Roberta Brandes Gratz Credit: Gratz

“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome, There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home.” —Bruce Springsteen

It’s a debate that still has legs 10 years after Katrina: Did New Orleans’ recovery, such as it is, arise from grassroots energy or was it handed down from on high? Two new books about he disaster’s aftermath offer interesting takes on that question without quite resolving it.

Bruce Springsteen’s ironically titled anthem, “We Take Care of Our Own,” could set the stage for any account of Hurricane Katrina. Here in New Orleans the badly built, sub-code federal levees broke in the face of a storm that had dwindled to Category 3 status; then federal, state, and local cavalries stayed home: a double abuse of power.

“While we may associate trauma with extreme violence,” writes Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman, “some trauma is the result of subtler forms of abuse by figures of authority which disturb the tacit social contract.” Studies show that those who suffer traumatic events are far more likely to suffer PTSD if the trauma is caused by or accompanied by such abuse of power.

“Recovery, therefore, is based,” Herman relates, “upon the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.”

Roberta Brandes Gratz’s We’re Still Here You Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City offers the story of how New Orleans was repaired from the ground up by those who took back control and knitted a fabric of new connections. A prize-winning Lens contributor and a follower of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, Gratz moved part-time to New Orleans soon after Katrina, bought a house in Bywater, and began to gather the story of the city’s recovery. (Full disclosure: I know Roberta Gratz from my association with the Nation Institute which co-founded with the Fertel Foundation the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-Telling. And I am quoted in the book).

Gary Rivlin’s sourcing overlaps with Gratz’s at certain points, but his access to some key figures in the city’s civic and political elite imbues his book, Katrina: After the Flood, with a top-down perspective.

The story as Gratz sees it is a lot like the story of the best and worst in her native New York. Jane Jacobs is famous for her celebration of urban density and the rich, mixed-use urban life that springs from it. She was a constant challenge to the powers-that-were, at the head of which was bridge and highway boss Robert Moses who believed that America’s future after World War II lay in urban sprawl and the multilane highways that would enable it. The other piece of his urban solution was “urban renewal” and public housing complexes.

Intrinsic to Moses’ vision was the role of big government in making these projects realities. Moses’ axis of power was a top-down affair: the money and the zoning and the land acquisition was a matter for bigger brains than yours or mine. As Robert Caro in his masterpiece The Power Broker makes clear, Moses believed he had the biggest brain of all.

Moses’ reach was national. If not for Jacobs-like grassroots preservationists in New Orleans during the ‘50s and ‘60s, an expressway along the French Quarter riverfront would have crushed our esthetic and economic future. The alternative the big brains worked out unraveled the fabric of a less powerful constituency: the elevated expressway above Tremé’s North Claiborne Avenue, a blighted artery once lined with successful black-owned businesses and a twin allée of magnificent oaks. For that thank Moses and the top-down approach.

When the levees broke Gratz’s instincts told her that in New Orleans’ recovery the big-brained, top-down approach would continue to do harm. No need here to rehearse the extent to which FEMA, George W. Bush, Brownie, the Red Cross, and so many government agencies — local, state, and national — managed to bear her out.

The mayor’s recent announcement that recovery has been “accomplished” and it’s time to move on may be all too reminiscent of Bush on the aircraft carrier below the infamous banner declaring the U.S. “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.

Gratz covers that ground. But the red meat of her book lies in her account of the “accidental activists” who were drawn into the maelstrom of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, the “green dots” controversy, Road Home, and HUD’s untimely decision to shutter the Big Four public housing projects and only much later redevelop their former turf as “mixed-income communities,” with a reduced proportion of subsidized residents. For aiding and abetting these dubious beneficences, thank the state, our mayor and City Council, and the city’s business community.

Gratz’s list of “accidental activists” is long and deserving of the honor she pays them. I wish I could post an honor roll here. Many are women, a Gratz theme. Why women? Because as Anne Milling, co-head of Women of the Storm puts it, “Women protect their nest and our nest had been destroyed.”

Of course some of the heroes of New Orleans’s rebuilding are neither women nor local. Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” project building LEED Platinum-certified homes in the Lower Ninth comes in for high praise, as does Barnes & Noble CEO Len Riggio’s “Project Home Again” which has built over 100 homes in Gentilly.

The further strength of Gratz’s book is not just to detail for us the heroic resistance to abuse, but more generally to portray our community narrative, what deep cultural strengths we drew upon and, going forward, should draw upon to resist that abuse. For Gratz that portrait is a model for America.

First in her view is our likeness to the intertwined roots of the live oaks we treasure: the connectedness of our families and neighborhoods; our unique street grid; our tight, dense and architecturally rich housing stock; and the diversity of uses in every neighborhood that includes corner stores and nearby local shopping streets. And second, she celebrates the strengths exhibited by residents who came together to rebuild both their own lives and the life of their community.

