On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina collided with the Mississippi Gulf, all but destroying one of America’s oldest cities, New Orleans, and decimating a part of the country already experiencing tough times. The Gulf states have an odd role in American culture: the home of rock n roll, blues, and jazz, to say nothing of the literary culture that produced America’s most celebrated author, William Faulkner; the Gulf states also provide the country with oil and, curiously, a large percentage of its soldiers. As America realised in the immediate aftermath, the states hit by Katrina, despite being richest in culture, happen to be America’s poorest, with social injustices and inadequacies curiously overlooked for the last few decades.
As a tourist magazine in one of the richest countries in the world, the Grapevine, with the help of sponsor Icelandair, decided to put our money, time and energy into promoting the culture at the root of American culture. Our eight days of travel through lands devastated by hurricane and places that “don’t need no hurricanes to have hard times,” was not an act of charity: the South, particularly the Delta of America’s great river, is as distinct and rich as any place in the world, even as one more round of the people who make up this culture look to flee, a third exodus from America’s Egypt.
The easiest way to get to the Gulf and the Mississippi Delta from Iceland is to take a direct flight to Orlando, Florida. From Orlando, Mapquest gives outlandishly short driving times to Tallahassee, Florida (3 hours 53 minutes) and from there to Mobile, Alabama (3 hours 41 minutes)—the closest city to New Orleans with hotels that are not full of evacuees and are not too damaged to be used. Arriving in early December, days after the first presidential attempt to throw evacuees out of the hotels that were offering temporary shelter, we realised that Mapquest had not planned for roads choked with Army Corps of Engineers and the already legendary FEMA trailers—brand new, and, by the looks of them, unfinished, travel trailers driven from their manufacturers to help get evacuees out of tents and into some housing before winter set in.
“Well, I hope you boys have a reservation,” we’re told as we pass two no vacancy signs at a chain hotel in one of the many sprawling suburbs that make up Mobile’s metro area.
The man is in good spirits and seems to be expecting a party, so I can’t help but ask, “Is there a football game or something?”
“No, I’m afraid we’re all full up from ‘refugees’,” he says, applying the description that we will hear from many of the locals towards those fleeing the damage in New Orleans and neighbouring towns. “But we’re able to get a few normal customers in through reservations.”
Our reservations mercifully show up on the screen, and we’re checked through, passing a number of mattresses in the hallway that have just been taken out of a one-bed room.
Hurricane Parties and Refugees
“I’ve been volunteering all my life. I worked [Hurricane] Ivan, I’ve been in the Navy, but I just can’t do another hurricane,” a young chef at the most celebrated grub house in Mobile, Picklefish, tells me. “I’ve been helping people for 14 years, but I think I’m going to get out and go to Europe now. You just can’t do it anymore.”
His colleague, a young woman selling beer to college students on the way to see Jason Mraz at the local auditorium, explains that her home town, Pascagoula, Mississippi, is completely destroyed.
“My childhood home, that’s there. But across the street there’s nothing. It just makes you sick,” she says.
Handing off a $2 Pabst, she then admits that she has a mixed attitude about hurricanes in general.
“This thing was horrible, but it’s hurricane culture here. And, I mean, you really have to experience a hurricane party once in your life. It’s amazing.”
Given the news stories, the thousands of dead, combining hurricane and party seems unthinkable, but she explains that it’s just something you deal with.
“What happens is you get the warnings, and a lot of people get out. But if you can’t get out you just realise you’re stuck and you party like it’s the end of the world.”
She sees that I’m taken aback.
“It’s really safe, if you’re up high. And it’s just local people.”
To prove her point, she waves down a number of locals, asking them to explain how hurricane parties work.
A man who moved to Mobile for school acknowledges that “you hear about hurricane parties, but I don’t know of many people who take part.”
Shortly thereafter, our hostess informs us that in addition to the dangerous behaviour of participating in hurricane parties, she also used to deal “mostly pot and a little meth” when she was younger. She has since become a Buddhist, she tells us.
Our host’s background notwithstanding, people are drawn into the discussion. We consistently have half a dozen locals discussing Mobile and the hurricane.
Standing only a block away from a plaque announcing that Nicola Marshall, who designed the Confederate flag and uniform, lived in Mobile from 1871-1872, I ask our friend how she felt about the realisations that New Orleans was a segregated city, and that it treated blacks worse than whites during the evacuation.
“You should know about Prichard, then,” she says. And we are told that Mobile, like New Orleans, is extremely segregated. Officially, Prichard is outside Mobile, but it happens to be just against downtown Mobile. Were there a flood in Mobile, Prichard would be the 9th Ward.
