Sunday, September 28, 2008

"How can we bear so much loss?": The Katrina issue of Oxford American magazine

The disaster along the Gulf Coast three years ago assumed such natural, human, and political proportions that it's still hard to grasp the full impact of Hurricane Katrina, and then Rita, within the span of one month in 2005; Katrina made direct landfall on New Orleans August 29, and Rita -- a category three storm -- came ashore at Johnson's Pass, Louisiana on September 24th. Even in the 24/7 news cycle that numbs us with updates and breaking news, the pictures and reporting of that month could not encompass the entirety of the story, and made many viewers helpless to watch only from a distance, to know what -- if anything -- would survive.

Three years later the experience continues, for those who remained and those who have now returned. Fundamental issues in many parts of the Gulf, specifically in New Orleans, are unresolved. Rebuilding is slow, consensus is difficult, and outside of the relatively unscathed French Quarter on higher ground, parts of the city remain destroyed and deserted. The delayed and ghastly federal response to Katrina and Rita is not forgotten, either, from the President's backslapping "Heck of a job, Brownie" to his expectation of one day sitting on the front porch that would rise "from the rubbles (his word) of Trent Lott's house."

The Gulf Coast still waits for that Presidential photo op, though no one expects it anytime soon.

While the mass media seemed in a hurry not to make much of the Katrina anniversary, and even less of Rita, the quarterly magazine Oxford American devoted its summer issue to a long and personal look at the Gulf Coast as it rebuilds, however slowly, from one of America's deadliest and costliest disasters. The issue includes fiction, poetry, art, and eyewitness accounts of what the Gulf coast is now, and what it had once been, in the experience of residents who stayed, those returning to build, and others who consider New Orleans and the Gulf Coast their home.

It's a broad sweep of topics, from the frustration of mayor Ray Nagin's post-flood, stop-start politics ("Getting to YES in the City of NO" is the subtitle of Chris Rose's insightful piece, "No Direction Known"), and the influx of refugees into Baton Rouge during the hurricane and its surprising results -- the city suddenly booms, culturally and financially. As Alex V. Cook puts it, "Perhaps the spark was the potent reminder that places we take for granted can suddenly disappear." The stories are also personal, like that of Dr. Ben Marble, who returns to New Orleans after the storm with his about-to-deliver wife and whose trip to the hospital -- after three attempts to find one with electricity -- is delayed by a motorcade carrying Vice President Dick Cheney. And whatever the shape politics took in the wake of the storm, staying put in the event of a hundred-year storm was always a personal decision. From "Whatever It Takes: Why I Stayed," by Jud Horne:

The anger, when it came, was partly turned on oneself. It was not enough to revile the Army Corps for the junk engineering behind the failed levees, or FEMA for bungling the emergency response so unspeakably, or Karl Rove and his ilk for playing politics with the state's failed attempts at recovery. At some point, if your analysis of these malefactions was accurate, you had to be angry with no one so much as yourself. For ever exposing your wife and kids to this kind of idiocy. For living in a city so dangerously dependent on pumps and levees at a time when government on many levels seemed not even minimally competent to keep them up and running ... Three years after Katrina, we're still here.

We're still here. That message is repeated time and again in these stories, and it becomes an important piece of the puzzle for those who return. For many, the Gulf Coast is home and after being displaced and scattered around the country, those who do return find it their only place.

Many of the writers here see hope and rejuvenation in the region's culture, its food, the return of neighborhood life, the reopening of a restaurant or a favorite joint. Anne Gisleson returns to The Saturn Bar on St. Claude Avenue in a bittersweet reopening; the owner, O'Neill Broyard, survived the storm in murky waters with two dogs and a gun, and died two months later, at the age of 67. When the bar opened again, Gisleson writes, O'Neill himself was even there, back behind his bar. His ashes had been interred in a brass urn and placed by the cash register, where he is forever remembered by thousands and forever at one with his clutter.

These days, post-Katrina culture includes newly-elected Republican governors and visits by Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Brad Pitt (now a resident of New Orleans) and the crew of This Old House, along with the second-line drummers and restaurateurs who are bringing tourists -- and more importantly, the needed money for rebuilding -- back to the region. But the reconstruction is far from over, and the future of America's largest port is still not certain. One writer telegraphs the importance of the post-storm Gulf Coast by simply saying the obvious: "Katrina is not over."

The Oxford American is a quarterly that has had its own checkered history, but now seems again on solid ground. Originally founded in Oxford, Mississippi in 1992, the magazine is being published on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas, in Little Rock, and publisher Warwick Sabine promises to keep up a regular publishing schedule. One of the gems of the Katrina issue is tucked toward the back, a listing of books old and new about life in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coat. There are quick mentions of the essential books (The Moviegoer, Walker Percy; A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole; A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines), as well as more contemporary fiction and reporting to Katrina and its aftermath: 1 Dead in Attic, by Chris Rose, is at the top of the list.

... Baby's in the King-cake
God and the Devil one

Deep down in New Orleans

Honey behind the sun

-- Greg Brownderville

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