After the Flood

Adrienne and I are watching the first season of Tremé on disc.  I resisted this for three years, despite the praise the show – and the way it was made  – received from New Orleans friends.

If you haven’t seen it, the HBO series opens three months after Hurricane Katrina and takes place in an historic New Orleans neighborhood that’s racially, socially and economically mixed.

I’ve occasionally worked in Gulf Coast communities for over 20 years.  I was there right after Katrina and several times since and the show gets it right.  It gets New Orleans right and it gets Katrina’s aftermath right.

A friend’s parents were hit hard in the Rockaways by Sandy; my in-laws on the Jersey Shore were luckier.  In some parts of Vermont, still getting back on their feet after 2011’s Irene, there’s what you might call disaster envy, the feeling that victims of other, more telegenic or politically-connected storms got more federal assistance.  (“Yeah, and what’d we get?  A jam jar by the register at the convenience store with our photo taped to it.”)

I haven’t see data, so I don’t know if there’s anything to that, but I think it’s more about feeling than fact.  It’s a way for grief to come out when you’d been so long away from home and lost so much and are still struggling, not to get ahead but just to get back.

So now the jam jar is stuck in my head as the image of Irene, just the solar kitchen/clinic/cell phone charging station is for Sandy, the way floating pig corpses in North Carolina were for Floyd in 1999.

On a 2008 visit to Lake Charles, Louisiana, all the folks I visited showed me the damage Gustav had done a few months earlier.  It was as if everyone had surgery and it was considered polite to view the scar and inquire about the recuperation.  The tone, however, was devoid of the surprise.  Repairing after storms and being thankful it wasn’t worse is just another seasonal chore there.

My first personal Hurricane was Agnes in 1972.  The image from that storm was a wing of Jones Memorial Hospital in Wellsville, New York being washed into the Genesee River.  I’d be a newspaper reporter in that town 12 years later.

Agnes was an upland hurricane, as was Irene.  Heavy rain swells streams and rivers and the one-two punch of gravity and water moves downhill like an liquid tornado, carrying away everything in its path while inches away even the flower pots are undisturbed.

Floyd was a rain hurricane too, but in the southeastern lowlands water rose and rose across the horizon, carrying very little away but lifting with it anything buoyant.  Sandy was a wind and surf hurricane, the kind people in South Florida are used to by not in the metro New York area – until now.  Katrina was the everything hurricane, wind and tidal surge and rain and levee failure as a kicker.

The two things all hurricanes have in common are floating and mold.  Tremé’s opening credits do justice to the appearance of mold, although they lack the smell, the palpable sense that something evil is invading your lungs.  And because the series starts three months after the storm, you don’t get the sense of a flood’s floating aftermath – bed sheets caught in trees, entire contents houses picked up and randomly strewn about.

When I was in Louisiana after Katrina and again watching Tremé, I had the feeling I was visiting the future, one that is surreal and frightening but with opportunities for compassion and grace, nobility even, that we lose in the effort to make ourselves prosperous and secure.

Is it worth losing security to gain an opportunity for nobility?  We won’t have much choice about the first; the second will be up to us.

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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