“They’re the ones who got the worst of Katrina,” the volunteering chef announces. “You read about the refugees they got killing people. There are some bad people with these refugees.”
There is a local point of pride relating to Katrina, though. Famously, blues and rock great Fats Domino was barely evacuated from New Orleans, his home in the 9th Ward of New Orleans all but destroyed, and 18 of his 21 gold records looted, according to the Washington Post. The man who took Fats Domino in happened to be a Mobile native, Jamarcus Russell, a star quarterback at LSU, and, according to a local DJ, the nephew of Uncle Ray Ray, a legendary blues DJ of Prichard and Mobile.
As we prepare to leave Mobile, we’re told of places to look up in New Orleans. Our bartending friend tells us that New Orleans will be cleaned up, and that we have just barely missed a great Halloween concert.
The local DJs are a little less optimistic. “They are rebuilding,” we’re told. “It’s good to promote some tourism, but there’s not going to be anything there for a while.”
New York Was Nothing
We arrive in New Orleans at the same time Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. arrive to donate $90 million for clean-up. New Orleans dominates the national news, in fact, as Mama D, Leah Hodges and others from the 9th Ward are testifying before Congress about the outrageous treatment they received when the city’s poor blacks attempted to flee.
From the I-10W, we can access the damage easily enough. Two and a half months after the hurricane, there are burnt out cars, household possessions, and a sea of blue roofs—plastic tarps put over the hundreds of roofless houses. Our colleague, who claims to have been to Sarajevo in 1999, says New Orleans looks worse. The comparison to a war-torn capital seems apt.
The interstate plays a peculiar role: built on high land, it allows us too good a view of a destroyed city. There are no traffic lights, very few functional buildings, and no cars moving outside of the interstate, so that the city looks very much like an accident—the kind you drive by, but that your instincts tell you never to stop at.
Ours is the only car to turn off at the French Quarter exit. We pass only one moving car as we drive through downtown at 11 in the morning of December 6th. Finding parking is, of course, easy. For a moment, we worry about theft—we have passed four gentlemen with carts or wagons carrying masses of TVs and seemingly expensive items. But as we lock up our car, we see a few TVs and bottles of liquor spread around—without homes or a functional city, carrying things, or even stealing, seems like wasted effort. We assume, correctly, that our car will go unmolested.
The magnitude of the destruction still hasn’t set in as we make our way to Bourbon Street. Every house has a refrigerator in front of it, most have For Sale signs. But there is also the lingering smell of vomit and beer. We figure this might be the smell of America’s most celebrated party street. When we reach Bourbon Street and see the mass of tourist clothing shops open for business and selling Katrina Shirts, or Girls Gone Wild shirts—the two hurricanes that hit New Orleans both had women’s names, so the name for the Girls Gone Wild series, videos that showed Mardi Gras guests showing their breasts, has been taken up to describe the New Orleans tragedy.
Three hours into our visit on Bourbon Street, we have seen a sum total of 12 tourists. I finally ask someone about the odour: it is the bacteria from the flood. There has been no partying in the French Quarter, even though this is the neighbourhood that best survived the hurricane.
At a local coffee shop, a woman explains to me that a flood is even more unpleasant than it looks: “every single scrap of paper in your home is destroyed,” she tells me. “Every document. Your birth certificate, everything. Every book. Ruined.” She is at the coffee shop trying to surf the Internet to arrange for a birth certificate, so she can get her passport and leave.
The Gambit Weekly, a sincere weekly alternative newspaper from the area, is full of stories of similar struggles. While a literary issue the we came across seemed to offer an immense amount of hope, including an affecting quote claiming “for the first time in my life, outsiders are pouring into New Orleans to do something other than drink,” the week that we arrived, the cover story, written by the former editor, was titled “And Miles to Go” and showed the editor’s car as he drove away from his beloved home.
The amount of damage that had been done started to sink in. Having lived in New York in September 2001, I reverted to the retarded logic of that era and of what Mayor Giuliani told us to do – I set out to find a bar that needed some money. I set out to spend things right.
Bourbon Street was loaded with bars that needed money, and we found one that seemed like it usually held 300 or so people on a typical day a year ago. Today, there were 20 locals watching television.
Again, trying to be generous, I ordered the drink that the bar most proudly advertised, pointing to the ad and waving my money.
“You want the special hand grenade drinking glass, honey?”
