I had the good fortune to be in Mexico as Katrina approached. I had the misfortune to work for a New Orleans newspaper. So, while sensible people were doing everything they could to flee southeast Louisiana, I was scrambling to get back. I reached Baton Rouge as my colleagues from the Times-Picayune stumbled off the back of circulation trucks that barely got them out of our headquarters in New Orleans before it was swamped in the flooding. One of them told me the French Quarter was under nine feet of water which meant I was homeless. That was a falsehood as it turned out, in a time of many myths and falsehoods. But it filled me with an irrepressible need to get to a little weekend cottage my wife and I had in the Mississippi woods. It was starting to look like a permanent home. It should have been a two-hour drive. It took seven which gives you some idea what condition the interstates were in: fallen trees, flipped-over semis, crashed cars. It got worse. I saw lights in the neighbors’ house and, though it was not yet dawn, I picked my way through the woods or what was left of them eager to connect with friends and be sure they were well. Instead of a joyous reunion, I was confronted by a posse of strangers. I assumed they were storm refugees who had grabbed an available cottage in the woods. They assumed I was a Klansman come to roust them black people from their squat. We overcame our misunderstandings (they had permission to use the house) and two more young men emerged from the underbrush shouldering a rifle and a hunting bow that had been aimed at tender parts of my body.
That was one of the lessons of Katrina: how quickly and how completely we revert in a catastrophe to some more primitive part of our history, in this case the Jim Crow South. Another lesson was how, in disaster as in war, the truth can be an elusive prey, if not an immediate casualty.
A hurricane is a vacuum, a cyclone that sucks ocean water up into itself in a huge dome that overwhelms coastal regions as it crashes ashore. Katrina shattered all forms of communication, which created a vacuum of another kind, one that sucked fears and lies and myths and misinformation into itself and spewed them back out again, sometimes as TV and newspaper reports.
It became one of our principal functions as journalists not just to figure out what had happened, but what had not. To this day, there are otherwise reasonable people in New Orleans who are convinced that the city’s white elite deliberately blew up the levee system to drive out poor blacks. No matter that a lot of rich whites got driven out of their homes just as mercilessly. There are people convinced that the police seized the opportunity to round up the criminal element and dispatch them by the hundreds with bullets to the skull; that the throngs at the Superdome and Convention Center were turned into rampaging beasts who raped scores of women and children and murdered each other.
Many bad things happened during Katrina, including a lethally clumsy attempt by the federal government to respond to the crisis created by the failure of a federal levee system. But gang rapes and murderous rampages by trapped evacuees weren’t part of it. The surprise was the ready willingness with which media a group pretty well schooled these days in avoiding racial and gender stereotypes fell into old habits and assumed the worst about New Orleans.
It occurred to me early on that Katrina wasn’t a discrete event and that much of what we saw on television in those first days and weeks the looting, the misery, the failed federal response was only a beginning. It suggested the storytelling strategy I used in Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City: Set several lives in motion, get to know them intimately, watch as these lives unfolded and decisions were forced upon us immediate decisions, made in desperation; longer-term decisions that would affect the rest of our lives. There are men and women of means caught up in this tale, as well as the abject and despondent. There are rape victims and looters, scientists and politicians. A pregnant teenager preparing to drop out of school instead gets swept into the embrace of a rich doctor’s family after evacuating to Georgia. A nanny is provided. The young mother is chauffeured to school. They are all part of the Katrina story. As I write this, the Army Corps of Engineers is frantically at work trying to shore up the levees that failed but what about the ones that were only weakened? With $12 billion about to start flowing into Louisiana through the federal pipeline, New Orleans may be on the verge of the biggest boom in the city’s history or will it prove to be a last hurrah? Will the tourists come back to juice the local economy? Will the musicians come back to beguile the tourists? Will the soul of the city the thousands of native sons and daughters forced into exile come back to reclaim a heritage? As we verge on the hurricane’s first anniversary, it has only just become possible to see the arc to which Katrina has bent our lives and the prospects of the city it nearly destroyed.
Jed Horne is metro editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which won two Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Horne’s previous book, Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans, was a 2005 Edgar Award nominee for Best True Crime Book. He lives in the French Quarter with his wife and sons.