There are times when I sit and wonder, Am I crazy? Am I crazy?, especially when I look at the state of modern America these days. Back in 2005 I watched with the rest of us the terrible storm that swept over New Orleans, and the knowledge that something truly awful was going to happen. With it came the knowledge that there was going to be damn little that any of us could do about it either.
People being plucked from rooftops by helicopters. Water up to the roofline. Trees, cars, and everything else -- including the dead -- floating in water that crawled with god only knew what. The real horror came a little later, when it was realized that many did not survive, abandoned in the mad rush to get to safety. That's what shook me up the most; it wasn't the looting or violence, but that we, America, had left the disabled and elderly to die in their homes.
Writer Chris Rose, a commentator with the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, has collected his columns from the newspaper into a book that takes a hard look at the Crescent City, and what life was like after Katrina left. He talks about what it's like to come home and find your house gone. Or what it's like to drive along the street and see household contents piled up on the edges. Or that nary a rat was to be seen for weeks after the hurricane. Most chilling for me was the description of bodies, or the messages scrawled on homes mentioning the number of dead that were within. And finally, The Smell that engulfed everything for weeks afterwards, a stench that crawled into everything as trash decomposed.
They say that writing can help to heal the effects of trauma. And Rose is clearly using this form of therapy as he observes not only the attempts of himself and his family, and those that chose to return to New Orleans, but also the reactions of the world beyond New Orleans. There are all of those nameless, countless volunteers that came to rescue and help, giving of the very best of themselves. There are the stories of the survivors, and the curious ways that many of them have taken to cope -- Magnet Man has rather unique perspective, and the neighborhood Cat Lady.
And in among the good, there is also the bad. A guy who dumped his refrigerator full of rotting food in one of the few clean parks that were cleared after the storm. The shooting and violence that regularly occurred. The endless blame game among the politicians. The incompetence of FEMA and the federal government to actually do something to help these people.
As I read, I found myself astonished. By the resilience of those who have gone back, and are determined to see New Orleans come back. Equally so by the callous disregard of the rest of the world to remember that people are still homeless, hungry and in need there. I found myself getting angry, and feeling shame that there wasn't much I could do besides trying to give donations to charity, and regularly sending my good wishes and saying I haven't forgotten you to my friends who have decided to stick it out in New Orleans.
Each of the essays in this book are not much more than a few pages long, originally published. Rose doesn't hold anything back; he lets his own despair, anger, and hopelessness show. But there are stories of amazing generosity and care, and that sometimes gets overlooked in among all of the other stories. And finally, there is New Orleans herself, which is facing decades of rebuilding ahead.
In the world of instant news, all too often a disaster is covered for a few days or weeks, then brushed to the back of the room as some new horror comes crawling across our television or computer screens. This book was a vivid reminder to me that more often than not, recovery isn't a measure of weeks or months, but sometimes will take years to occur. If you have the mental strength to want to know some of what is happening in the New Orleans of today, read this book.
Yes, it will bother you. You'll probably get upset while reading it. You'll probably have to set it aside now and then to catch your breath. But if you want an honest assessment of what Katrina did, this is a good start to understanding the hearts and minds of those who have chosen to stay.