The music was cut short when Hurricane Katrina uncovered the USA’s open secret as it battered the Gulf Coast, the country’s poorest area, and killed between 1,000 and 2,000 people, displacing another million, and inundating 80 percent of the city of New Orleans just 10 years ago.
President Barack Obama marked the anniversary by visiting New Orleans last Thursday, followed by visits made last Saturday (the very day of the anniversary) by other distinguished figures like former Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, the latter appeared to have no shame after being accused of letting the city drown — he is still not very welcome among the most damaged sectors due to his lack of management during the emergency.
Prominent officials praised the resilience (official word of the day) of New Orleans, celebrated its recovery, remembered the scenes of desperation, and toasted to its future. Yet all of this rhetoric is filled with farce, delusions and dishonest formulations, while official events have turned it all into a spectacle for the cameras — this is what many Katrina survivors know and are declaring because they have lived, and currently live, another reality.
These highly distinguished figures did not speak about the 100,000 odd residents who are still absent (the population prior to the storm was around 600,000), those who never returned because they are not welcome in the “new” New Orleans, where public housing has not been reconstructed for people like them. This is indeed the case for the famous and most affected African-American community, known as the Lower Ninth; with dozens of its homes left abandoned and only 36 percent of its pre-Katrina population, many have come to the conclusion that it is in the interests of the powerful for that population to never return to their community.
Nor did they mention how the main public hospital, which provided services to the neediest and most forgotten, has been closed once and for all; or the lack of employment for the poorest people in the new city; they did not even mention how they used the storm as a pretext to dismantle the public education system and replace it with charter schools that are publicly financed but privately managed — the preferred model of so-called education reformers who are curiously supported by vulture funds and multimillionaires like Bill Gates. And almost no one spoke about the endemic corruption prior to the storm, or about the corruption that fuelled the city’s reconstruction, or even about who profited from the entire disaster.
On Aug. 29, 2005 and during the days that followed, the storm made it clear that tens of thousands of U.S. citizens, whether African-American and/or poor, were not and are not worth much or anything to the country’s authorities. Everyone knows that if we had been dealing with multimillionaires in white, luxury communities, the response would have been different.
The celebrations and functions that took place last weekend demonstrated all of this, but outside of the official script, people remembered that although it was indeed a natural disaster, it was also a disaster caused by greed, cynicism, corruption, and the unpardonable irresponsibility of the country’s political and economic leadership.
It is worth recalling that the “natural” disaster had already been predicted years earlier by none other than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as other experts. Everyone knew that the natural barriers had been destroyed by land development and the poor management of an ecosystem that is fragile, yet perfect for confronting storms of this type. Everyone knew that that the city’s flood-prevention infrastructure, most of which is, like in Holland, below sea level, had already deteriorated. And everyone knew that a storm of Katrina’s nature and behavior was possible. Those responsible for doing something in that regard, particularly the local, state and federal political class, as well as the economic interests that largely determine the country’s so-called “development,” did nothing.
Consequently, this is now what is considered the most costly natural disaster in the country’s history. But it is also the country’s greatest non-natural disaster, which will forever present images of the third (or rather, fourth) world that exists within the world’s richest country; nothing better captures all of this than former journalist David Simon’s “Treme,” one of the most intelligent TV drama series ever created — essential for not only gaining an in-depth understanding of New Orleans after Katrina, but also of the United States today.
As Melissa Harris-Perry and James Perry wrote in the American weekly magazine The Nation, it has been 10 years since the people of New Orleans “were faced, dramatically and intensely, with many of the economic, political, social, and racial issues that have come to define our national reality during this decade: unpredictable educational circumstances, devastated housing stock, sharply limited economic opportunities, acts of violent policing, and a system of criminal injustice.”
The hurricane cut short the music of New Orleans; the essence of that U.S. cradle of culture, which emanates from the descendants of African slaves, poor Frenchmen living in their former colony called Louisiana (after King Louis XIV of France), indigenous U.S. cultures, and all of the Caribbean’s currents. Yet it did not succeed in silencing it.
On that Saturday, the anniversary was celebrated with music and dance, with parades moving to the rhythm of “second lines,” with the famous wind bands, along with what would usually take place in New Orleans for both funerals and Carnival, to celebrate everything that is a part of life, of course. As one resident said, “[We] reunite … to celebrate a tragedy.”
It was the thousands of solidarity acts, and not the official response, that rescued — and continues to rescue — New Orleans and its surroundings (in this regard, Katrina is somewhat similar to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico). The music of New Orleans is the resounding route of this solidarity. This is its gift to the world.