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Trigger warning! This is hard to watch.


The Superdome after Katrina,
          August 2005.
The Superdome after Katrina, August 2005.

Bourbon Street,
          April 25, 2020
Bourbon Street during Corona, April 25, 2020.

How do we deal with a common loss? Often we have to grieve a personal loss, usually with other friends and family members who share the loss. But sometimes we have to deal with a corporate loss. Katrina took out most of New Orleans and large parts of the Gulf Coast. What today's reading has in common is the various ways our authors tried to cope with the loss experienced in Katrina. All of them reflect the great pain of the loss. There is a lot of anger as well. Anger over the past failures that led to the flood, and rage over the failure of government and the betrayal of New Orleans by much of the nation. Ashey Morris' blog post on November 27, 2005, is a primal scream of rage at the botched preparations and corrupt response. This blog post eventually made it into the premiere of Treme, which is my candidate for best television series ever. John Goodman (playing Tulane English professor Creighton Bernette) voices Morris' words and sets up one of the themes of the show.

The black writers in today's reading also express anger over the racism that made Katrina so much more difficult for their community. Algiers police prevented black people from evacuating New Orleans across the GNO bridge. Other police killed black citizens. In a reprise of historic white violence, white vigilantes roamed the city gunning down down black people with impunity. And while city, state, and federal governments collapsed for days in their lack of response to the hurricane, the only institution keeping people alive at the Super Dome were local gangs. And the national media duly reported that black people were behaving like animals. The Bush administration bulldozed undamaged public housing to prevent black families from returning while openly talking about making the city whiter. And of course, every teacher in the parish was fired, most of them black.

As I'm writing this lecture on April 25, 2020, Bourbon Street is once again deserted, as are the streets of the rest of New Orleans. The death toll in New Orleans during Katrina was 1,836. The death toll in New Orleans as of tonight is 399. Tomorrow it will be higher. By the time you read this, it will be higher still. It's very likely to surpass the Katrina death toll over time. Both events are rooted in natural disasters of storm and disease, but both were magnified by our own social, economic, and political disfuctions. We are in the 40th year of the Reagan Revolution, which sees the federal government as the problem and dissolving it as the solution. And when the heirs of Reagan get into office promising to push that revolution forward, it's not a big surprise when they don't respond to crises effectively, from the perspective of the people going through it.

Of course, their response is successful from their own perspective. Disaster capitalism is the branch of capitalism that takes advantage of disasters. Thus after Katrina, Charity Hospital (which was almost 300 years old) was closed down. So was the public school system of New Orleans. Now it's a patchwork of charter, private, and parochial schools. Quess's poem "Education" is a protest against the destruction of the public school system of New Orleans. He points out that after all the black, middle-class teacher of New Orleans were fired, human trafficking was used to bring in teachers from the Philippines. The goal of disaster capitalism is to pick the bones of society clean. So close a school, give the building to a private corporation, let them run a charter school until it fails, then strip the building, sell the copper, and sell the land to a McDonalds. Meanwhile, fire the local teachers who look like the students and are from their community, who buy houses and attend church and otherwise build up their neighborhood. And hire bungee teachers to come in for a couple of years from somewhere else, work for half the former teacher salary, then exit the community to return home. Close the 300-year-old Charity Hospital, and 15 years later, black people in New Orleans who get corona are twice as likely to die as white people. And of course, the closing of Charity Hospital is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrepencies in the health of poor people vs rich people, black vs white, etc.

Julie Kane's poems are sonnets recounting her response to the shock of the initial devestation. One compares the city to a cancer patient who is visibly declining. The other talks about how she has become one of those people who talk about what they've lost as the city changes over time.

Gian Smith writes in the Whitman style. According to Smith, the poem began to come to him while he was scrubbing mud in his mother's house. He ironically calls the storm 'beautiful,' even as he recounts the terrible consequenses of the storm for himself and his city. Gypsy (Kristina Robinson) writes a hip-hop inflected essay 6 years after Katrina reflecting back on the early days after she returned to New Orleans, when the stress of Katrina had made her lose weight to the point she was mistaken for a crack addict, while tanks rolled through the city.

Recknagel's writes an autobiographical essay relating New Orleans to her personal life. New Orleans is like a giant magnet, and as magnets do, it attracts or repels you based on your own polarity. It attracted Recknagel. Her home town of Shreveport was the spiritual as well as geographical antipode of New Orleans. As a young girl who wanted to be a hippy, walk around town barefoot, drink strong coffee, and date black men, New Orleans was more of a home to her than Shreveport could ever be. And then Katrina hit, and her old lover showed up on her doorstep in Houston to stay for a while. She weaves back and forth from past to present throughout the essay.

Mark Folse had been living in North Dakota when Katrina hit. Part of his response to the grief was to go to a local fund-raising concert by a group of musicians from New Orleans. Hearing "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" while he and the musicians wept, he knew he had to go home. And talking to non-New-Orleanian his wife later, she said she knew then also. The magnetic power of New Orleans is felt through its music as much as anything.


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