In sum Gratz helps us see through her admittedly alien, New Yorker’s lens how we are different. From that comes our culture: social, racial, architectural, musical, and culinary — all treasures that must be saved and which were all factors in rebuilding New Orleans. They are also the very things the big brains give mere lip service to before confecting policy decisions that throw them out with the bathwater. In this case the big brains are the political and economic blue-bloods and, in this city of three races, the Creoles of color who have long been this northernmost Caribbean city’s often feckless powerbrokers.

Mirroring for us who we are is a crucial aspect of our recovering from psychological trauma. Having re-established power and control, the trauma survivor must tell his/her story to someone who is really listening, someone, writes Veterans Administration psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, with a “readiness to experience some of the terror, grief, and rage of the teller.” Good listening reknits the social contract.

The anger audible on every page of Gratz fine book is proof she has truly been listening.

—–Rivlin looks east and sees an untold story 

Gary Rivlin
Gary Rivlin Credit: Rivlin

I placed my Kindle on a drugstore counter and the pharmacist asked what I thought of the book I was reading. “It’s a Katrina book. It’s good, but kinda detailed,” I replied. I was half way through.

“Well it better be,” he said to my surprise. He had read the title upside down. It was Rivlin’s Katrina: After the Flood. (Full disclosure: though I have not met Gary Rivlin, he too is associated with the Nation Institute).

My druggist’s reply was telling. Teaching the literature of war for many years, I know that trauma survivors in the process of recovery need to tell their story with excruciating precision. That’s why we found ourselves obsessively telling and listening to stories. God — or the devil — is in the details. The challenge is to convey what happened, what it looked, felt, sounded, smelled, and tasted like, and what finally it all meant. Always falling short, like the Ancient Mariner, we have to tell it again.

The need for accuracy is a need to know that the sacrifice a trauma survivor suffered is fully honored as s/he puts together a new narrative, one that includes the possibility that you can’t count on the cavalry’s arrival.

Detail is both Rivlin’s weakness — some of these Katrina stories we have heard before — and his strength. Many details are fresh, gotten from Rivlin’s considerable access to the people in charge while covering the Katrina story for the New York Times.

For Rivlin not all those in charge are villains. Then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s portrait is more positive than expected. We hear, as we have before, of the Bush administration’s effort to smear Blanco to take the heat off themselves. Rivlin champions Blanco’s foresight in responding to the looming hurricane. Nagin, with Karl Rove’s help, got the best of Blanco in the media, but, then, we know what kind of politics Rove stoops to.

Rivlin covers new territory in his intimate and sympathetic portraits of two financiers, developer and First Bank chairman Joseph Canizaro and Liberty Bank’s founder and leader, Alden McDonald. In his portrait of Canizaro, whom Nagin named co-chair of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, Rivlin persuades us of Canizaro’s good intentions, even in his commitment to the oft-damned “green dots” — marks placed on a map by a consultant to the commission indicating deeply flooded areas the consultant thought should be allowed to revert to green space. (Robert Moses had plenty of good intentions too.)

In telling the astonishing story of McDonald’s revival of Liberty Bank — in near default after Katrina but recently celebrated by American Banker Magazine as “the country’s premier community-development bank” — Rivlin details the rarely told story of New Orleans East’s struggle to rebuild.

Some of the details are priceless — and damning. Rivlin tells of Nagin’s meeting late Friday before the storm with James Reiss, then chairman of the Regional Transit Authority and, in Rivlin’s account, the avant-garde of what Tulane’s Lance Hill aptly calls “the exclusionist movement,” the Uptown elite’s effort to make New Orleans more white. “In retrospect,” Rivlin remarks, “they should have been talking about running more buses that weekend to shuttle people out of town, but they stuck to the agenda: the city’s crime problem.”

We learn too that “Nagin spent much of Saturday — five hours — on the set of Labou, a kids’ film being shot on location in New Orleans.” (Shades of President Bush’s persistence in reading a book about a pet goat to Sarasota school children after being informed that the World Trade Towers had just been hit by terrorists.)

Championing current Mayor Mitch Landrieu for getting hundreds of millions of recovery dollars out of FEMA long after they thought they were done with us, Rivlin nonetheless titles his chapter about Landrieu, “The Sore Loser” and depicts him as a man who never forgets a criticism or forgives a rival.

The mayor’s recent announcement that recovery has been “accomplished” and it’s time to move on may be all too reminiscent of Bush on the aircraft carrier below the infamous banner declaring the U.S. “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. He has since conceded that some changes may not come to fruition for a decade or more.

But Rivlin’s vast canvas of all we suffered and how far we’ve come provides legitimate reasons to rejoice. Traumatic injury sometimes leads to silence and denial, sometimes to memory loss. Readers are sure to be struck by some piece of the Katrina story they had forgotten. Rivlin’s wealth of detail helps knit that story back together.

Randy Fertel’s memoir, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak, centered on his late parents, Rodney Fertel, a New Orleans original who once ran for mayor, and his mother, founder of the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain. Novelist Tim O’Brien calls Fertel’s latest, A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, “a stunner of a book.”