Natural Disasters

Slowly Rebuilding New Orleans

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the reconstruction effort doesn't fit a simple liberal or conservative narrative.


The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back, by Daniel Wolff, Bloomsbury, 352 pages, $26.

From the moment seven years ago today that Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi, pundits started using the storm as a metaphor for the citizen's relationship to the state. On the left, the federal government's botched response revealed the wretchedness of George W. Bush's presidency: At best Katrina was an emblem of aloof and incompetent public administration, and at worst it represented cold political calculus and racial animosity. Meanwhile, conservatives saw the Katrina response as the apotheosis of corrupt urban politics and of a welfare state that infantilizes citizens.

Contributing to the politicization of the storm was the fact that virtually every major story of the day—climate change, the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—could be addressed through the narrative of Katrina. Less than 12 hours after the hurricane made landfall, for example, the environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. penned an acerbic piece for The Huffington Post attempting to tie Katrina to Bush's policies on carbon regulation and the Kyoto Protocol.

But while the days and weeks after the storm could (however tortuously) be packaged neatly into simple progressive or conservative narratives, the long slog of a recovery process has been a different matter. Attempts to talk about it through the lens of left or right politics have been, at best, unsatisfying.

In The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back, writer/filmmaker Daniel Wolff sets aside national politics and Red Team/Blue Team narratives. Instead he focuses on a handful of New Orleans–area residents and outside volunteers, using their stories to tell the saga of rebuilding the city one house, block, and neighborhood at a time. The result is one of the finest histories of Hurricane Katrina to date, and one of only a few to relegate state and national politics to their appropriate role on the sidelines.

Wolff follows three groups in New Orleans between January 2006, five months after the storm hit, and August 2009. Wolff's subjects are so uncannily emblematic of at least a significant section of New Orleans' population that, had I not met at least two of them, I would think them composites.

Pastor Mel runs what he calls a "transformational ministry" for ex-addicts in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans; over the course of the book he marries his girlfriend Clara and rehabilitates their now-shared house in New Orleans East. Carolyn Parker and her neighbors on a residential block in the Holy Cross neighborhood butt up against—but in some respects seem miles away from—the Lower Ninth Ward. And the philanthropists-cum-revolutionaries of the Common Ground Collective are equal parts Jane Addams and Huey Newton, doing much-needed work in the community while proselytizing to wide-eyed, mostly white college students and attempting to maintain revolutionary fervor.

Wolff's documentarian approach allows his subjects tell the story of their personal recovery, in their own words. Wolff acts as a kind of narrator for the book, deftly weaving topics including history, geography, ecology, economics, housing policy, and international affairs into his interviewees' stories. This may be particularly helpful for readers who know little of New Orleans' history prior to Katrina.

In several instances, Wolff allows his subjects to recount the histories of their communities in their own words. As Wolff tactfully notes, these stories do not always stand up to factual scrutiny, but that is beside the point: What matters is that the interviewees believe their histories to be true. For understanding how and why people in post-Katrina New Orleans think as they do, the shared set of beliefs about their history is what matters. Whether Moses truly parted the Red Sea is irrelevant; what matters is generations of Jews and Christians have believed that it happened.

Wolff effectively captures the agony of the uncertainty that cast a pall over New Orleans in 2006 and beyond: uncertainty about rules for rebuilding (the city had five master plans in under four years); uncertainty about payouts from the terribly designed Road Home Program, a federally funded effort to channel funds to homeowners and landlords; uncertainty about when stores, churches, schools, and services would reopen; uncertainty about just how well property rights would be respected; uncertainty about who was coming back. Wolff's interviewees are all people who acted early and purposively, but even they show signs of being psychologically worn down by changing rules of the game and government programs that seem to have been designed as plot points for a Big Easy remake of Brazil.

The Fight for Home is not without flaws. For one, its subjects are mostly black working-class New Orleanians, which feeds the widely-held but fundamentally incorrect assumption that Katrina mostly affected poor African-Americans. According to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, only about a third of the residents of the hardest hit counties and parishes across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were black, and fewer than one in five residents of any race were poor. Had Wolff included an interviewee from the more affluent Lakeview or Broadmoor neighborhoods, or the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans East, he would have likely found many of the same problems that troubled his lower-income interviewees likewise afflicted middle-income New Orleanians. (To his credit, Wolff does include a family in the oft-forgotten working-class white exurb of St. Bernard Parish.) Wolff also devotes too many pages to the Common Ground revolutionaries. It makes for an interesting story but one that is in no way illustrative of larger trends in the city; he allows a sideshow to take center stage.

Perhaps the biggest fault is the lack of attention to commerce, either the new businesses that sprung up after the storm or existing ones that entrepreneurs shed blood, sweat, and tears to rebuild. To be sure, the book is about home, place, and community. But as the Mercatus Center economists Emily Chamlee-Wright and Virgil Storr have shown, commerce and markets are inexorably intertwined with rebuilding after Katrina. Many of Wolff's interviewees described their need for grocery stores, dry cleaners, day care, and the like. Wolff could have expanded on this by, say, talking about the gas station on St. Claude Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward that was perhaps the first business to reopen in the area, quickly becoming a de facto community center and entrepreneurial hub. Instead, it gets just a passing mention.

But these are minor criticisms of a strong and compelling account. Wolff does a great service to his subjects—and the many hundreds of thousands of similarly-affected Louisianans and Mississippians they represent—in giving them a book-length space to tell their own stories about the trials, tribulations, and occasional successes of the recovery. And he does his readers an even greater service by not shoehorning it into an election-year political narrative.