The color of death is not black. It is grayish brown, and it is the color of anything touched by the flood that drowned New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In some places, it is a layer of slippery sludge that proves Lake Pontchartrain once extended through this city, pouring into thousands of buildings and depositing its sediment as it drove to the rooftops so many souls desperate to escape nature’s fury. Elsewhere, it has seeped in like poison dye, painting lifeless every tree and blade of grass. To show how high the dark waters rose, it slashed a flat line on every wall.
The making of this sprawling scene, described often as resembling a war zone, astounded a nation that watched for days the televised pictures of hell spilling forth as gale winds fractured our levees and ushered a storm surge from the Gulf of Mexico. For those, like myself, who knew the Crescent City before the great flood, watching so many neighborhoods—Mid-City, Gentilly, Lakeview, New Orleans East, the Ninth Ward and parts of Uptown—slip below the surface yielded a numb and helpless feeling as we witnessed firsthand a weather event long forecast in bayou lore.
But even before the water settled where it would wait for weeks to be pumped out, another plot began to unravel. It entwined every local person who lived inside this battered metropolis in the weeks and months after the hurricane. For us, the land of putrid water and gray muck was not a disaster zone. It was our hometown: beaten, drowned, begging for help but also poised for resurrection. Here, few asked whether rebuilding this city below the level of the sea would appear foolish or inefficient. We wanted our homes back, our lives back, so we went to work—writing newspaper stories, in my case—to accomplish in daily measure the success that would revitalize the City that Care Forgot.
To be fair, New Orleans is not universally adored. It is poorer than most other places in America, and through even the toniest neighborhoods can waft an outhouse stench. Its murder rate spikes every year. Its politics are hardly textbook, with indictments not rare among the elected bunch. Families of even modest means write hefty checks to private schools to avoid the dismal public system, which has failed legions of graduates. Its streets are crumbling, its economy lagging and its long-range plan somewhat in flux, even before Katrina.
But for those who love the underdog, New Orleans is a city of inspiring history, engaging culture and boundless opportunity, a place where people celebrate with brass bands at such traumatic times as the approach of a hurricane or the death of a friend. My connection to this place was born on the first floor of Alumni Hall on a frozen Saturday night in January 1997. Patrick Dupré Quigley, also a freshman that year, had invited to his dorm room some new friends, and when we arrived, we found him pulling from an overnight-delivery box a braided King Cake and a fistful of sparkly, plastic necklaces of purple, green and gold, the colors of Carnival.
Such a package from home might be expected to spawn a party, or at least an offer of dessert to his guests, but Patrick just stared at the cache. This would be the first Mardi Gras of all his 19 years, he told us, that he would not be at home. The reality had not struck until that moment, he said as he fingered a silver-dollar-sized doubloon embossed with the crest of one of dozens of krewes that parade through New Orleans’ streets in the weeks preceding Ash Wednesday.
We visitors glanced at each other, unsure what to make of such impulsive depression. Then Patrick spoke up: “You don’t understand.” Carnival season was not neon glitz on Bourbon Street and amateur videos of impetuous women, he said. Sure, that all existed, but it only defined a fraction of Carnival. To Patrick, the season that begins with Epiphany was about friends and family, about endless afternoons of parades and crawfish pie. It required packing a day’s worth of po-boy sandwiches and beer, spreading a blanket on the grassy neutral ground that divides Saint Charles Avenue and waiting for the Jesuit High School marching band to pass so you could dance in the street.
We listened, most of us admitting later that we thought our friend had spun a tale when he insisted we could not understand Mardi Gras, could not really appreciate New Orleans, unless we experienced it ourselves. “So let’s go,” somebody said.
Some weeks and a thousand driving miles later, we saw it, rising from the swamp not unlike the Emerald City: New Orleans, with its Mardi Gras fête, straight ahead on Interstate 10. It wasn’t a few hours before the six of us huddled on Canal Street in middle-income Mid-City, each sipping from a screw-cap bottle of wine and craning our necks to see if Endymion, one of Carnival’s extravagant super-parades, had turned off Carrollton Avenue on its way downtown.
