There is no peace inside a hurricane. The wind sounds like a howling dog. The shutters on the windows of your old house rattle as if a sci-fi predator were trying to break in. Your family sits in a circle with their faces tight, occasionally gasping when a tree cracks in two, a tin garbage can crashes against a wall or the slate shingles fly off the roof like dinner plates hitting the ground—or at least those are the explanations you give yourself in the dark.
That was my experience as a child during Hurricane Betsy, 1965, my first dangerous New Orleans flood. My friends in the 9th Ward climbed into their attic to escape as water rose to the ceiling. A classmate swam lifeguard-style with her grandmother under her arm to a school on higher ground. The water did not reach my family, more centrally located. But it came within a few streets of us, then receded. We had successfully ridden it out, as the expression went.
We routinely latched the wooden door blinds, covered the windows with plastic and waited in the strong, plaster-and-lathe-framed part of the house in the same way people in the Midwest ran to their tornado-proof cellars, and people in California stood in their doorways when the ground began to shake. It was the price we paid for living in this town.
But it was more than that. With at least four generations born in Louisiana, we were people of the land. We celebrated with sacks of crawfish pulled from the soft mud, oysters culled from their salty beds and crabs seduced into nets on the seawalls. We cultivated red peppers next to our front steps to flavor the gumbos we made with okra, tomatoes and bay leaf grown in our backyards. We drank a lot, to entertain not just ourselves but also our friends, because we knew from the local history of mosquito-borne fevers, overturned skiffs in the lake and massive strokes from the 100-plus-degree heat that life could end at any moment. So we believed in enjoying our time on Earth.
We still do, 10 years after our biggest disaster, Hurricane Katrina. Our festivals can be as spontaneous as the sound of drumming that begins a street parade joined by local horn players, or as orchestrated as Mardi Gras. We party both day and night, in public and private. We are also gun toters, victims of stray bullets and pawns of heart-wrenching poverty that seems to continually stupefy our officials. But we have had more than our share of fools and criminals in government, often one and the same, and maybe we still do.
Since Katrina, 39 percent of our black children live in poverty—82 percent of them in working families. The families earn on average only about $25,100 annually, compared with their white counterparts, who earn about $60,500. Forty-eight percent of black men in New Orleans are unemployed. These are figures reported by the Data Center and local Urban League, and are pointed to as improvements.
Traditionally, we fed our extended families by stretching the red beans or gumbo by baptizing it—adding more water. Or we lived with family members in intergenerational households. But our lives have followed the rest of America, with too many female-headed, single-mother households. Plus, Katrina killed off many of the flame carriers—our name for the proud elderly. Many middle-class blacks left the city with their children for states with more stable schools and less general chaos. We are approximately 100,000 black people poorer since the storm.
I left for New York to be a writer long ago, but I have not spent more than six months away. I love the second lines and soirees, jazz clubs and gospel mass. But I shook my head when a neighbor about five years after Katrina advised me to go inside because there would be a shooting in a few minutes. And he was right. A few weeks ago, the niece of one of my favorite musicians, Kermit Ruffins, was killed on a nearby street. A friend once told me that New Orleans is like your bad child. You love him, but he makes you cry, and you wonder whether he’ll ever do any better.
A decade after Katrina, there are fine, creative people migrating to our city—celebrities like Solange, Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt—and entrepreneurs with new-money startups, and outcasts who find the rest of America too sterile and confining. But the enduring glories of New Orleans are the 4 o’clock flowers that bloom when the sky melts from orange to purple daily at sunset, the banana-plant clusters that raise a strong, sweet aroma after the rain, and the women and men who tell you their life story while in the grocery line. The spirits of our ancient dead still reside in a trowel scrape on a plaster wall, the herringbone pattern of a brick sidewalk, and the little front-yard altars as devout as the street-corner shrines of Calcutta.
Eighteen people stayed on my block when Hurricane Katrina hit. They waited with their shiny new generators sending electricity to their air conditioners and televisions. They stayed with their elderly parents who never evacuated and their relatives who were too sick to move. But the levees broke, the ones that the Army Corps of Engineers put in place to reassure us that we would never have another Betsy. My neighbors were flooded out, so they rafted their children, carried their elderly and abandoned their animals to go to the Superdome because they heard on the radio that there were buses waiting to take them to higher ground. You know the rest of the story.
Ten years later, only a few of those people are still alive—taken by strokes, cancer, old age, perhaps despair. But other neighbors evacuated and came back, and a new generation came to upkeep the old homes because they believe, like me, that this was a uniquely joyful community and will be again. The new New Orleans is a city of hope. And it is still a magical place. We believe anything.
Fatima Shaik, an expert in the Afro-Creole experience in New Orleans, writes fiction and nonfiction for adults and children. Her newest collection of short stories is What Went Missing and What Got Found, “ … a lyrical, sympathetic look at the kind of people often overlooked in literary fiction,” according to the Women’s National Book Association.
Fatima Shaik teaches African-American literature at Saint Peter's University and is the co-chair of the Children's and Young Adult Book Committee of PEN American Center.