Tag Archives: hurricane katrina

Why New Orleans Still Makes the Perfect Dystopian Setting

Plenty of people have written about the use of New Orleans as a dystopian setting over the last decade, which hits a little too close to home—literally. Yet, I cannot deny that my city does in fact make the perfect backdrop for political commentary. In the context of Hurricane Katrina, this statement makes sense, but does it still hold up?

From a local perspective, I would argue that it does for the following reasons:

1. Unwavering Weather Deathtraps

It’s hard to believe that a little over 12 years ago, Hurricane Katrina left 80% of the city flooded, at least 1,833 dead, and hundreds of thousands homeless—myself included.

While this event destroyed my 15-year-old world, it captivated the rest of the country through the national news circuit as the ultimate disaster porn for months, maybe even years.

The question on everyone’s mind—How could this level of devastation occur in 2005 in one of the most powerful countries in the world?

The images, more reminiscent of a third world country than that of a modern US city, forever shook the country’s self-view. People waiting on their roofs for days with rescue signs, houses upon houses filled with water, stragglers swimming in what was once a street, security footage of looters, the cajun navy out in their personal boats, the 27-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in ruins, my childhood theme park (Six Flags New Orleans, formerly named Jazzland) becoming a lake instead of just having one.

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Photo Credit: PBS.org

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dissociate myself from these images the way the rest of the country did. I distinctly remember the people around me as well as the anchors on TV referring to us IDP’s (Internally Displaced People) as “refugees”—people who by definition have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

This semantic discrepancy spoke volumes and reflected the cognitive dissonance between what people were witnessing on television and what they believed possible in their own country.

The use of “refugee” framed the black bodies appearing on millions of white American screens as foreign. The media also fanned fears of looting and crime through exaggeration, bias, and racial stereotypes: Whites borrowed for survival, while blacks doing the same thing stole. But I digress.

Between August 29 and September 17, directly after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, “dystopia” spiked worldwide on Google trends. If you look at this search trend between January 2004 all the way through September 2017, there is no other spike of this magnitude. In fact, when you look at this graph, dystopian YA is just beginning to surpass that spike in terms of popularity. That almost feels wrong, given the wave of Hunger Games, Maze Runners, and Divergents dominating publishing and film.

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But if a world-ending event were to occur in America, people already picture it in our backyard thanks to Katrina, the Louisiana Floods of 2016, and even the occasional two-hour thunderstorms.

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What in the actual F???

In 2017, we’ve had the strongest recorded tornado in LA since the 1950s, a biblical thunderstorm (that consequently trapped me in my car for five hours), and, at one point, there were three active hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico simultaneously, which, scared the absolute crap out of me. I’ve never witnessed such a thing in my lifetime, and, frankly, my list of close encounters with supposedly once-in-a-lifetime weather events is much too long for my liking.

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After a 2-hour thunderstorm. I was stranded in my SUV down the street.

To my surprise, New Orleans has resembled Seattle more than a Gulf Coast city this year. With newly formed tropical storms and hurricane upgrades every day, I finally muted my weather alerts before hurricane season ended. I won’t even get into to the daily tornado/waterspout watches I recieved while driving across the longest bridge in the world (not hyperbole) to get to and from work.

All of this is to say, we’re never far off from apocalyptic weather or an ecodisaster down here.

2. Refusal to Put the Past to Rest

Another reason New Orleans serves as a popular dystopian backdrop is because our residents don’t just live in the past, they also glorify it.

Until I left the south, I never realized just how bizarre, let alone common, it is for a classmate to receive a scholarship from the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). My mind is still boggled by the self-proclaimed American patriots around me who tote the flag of the losing side.

The confederate flag is so prevalent here, you would think it’s the state flag. I may be desensitized to this symbol now, but, as a child, I knew exactly what it meant without any verbal explanation and felt anxious every time I saw it. Children are perceptive enough to notice the commonality between flag-wielders, some of whom’s ancestors never fought in the Civil War.

While the confederate monuments have come down, this continues to be a hot-button issue among residents. The statues are permanently gone and never coming back, but people here refuse to move on, blaming any and every issue from flooding to poor fund management on metal and stone.

