First the Flood, now the Spill


Almost five years after Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans remain desolate and neglected. Now, as 210,000 gallons of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico every day, the city faces a fresh calamity, writes LARA MARLOWEin New Orleans

THE STORM. The Exodus. The Return. Now: The Spill. Residents of New Orleans sum up their plight in one-word titles with Biblical resonance. In an ironic linguistic twist, oil spills, like hurricanes, “make landfall”.

When James McKay, an appellate court judge and Ireland’s honorary consul in New Orleans, heard about the BP oil spill that is still gushing an estimated 210,000 gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico each day, he said: “My God, what next? I was wondering if pestilence was going to be around the corner.”

A new city government took office this week, and Kristin Gisleson Palmer is the councilwoman for district C, which comprises the French Quarter, Algiers, Marigny, Bywater and Treme – the birthplace of jazz and the setting for a new, highly acclaimed television series about a musician returning to the city in late 2005, after Hurricane Katrina.

“When I heard about the Spill, I said to my sister, ‘Sometimes I feel like we’re the toilet bowl of America’,” Palmer recounts as she paints her own office in City Hall. “Thirty per cent of US oil and natural gas and seafood come from our coastline, not to mention the shipping up the Mississippi. We’ve allowed this country to grow.”

Film-maker Michelle Benoit pauses to talk at a cafe in the Marigny district. “It’s like that other big [thing] that happened,” she says, holding her hands wide, as if to show the enormity of Katrina. “It’s just out there, and we don’t know . . . I see Lloyd is over there eating oysters. Maybe I should do the same.”

Fishing was banned east of the Mississippi river on April 30th, out of fear of contamination by the oil spill. The Times Picayunenewspaper reports “a local feeding frenzy” as Louisianans rush to consume seafood while they can. Lawyers monopolise television advertising time, offering shrimpers and oystermen assistance in suing BP. Catholic charities and a group called Santa on the Bayou have been handing out food packages and cash gift cards to fishermen who’ve lost their livelihoods.

And yet, as McKay notes: “This is the city that care forgot. We didn’t really worry about the Spill until it was right at our doorstep.”

WHILE MILLIONS OF GALLONS of petrol swirl in choppy seas off the coast, the Jazzfest ends with its usual clamour. In the French quarter, Bourbon Street is still loud, sexy and careless. New Orleans remains true to its nickname, the Big Easy, and to its unofficial slogan, laissez les bons temps rouler(let the good times roll).

“There was always a party atmosphere in New Orleans,” McKay says when we talk in the Stanley and Stella cafe, downstairs from the Pontalba Apartments where Tennessee Williams once wrote. “The planters came here to sell their crops. They partied between 12th Night and Ash Wednesday. It was a big port, and the sailors drank and cavorted. It became a naughty town for professional ladies.”

But there’s a price paid for all that joie de vivre. New Orleans ignored the erosion of its marshes, which could no longer protect it from the ravages of Katrina. “There is no philanthropic tradition, because the city pours everything into carnival,” McKay observes. Five years after Katrina, the Orpheum and Saenger theatres, the Loew and Joy picture palaces are still boarded up. There are still 61,000 blighted buildings, which have become havens for drug addicts and squatters.

This week, it almost felt like Louisiana, the state that smokes, drinks, eats and gambles to excess, might dodge the bullet. Winds and tides kept pushing the oil slick east, towards Mississippi and Alabama. BP stopped one of three leaks, though the Coast Guard emphasised that didn’t reduce the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf. And BP held out hopes that a four-storey concrete dome it began lowering over the fissured pipe might stop the haemorrhage by the beginning of next week. It seems too good to be true, and it probably is. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

The full impact of the hurricane is most evident in the lower ninth ward, where the majority of the 1,800 people who died in Katrina perished. Vegetation and graffiti cover derelict buildings. Many houses have been demolished, leaving only weeds and cement porch steps. A few dozen state-of-the-art, ecological designer houses, financed by the actor Brad Pitt, are the only visual relief.

The lower ninth had the highest ratio of black home ownership in the US. In the middle of an August night, when the storm was abating, a loose barge crashed into the wall of the industrial canal that borders the district. The bank was breached and a 7.5m-high wall of water swept away houses and lives.

Like many of the lower ninth’s residents, Robert Lynn Green, a 55-year-old tax accountant, moved to the ward as a child, when he, his mother and three brothers were flooded out of the Desire housing project by Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

On the night the levee broke in 2005, he and his family climbed on to the roof of their house, which was torn off its moorings and transported several blocks.

“The house started breaking up,” Green recalls, sitting under a wall covered with Barack Obama memorabilia in his new home. “I saw my small grand-daughter Shanai washed away in 25 feet of water. We climbed on top a truck, which started tipping over. Then we pulled ourselves on to the roof of a house. My brother Jonathan and I were holding our mother’s hands. Three times she was sucked down into the water, and three times we pulled her out. We resuscitated her, but we stayed five hours on that roof and by the end of the ordeal she was dead. We had to leave her body there . . . we thought they would retrieve her body.”

