"Hurricane Katrina shredded one of the great cities of the South, and as levees failed and the federal relief effort proved lethally incompetent, a natural disaster became a man-made catastrophe. As an editor of New Orleans' daily newspaper, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times-Picayune, Jed Horne has had a front-row seat to the unfolding drama of the city's collapse into chaos and its continuing struggle to survive." Horne takes readers into the private worlds and inner thoughts of storm victims from all walks of life to weaver a tapestry as intricate and vivid as the city itself. Politicians, thieves, nurses, urban visionaries, grieving mothers, entrepreneurs with an eye for quick profit at public expense - all of these lives collide in a chronicle that in harrowing, angry, and often slyly ironic.
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Jed Horne, a metro editor of The Times-Picayune, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his part in the paper’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina. His book Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans was nominated for the 2006 Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing. He lives in the French Quarter with his wife.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
A Camille on Betsy’s Track
The big old camelback house on Lamanche Street was home to Patrina Peters, and had been for most of her forty-three years. Her parents lived in one of the paired front-to-back apartments that made up the ground floor—“shotgun” apartments in local parlance, because of their long, narrow layout. Zip, her brother’s widow, had stayed on in the other downstairs apartment after Kevin’s sudden death from a heart attack a year earlier. Peters and her two kids lived upstairs on the partial second floor that humped up on the backyard end of a camelback and gave this kind of house its name.
But if it was a cozy home for an extended New Orleans family, it was also a monument: to the self-reliance of Patrina Peters’s forebears and to their standing in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, the rough-and-tumble working-class community some twenty blocks long and twenty-five blocks wide just downriver from the Industrial Canal. The waterway cut New Orleans more or less in half—a corridor of ship repair yards, steel fabricators, cold-storage warehousing, and the like that ran on a south-to-north axis from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. West of the canal, on the apron of land along the bank of the Mississippi River, lay the older and generally whiter parts of the city: Bywater, Marigny, the French Quarter, the downtown area with its business corridor and gentrified warehouse district, the Garden District, and then, farther up St. Charles Avenue, the sprawling heterogeneous swath of housing and universities known as Uptown.
There was more to New Orleans than these original settlements along the river’s edge. As New Orleans was drained and landfilled early in the twentieth century, the city pushed out into the swamps, eventually reaching all the way to the lake, a shallow and brackish inland sea fifty miles long and twenty-five miles across. More recently, settlement had spread beyond the Lower Ninth into another, considerably larger welter of swampland and postwar subdivisions known as New Orleans East. People still spoke of wards in New Orleans, none so frequently as the Lower Ninth, mainly because it was geographically so succinct. But these political subdivisions—there were seventeen wards—for practical purposes had been supplanted in modern times by councilmanic districts, of which there were only five.
Peters knew what people said about the Lower Ninth, and she would hear a lot more of it on television in the weeks ahead. It would sicken and disgust her, the way the TV reporters figured everyone in the Lower Ninth was poor and on crack and couldn’t get out of the way of a hurricane if their lives depended on it, which maybe they did.
Peters’s great-grandfather on her mother’s side, the Reverend Allen Thomas, had been pastor of the Battleground Baptist Church when it was in Fazendeville, a storied African American hamlet on a corner of the Chalmette National Historical Park a few miles downriver in St. Bernard Parish. The bulldozing of Fazendeville in 1964 was the final hurrah in a campaign by preservationists to bring the field to a closer semblance of its condition during the Battle of New Orleans one hundred fifty years earlier. Anticipating the end, the pastor moved his flock and his eleven children and their many children onto land he had acquired in the Lower Ninth. His sons were builders and cabinetmakers—the reverend himself sidelined as a roofer—and in due course, a swath of several blocks was dominated by his family and his followers. Two generations later, Peters’s cousin the Reverend Eric Lewis, was assistant pastor at Battleground Baptist. Her uncle the Reverend Freddie McFadden III, a man who had found God after losing his spleen in a gunfight as a young man, presided several blocks away at St. Claude Baptist Church.