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Photo Credit: The Daily Signal

Class and racial tensions aren’t going anywhere, which provides a great backdrop for political unrest, injustice, war, primitivism, violence, corruption, and all the things that makeup dystopian works.

Baton Rouge, the state capital located less than an hour way, has the highest wage gap between men and women in the entire country. Baton Rouge and New Orleans also have the highest rates of HIV in the country. With one out of every 55 people in Louisiana is behind bars, we are the prison capital of the world. Oh and don’t forget that we dance in and out of the top 10 murder capitals on a regular basis.

Throw in the fact that the majority of these prisoners are black men performing prison labor, and you can see a new form of slavery that isn’t far off from plantation days. Actually, some of this labor is performed in plantations.

3. Decrepitude and Corruption

A lot of people (aka tourists) find New Orleans’ infrastructure to be “charming.” However, I’m well aware that the abandoned hospital around corner still has flood water from Katrina filling the bottom floor and parking garage. The roads and foundations are sinking faster than we can fix them. Black mold and asbestus run rampant in schools, homes, and public spaces.

Because we rely almost exclusively on tourism, the French Quarter is the only area that keeps up with preservation and maintenance, while the areas populated by local residents continue to show scars from Hurricane Katrina. The job market is almost exclusively service industry for the same reason.

Corruption is also notorious in New Orleans. Show me a politician that hasn’t blatantly embezzled money from taxpayers, and I’ll show you a unicorn. The worst part it though, is that the entire country knows this about us.

img_0079-1Yes, parts of this city are lovely and interesting because of their history, but tourists shouldn’t be the only people in the city who experience upkeep. But, all of this just makes Nola a better candidate for said dystopia.

Conclusion

Bottom line: There are a million reasons to love New Orleans, but this city still reflects past atrocities and what is still broken in modern society. Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst for this view on a national scale. However, the ingredients were there well before the storm and remain here today.

These are things we accept in New Orleans, and maybe that is in fact part of our charm. This is a city full of history, heartache, violence, ghosts, and tragedy. But it is also a place of love and magic, a place where people can express themselves without judgement.

There are things I would like to change, but the reality is that this colonial city is set in her ways. So, for now, you can either take it or leave it or just accept that nothing, including this crime-riddled city, is solely good or bad. Either way, no one in the US knows dystopia better than New Orleanians.

 

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Watching Hurricane Harvey from New Orleans

For the first time in twelve years, I didn’t wake up thinking about Hurricane Katrina on the anniversary.  Not the day of, not the week before, and not for the entire month of August.

Instead, I woke up thinking about my stranded parents in Houston. This is where they settled twelve years ago after we lost everything. Surely this can’t happen here, too? Surely they are more equipped to deal with this level of devastation than New Orleans was in 2005?

The truth is that we cannot outrun disaster. I know this first hand. In my first 3 months of grad school a hundred year flood hit the area, and it was impossible to escape the memories of Hurricane Katrina. If there’s a natural disaster, you can bet that I will be there for some inexplicable reason. I guess it was lucky that I’d planned on driving to Houston the weekend after the storm to watch the LSU game with my dad. My weather misfortune is a long running joke among friends and family.

Still, it’s hard to look at the photos of Houston without remembering the hell of Katrina. And the irony of Hurricane Harvey falling on the anniversary of Katrina isn’t lost on me. Houston took us in, all of us. Plenty of people saw it as a sanctuary and settled there permanently. And as it sits engulfed in water, I can only think about the fact that there is nowhere left to run.

I have lived all over this country only to experience this kind of devastation over and over again. Wherever you are, we are all in this together. However, I do not wish to spin the resilience myth that comes with surviving a hurricane (or flood, tornado, tsunami, earthquake, landslide, or wildfire). That is an individual experience.

As I’ve gotten older and survived more and more once-in-a-lifetime weather events, they’ve become easier to deal with. A few weeks ago, I was stranded in my car during a flash flood with a flat tire when the water suddenly rose without warning.

It is so easy to relapse into trauma or to let my PTSD resurface in these moments. Or that used to be the case anyway. But for the first time, I found myself laughing in the face of danger. Making humorous videos to share with friends and family as the world around me spun out of control like it had so many times before.

I have found a certain kind of peace in accepting what I cannot control.

