Stories of Survival in the Post-Katrina Gulf

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, it is only appropriate that we take a full account of what happened from the broadest possible array of perspectives. It is universally known at this point that the government response was an epic failure, and many lives were lost as a result. From those ashes, though, have arisen a number of books by authors who survived the disaster and who have closely documented the struggle for recovery afterward. Here are just a few of those books:

Not Just the Levees Broke

While many books about Katrina have attempted to perform surgery on the bodies of corrupt government or excavate the root causes of racism and poverty in Gulf Coast states, rarely will you find, in book form, the average person's voice. Enter Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, the people's champ in New Orleans, whose book, Not Just the Levees Broke, is her personal account of the physical, emotional and mental abuse she endured during the breached-levee floods and her evacuation.


Leblanc also draws from her pre- and post-Katrina life experiences to explain the disastrous impact on the well-being of thousands of New Orleanians. As the cousin of Allison "Tootie" Montana — New Orleans' revered Big Chief of the Mardi Gras Indians — Leblanc has the soul of the city's African-American culture running through her veins. What bleeds onto these pages is a cleansing agent that removes the trauma of the catastrophe and leaves messages of faith and self-determination in search of resolution, or justice.

While many books are written from an academic tower or a political pulpit, Leblanc wrote hers while living in a FEMA trailer. People who know her from her work in Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke won't be disappointed by the polemical passages. They'll also be comforted by her introspective, restorative appeals. Some of her best writing comes in the sections "Phyllisophical Food for Thought" and "Katrina Poems," which reveal the soft strokes of a laudable, organic intellect.

Leblanc is a witness as much as a participant, and not one who's just out for vengeance. She writes, "I could blame the city's mayor, this state's governor, or the president of our United States, but that will not help me sleep the same ever again." She also sends out tough messages of personal responsibility: "How do I defend some people who go clubbing every weekend, with no job, and return to a FEMA trailer as if it's home? … I defend that behavior by saying that our way of thinking has to change. … We as a race of people are so strong, beautiful, and intelligent, that it breaks my heart not seeing us reach our full potential." This type of transformative self-reflection radiates throughout the book.


All artists or academics who cover Katrina-related subjects but did not live the disaster can be considered voyeurs. In Jordan Flaherty's new book, Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six, he begins by stating as much. Flaherty did live through the disaster — in fact, he was one of many residents who stayed in New Orleans throughout the Katrina deluge — so in that respect he's no mere observer. But the stories he tells are not his own.

But this explanation is unnecessary to anyone who's been following the story of Gulf Coast recovery. Flaherty has been reporting from the ground since the beginning of Katrina's "end" — to spread the word that it hasn't ended for low-income black Americans. He's paid his dues and then some in the struggle to ensure that all people have the right to recover, not just those with means. This is evident from the endorsements that Flaherty's book is tagged with, from activist Rosa Clemente to The Final Call journalist Jesse Muhammad.

His efforts are also evident in the pages documenting the voices of everyday citizens, rank-and-file activists and impassioned advocates. Flaherty is not another author looking to make sense of what went wrong. He's here to declare the inconvenient truth that what went wrong didn't make sense — and wasn't making sense long before Katrina.


When the Walls Came Down

In any city with a super-majority of African Americans, it can probably be said that he who holds throne in a barbershop is king. One of New Orleans' more popular barbers is Wilbert Wilson, aka "Mr. Chill." His book, When the Walls Came Down, is an autobiography written with the help of Edwin Buggage, editor of The New Orleans Data News Weekly, one of the city's black newspapers.


Wilson's book stands out because of its themes of self-discovery and racial reconciliation. While other authors examine the legacy of poverty in New Orleans before Katrina, Wilson looks at how he and many of his peers escaped poverty, mostly by dealing drugs. He got out of that game to open a barbershop, realizing the full potential of his trade in the aftermath of Katrina, when thousands of military personnel, doctors, nurses, reporters and volunteers descended upon the city.

With just a tent and a generator, Wilson set up shop styling the heads of people who were there for the relief effort. Before this, he had known only how to cut "black hair." In the weeks after Katrina, though, he learned how to cut the hair of white, Asian and Latino men and women — feats of which he speaks proudly. He also notes the various lessons of struggle and survival that he learned from his subjects while cutting them. This lens is a valuable one, since its vision runs counter to the memes of racism and divisiveness that often run through Katrina material.


Breach of Faith

Probably the most comprehensive account of Hurricane Katrina and the corrupted-levee floods is Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, written by former Times-Picayune city editor Jed Horne, whose writing and editing earned him and his fellow staffers a Pulitzer Prize. This work should be the entry point for anyone whose interest in Katrina-related issues goes beyond mere curiosity.


Even the Army was astounded by this enterprise, one soldier comically asking a volunteer, "So you're the anarchists in the mosque brought in by the ex-Black Panther giving free health care?" Rahim "never lacked conviction," writes Horne — most evident when Rahim explains why non-flooded Westbank communities like Algiers didn't take evacuees: "They wouldn't take in people from the [Eastbank] because most of them was niggers."

Other Voices

The list of books about Katrina is extensive and ever growing. These works, released in the last year, also offer sobering insights: Race, Place, and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina, a collection of reports edited by Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Wright; Shake the Devil Off: A True Story of the Murder That Rocked New Orleans, by Ethan Brown, an account of two lives lost in Katrina's aftermath: that of an Iraq War vet suffering from PTSD who returned to the city in 2004, and the girlfriend he killed in 2006 before taking his own life; Zeitoun, by David Eggers, based on the true story of a Syrian man who, while rescuing those stranded in the flood, is detained and accused of being a terrorist; Under Surge, Under Siege: the Odyssey of Bay St. Louis and Katrina, by Ellis Anderson, about the Mississippi city where the storm actually made landfall; and Black Rage in New Orleans, which looks at the corruption and brutality of the New Orleans Police Department from World War II to Katrina, and how the Crescent City's African-American residents have responded. Coming Back: New Orleans Resurgent, a book of photography from Mario Tama, is due out in Sept.


Brentin Mock, a frequent contributor to The Root, is based in New Orleans.