“I don’t think that would be appropriate. This isn’t a party town anymore, is it?” I said, realising how depressing my comment was as it came out of my mouth.
I gave her a hefty tip, walked out with a hand grenade in a glass, and gave up on saving the economy by pretending nothing had happened.
An hour later, Stu, a local musician wasting his time away at Lafitte’s Blacksmith, a legendary music house, told me: “I visited New York. I’m from upstate originally, so I saw the damage after the attack. I tell you, that was nothing, nothing at all compared to this.”
Casually, resigned to his fate, he explains to me and the bartender, the only two people in this large club, how New Orleans will never recover.
From the face of the city: “You fly over, and people think there are swimming pools everywhere. It’s a city of blue tarps”; “We were listening to a woman talking about her return home, a feel good story, and she gets to her front door, looks at her second-story bedroom, and there’s a fish in the blinds,” to the essential change in the city: “Tourism will never recover. This city, you used to have every hotel staffed with minimum wage talent. Where are those people going to live? Why are they going to come? Not for the girls. This is like Alaska now, one girl for every 12 guys. And for businesses, even for hotels, when you have a few months with absolutely no business, you’re gone. The only hope is to stay closed and hope your insurance holds out, but that’s only for so long.”
Stu and the bartender, and, truthfully, anyone else who has been involved in tourism, can list the damage for hours. The business owners of the city of New Orleans will likely never witness a recovery—if it recovers, it will be to the benefit of outside investors, and it will be a completely different city.
He tells us one amusing story, he feels, about a man driving just outside New Orleans, and calling a radio station to report that an enormous casino had simply disappeared during the hurricane. Another caller phoned in immediately after and said he’s found the casino – it had been blown across the interstate and a mile down it.
With his why did the casino cross the road comment complete, he wished us well and told us how to get to the worst of the housing, and then warned us about the three-hour traffic jam we would hit. We headed off toward the housing, but were sidetracked by the chance to see the Superdome. Easy enough to pull into, the Superdome vaguely resembles a nuclear reactor. There, the clean-up has almost been completed, and it now looks hygienic. The employees working there, dressed in prison orange overalls, obviously knew the recent history of the building. Silent, and often looking at their own feet, spending 20 minutes among them suggested the gravity of recent events.
With sunset, we were told that visiting the worst hit neighbourhoods would not be a safe decision, and we were warned again of the traffic. We decided to leave, spending the next three hours bumper to bumper with the now displaced workers of New Orleans.
“We Don’t Need No Hurricane to Have Hard Times”
Two days later, we are sitting down to a blues jam at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. An aging blues musician who goes by the name Razorblade has come by to sell me his CD for $20. When I refuse he drops the price to $10, explaining the price break as a deal if it will help him leave Clarksdale.
“You’re from Iceland and you can help Razorblade get out and see the world. You know, people hear my voice and they ask me why I’m not a millionaire. And I have to tell them that I just don’t know. But I’m an old man, I’m 60 years old, and I’m ready. And it doesn’t matter how long or how far away you need me to go, I’m ready.”
I politely refuse, offering as an excuse that I spent money in New Orleans trying to promote tourism.
“We don’t need no hurricane to have hard times in Mississippi. You’re in the Delta, there’s plenty of places here to spend money and help people out.”
He gets up a few minutes later and sings a stone cold cool Chicago blues style number that he had written, and that presumably had been on his CD, called “Can you loan me $2.”
When he comes by after his performance, he now refuses to sell me the CD because he doesn’t believe I know how good he is.
“I’ll bring my CD by tomorrow night. You’re going to see the show at Red’s? I’ll bring it there.”
The show, unadvertised and unannounced, is a T-Model Ford concert, played at one of the biggest dives in Clarksdale, on the “wrong side of the tracks” from Ground Zero. T-Model is the last of the great trio of bad-ass bluesmen who built the record label Fat Possum – he has filled clubs throughout America and Europe. He is playing tomorrow, without his record label’s knowledge, because he will be allowed to keep the $5 entry fees of the juke joint, which even with the wildest fire code violations could not hold more than 50 people.
We cancel all our other reservations and settle into Clarksdale to meet the living incarnation of the blues.
(In Part Two: an extended interview with T-Model Ford and Lightning Malcolm, and the Mississippi Delta.)
Mentioned in this piece:
92 ZEW Radio, Mobile: www.92zew.net (Featuring weekly blues and roots music 10-3 am local time Sundays.)
The Gambit Weekly: www.bestofneworleans.com.
Fat Possum Records: www.fatpossum.com