Earlier today I called my mother to see if she could get out of her neighborhood, which she now can. “I feel bad for cooking and drinking like nothing’s wrong,” she said. My mother, who has worked at Home Depot for 30 years, is weatherproof. She is ready to step up and sheetrock people’s homes, and I love her for that.  If anyone understands what Harvey flood victims are going through right now, it is my selfless, half-Cajun mother.

My father was evacuated from his home today and took the only road out of the city all the way to Austin. On the way out, he shared a photo of the Brazos River, which looks muddy and pregnant, ready to burst at any moment.

The battle is not over. The river will crest, and when it does, more devastation will arrive. Even though I should be nestled in a cocoon fashioned from my own anxiety right now, my heart is full witnessing the Cajun navy (rescue volunteers from Louisiana) arrive in Houston with boats – lots of boats – to brave the elements and lend a helping hand.

It is strange to see Houston in a vulnerable position when they’ve always been our refuge. But I guess this is how relationships work. We New Orleanians see ourselves in Houston. We know what lies ahead for them. While we won’t forget Katrina, Harvey’s widespread destruction has it’s own place in history now. And we are ready to help.

10 Stunning Books of Poetry Set in Louisiana

As fun as Mardi Gras is, Louisiana has much more to offer in terms of entertainment.  

Louisiana has been home to many celebrated authors, such as Anne Rice, Tennessee Williams, Kate Chopin, John Kennedy Toole, and Truman Capote. But there are some lesser-known authors and works that capture unique facets of this mystical state, which is marked by an incredible resilience, breathtaking swampscapes, and a long list of past traumas from the slave trade to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina.

Here are 10 stunning books of poetry set in Louisiana(ish):

1. Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith (Coffee House Press, 2008)

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While Smith isn’t a Nola native, Blood Dazzler remains one of the best poetry collections on Hurricane Katrina to date. With quiet fury and expertly crafted tension, Blood Dazzler takes the reader through the utter terror of wading and waiting through the storm. The cadence of the language and stunning imagery will blow you away too.

“Scraping toward the first of you, hungering for wood, walls, unturned skin. With shifting and frantic mouth, I loudly loved the slow bones

of elders, fools, and willows.”

 

2. Missing the Moon by Bin Ramke (Omnidawn, 2014)

moon

A few years ago, I reviewed Missing the Moon for The Volta blog. There was a point in time where both Ramke and I lived in Denver. I approached him after a reading one night when his poetry struck me as familiar. “Are you Cajun, too?” I asked. “Yes, how did you know?” he said, and we proceeded to chat for the next few hours about our shared history.

Missing the Moon perfectly captures the insidious encroachment of Americanization that nearly destroyed Cajun culture after the Red Scare.  Forced into the swamps, Ramke shows us how Cajuns belong on neither land nor water, speak neither French nor English, instead, remain displaced between worlds.

“I translate myself into myself—
sane phrases, words and words
Returning into Sabine Bay we would
stare forward into a horizon the dark
smear of cypress and palmetto not
yet arisen to separate sky from water
the shape of the boat a word…”

 

3. Book of Southern and Water by Emmalea Russo (Poor Claudia, 2013)

russo

I stumbled upon this treasure when I was really homesick. In the midst of a 3-year masters program in Boulder, CO, over 1,300 miles away from LA, everything around me made me feel dislocated. The climate and culture could not be more different.

Reading this felt like coming home. Like being wrapped in humidity and warm rivers. Russo captures the Louisiana landscape the way one photographs someone they love.

“this is the bottom                                  this is the bottom

the bottom of the country                   moist crowded

something like safe inside

the time it takes for skin to dry…”

 

4. Smoked Mullet Cornbread Crawdad Memory by Rain C. Goméz (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012)

mullet

When I first saw the name of this book, I thought: A) Could you repeat that? And B) A redneck definitely wrote this. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Goméz, a Ph.D. working within TransIndigeniety and Diaspora in Literary and Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Creative Writing, is a self-identified, Louisiana Creole mestiza with a stunning perspective. These prose poems illustrate a unique and underrepresented intersection of  Louisiana. Plus, the book took home the Native Writers Circle of the Americas’ 2009 First Book Award in Poetry.

