Nations or people?”
--Czeslaw Milosz, “Dedication”
This Sunday morning, at the end of their final 3am shift, the National Guard left New Orleans, after more than three and a half years there. This moment is significant. Controversy has surrounded the Guard because of the fact that the Guard arrived in the city on September 2, five days after the hurricane made landfall in Louisiana, and because of its treatment of the people of New Orleans, especially in the Superdome and the Convention Center. Now, crime in New Orleans has skyrocketed, police force numbers still low. Many worry about the safety of the citizens of New Orleans without the National Guard. And at the same time the city is haunted by images of the National Guard mistreating its citizens.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, my parents were there. We are not leaving. This is our home, my mother said to me on the phone. I wanted my parents to go to the Superdome, the shelter of “last resort.” They refused. And, for several days, my sister, brother and I didn’t know if they were dead or alive. We called FEMA, the Red Cross, the Louisiana State Police, the local hospital, begging for help. We typed their names in Coast Guard search engines. All we could do was watch the news – the roads in and out of New Orleans shut down, the floodwalls cracking open, the city filling like a bowl. The television showed familiar landmarks—the Rite Aid next to where my parents were living being looted, its front door smashed with a fork-lift, the families in the Superdome, waiting in line for food and water.
My parents were safe, though they remained in New Orleans after the storm, living with no electricity or clean water, until they could leave. But their home was largely intact. Many other people on the Gulf Cost were not so lucky and lost everything—relatives, houses, streets, neighborhoods, communities, entire towns.
The people of New Orleans are still suffering terribly. The National Guard is leaving a few days after Mardi Gras, which was last Tuesday. Mardi Gras offers one of this country’s favorite images of New Orleans: revelry and celebration. We would like to hold on to the image of New Orleans as a great tourist destination, The Big Easy, the City that Care Forgot.
Meanwhile I fear New Orleans is being forgotten. This morning, I’m thinking about the National Guard, New Orleans and poetry—a seemingly unlikely trio. In particular. I’m thinking about what poetry can do in a time of disaster and in its aftermath. I want to believe that poetry, as Milosz says, can help to save us and that it can teach us about saving one another. If I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t write and read poems.
The facts of the disaster are crucial. On the morning of August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall 70 miles southeast of New Orleans. Mayor Ray Nagin had issued the first ever mandatory evacuation of the city. Look at map, I said to the students. New Orleans is bordered by the lake at the north and the river at the south. Most of the city is six feet below sea level; parts of the city are ten feet below. After Katrina, the levees and the floodwalls breached in twenty places. With a death toll in Louisiana of more than 1,000 and other bodies still unaccounted for and unrecovered—three and a half years later--the scope of the devastation is nearly unfathomable.
Yet, I think it is critical to fathom it. The statistics above are chilling, but poetry can help us to see the disaster more fully. I don’t know if poetry can spur us into action, but a whole way of life is disappearing as people have fled and are fleeing the Gulf Coast. As one survivor from St Bernard Parish -- which was completely destroyed by a storm surge in fifteen minutes – when she described her difficult decision to stay in the city, told me: “If we leave, we take this city with us.”
I worry that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are being forgotten. I worry that we have lost our empathy for the people of the Gulf Coast. I worry that Hurricane Katrina is receding in our collective memory.