Amtraks Across America: Hurricane Katrina Sinks the Bush Presidency

This is the fourth in a series on Amtrak travel in the summer of 2022.


A typical New Orleans street, most of which is below sea level. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, many neighborhoods were flooded, breaking many of the levees that had kept the city dry until now. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

I spent several nights in New Orleans before taking the Amtrak train to Chicago. I hadn’t been since 2006, after Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005.

Back then, playwright and novelist John Biguenet took me through flood zones, where—beyond the specially spared French Quarter high ground—I saw waves of water-damaged neighborhoods and families living under a federal emergency. Management Agency (FEMA) trailers. John himself had lost 2,000 books and much of his house in the high waters.

Many of the houses we passed had holes cut in the roof with an ax through which the occupants had crawled out, and almost every house had the Urban Search & Rescue X code spray-painted on the front, telling rescuers if the house had been searched and if anyone had been found – more hieroglyphs of one lost civilization.

Later, Xs on still-standing houses as a symbol of defiance of the elements, although since many of the storm-damaged houses were one-story bungalows made of laminated wood, there was no choice but to tear them down, start over and rebuild. on a raised concrete foundation — there to wait out the next storm surge.

George W. Bush: Sitting on a bay dock

About the only good thing that came from Hurricane Katrina was to expose the empty shell that was the presidency of George W. Bush, who was on a month-long vacation at his ranch in Texas when the storm came ashore.

Bush made some empty statements about the “good people” of the Gulf states and then went on a two-day political trip to Arizona and California.

At a stop on August 30, a country singer presented the president with a guitar on which he played a few bars of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.” It appeared to sum up W’s entire response to the Katrina crisis:

I’m sitting on a bay dock
Watching the tide roll away, oh
I’m just sitting on the bay dock
Wasting time

On August 30, sensing that something was not quite right in New Orleans (which was under water at the time), Bush made a bold executive decision to return to vacation, though he decided to “break” his four-week stay the next day. vacation and return to Washington.

It was on the flight back to the capital that Bush showed his empathy and compassion for the flood victims by ordering Air Force One flying low over the flooded city so a White House photographer could snap a picture in the president’s jacket and scan New Orleans as its streets were washed away by water. By August 30, about 80 percent of the city was flooded.

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Hell and high water

Back in Washington, the heads of Bush’s Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, Michael Chertoff and Michael Brown, respectively, assured the president that “everything is being done” for New Orleans, even though there was no food or bottled water that day. in the hundred-degree heat of the Superdome, where many survivors had sought refuge.

When Katrina came ashore, Chertoff was at home and then decided to attend a bird flu conference in Atlanta while Brown joked with his staff about what to wear for television interviews.

Just five days after Katrina hit New Orleans, Bush landed in the city to tour (again by air) the flooded neighborhoods and share the pain of local residents, some of whom were still clinging to their roofs. In total, approximately 2,000 residents died as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

At one of his stops on Sept. 2, an oblivious Bush complimented the FEMA director on his life-saving work — “Brownie, you’re doing a wonderful job…” even though, as John pointed out on our drive through New Orleans, “the ASPCA got here before FEMA.”

New Orleans by bike

In 2006, New Orleans looked like an abandoned city, but sixteen years later, on a shuttle from the airport, I returned to every city in America, where traffic, hotels, gas stations, and discount warehouse stores filled the approaches. .

Forgoing a $350-a-night room (a product of post-pandemic travel intoxication and website pricing algorithms), I stayed at an Airbnb in Tremé, on the edge of the French Quarter. Guests were promised a bike, but after I checked in and checked the frame, I found that many of the components were rusted in place, as if it had spent months under water.

The next morning, in addition to hunting for breakfast food, I went looking for a rental bike and left with a single speed beach cruiser with balloon tires and a basket on the front.

At first I despised my clumsy ride, but quickly grew to love it as I tried to navigate the city’s endless potholes, a gondola suited to a city with a Venetian feel to it.

For two days I drove around the city on the beach, trying to read the story of New Orleans, which I first saw in March 1965, riding the train with my father, when I was shocked that the local cemeteries had to bury their dead. marshy land.

Sin City: Historic New Orleans

I first fell in love with the city in the 1970s when I stayed in the French Quarter and bought a copy of Lyle Saxon. Wonderful New Orleans, which I read in a corner of the Napoleon House, a quaint bar with ceiling fans and longneck Dixie beer. (Local legend has it that in 1921 the mayor of New Orleans offered the first emperor of France the use of the house if he could escape exile on St. Helena, a barren island in the South Atlantic.)

