Tuesday, August 30, 2011

5 books about people rebuilding lives and homes after Hurricane Katrina

List by Tosca

"It's a big deal, what's happened here and what lies ahead. Rebuilding this city is history in the making, and my family - as we're fond of singing around here - is going to be in that number: This is not just Anywhere USA we're talking about. This is New Orleans. This is our home. Our future.

It's a hard-luck city right now, and you can look at it as a half-empty, half-full conundrum, although, in New Orleans the truth is that the glass is shattered.

But we're going to pick up the pieces. Starting today."

- Chris Rose in 1 dead in attic

In 2005, from the warmth and safety of my home, I remember watching news footage that showed the devastation that Hurricane Katrina left behind when she had finished with New Orleans. It was heart-breaking. Perhaps 'finished' isn't the right word because, really, the physical damage was just the start of a long and emotional journey for a city and its people to rebuild itself. Something they're still doing at the moment. I was fortunate enough to visit there in 2009, the culmination of a 22-year old dream to do so, and was amazed by the generosity and hospitality of a people in perpetual recovery mode. I met so many people who had such personal stories to share. And share them, freely and without prompting, they would: the cabdriver who lost his business, the woman who relocated and came back once a year to visit family, the student who moved to Mississippi but commuted each week because she wasn't quite ready to move back and start again, the young man who saw the hurricane as a clear message to get his life together and make something of himself. I heard these stories and so many more just like them and all told without any pretensions whatsoever. The most memorable conversation I had was on the Amtrak to Memphis with a young woman seated beside me. The New Orleans she spoke of - broken, dirty, unrecognisable - broke my heart. She had moved herself and her son to Chicago, unable to face starting over in the Lower 9th. Not forever, she made it more than clear that it wouldn't be forever, but certainly for the forseeable future. In the meantime she so desperately missed all that was familiar about home: family, friends, food, music, lifestyle, Mardi Gras, sleeping in your own bed...the list was endless. I was moved by her honesty and by her hope that, eventually, this would all pass over and be something she looked back on as having made her stronger. I'm not sure I could have found peace in that were I in the same situation.



Confession: I visited the Lower 9th Ward (I want to state, for the record, that I was not playing 'tourist' - I had a genuine desire to find some way to reach out and see how I could help, although the answer was not what I expected) which turned out to be one of the worst and best decisions I made during that whole 2 week stay. Worst because I saw tangible proof (as if I somehow doubted it) of how people's lives were forever changed in both good and bad ways. Best because I saw that even in the midst of such wanton destruction, people are rebuilding. Our capacity to retain hope, even in the most dire of circumstances, always amazes me. In a lot of ways, reading the books listed below (which I've done over the past week and a half) made me think (inevitably so, perhaps?) of Christchurch. Chris Rose's book in particular gave me this feeling the entire time I was reading it. Seemingly small comments that would hold so much truth: how their perception of 'ordinary' is no longer what it was, that you'd find yourself crying in the supermarket aisle because you had food or water, how some days would seem like Groundhog Day or even the recognition that it was going to take such a long time to totally come to terms with what had happened and with what had been lost.

I don't claim that these books are the only, or even the best, of what we hold. They're simply 5 that may strike a chord with you. They did with me. I would apologise for such a sombre post but, really, it's that kind of a day outside and it seems to suit. (Or so I tell myself).

Honourable mention:
DVDs: Nonfiction
  • Hurricane on the Bayou [DVD videorecording] / written by Glen Pitre ; produced and directed by Greg MacGillivray - I saw (and bought a copy of) this while in New Orleans. The DVD follows four musicians and looks at life both before, during and after the hurricane and also looks talks about the wetlands and how they nature's speed bumps and, as such, a defense against disasters such as this one.
  • New Orleans music in exile [DVD videorecording] - A compilation of 7 documentaries in a 4-disc set that looks at the effect the hurricane had on the city and its people.