Night already upon us, we were surrounded by people of every race and age, with children aloft on their parents’ shoulders casting grins and waving in hopes of catching a teddy bear or strand of beads from the thousands of masked riders on double-decker floats. We were enveloped by music and twinkling lights that cast shadows off century-old homes. We were honoring pagan gods in a thoroughly Catholic city, rejoicing the days before Lent with howls that could raise the dead. Surely we had not seen this before. Maybe now we understood.
By the time I moved to New Orleans in 2002 to take a job as a reporter at The Times-Picayune, the city’s 169-year-old daily newspaper, I had visited many times more. With each arrival, I felt somehow more at home in this city where even residents of 40 years are deemed outsiders if they were born in another place. I also had learned about the worst-case scenario, now so familiar across the country: New Orleans sits in a topographical bowl. Fill it up with rainwater or, say, Lake Pontchartrain, and the liquid would have nowhere to go. It would pool and have to be pumped out, which would take weeks. In the meantime, one should store an ax and a small boat in the attic as a contingency, should the flood reach the second floor.
My native Chicago mind could not grasp that prophecy. Even so, I leased a third-story apartment Uptown, figuring the elevation would protect me from ever having to jolt from sleep in terror of water spilling through the windows. By virtue of topography and goddamn luck, that kind of flood did not happen to me during Katrina. But it happened to so many others, including Kelli Markelwitz Leger ’00, another classmate of mine.
Leger told me some weeks after the hurricane that she had heard the same story about the boat in the attic when she first arrived in New Orleans to start law school at Tulane University. She had been raised in New Jersey, and her vision of flood was meager: “Things get wet,” she said. But returning September 12 to the home she shared with her new husband, Walt, in suburban Arabi, Leger found the house, already raised 2-1/2 feet off the ground, had bathed in 6 feet of lake water that spilled from the Industrial Canal breach, through the infamous Lower Ninth Ward and into Saint Bernard Parish, where an estimated 40,000 buildings flooded—every structure in the county.
Displayed on her exterior walls were four separate spray-painted codes. Each giant X had a zero in the bottom quadrant, meaning no bodies had been found inside, and in the left quadrant were the initials of the military or police units that had visited to check for survivors. Meandering down her street less than two weeks after Katrina, Leger noticed some houses with “1” or “2” inked below the X. “You drive though your neighborhood and there’s a mark on the house, and you remember that a little old couple lived there, and it’s awful,” she said. “You think: Why didn’t someone pick them up?”
That magnitude of loss cannot be undermined, any more than memories can be erased from those who witnessed Katrina’s earliest aftermath. The first body I saw was a white man. He was bloated, wearing blue jeans, set face down on an Uptown sidewalk, still waiting to be recovered 10 days after the hurricane.
“There was no point of reference for the devastation,” said Roderick West ‘90, who ventured through New Orleans by boat and helicopter to survey the property damage of his company, electricity giant Entergy Corp., long before the lake stopped pouring through four catastrophic levee breaches. “There is nothing that prepares you to accept the level of devastation,” he said. "I saw the bodies of people who didn’t leave for the storm. I saw the bodies of people who were trying to get out and couldn’t make it. I saw actual live bodies still stuck on the roofs after three days."
Before the dead were collected and survivors rescued, West led efforts to reconstruct the power grid for the city’s half-million residents. It ultimately required draining substations and generating plants that festered in floodwaters for weeks. The process was handled by a workforce of which 70 percent had been made homeless by Katrina, West said. It was their homes that poked through flood waters, some barely visible but for chimneys. “I knew as I flew over the city that first Tuesday that for every rooftop, there was a family that was devastated, whose lives would never be the same,” he said.
