HBO Miniseries, created by David Simon and Eric Overmeyer
Recipe for Disaster:
Take an old, multi-cultural city situated below sea level, with a mighty river running through it and a large river-fed lake lapping at its north side; add an antiquated flood control system and incompetent political leaders; then mix with a category 3 hurricane and you have, in the words of Creighton Bernette (of the HBO series, Tremé), “a man-made disaster of epic proportions.”
Hurricane Katrina occurred in late August of 2005. The National Weather Service had a fairly accurate prediction of its path as well as its potential to leave a swath of ruin as it bent toward the northeast after having travelled west across the south Florida peninsula and into the Gulf of Mexico. There was plenty to time to stock emergency shelters with water and food, to order the evacuation of people from the most vulnerable areas, and to develop a plan for rescuing anyone who stayed behind. Instead, New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, waited until 19 hours before the hurricane made landfall to order residents to evacuate. Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco declined President George W. Bush’s offer to call up National Guard troops in advance of the storm to assist with the evacuation and recovery. When it became apparent that Katrina was going to submerge large parts of New Orleans, last-minute evacuees crowded into the Superdome and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, mistakenly thinking that there would be water, food, and buses to take them away from the disaster zone. The failure of leadership from the local governments all the way up to the White House turned the New Orleans disaster into a national disgrace. Approximately 1,836 people died of which 1,577 were from New Orleans. Another 135 people were never found.
As Katrina’s flood waters ebbed, bodies surfaced to reveal the enormity of the tragedy. A state of lawlessness descended on the ruins of New Orleans and in response, some in the New Orleans Police Department abused their power, locking up and losing track of citizens and worse. On the evening of September 4, 2005, a team of police in a rental truck responded to a call from a fellow officer citing gunshots being fired near the Danziger Bridge. When the backup officers arrived on the scene, they opened fire on a group of unarmed citizens who were walking to a food store. Two of these innocent citizens died and four were wounded by the assault rifles and shotgun deployed by police. One of the victims – a mentally disabled man – was stomped on the back by one of the police officers shortly before he died. The gunshots heard by the first officer, it turns out, were fired by people trapped in their flooded out house who were trying to get someone to help them.
As the steamy weeks wore on, FEMA came in and bagged bodies. President George W. Bush praised FEMA’s chief, Michael Brown, for doing a great job of handling the disaster even though the disaster got worse by the day. While, one of America’s great cities was dying a number of influential politicians thought that writing off the flooded parts of New Orleans might solve a number of urban ills. It turns out that the lowest lying areas were populated by some of the most disadvantaged citizens and allowing a Diaspora to exist could allow the city to reduce its footprint. Many New Orleanais evacuated to Houston where they ended up camping in the Astrodome and various city parks, languishing with no hope of going home. After a few weeks, Houston had expended all the hospitality it had and was quite ready to send New Orleans’ refugees packing. Former First Lady, Barbara Bush famously said, “…so many of the people in the [Houston Astrodome], you know, were underprivileged anyway so this is working very well for them." Indeed.
By December, those with homes on higher ground began returning to pick up the pieces of their lives, hoping that the city they loved so well could recover. Housing projects undamaged by Katrina, meanwhile, were condemned by the federal government, meaning that many of Houston’s guests had no homes to go home to. Tulane University, New Orleans’ largest private employer, had evacuated all students in advance of the storm and then arranged for them to attend other universities for the Fall Semester. When the school reopened for the Spring Semester, most of the students returned to complete their education in New Orleans. Katrina had devastated the city but at the same time had ignited a passionate drive to bring it back. New Orleans welcomes all comers but for those who stay it becomes a life-long love affair.
My own love affair with New Orleans began in 1986 when my young husband took me there for the Jazz and Heritage Festival. We stayed with friends, a couple of urban pioneers recently graduated from Tulane’s School of Architecture, who showed us the real New Orleans. We biked through Audubon Park, strolled the Garden District, ate fried oysters at Casamento’s, and gave in to the “Big Easy” at Commander’s Palace where the strolling jazz musicians serenaded us as we sipped glasses of dry Champagne while enjoying several thousand calories of pure indulgence. There was a romance to the place which seduced me but sadly it was only a weekend fling. Twenty-five years later, when our youngest daughter decided that Tulane was the school for her, we visited the city – still recovering from Katrina – and I fell in love all over again.
The problem with passionate love affairs is that we get caught up in the romance and fail to get to know the person with whom we are smitten. Being much older and somewhat wiser, I tried to resist New Orleans’ charms and almost succeeded until I tuned in to HBO’s miniseries, “Tremé,” which tells the story of Katrina’s aftermath by examining the lives of a cross-section of New Orleanais.
New Orleans is most famous for Mardi Gras, the festival of overindulgence which requires 40 days of Lent to recover from. To the uninitiated, Mardi Gras is a single day of drinking, drugging, and debauching on Bourbon Street. To New Orleanais, however, Mardi Gras is a season during which neighborhood krewes meet to decide on parade themes and second-liners rehearse their marching bands. In the spring of 2006, no one was sure if Mardi Gras would happen. The vestiges of krewes who had returned built their floats and made costumes, hoping that they were not alone. It was the second line that was most imperiled, and this is what “Tremé” illustrates so well.
New Orleans is a city which, according to historian Lawrence Powell, came about as if by accident. French settlers created a port city in a location which was prone to flooding, dredged a shipping channel, devised an elaborate system of canals and levees, and proceeded to trade with anyone and everyone with little regard for the King’s edicts. Eventually, the Spanish took control of New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory, but failed to impose Spanish as the language of commerce. In the end, it didn’t matter because the newly independent American States dominated trade in North America and English became the lingua franca.
During colonial times, New Orleans was a major hub for the slave trade and as a result, many Africans came to reside there. It was a fairly liberal place and an impressive number of slaves earned their freedom and were able to establish an autonomous community in an area to the north of the French Quarter. This area came to be known as Tremé. It was here that the fusion of African, Spanish, French, and Indian cultures produced a uniquely American form of music. New Orleans style Jazz is joyful, lusty, and kinetic. It demands movement on the part of musicians and listeners alike; and it is this life force in the form of music that, more than anything else, brought New Orleans back from the dead.
New Orleans, because of its location straddling a mighty river, in the lowlands near the end of its run, has a history of rising from the ashes of destruction. What is telling about the Katrina disaster is the degree of passivity on the part of all levels of political leaders which left the fate of thousands of the people to the whims of the storm. Sure, some of the displaced and dead were living off welfare; but within this population were also great artists, poets, and musicians – keepers of the heart and soul of New Orleans. Tremé takes us inside this precious, fragile, and endangered world and introduces us to the people who recognized that if New Orleans failed then America might be next.
Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved