Shortly after 8 AM on Sunday, August 29, 2005, the levees protecting New Orleans from the water that surrounds it failed. By 9 AM, the city’s Lower Ninth Ward was underneath six to eight feet of water.
My grandmother’s house, a small, yellow brick building on Charbonnet Street, filled with water, as did the homes of her neighbors. There, the water came in quickly, sweeping homes from their foundations, planting cars on rooftops, trapping people in their attics. The pace of flooding was similar near the the London Avenue Canal, which also failed. In Lakeview, right down the street from where I’d gone to high school, my best friend’s house filled up more slowly, rising inch by tortured inch. On the sliver of high ground that cuts through Gentilly, the neighborhood where I grew up, where my family and I rode out the storm, and where I now live with my husband and three children, water filled the streets and climbed the grass berms atop which homes sit, but did not ever get high enough to get into the homes themselves. Less than a block away, houses not built on Gentilly ridge, a narrow strip of ancient alluvial deposits, slowly filled up with four, five, six feet of water.
In Central City. New Orleans East. Treme. Carrollton. Riverbend. Lake Vista. Pigeon Town. Broadmoor.
And outside the city, on Jefferson Parish’s east bank, in St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Water.
In coastal Mississippi, a 30-foot tide flattened building after building, block after block, pushed the air from lung after lung. Took life after life.
This was a flood of biblical proportions.
And it was accompanied by another one. Before the water had receded, before the people of the Gulf South had time to even find—much less mourn—our dead, a textual flood had begun. Writers of all types—poets, essayists, activists, and, of course, journalists—were recording the history of the hurricane in real-time. They were writing up a storm.
And now, on the brink of Katrina’s 10th anniversary, as the people of New Orleans and other communities devastated by the storm commemorate, celebrate, mourn, and remember, we’re also reliving that textual flood, as are audiences across the nation.
We’re all drowning in Katrina coverage.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s important that we remember what happened, that we recognize our resilience, that we continue to hold our leaders and our countrymen accountable for abandoning us even as we express our continued gratitude for those who came to our aid.
But. Well. There’s been some pretty shitty writing.
At this point in the nonstop anniversary coverage, bad Katrina writing has become a genre all its own. Perhaps the best example is the word salad of horror Kristen McQueary wrote for the Chicago Tribune, a piece in which the author explains that she’s finds herself “praying for a real storm” like the one that left “the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.”
Dear Ms. McQueary,
As a New Orleanian who was airlifted from her neighborhood in one of those helicopters you so crave, I want to let you know that I hope your prayers are answered. I hope you (and just you, not your whole city. Just. You.) do get your own Katrina. And I hope you drown in it. I hope you experience something infinitely more miserable, more terrifying, more painful than those the more than 1800 people who lost their lives in the storm and its aftermath.
Oh, and also, Fuck You.
Almost as soon as McQueary’s op-ed was appeared on the internet, the Gulf South came. For. Her. Via social media. She offered up a (weak ass tea non-)apology in which she explains that she was “sickened” to learn that her use of “metaphor and hyperbole” was “read to mean [she] would be gunning for actual death and destruction.” What was shitty, McQueary seems to say, was her bad writing.
But here’s the thing: even “good” Katrina writing can be shitty.
Take, for example, the work of investigative journalist Sheri Fink, who won a Pulitzer for her 2009 article, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial,” which was funded and published simultaneously by The New York Times and ProPublica. In the article, Fink recounts the storm and its aftermath at a New Orleans hospital where medical staff allegedly euthanized patients who they thought could not be evacuated.
After the article was published, Fink continued her work and, in 2013, published a full-length book on the subject. That book, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, was met with praise from critics who championed it as “social reporting of the first rank.” The book won multiple awards, including the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ridenhour Book Prize. Just this year, Five Days won the PEN American Center’s John Kenneth Galbraith award for nonfiction (and $10,000).
Outsider audiences loved this fucking book.
But responses from audiences with local ties haven’t been so positive. A commenter on a local news site writes that “Fink has effectively capitalized on this tragedy. I can’t figure out why she hasn’t been exposed. She’s a vulture, picking at the bones of patients who died and swooping down to sully the reputations of the doctors and nurses who stayed in hell to help.”
I’ve yet to find a single New Orleanian who read Fink’s book by choice (I read it while working on a Master’s Thesis on Katrina literature). And, when I’ve asked my diverse resident friends and family members for their take on sections of Five Days, their responses have been overwhelmingly negative, a mixture of anger, frustration, and exasperation. How can someone who did so much research get so much wrong?
And Fink gets a lot wrong. In fact, there’s a factual error right there in her title. You’d be hard pressed to find a person in New Orleans who refers to the hospital at 2700 Napoleon Avenue “Memorial Medical Center” though that became its official name in 1996, after it was acquired by Tenet Healthcare. Instead, most New Orleanians in 2005 called the hospital “Baptist.” And Fink knows this. In her book, she explains that this “nickname” is rooted in the hospital’s history as a Southern Baptist institution. What Fink doesn’t explain is why she chose to disregard the community she wrote about, why she chose to prioritize official names over local nomenclature. And Fink’s not alone in this; she’s not even the worst one. The writer of a CNN article from October of 2005 doesn’t even take the time to mention that most locals called the hospital something else.
Now, before you start to argue that it’s just a name, that it doesn’t matter, that it’s not that big a deal, you need to understand something. People. Literally. Died. because of this name.