“The layers of my skin are made
From story and memory.
I am fashioned from the experience
Of mothers,
Of fathers.
I move in constant awareness that
This act of being was not easily won. “

 

5. Slab by Selah Saterstrom (Coffee House Press, 2015)

slab

Originally from the Mississippi Gulf Coast (and the MS/LA border), Saterstrom was deeply affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While post-Katrina Louisiana is often used as a backdrop for dystopian works, this collection of experimental, political, playlike, prose poems is undeniably one of a kind. Slab is a meditation on disaster. In it, we follow Tiger, a southern woman turned stripper. The decay left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina she must overcome represents the lingering post-Civil War deterioration of these Gulf states and serves as a call to action. Bottom in education, healthcare, infrastructure, crime, and overall quality-of-life, Slab refuses to romanticize or hide our wreckage.

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6. Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis (Pitt Poetry Series, 2015)

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“It’s the experience of being from a place and then, suddenly, that place being caused to changed—radically, quickly—such that in some ways it’ll never be what you remember it as again. So I want to say, like the military child, I’m at work to get back to this remembered home that, in some way, doesn’t anymore exist.”—Rickey Laurentiis

“Rickey Laurentiis’ debut poetry collection, Boy with Thorn, arrives at a crucial time in American literary discourse, engaging the oppressive and harmful legacies of our nation with clarity and intelligent critique. Laurentiis’ collection as a whole is honest in recognition of a life lived through violence. The reader must praise the landscapes in this collection, in the midst of its terror and destruction, for also producing Laurentiis’ lyric beauty and wisdom. His relentless recognition of personal truths and reclamation of narratives formerly silenced is an example of poetry at its highest form.” Yael Massen, MICROREVIEW: RICKEY LAURENTIIS’S BOY WITH THORN, Indiana Review.

 

7. One Big Self by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)

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Louisiana is the prison capital of the world. “Compare Louisiana’s rate of 816 people per 100,000 with Russia’s 492, China with 119, France with 100, and Germany with 78…Louisiana has long been much more severe in sending black people to prison than whites, at least after black people were no longer slaves…Angola Penitentiary remains the largest maximum security prison in the United States. There are over 5000 prisoners at Angola alone. The average sentence for prisoners there is 93 years. About 95 percent of people serving time at Angola will die there under current laws.”—Bill Quigley, Louisiana Number 1 in Incarceration, Huffington Post.

After C.D. Wright, a renowned poet from Arkansas’ Ozarks, was invited by photographer, Deborah Luster, to Angola Prison, she felt moved to write One Big Self. Part prison portraits, part poetry, “the discrepancies between the photographer, writer, viewer, and inmate are multiple, blaring” (Wright).  Many of these haunting images resemble Civil War-era, tintype, portraits of slaves. The message is clear, and the evidence—hard to deny.

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8. The New Testament by Jerricho Brown (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)

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Dripping with biblical nomenclature and gospel-like lyricism, The New Testament is an incredible, original collection of poetry. It is almost impossible to separate Brown, a self-identified gay man of color and Shreveport native, from the book’s narrator, which perhaps is the point. The text is imbued with intimacy, exile, ambivalence, struggle, and passion. Like Lucifer, the narrator is cast out of heaven, yet he finds small ways of coping, replacing the omnipotent “He” with a lover. “In the best moments, Brown weaves together strains of religious invocation with his uneasy identity as a southern, gay, black man into a beguiling self-myth.”—Craig Morgan Teicher, A Collection Of Poems That Offers An Unlikely Kind Of Hope, NPR

Psalm 150
Some folks fool themselves into believing,
But I know what I know once, at the height
Of hopeless touching, my man and I hold
Our breaths, certain we can stop time or maybe
Eliminate it from our lives, which are shorter
Since we learned to make love for each other
Rather than doing it to each other. As for praise
And worship, I prefer the latter. Only memory
Makes us kneel, silent and still. Hear me?
Thunder scares. Lightning lets us see. Then,
Heads covered, we wait for rain. Dear Lord,
Let me watch for his arrival and hang my head
And shake it like a man who’s lost and lived.
Something keeps trying, but I’m not killed yet.