Green was one of the first residents to move back into the lower ninth, where he and his family lived for three years in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema). The sign in front of the trailer, still there, says: “I am home. I will rebuild. I am New Orleans.” The trailers had formaldehyde in the insulation, and many of those living in them suffered headaches and respiratory ailments. In another Fema blunder, Chinese-made plasterboard used in reconstruction projects propagated mould and rust and interfered with the hard drives of computers. It was made from recycled refuse.

IN THE AUTUMN of 2007, the New York visual artist Paul Chan came to the lower ninth to stage a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which 6,000 people attended. Green quotes from the play and speaks of Didi, Gogo and Pozzo as if they were intimate acquaintances.

Waiting for Godotwas the experience of everyone who went through Hurricane Katrina,” Green says. “We waited for Fema. We waited for president Bush to keep his promises. We waited for the National Guard to show up. We waited four months for them to find my mother’s body.”

When Chan staged Godotin the wasteland next to Green’s trailer, people were still waiting, for electricity and lights, for the insurance companies to pay. But sometimes, says Green, “waiting is what gets you what you need”. By hanging on in his formaldehyde-coated trailer, he met the actors Brad Pitt and Danny Glover, a host of politicians and officials, and became the neighbourhood’s most effective advocate.

Like many New Orleans residents, despite the oil spill, Green is still riding the surge of hope that started with two events in February. The New Orleans Saints (whom Orleanians used to deride as “the Ain’ts”) won the Superbowl. Mitch Landrieu was elected mayor, along with a new cabinet and district attorney. Ray Nagin, his predecessor, was overwhelmed by Katrina, and earned a reputation for gaffes and hiding in the bathroom.

When Landrieu was inaugurated this week, New Orleans declared the day a holiday. One of Landrieu’s first actions was to appeal to the US Department of Justice to put the city police under its direct tutelage. New Orleans has the highest homicide rate in the US. “I personally have known five women who were murdered; three in their own homes,” says Madeleine Molyneaux, a freelance film producer.

The election results were interpreted as a sign of improved race relations. Landrieu, who is white, won a landslide victory in a city that is two-thirds black. All the blacks I met in the lower ninth told me they voted for Landrieu.

“The difference between the oil spill and Katrina is we didn’t have people stepping up to the plate and saying, ‘I’m responsible’,” says Robert Green. “In Katrina, you didn’t have the federal government, the governor and the mayor all saying what should be done. We have leadership now.”

A few blocks away, in Tupelo Street, Ronald Lewis, a retired street car repairman and union organiser, presides over the House of Dance and Feathers, a small museum dedicated to elaborately beaded and embroidered Mardi Gras Indian costumes. Lewis seems older than his 58 years.

“I worked hard all my life,” he explains. “Young people used to say hard work never killed anybody. It may not kill you, but it damn sure wears you down.” Although Lewis’s discourse is one of racial harmony and hope for the new New Orleans, the story that emerges in the small museum that university students built for him post-Katrina is the more nuanced reality of a city whose half-life of trauma will not be spent for generations.

“TELL THE WORLD you visited the lower ninth, and five years after there are still empty lots and empty houses, that a couple of miles from the French Quarter you still see helplessness,” says Lewis. He keeps an album of obituaries of friends who died too young, from suicide or heart attacks, after Katrina. “This thing is so deep in our lives, you can fill every page of your notebook with the emotion of Katrina. The world was snatched from under us.”

Lewis’s museum is a sort of social club for those who have returned to the neighbourhood. Alvin Seymore, 55, wanders in and sits cross-legged on the floor, drinking beer from a bottle in a paper bag. Seymore is emaciated, and Lewis is made visibly uncomfortable by his tragic, disjointed monologue, a life story of loss and racial discrimination.

“We didn’t have gas money. We walked 10 miles to the Convention Centre. There was raping and robbing and nobody did crap. I lost my wife after 34 years and she didn’t die. I am not going to sugar-coat this. I was a police officer and a teacher and a ditch-digger. When I was a child in the Desire projects the cops came in with their cars with the cherry top and I wanted to be one. But when I put the uniform on people couldn’t see me because I wore the suit of oppression. After Katrina they wouldn’t allow us to clean up our own city. They brought Mexicans to do it. Now BP is paying fishermen $1,200 a day to clean the oil spill. What about us? I’m not afraid to work. I’m not afraid of dying. It’s living that’s hell . . . ”

Back at City Hall, Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who heads the council’s recovery committee, says she is determined to improve life for men like Alvin Seymore. Despite its trials, New Orleans is a proud and beautiful city, founded in 1718. Until the War of Secession, it was the richest city in America. But nearly a quarter of its population, some 100,000 people, never returned after Katrina.

“To all those who have gone away, it is time, it is time for you to come home,” mayor Landrieu said in his inauguration address this week.

Palmer had an Irish boyfriend at university, and something from a holiday in Ireland has stayed in her mind.

“Mary Robinson was president,” she recalls. “She hung a light in the window, for the Irish to come home. I think we should do that in New Orleans.”