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On this occasion, I was reading a book by Gary Crist at Napoleon’s House Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Struggle for Modern New Orleans, a biography of the city, set mainly at the turn of the 20th century, when it first became a festive street party. Christ quotes a local preacher: “It’s not easy to get to heaven through New Orleans.”

The city boomed — if that’s a word — until Prohibition shut down its “sports houses” and honky-tonk clubs, forcing a generation of early jazz musicians to scatter across the United States to make a living. Christ writes:

When Louis Armstrong, now an international star, was invited back to his hometown to receive the key to the city in 1949, that key apparently only opened the door to black New Orleans; the beloved Satchmo was forced to stay in a “colored hotel.” And some journalists in the 1960s were quick to note that African-American jazz culture was being used to attract visitors to a place “still in the iron grip of institutionalized racism and apartheid.” But the tourist invention of the city at least preserved some of the culture of the past, and eventually a truer version of the city emerged, especially after the death of Jim Crow.

Shadows of 544 Camp Street

The Napoleon House is also where New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison developed some of his theories about the local angle to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Many of the assassins, such as David Ferry and Guy Bannister, shared roots in New Orleans, not to mention the office at 544 Camp Street, which was the return address Lee Harvey Oswald (born on the street pictured above) used for his agitprop pamphlets. Fair play to the Cuban committee.

However, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known informally as the Warren Commission, barely mentions New Orleans in its 26-volume account of the assassination.

Is NOLA really back?

If all you saw in New Orleans today was the French Quarter and maybe the Warehouse District (where many tourist and convention hotels are located), you might be thinking, “Hey, NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana…) is back.”

As if in a voodoo trance, tourists wander up and down Bourbon Street, a rowdy strip selling $14 cocktails, and line up to eat at the overpriced French bistros on Chartres Street, where a couple of guys with trombones out front.

But beyond the Vieux Carré (ironically, the architecture is more Spanish than French), New Orleans is only part way home.

Yes, the FEMA trailers are mostly gone, and new and renovated bungalow houses have filled some of the gaps in the flooded neighborhoods, but the restoration is peculiar, as if rebuilding not one city, but about fifteen separate villages that suggest New Orleans. can’t decide if it wants to be a city or a bunch of random suburbs.

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The Garden District (west of the French Quarter) near Tulane University has upscale homes, shops and restaurants that are back in business, but the Lower Ninth (the mostly black ward to the east) is still missing a lot of teeth. it is damaged and loose.

I spent a lot of time on my bike in the Bywater area, which was spared the worst of the floods in 2005, but the street and corner shops still feel miserable. Children didn’t play in their yards or ride their bikes in the streets. Think of it as a ghost town where ghosts drive around in cars with tinted windows.

I also generally didn’t see many people walking around New Orleans beyond the French Quarter and the warehouse district, which has become an air-conditioned oasis. The only sidewalk presence I saw were the many homeless people camped around town.

Homeless bivouacs

As I cycled along the waterfront from Uptown in the west to Chalmette in the east, I encountered many homeless encampments as if they were part of a wandering tribe.

Almost everyone lived in nylon tents haphazardly pitched on patches of grass in front of train stations, under highways, next to decaying warehouses, or in vacant suburban lots where everyone was consigned to sidewalk purgatory.

Many of the homeless people had refrigerators for food, and many had camping chairs set up in front of their tents, like in a national park. I was amazed at how many spent time reading hardcover books.

When I went exploring on my bike in the evenings—more fun than paying double figures for a shot of Aperol—I could spot homeless people in the distance by their campfires, often clogged with trash.

American Calcutta

Seeing ghostly faces in the glow of these coals, often under elevated expressways, reminded me of the summer of 1983 when I traveled to Calcutta, India, and spent an evening in the worst part of that city.

I hesitated before getting into the rickshaw—human-powered in those days—but eventually I did because my driver was eager for a ticket and I wanted to explore outside the main streets of the city.

Around midnight, he took me to places I would never have walked, sometimes called “The City of Dreadful Night” (although the original Rudyard Kipling story of that name took place in Lahore, now in Pakistan).

In the dark we navigated a series of winding alleys, in which the dwellings spilled out onto the pavements, where the inhabitants slept on mats and little beds next to small coal sheds, as if on the bivouac of the dead.

Who knew that Kipling’s description of…They sleep—some face down, hands folded, in the dust; some clasped hands lowered above their heads; some curled dog smarts; some strewn like limp sacks over the sides of grain carts; and some bowed with their brows on their knees in the full moonlight…”- could you ever describe an American city?

Next up: The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Previous installments can be found here.


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