August 31, 2008

Keep Your Fingers Crossed

With all the talk about hurricane Gustav, I am reminded of our experience with New Orleans and Katrina, a rather bittersweet memory.

In mid-August of 1995, my wife Romy and I traveled to New Orleans for our first trip there. I was invited to be part of a panel at a conference of the Society of American Archivists, and we gave a presentation on the preservation of jazz in America. Three others on the panel represented different American archives, one at Tulane in New Orleans, one from the University of New Hampshire, and one from the University of Idaho. Ours was the youngest archive, and the only one using video at that time.

We flew into the Louis Armstrong Airport. Like typical tourists, the week we were there we were photographing everything and buying jazz paintings and other memorabilia just because we had never seen anything like it before. We rode the bus in the ninth ward and saw the neatly landscaped houses there, and took a Mississippi steamboat excursion. We met with the other jazz archivists at the Cafe Dumond on August 14 for coffee. In short, in the August heat, we experienced a week of New Orleans immediately pre-Katrina. I had always thought that New Orleans was mostly about Dixieland jazz with the tuba bass and the straw hats, but that is not entirely true. Every type of music is represented there. Walk down Bourbon Street at any time of day and you are rewarded with streams of sound out into the hot air, spanning the genres from Dixieland to Blues to Motown to HipHop. It was difficult to walk more than a few blocks without stopping for refreshments, as August brought oppressive humid heat. It was a chance to experience the best Bloody Marys ever.

When we returned home, the weekend before Katrina hit, I was glued to the television watching the storm approach the city we had just left, the city we had fallen in love with like so many before us. I felt the heat, hunger and discomfort of those in the Superdome. I saw those stranded on roofs in the ninth ward. I was sick at Katrina’s destructive path, and we watched as she decimated the place.

To even think that those poor people stranded were at fault for not getting themselves out is so ludicrous as to be embarrassment for anyone who espouses that. The city was submerged. Some houses and streets filled up with water in only half an hour. Those who remained were going to drown. Everyone predicted it could happen, but the dice were rolled that it would not directly hit New Orleans. It’s as if a higher power demanded focus on jazz, poverty and environmental issues all at once. Some of us felt this in a very personal way, but everybody saw it on the television.

Maybe Gustav won’t be a direct hit, and New Orleans can soon resume the post-Katrina reconstruction process. Maybe the levees will hold this time — one can only think positive thoughts and send our love to those fleeing New Orleans today, as it is under a mandatory evacuation.