It’s a pop, the sound of air rushing in. A thick, heady smell. Like when you open a vacuum-sealed pack of coffee and chicory.
Did you wince? So did we. But the seal has been broken on New Orleans clichés — in newsrooms across the city and, yes, the nation and presumably the world, journalists are staring down blank whiteboards with the headline: Ten-Year Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
We are figuring out how often and in which contexts to gracefully add the phrase “and the federal levee failures” without upsetting sentence structure, or whether to simply call everything “the flood.” Official memos on this are likely forthcoming.
Through five house moves I’ve lugged a box with KATRINA written on the side in permanent black marker. In it: external hard drives for which I’ve lost the connecting cables and power sources, folders of newspaper clippings and photocopies, CDs of digital photos, audio interviews collected on now-obsolete minidiscs, notebook scribblings in which my own handwriting appears unfamiliar.
Conferences and panels have been ongoing, but last week’s University of New Orleans Katrina@10 Summit marked, for me, that big change — from tiptoeing in until waist high to diving under the next wave to submerge yourself.
Experts shared findings based on a decade of data, stories, number-crunching and change. The daylong showcase offered narrative threads galore: projections for communities outside levee protection, urban-based cultural traditions, historic homes and cemeteries, the city’s ability to withstand another storm.
The roundtables, PowerPoints, handouts and name badges transported me back to the immediate postdiluvian years, to planning meetings, official updates and — remember this word? — charrettes. A constant mental battle emerged, back then and again, now, to take in the information at hand, process the words of the speaker with the microphone, or read the bullet points versus letting the whole big thing of it wash over with no boundaries to its size or scope.
At the end of a panel discussion on safety and resilience, a man stood to ask a question. As if at a city council hearing or court proceeding, he stated his case: about runaround from Louisiana’s Road Home rebuilding program, about money owed, about a lack of answers from all the entities he’d called. When was the last time he’d told this frustrating story? Last week? Seven years ago? It was impossible to tell. A panelist suggested he consult a list of resources near the check-in, or share his story with oral history gatherers in town.
Between discussions a woman handed out her typed, personal narrative of being rescued from her sister’s attic in Verrett Village, St. Bernard Parish, as floodwaters rose. “I start yelling I am Clara Rita in the roof I am alive.” The reverse side featured photos of the man who saved her, and a picture of Clara Rita with Harry Connick, Jr. She had no apparent objective in distributing this story, except to share it.
Selecting stories to mark the anniversary will be arduous. The intimate, powerful narratives of any given person, family, house, business, church or school warrant documentation and revisiting.
And yet our responsibility is to marry individual stories to greater findings, questions and themes brought about by the events of a decade ago. Curating the most compelling tales while allowing them to drift without context will bring little satisfaction to our community. Repeating, bemoaning and reinforcing a “tale of two cities” — juxtaposing success with despair — will bring little catharsis.
What excites and challenges me most as we move toward August is the opportunity to report coverage that gets us closer to a holistic view of our city, our region, our collective experience ten years since the flood, and help us move forward, a little more on the same page than before.
Eve Troeh is WWNO's news director, overseeing the station’s expanding coverage of New Orleans and southeast Louisiana news stories, and reporting stories of national significance for NPR and other partners.