'They' Destroyed New Orleans
My little cousin, Kenneth, sits across from me smoking a cigarette in the driver's seat of his car. Like everyone else in my family, he lost everything when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Now he sits in my driveway on a Saturday night in LaPlace trying to understand why.
"Them people blew them levees," he says, looking at me, puffing on his cigarette. "They wanted to save the white people Uptown, but they ain't know it was gonna be this bad."
I just look at him when he says this. He's sincere, not a trace of doubt in his voice. Some people might call him crazy for believing a theory like that. But truth is, he's not alone, far from it. Last month I went to Arlington and visited some of my in-laws, who evacuated there. When the subject of Katrina and the levees came up, all of them went to talking the exact same way.
"That's how they do us."
"They ain't want us there in the first place."
"So you know they don't want us back."
"And they wonder why people down there runnin' up in stores."
I sat on the couch that night and listened to them go at it for about an hour. None of them seemed unreasonable. None of them seemed crazy. Everybody just seemed pissed off. Their homes were gone, their jobs too. Somebody had to be responsible. But when it got down to figuring out who, the only one any of them could agree on was "they."
"They" have existed in New Orleans for years, generations really, all the way back to 1965 when Hurricane Betsy hit the city and those same levees along the Industrial Canal collapsed. Back then, the lower Ninth Ward flooded just like it did during Katrina. Eight feet of water poured into the neighborhood and covered the eaves of most one-story houses. The people, most of them poor and black, climbed onto their rooftops and waited for help. And even though Betsy's storm surge wasn't as strong as Katrina's, and even though the water didn't sit as long, the horror stories afterwards were still about the same.
"I remember seeing dead bodies tied to telephone poles, floating in the water," a co-worker of mine named Horace once told me. Horace was 16 when Betsy hit. He waited out the storm and the water in the lower Ninth Ward on the second floor of his uncle's house. He remembered having to beg his uncle not to try to swim across the street to save one of their neighbors who was trapped in her attic. His uncle didn't. The neighbor eventually drowned in that attic.
When it was all over, Betsy killed at least 60 people in Louisiana, a small number compared to Katrina, but when the people of the lower Ninth Ward found out their neighborhood took the brunt of the hit because a levee collapsed, the controversy started. For them the levee failing wasn't an accident. It was a sacrifice, another example of white people looking out for themselves. It was in this environment that "they" first appeared and became a part of New Orleans folklore.
"We could hear 'em that night," Horace said, "blowing the levees. They knew if they didn't, the water was gonna get to the French Quarter or to the white people uptown. And they didn't want that."
Hearing my cousin echo those same words tonight, I can see that after Katrina, the folklore shows no signs of dying. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson would seem to agree.
"I was stunned in New Orleans," he told NBC's Meet The Press, "at how many black New Orleanians would tell me with real conviction that somehow the levee breaks had been engineered. These are not wild-eyed people," he said. "These are reasonable, sober people who really believe that."
Louis Farrakhan even claims he has proof. According to Newsmax.com, Farrakhan said that Mayor Ray Nagin told him about a 25-foot crater that exists under the Industrial Canal levee. Proof enough for Farrakhan that the levees were blown up to get black people out of New Orleans.
"They know what they doing," my cousin looks over to me and says. "They trying to run us out the city to get our land."
The land has always been a part of the folklore. For years the leaders of New Orleans have been approving plans to tear down the city's housing projects, which are mostly occupied by black people, and replace them with expensive condominiums. Uptown, the St. Thomas was the first to go. The Desire, in the Ninth Ward, soon followed. Now, on the Westbank, most of the Fisher has been demolished. And the other four seemed on their way out before Katrina even came. The result of all this is that a large part of the black community is being split up and shipped off to other areas. And as with the cases of the St. Thomas and Desire, when black people see white people moving in and taking over their part of town, conspiracy theories inevitably arise.
"You ever think that they might have blown the levees to make sure we had a city to come back to?" I ask my cousin. "I mean, who's to say that the water wouldn't have gone up to the river and damaged those levees."
"If that was the case," he says, "they woulda dropped us food and not starved us outside the Convention Center. They wouldn't a drew their guns on people trying to make it to the West Bank if it was about the city."
"Well then who's they?" I turn and ask him.
At first he doesn't say anything. He just stares.
"Is it Nagin? Is it Blanco? Harry Lee? Who?"
When he does respond the answer is straightforward and plain: "The government," he says.
All across the city, the government, mainly because of FEMA, is developing an even worse reputation than it had before. One Sunday night I stayed up and listened to the Big 870, our local news and talk radio station. A caller called in complaining about New Orleans East, one of the hardest-hit areas in the city and another section where black people make up the majority. The caller wanted to know why other areas were getting more attention than his. He wanted to know where his blue roof was and why New Orleans East was one of the last places to have the water turned back on.
"In Lakeview," he said, "you could trip over a construction worker. But out here you don't see a soul. All we got is police harassing us."
After he hung up, a lady from Lakeview, the upscale neighborhood along the 17th Street Canal, called in. She wanted to know the same thing about where she lived. She wanted to know why the government was trying to run them out of their neighborhood. She cited the same lack of blue roofs as her main evidence of a governmental conspiracy to demolish their houses and take over Lakeview.
"I tell you, Vince," she said, talking to Vince Marinello, the host of the show, "we got rain coming in and ruining the second floors of our property. There's no one around here doing anything for us. All of their attention is focused on the Ninth Ward. They have completely forgot about Lakeview."
I sat there and listened for most of the night. The calls kept coming through from both blacks and whites -- frustration with FEMA, people claiming insurance companies were trying to rip them off, a lack of Red Cross presence, and even down to a Mexican takeover. Because of their large presence as construction workers, some people believe that after they finish gutting out our houses, the Mexicans will invest their money and take over the city.
"They're just everywhere," one caller called in and said. "And they don't even bother to speak English."
The message on the radio that night was clear. Confusion is growing all over the city. And with it, "they" seem to be expanding. "They" have even gained official names like FEMA, the Government, Mexicans.
Maybe "they" are the cause of all the confusion, like my cousin and the callers believe. Or maybe there's so much confusion because people are looking for somebody to blame. Or maybe my neighbor Dan had it right when he said, "Everybody's life is just changing so fast. And people are just doing their best to understand it."