In anticipation of Ameriville, Emerson professor Magda Romanska talks to Jed Horne, an award-winning writer and journalist and the author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, published by Random House. As an editor of New Orleans’ daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, Jed Horne has had a front-row seat on the unfolding drama of the city’s collapse into chaos and its continuing struggle to survive. The Times-Picayune was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006 for coverage of Hurricane Katrina that included work written or edited by Horne.

MR: In your book, Breach of Faith, you write about the history of New Orleans and the importance of the city as a national treasure. Culturally diverse and rich in tradition, New Orleans is one of the few U.S. cities that pride themselves on preserving and maintaining their history. It is hard to envision the complete destruction of one of the European cities of that caliber, such as Venice or Florence. How much of New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina?

JH: Little of what New Orleans is famous for – the French Quarter, the Garden District, Uptown, Marigny and Treme – was destroyed in the hurricane, though it looked for a time as if all of it was in jeopardy. These older parts of the city occupy higher ground (a few feet above sea level) and so they were largely spared when the federal flood defense collapsed and the city was inundated after the storm passed on. The greater danger was that New Orleans’ distinctive culture – a people’s culture of jazz and dance and great food (as opposed to an institutional fine arts culture sustained by society’s upper rungs) – would be lost if the working poor, driven out of the city during the evacuation, discovered that they lacked the wherewithal to return. Some recovery measures addressed that threat directly, such as Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians Village. But the good news – that the culture is intact and perhaps even richer than ever – is a testament more to the resilience of the community and an implacable love for New Orleans than to specific programs or investments. Not only were the city’s musicians and chefs and artists drawn back home, an influx of young folks from all across the country also responded to the opportunities, the obligations and the sheer romance of giving New Orleans a try. You see this in TV shows like David Simon’s “Treme” and in the fact that the city – incredibly – now has more restaurants than before the storm. A convulsive school reform effort has hinged in part on the availability of Teach for America candidates, a resource that may not be sustainable over the long haul but that has been galvanizing thus far. And, even those newcomers who don’t think of themselves as artists have provided an audience base for those who do. Both traditional art forms and more recent innovations have been the beneficiary. The city’s population, about 450,000 before the storm, is thought to have rebounded to about 350,000 after zeroing out in Katrina’s immediate aftermath. That’s still a big loss. No doubt some evacuees found new and better lives. But in addition to those who perished in the storm – about 1,000 – many who wanted to come back have not figured out how to do it. Their absence undercuts New Orleans’ otherwise remarkable revival.

MR: Katrina was a traumatic event on many levels: social, cultural and emotional. In psychology, trauma (from the Greek for wound) is defined as a violent rupture in the social and psychological order that fundamentally alters an individual’s concept of the self and the world. The traumatized individual is no longer bound to the world that betrayed him. The title of your book, Breach of Faith, captures that feeling of traumatic betrayal. For example, you write about cops who committed suicide, unable to come to grips with the complete dissolution of the social order. You write that “typically the suicides were the end point in a longer process of reflection and gathering doubt” (page 276). The response to trauma is often delayed and fragmented. When one becomes either numbed to or entrapped by one’s traumatic memories, a way out of the closed circuit of one’s psyche is to be able to tell one’s story: “a therapeutic process – a process of constructing a narrative, of reconstructing a history and essentially, of re-externalizing the event – has to be set in motion.”[i] What role do you think the arts played – if at all – in reconstructing that narrative, in the process of emotional recovery for the city and its people? What did play that role in your opinion?

JH: As suggested in my previous answer, the arts have been central to New Orleans’ recovery for the simple reason that they were central to the city’s sense of itself prior to the hurricane. Ergo, any recovery was necessarily going to entail a rebound in the arts. But your question seems to anticipate another way in which the arts have been important post-Katrina: We needed not just to recreate the status quo ante, but to understand it and begin to envision ways to improve on it – which is a living culture’s fundamental role. Within days of Katrina, New Orleans musicians were assembling in New York and other cities for sometimes tear-soaked concerts that raised money for revival but also raised the nation’s consciousness of how much might be lost if New Orleans was allowed to die (as was being actively urged by some members of congress at the time, notably House Speaker Dennis Hastert). In the years since, New Orleans has spawned an international arts biennial (Prospect One), a satirical newspaper (The Levee) able to skewer local politicians with deadly accuracy, and numerous documentaries, blogs, books, investigative websites, poems, comedy routines, feature films, TV shows. College curricula (Tulane/Loyola/Xavier and elsewhere) have been reshaped to build in service components that root learning in the soils of local recovery needs. As mentioned above, public schools have been reformed and so has local politics, following huge shake-ups (the levee boards; property assessment) and a raft of prosecutions to root out corruption. Not all of this is “art” but all of it does depend inextricably on communication and a city’s gestalt – the sense of itself that is forged by art.

MR: Being Polish, for me, the destruction and rebuilding of Warsaw after War World II is one of those symbolic events that testify to the intrepidity of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming odds. In your book, you mention Beirut: “If they can rebuild Beirut …” After the initial frenzy, the media has mostly forgotten about New Orleans. We rarely hear about what is going on in the city. Tell us, how is New Orleans doing, and where is it going from here?

JH: New Orleans still faces huge risks and challenges. The levees are much stronger than they were, but so far are being rebuilt to withstand so-called hundred-year storms, not the really big ones (Katrina itself was a three-hundred-year storm) that the Gulf of Mexico can whip up. (By contrast, the Netherlands, since an inundation in 1953, has fortified its coast against weather events anticipated once in ten thousand years – in other words a flood defense 100 times as robust as what’s being built around here.) New Orleans’ overall crime rate is less than many cities its size, but the homicide rate is much the worst in the nation, a result of brutal turf wars among drug dealers but also of a sense of anomie among youth who see no economic future for themselves now that many once labor-intensive industries have been mechanized (the port, above all) or eliminated (shipbuilding). Federal recovery money buttressed the New Orleans economy against the worst effects of the recent recession and new economic sectors have been spawned (a $1 billion bio-medical center, for example). But it remains to be seen how New Orleans will fare once the feds and private philanthropists get bored with us and move on in search of new, more fashionable challenges.

JED HORNE is the author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard, Horne began with the Boston Phoenix, and worked in New York in the 1970s and 1980s as a writer and editor, primarily with Time Inc. publications. Horne’s first book, Desire Street: A True Story of Death and Deliverance in New Orleans, was nominated for the 2006 Edgar for best non-fiction crime book of the year. It was also runner-up for the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. Horne’s work was included in submissions by the staff of the Times-Picayune that were awarded two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006 for coverage during Hurricane Katrina. 

[i] Dori Laub, “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes or Listening,” in Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, ed. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York: Routledge, 1992), 69.

Originally posted at ArtsEmerson Blog (2/27/12).