And if that didn’t put the lie to the Lower Ninth’s image as a redoubt of dysfunctional families mired in permanent poverty, Peters didn’t know what would. Her mother, June Johnson, had managed a school cafeteria in her day. Her father, Edward Johnson, had retired as manager of a downtown U-Park lot. Peters herself had earned a degree in clerical studies at Cameron, a commercial college on Canal Street, and had worked as a cosmetology instructor at a beauty school until 1995. Then for four years, until her health gave out, she held down a job at Xavier University with the big AME janitorial service, a black-owned business that also cleaned buildings and cut grass for the Orleans Parish public school system. A plump, cheerful woman who pulled her hair to the back of her head and held it there with an elastic band, Peters had a foggy voice much bigger than her diminutive frame. Her epilepsy was manageable with medication, but a heart condition and a worsening case of Crohn’s disease, a condition characterized by recurring intestinal inflammation, knocked her out of the workforce and onto disability in 1999. She was thirty-seven.
And so, while her downstairs kin watched TV that last Saturday night in August, and fretted over news reports of the huge storm winging across the Gulf, Peters headed upstairs, showered, and got into her nightgown. There had been a time when Trina, as everyone called her, had spent her Saturday evenings very differently, most every evening for that matter, a time when that Nina Simone voice of hers had been part of the smoky din of local bars and clubs—most especially when a storm was brewing in the Gulf. Storms were party time. In working-class neighborhoods still capable of civic occasion other than the late-night huddle along yellow slashes of crime scene tape, folks rolled grills right out to the curb when a storm was coming, and barbecued ribs and chicken for the whole block. After all, if the power failed, as it certainly would, uneaten food would just spoil. Merriment was already unfolding in the streets of the Lower Ninth and elsewhere across New Orleans as Peters took her medications and, by seven pm that Saturday night, was in her bed asleep.
She awoke the next morning to family dissension. Her mother had heard talk of a twenty-foot storm surge and Category 5 winds—winds above 155 miles per hour, the highest ranking on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. That would make Katrina even worse than Betsy, the apocalyptic 1965 tempest that had uprooted trees and stripped roofs of their shingling all across New Orleans, deeply flooding the Lower Ninth Ward. June had fled Betsy with Trina, then a child of three, and could see no reason to do otherwise this time. Trina’s great-uncle James McFadden, who lived just down the street, had been trapped on a rooftop by Betsy before extricating himself and joining in the Lower Ninth Ward rescue effort. “I’m not going to ride this one out,” her mother said. Peters’s way of dealing with the menace ahead was to stick to routine. All week, she had had it in mind to do a roast for Sunday dinner, with rice and gravy and peas and potatoes and salad, and she sure enough wasn’t inclined to give that up for a long drive upriver to an aunt’s place in St. John Parish.
But go, go if you need to, she told her mother, and take Damond. Damond was fourteen, a gangly basketball player already hitting the six-foot mark, but he was Peters’s baby, and when she thought about the roast, she had her son in mind as much as any of the other people who would have relished it. Keia, her daughter, would stay behind. They’d eat the roast together and play a little gin rummy in the late afternoon—a nice little mother-daughter moment in an apartment refurbished with the new furniture Peters had bought just two months earlier, a whole household’s worth. After all, moments like that were harder to come by and soon might be gone forever, now that Keia was twenty-four and about to graduate from college.
Damond fussed about the plan, and the roast was only part of it. He was the man of the house. He should stand by his mother and sister. But Peters would not hear of it. She and Keia would look after themselves. She would take no chances with Damond. As they loaded up the car, her uncle James came by to join with the others fleeing upriver. “Why you want to stay here, Trina?” McFadden asked. She recognized it as a man’s teasing way of begging her to leave, and she answered jauntily, trying to cool him out: “I’m way upstairs. You go ahead. You go ahead, but we are way upstairs.” When she saw his eyes starting to get watery, she tried a different tack. “I trust in God,” she said. “Whatever God wills, it will be done.” But her confidence was not contagious. Her uncle got into the car and looked back out at her through the open window. “I wish you were coming,” he said. His voice was thin, and then he looked away.
By seven pm that Sunday evening, Peters was again bathed, medicated, and in bed, the last night she would ever spend in her family home, indeed the last time she would ever even want to think of the Lower Ninth as home.
It wasn’t the morning news reports that did it. The mayor had made the evacuation mandatory, but he could do what he wanted. Peters wasn’t planning to leave; she had already passed up her ride. And it wasn’t the phone call from cousins over on Jourdan Road, four or five blocks away, to say that they were reconsidering their decision to stay put. In hindsight, Peters would remember being spooked as much as anything by a numerological coincidence: that exactly forty years separated 2005 from 1965, Katrina from Betsy. “You know, I think we made a bad decision,” she said to Keia as the symmetry of the...
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