 

9. You Good Thing by Dara Wier (Wave Books, 2013)

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This collection doesn’t explicitly mention Louisiana or Katrina, but it is implied by the abundance water imagery and wild chaos of the text. Wier is originally from New Orleans. “Many of Weir’s stanzas draw a reader away from a recognizable world into one in which women waltz with bears, houseflies chat with colonels, and the absence of sound makes a material presence.”—Harvard Review

“You took the boat onto flattened waters./ White wall of blue morning fog to slip into./ You withstood what is was that was wailing you through./ There you were standing on nothing, looking down at two/ Blackfeathered slashes your two hands held on to.”

 

10. Flood by J. Bruce Fuller (Swan Scythe Press, 2013)

Flood“Written by current Stegner Fellow J. Bruce Fuller, Flood is the kind of read that sticks with you, like the lingering floodwaters of a rain storm, like the water lines you can see when they recede. The book is split into two parts “1927” and “2005,” each indicating a different year when water altered the landscape and lives of the people of Louisiana. Fuller reaches into his family and personal history to tell stories of what is lost when waters rise, but also what one learns from experiences like this, such as in “The River Is In Us”: “Each of us is planted / in the earth for a time / when the river inside us / mouths open to the sea.”—Kimberly Ann Southwick, 3 Chapbook Reviews: Loving and Living in Louisiana, Ploughshares

And if she is angry
her belly constricted
by our levees
she will erupt
silt like ash

 

 


Become a Rockstar Volunteer

One way to inspire those around you is to become a rockstar volunteer in your community. It looks great on your resume, sure, but the spiritual benefits far outweigh everything else.

If you’ve ever been in a tough spot, you probably understand just how important a tiny gesture can be to someone else. I experienced this kind of volunteerism firsthand after Hurricane Katrina left me, my mother, and younger sister homeless. The outpouring of love and support by total strangers made a terrible situation much more bearable, and it restored my faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.

Later, I had the life changing experience of giving back to the Boulder flood victims in 2013 through donations and cleanup efforts. That was when I realized Life’s strange and unpredictable nature, as well as her surprising joys. There are zero negatives when it comes to volunteering, and there are plenty of reasons to get involved locally.

Not sure how? Here are a few ways to start:

1. See if your company offers volunteer opportunities. 

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Build a positive reputation for you and your organization by banning together. Large corporations almost always have programs at local soup kitchens, 5k runs, and more. If not, this might be the perfect opportunity to lead the charge!

 

2. De-clutter. 

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How many cans and packages of food are sitting in your pantry right now? And how many of those do you actually intend to use before the expiration date? Same goes for the clothes you haven’t touched in years hanging in your closet right now. Books, furniture, tools, bedding, etc. Make room for the new while helping others – it’s a win-win!

 

3. Call your local animal shelter.

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While animal rescues always need monetary/supply donations, they also need volunteers. Adoption events are great if you love interacting with animals, and you’ll get to witness the kindness of strangers. So what are you waiting for? Call your shelter and ask how you can help now.

 

4. Use your craftiness to help others.

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Do you know how to knit or crochet? Homeless shelters accept clothing donations like hats, socks, and whatever you can create. Consider knitting hats for chemo patients and donating to your local hospital as well.

 

5. Hit up Habitat for Humanity.

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Habitat for Humanity always has open projects. This an excellent change to meet new, like-minded people and learn a new skill.

 

6. Offer up your special skills. 

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Are you a writer? Designer? Engineer? Nurse? Whatever you are, you can help by donating your time and special skills. You can even get a tax deduction for it. Just make sure you keep track of your hours.

 

7. Pay attention.

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There is always a way to help the people around you. Maybe you have a neighbor struggling to work to full time and afford childcare. Or maybe your local park is littered with trash. If someone seems troubled, ask them how you can help.

 

8. Small gestures.

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If you’re limited on time, there are small things you can do everyday to make a better world. Simply smiling at people on the street can be uplifting. Happiness is contagious after all. When you see someone struggling to carry something in or outside, open the door for them. Someone recently paid for my coffee in the drive thru, and I did the same for the person behind me. This small gesture changed my entire mood for the rest of the day.

 


 

While there are a number of volunteer matching websites, I recommend getting in touch with local charities and organizations to find out how you can help. Do what you can when you can – you never know what a small gesture might mean to someone else.