For West, re-lighting New Orleans represented no less than re-creating the city’s capacity to house residents who scattered as Katrina churned toward shore. “The gravity of responsibility is not lost on me because I am dealing with the human, the financial, the legal, physical, the emotional and spiritual impact of the devastation of this city. We’re not just rebuilding an electrical distribution system,” West said in late October, with the work still far from complete. “We’re rebuilding a city.”
Part of my own job after Katrina was to tell the stories of exhausted, fearless people who populated New Orleans, however sparsely, in the earliest days of recovery. A few weeks after the storm but before Hurricane Rita forced a massive storm surge September 24 through southwest Louisiana, my assignment comprised driving around litter-strewn streets and hunting for stories. In a single afternoon, I met a folk artist, a furniture salesman and three neighbors who worked in tandem to tear doused Sheetrock from each other’s homes. Each person had ridden out Katrina in the disaster zone, and I asked them what it was like that night of August 29, after the storm subsided. Each offered nearly identical, stunning replies: “You should have seen the stars,” they said.
It turns out that the night Katrina blew away, when the lake levees lay in various states of collapse but the sun had not yet risen on the worst images of ruined New Orleans, the midnight sky stretched out with a brilliance seldom viewed in a modern city. Every electrical lamp had broken. The downtown skyline hid in gloom. The mighty Mississippi melted into its blacked-out banks. But above New Orleans, these residents told me, a million stars illuminated the sky, becoming a million beacons for so many survivors who had no place to go but the roof.
A few weeks later, a husband and wife shared with me their harrowing tale of trying to keep alive their 25-year-old daughter, Lauren Read ‘03, who before Katrina had been struggling to recover from liver failure and related neurological damage at New Orleans’ Touro Infirmary. For three days after the storm, Hope Read packed Lauren’s body with ice to simulate air conditioning after the electricity blinked off. When the supply ran out, Hope improvised with holy water. Then she tried to work out how she would tell her husband, Mike ’65, that she had failed to save their child.
With Lauren’s heart rate sustained at 171 beats per minute and her body heated to 104 degrees, Hope Read used a tiny flashlight to illuminate a pitch-black stairwell. Two people carried Lauren in a wheelchair from the seventh floor to the third floor, where a helicopter waited to evacuate, she said. The ordeal probably set back Lauren’s recovery one week, Mike Read said. But she later showed exceptional improvement at her hospital of refuge in Lafayette, Louisiana. “For Lauren, Katrina turned out to be a good move,” Hope Read said. “God works in a lot of different ways.”
How it is that the human mind transforms tragedy into beauty, suffering into hope, I cannot understand. It had not been yet a month since the nation’s worst natural disaster cursed their hometown that residents of New Orleans and its suburbs recounted not the horror of Katrina, with its winds of 155 miles per hour and its driving rain, but faith and optimism that reigned in its wake. They talked about how much greater the rebuilt New Orleans would be, imagining the bright future even as they piled their most prized possessions in soggy heaps at the curb.
In early October, just about 40 days after Katrina slashed across Louisiana, a band of costumed revelers swaggered up Decatur Street, the French Quarter’s river road that passes in front of Jackson Square and the towering Saint Louis Cathedral. The parade, complete with brass band, included mostly 20- and 30-something professionals whose jobs as oil rig engineers, banking executives and journalists allowed them to be in the city before the evacuation order lifted. We toasted with beer cans and bottles of champagne. We flung beads to neighbors drawn out of cottages and restaurants by the party.
Donning wigs and gowns and angel wings, we indeed danced through the streets, pulling behind us a handmade float with a paper machê casket that held our ghost of Katrina. Not more than a mile away lay the dusty brown remnants of whole neighborhoods ruined by the flood that engulfed our city. But that was work for daytime. This moment was about the tradition of so many jazz funerals that celebrate a spirit rising out of the past. It was about the myriad colors glowing from windows as darkness settled on New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, about the melodies of people who had returned to rebuild. Far above us surely blazed countless stars. But on this night, they were invisible because of the street lamps’ glow.
Michelle Krupa was the editor of The Observer in 1999-2000. She may be reached at email@example.com.