As Fink explains in her book, staffers at the hospital had access to satellite phones even after the levees broke, and were in contact with Tenet officials, FEMA, and other state and national agencies trying to coordinate evacuation and rescue. But the people passing along information, giving helicopter pilots their orders and clearances, coordinating ambulance service and transportation for NICU babies and elderly people on life support, didn’t know the city. They didn’t know the region. And, on top of that, they were trying to navigate using maps that had streets, highways, and landmarks on them, but they were flying over 350 square miles of water and rooftops. So, when outsiders sent rescue teams to pick up stranded patients, they gave orders to go to “Memorial.” But things move slowly in New Orleans, and, even though the hospital had been owned by Tenet for over a decade, its signs—and, perhaps most importantly, its helipad—still said “Baptist.”
Doctors and nurses stood on a roof in the dog days of August waving shirts and sheets as helicopters that could transport their fragile patients to safety flew over them. These were patients who had been carried through dark, hundred degree hallways up multiple flights of stairs (no power means no A/C or elevators), patients sitting in their own shit and piss (clean water and bedding don’t last long in an emergency), dialysis patients whose bodies were filling with toxins. And the helicopters that were their only hope flew over them. And left them. Because the pilots had orders to go to “Memorial.”
Sheri Fink reenacts through her writing a use of language that killed people. And she won a Pulitzer for it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have it out for Miss Praying-for-my-own-Katrina. Were I to employ the kind of hyperbole and metaphor that she so cavalierly uses as an entryway into her conversation about political and social reform in Chicago, I might say that I’m praying for the return of New Orleans’s famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau—that I’d like her help in making a doll of McQueary so that I could stick pins in her eyes from afar. Because: #Petty.
But it’s writers like Fink who do more damage. Writers like Fink who “investigate” us, who “research” us, who proclaim themselves as authorities by virtue of the time they spend listening to us even as they misrepresent us, as they ignore us, as they prove they have not heard a single word we’ve said. These are the writers whose narratives are respected and valued. And those narratives go on to shape public opinion and public policy. They crowd out the messier, more nuanced and complicated stories of marginalized people. They supercede—and then erase—local voices.
And local voices are important whenever we’re trying to understand a concept or an event that connected to a place. You can’t understand a place unless you understand the people who define and are defined by it. This is especially important in the context of New Orleans, a city whose unique geography, history as a French and Spanish (not British) colony, and strong connections to the Caribbean and the African Diaspora differentiate it from much of the rest of the United States. We are a city shaped by what historian Ned Sublette calls our “apartness.” New Orleans is “an alternative American history all in itself.”
If you’re going to tell a story of New Orleans—and not the story of New Orleans, because there is never a single story, and it’s dangerous to act like there is—you have to focus on the local.
But I want to be clear that I’m not trying to argue that people who aren’t from New Orleans or who didn’t experience the storm shouldn’t be allowed to write about it. It’s perfectly possible for outsiders to listen to us, to hear us, and to champion our voices as they tell our stories. And there are lots of outsiders who have done just that.
Take, for example, Chicago native Patricia Smith, whose heartbreakingly beautiful collection of Katrina poems, Blood Dazzler, was published in 2008. Like Fink and McQueary, Smith isn’t from New Orleans or the Gulf South. She didn’t experience the storm. But unlike Fink, whose prioritization of official, verifiable (and often outsider) sources hides local knowledges, and McQueary, who just straight up doesn’t seem to give a shit about what the people here experienced—she just uses us as clickbait for an article about urban reform in her city—Smith centers the voices of those who experienced Katrina. She writes persona poems in the voices of people like Ethel Freeman, who died in her wheelchair outside of the Convention Center. Ms. Freeman’s body, which her son, who was ordered to leave her there, had covered with a poncho, sat for days. Abandoned. Rotting. Alone. Smith channels Freeman in a poem, Ethel’s Sestina. Smith gives her Freeman a voice.
Ethel Freeman isn’t the only holder of local knowledge to get a voice in Blood Dazzler. Smith offers poems in the voice of the city, in the voice of Katrina herself as well as other historical storms like Betsy and Camille. There’s a dog Luther B. She includes that the voices of New Orleanians are different races, classes, and ages and from different neighborhoods. Smith channels the voices of people who are doubly and triply marginalized, even inside the city, when she writes a poem in the voice of a trans woman wading home through flood water. She writes about the most vulnerable members of society, like the 34 residents of St. Rita’s nursing home—34 people who, because they were old and feeble, were left to die. And she writes about about the powerful, channeling the voices of George W. Bush and the man he appointed to be director of FEMA, Michael “Heck of a Job” Brown.
Smith gives so many voices so much space to tell their stories.
I don’t think people will stop writing about Katrina. This time next year, we’ll all be talking about it again—though maybe, because the 11th anniversary isn’t as round and notable as the 10th, coverage will be slightly less ubiquitous. I’m sure that two years from now, when New Orleans celebrates its bicentennial, Katrina will loom large. The storm was, after all, the catalyst for the creation of what lots of people are calling a “new” New Orleans.
The textual flood that began when the levees broke will, I have no doubt, continue.
But I hope this time around, the textual flood is different. I hope that we can be a little more careful about how we write about the storm and people and places it devastated. I hope that the journalists and activists and thinkers who are investigating the people of the Gulf South have gotten better at listening. I hope we have fewer Kristen McQuearys and Sheri Finks. I hope we have more writers like Patricia Smith. I hope they’re more able to hear us.
Ed Note: Some language in the writer’s open letter to McQueary was changed after publication.
Terri Coleman reads, writes, and rages in New Orleans. You can find her on twitter @tfscoleman.
Image via Getty.