming water.

To make things worse imagine those pleasant lads from Blackwater are patrolling your town in swamp boats - armed like Terminators; behaving like Sons-of-Bushes.

That is what New Orleans was like in the autumn of 2005.

I flew to the City of Music on December 15th, '05 and spent the first post-Katrina Christmas wandering its storm damaged streets.

I met Arlo Guthrie, Willy Nelson, Dr. John, Wolfman Washington, Breeze Cayolle and a dozen other world class artists. Some of them fearful for what the future held. All of them angry at what the present had become.

What follows is a re-print of an email I sent to family and friends based on a few notes I scribbled in my Journal on Christmas Day 2005.

As we gather round our home-fires this Holiday Season I thought it might be worthwhile to post it here.

Happy Holidays. Count your blessings.


As some of you know I am spending the holiday season shooting a doc for CTV in New Orleans. It's called 'Music Rising' and at one level it tells the story of the group U2 and its attempts to raise money to buy instruments for the diaspora of musicians who have fled the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood.

But after ten days here I can see how insignificant this story focus really is. Being in this once-great city reminds me of my time in Bosnia. The streets are deserted and empty. Packs of starving dogs are everywhere. And there's an ominous mood of anger and fear.

It's Christmas Day. I miss my children and I'm in yet another hotel room. Although I'm staying in the best place in town there is no food service as most of the staff have quit. The few that remain have refused to work, choosing to spend their time with family. Christmas dinner for me will be sandwiches and pepsi bought from a machine.

The hotel is a sanctuary for the displaced rich. And even these exclusively white folk are full of rage.

It's been almost four months since the storm (and then the flood) and the insurance companies are digging in their feet and refusing to pay most claims. They are trying to make a distinction between water damage and wind damage. Most families had storm insurance but not flood insurance. The potential costs are enormous and the insurance companies have geared up for a scorched-earth battle.

In the African-American community where the folks had almost no insurance at all (and which suffered the worst flood damage) - the maximum payout will be about 20,000 dollars. Twenty grand. To get a home...a car...a TV...slippers and housecoats...pots and pans...toys and tools. To begin again. And the 20k must be declared on next year's taxes.

I spend the morning with a black Baptist preacher who held a sunrise prayer service. His brother was shot by the National Guard and died in the family home. Nobody knows the circumstances of his death. The family retrieved the body a month after the flood.

In the congregation were nurses who worked at the famous New Orleans 'Charity Hospital' - the oldest hospital in America. They told me stories of patients who were euthanized and the terrible panic which ensued in the Intensive Care ward when the flood water swamped the emergency generators and the power went off - in an instant all the respirators and i/v pumps and dialysis equipment went down......in the basement the dozens of cadavers began to thaw... ...and many patients in wheel-chairs were trapped in elevators.

On Christmas Eve I rode in a police cruiser with a couple of street hard cops. They told me stories of looting and snipers and had no hesitation to say that they thought the flood was the best thing that had happened in years as it washed all "those people" out of town. The aftermath of Katrina has torn open up the racial fault-lines. People say it's like the 30s again. Black against white. Only now the black community has guns.

Before the storm and the flood Metro New Orleans had a population of about a million...today it is less than 100,000.

All the fast food joints are closed. The traffic lights are on a permanent red-blink cycle. The 911 Emergency system is still down. Buses don’t run. The bank machines charge five dollars per transaction. The sidewalks are piled with small mountains of storm debris. One city official told me 37 years worth of garbage is awaiting pick-up.

I was at a small blues hall the other night with Arlo Guthrie and Willie Nelson who were doing a fund-raising gig. For the last song Arlo sang "City of New Orleans." The joint exploded. Tears and more tears. A roomful of strangers singing at the top of their lungs......"Illinois Central monday morning blues" --- me too.

A wonderful, tragic, bitter sweet moment. I shot it all.

I must admit to being one of those guys who suffered from "Katrina Overload"....I watched it on the news, thought little, and got on with life. Another show to do. Another script to write.

As a journalist I all-too-often slip into a kind of self-serving cynicism which shields me from actually having to think - really think - about all of this. Tsunamis and Hurricanes and Iraq somehow seem too "big" for me to deal with. I watch the faces but don't see the people. Now I'm with them.

And I like them.

I like Mike and Regis who saw me on the street with the camera and dragged me into the second floor of their home (the main floor was destroyed) to have a beer..and then another...just to be friendly and because I looked tired.

I like John Johnson who used to work with Spike Lee but quit his New York job the week before the storm to come home to be with his dad, Marcus. John swam almost a mile with his dad on his back until someone in a boat picked them up. His dad is 88.

I like Breeze Cayolle, a sax player who played with the Stones but lost all his photos and videos and instruments in the flood. Breeze says "heck..it's just stuff man".

Everybody has lost something here. I guess the lucky ones lost "just stuff".

I've sent this little note out not to bring y'all down on Christmas Day. But so that you would know what it is like in the City of New Orleans on December 25th, 2005.


If you want to read a blogger who's been charting the re-building of the city go here: New Orleans News Ladder


New Orleans News Ladder said...

Your point for Dec 25th 2007? A lot of water has traveled under the bridge since your initial post, oddly re-posted today. Have you been to town lately?

The Book of Don said...

Bruce, I've linked to you in case people want to get the latest.


Allan said...

I've been amiss in not remarking that there was some very good writing here.