  • DVDs: TV series
  • Treme. The complete first season [DVD videorecording] - THIS! So much this DVD! From the creators of the tv show The wire. The complete first season, episodes 1-13 [DVD videorecording], Treme opens 3 months after Hurricane Katrina swept through the city and follows the lives of residents trying to rebuild their homes, their families and their lives. It's gritty and full of the music and flavour that is so much a part of New Orleans. If you enjoy the show you'll love love love the soundtrack Treme. Season 1 : music from the HBO original series [compact disc]


  • Books: Politics in the eye of the storm
  • Come hell or high water : Hurricane Katrina and the color of disaster / Michael Eric Dyson
  • Breach of faith : Hurricane Katrina and the near death of a great American city / Jed Horne


  • Books: Dealing with Hurricane Katrina at the time
  • No ordinary heroes : 8 doctors, 30 nurses, 7,000 prisoners, and a category 5 storm / Damaree Inglese with Diana G. Gallagher
  • A paradise built in hell : the extraordinary communities that arise in disasters / Rebecca Solnit


  • 1 dead in attic : after Katrina / Chris Rose
    "1 Dead in Attic is a collection of stories by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose, recounting the first harrowing year and a half of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Rose provides a rollercoaster ride of observation, commentary, emotion, tragedy, and even humour - in a way that only he could find in a devastated wasteland. They are stories of the dead and the living, stories of survivors and believers, stories of hope and despair. And stories about refrigerators." -- Global Books in Print.

    Zeitoun / by Dave Eggers
    When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible.

    The house on First Street : my New Orleans story / Julia Reed
    Julia Reed went to New Orleans in 1991 to cover the reelection of former (and currently incarcerated) governor Edwin Edwards. Seduced by the city's sauntering pace, its rich flavours and exotic atmosphere, she was never entirely able to leave again. After almost fifteen years of living like a vagabond on her reporter's schedule, she got married and bought a house in the historic Garden District. Four weeks after she moved in, Hurricane Katrina struck. With her house as the centre of her own personal storm as well as the ever-evolving stage set for her new life as an upstanding citizen, Reed traces the fates of all who enter to wine, dine (at her table for twenty-four), tear down walls, install fixtures, throw fits and generally leave their mark on the house on First Street. There's Antoine, Reed's beloved homeless handyman with an unfortunate habit of landing in jail; JoAnn Clevenger, the Auntie Mame—like restaurateur who got her start mixing drinks for Dizzy Gillespie and selling flowers from a cart; Eddie, the supremely laid-back contractor with Hollywood ambitions; and, with the arrival of Katrina, the boys from the Oklahoma National Guard, fleets of door-kicking animal rescuers and the self-appointed (and occasionally naked) neighbourhood watchman. Finally, there's the literally clueless detective who investigates the robbery in which the first draft of this book was stolen. Through it all, Reed discovers there really is no place like home.

    Not just the levees broke : my story during and after Hurricane Katrina / Phyllis Montana-Leblanc
    Hurricane Katrina survivor LeBlanc--featured in Spike Lee's acclaimed HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke"--offers an astounding and poignant account of her struggle to survive one of the nation's worst disasters.

    The good pirates of the forgotten bayous : fighting to save a way of life in the wake of Hurricane Katrina / Ken Wells
    "In this fast-moving saga, Louisiana native Ken Wells provides a close-up look at the harrowing experiences in the backwaters of New Orleans during and after Katrina. Focusing on the plight of the intrepid Robin family, whose members trace their local roots to before the American Revolution, Wells recounts the landfall of the storm and the tumultuous seventy-two hours afterward, when the Robins' beloved bayou country lay catastrophically flooded and all but forgotten by outside authorities as the world focused its attention on New Orleans. Wells then follows his characters for more than two years as they strive, amid mind-boggling wreckage and governmental fecklessness, to rebuild their shattered lives." "Ultimately, this is a story about the deep longing for home and a proud bayou people's love of the fertile but imperiled low country that has nourished them - about a place and culture whose survival is far from guaranteed." -- Book jacket.

    2 comments:

    Danielle said...

    Speaking of Christchurch, which you kind of were, I just came across the coolest thing while putting together the fairytale post below - an anthology available in both print and ebook, profits to the Earthquake Appeal, with contributions from such outstanding authors as Juliet Marillier, Neil Gaiman and Sean Williams! How cool is that? See more here: http://talesforcanterbury.wordpress.com/

    catatonia said...

    Weird timing because I have that book on my desk (which I'm taking home tonight) at the moment :)