Today (or yesterday, by the time I finish writing this) marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on to the shores of the American Gulf Coast. What happened on that day, and on the days and weeks and months and years following, revealed a nasty underside to the American social and political landscape which many are still trying to ignore, and many are trying to address and change for the better. The town of New Orleans, submerged underwater for weeks, was dealt a near-death blow, from which she is still recovering. Thousands of people, mostly African-American, died in the aftermath; thousands of homes were destroyed, tens of thousands of the city’s residents were forced to leave, some never to return again. Even today, despite slow but strong recovery and signs of positive change in the city, signs of post-trauma exist everywhere, from broken-up streets to boarded-up buildings to empty and overgrown lots. And this is to say nothing of the deeper psychic wounds that still infect those who lived through the trauma, who lost loved ones, who every day must cope with their lives being changed forever by the perfect storm of nature’s fury and a nation’s hubris.
It is not customary to wish anything or anyone, a “happy” anniversary of a tragedy. We don’t wish the bereaved a happy anniversary of their beloved’s death. Nor do we celebrate the anniversaries of massacres or assassinations with “happy” well-wishes. Generally we take these milestones as opportunities to pause and reflect, to remember those we have lost, to draw what lessons we can from the past, and to observe where we might be on our long road to recovery. And if you pay attention to the news, you may have read an article or two doing just that, or you may have seen Anderson Cooper back in New Orleans yet again, taking stock of the situation in his “In the Wake of Katrina” reports. Or you may have caught Spike Lee’s excellent documentary, “If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise.” Tributes to to the fifth anniversary of the storm abound, and celebrations and ceremonies all along the Gulf Coast today attest to the magnitude to which the aftershocks of Katrina are still being felt. And yet somehow, for a fairly indiscriminate consumer of news like myself, it really hasn’t seemed like enough. Maybe folks are just tired of remembering. Maybe they’re ready to move on. If we spent all our time remembering all the old tragedies, our calendars would be bursting at the seams with sad anniversaries.
I was hoping to be in New Orleans on this day, just to be there to celebrate with the friends I’ve made during my time there, to watch the city take a bow and celebrate its resurrection from the deluge. The anniversary came fittingly on a Sunday, the day of Second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indian practices, the historical day of Congo Square, the day when the churchbells ring and folks get together for barbecues and afternoon beers. Business at home prevented me from doing so, but my thoughts have been with New Orleans all day, and all this previous week. Still, I wanted to be there; because despite the long road ahead, despite the traumatic memories in the rear view mirror, I think New Orleans is happy today. And knowing it’s never a town to waste a good excuse for a party, I have no doubt that it celebrated this day in style. And I wish I could have been there, falling in with a second-line parade, hearing the brass bands churning out their ever-evolving riffs that evoke the sound and spirit of the Crescent City.
But I was not there for Katrina, and only know through the stories of others what horrors the city survived, and what challenges she has overcome over the last five years. I only know that the New Orleans that I came to know and love this year is a city whose time is now. It is a place alive with new energy and new ideas, simultaneously enjoying a rebirth of its old traditions and a re-envisioning of its future. It is a place where racial barriers, while still evident, are blurring; a place where art and music are sprouting from old, once-neglected neighborhoods; a place where post-Katrina community organizations are bringing people together; where a growing network farmers’ markets is reinforcing the values of local sustainable agriculture and the culinary uniqueness of New Orleans food culture. It is a place where young, idealistic volunteers who came to lend a hand in the reconstruction have fallen in love with the city and all its magic and mayhem, have started new businesses, bought houses, taken jobs, and made New Orleans their home. It is hands down the musical epicenter of America, and its place as such is being re-asserted by youngsters playing old-time jazz on the streets, swing dancers in porkpie hats doing the lindy hop, brass bands re-inventing their sound for the 21st century, and a whole cadre of new rock, blues. funk, hip-hop, bounce, and jazz musicians taking inspiration from the city’s rebirth to make a joyful noise.
So in true New Orleans style, with all honor and respect to those whose lives were lost and damaged by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I’d still like to wish the town a happy anniversary. May there be dancing in your streets for many years to come, may the Carnival never stop, may le bon temps always roll, and may you continue to rebuild and grow in prosperity, community, creativity, and joy. Oh yeah, and Who Dat!
Please enjoy the following link, an unfinished, and until now unpublished multimedia look at New Orleans in 2010, through the eyes of an adoring stranger.