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Down in New Orleans

Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City

Billy Sothern
Photographs by Nikki Page
Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: 1
Pages: 349
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  • Book Info
    Down in New Orleans
    Book Description:

    “Post-Katrina New Orleans hasn't been an easy place to live, it hasn't been an easy place to be in love, it hasn't been an easy place to take care of yourself or see the bright side of things.” So reflects Billy Sothern in this riveting and unforgettable insider's chronicle of the epic 2005 disaster and the year that followed. Sothern, a death penalty lawyer who with his wife, photographer Nikki Page, arrived in the Crescent City four years ahead of Katrina, delivers a haunting, personal, and quintessentially American story. Writing with an idealist's passion, a journalist's eye for detail, and a lawyer's attention to injustice, Sothern recounts their struggle to come to terms with the enormity of the apocalyptic scenario they managed to live through. He guides the reader on a journey through post-Katrina New Orleans and an array of indelible images: prisoners abandoned in their cells with waters rising, a longtime New Orleans resident of Middle Eastern descent unfairly imprisoned in the days following the hurricane, trailer-bound New Orleanians struggling to make ends meet but celebrating with abandon during Mardi Gras, Latino construction workers living in their trucks. As a lawyer-activist who has devoted his life to procuring justice for some of society's most disenfranchised citizens, Sothern offers a powerful vision of what Katrina has meant to New Orleans and what it still means to the nation at large.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93384-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxii)

    I began writing the pieces that comprise this book out of a sense of urgency, compelled by seeing my adopted home crumbling into the rising water that followed Hurricane Katrina while the rest of the country looked on dumbfounded, believing that the horrifying things appearing on their televisions were aberrations, uncharacteristic of either our country or New Orleans. Each time I heard someone exclaim in shock at the city’s resemblance to a “third-world country,” I needed to respond that the city had long displayed such signs to anyone who cared to look at them. Indeed, those things that appeared aberrational...


    • CHAPTER 1 A Man Leaves Home
      (pp. 3-14)

      WE DROVE NORTH INTO Mississippi as the late-summer Sabbath sun rose over New Orleans. I was passed out in the backseat of our old gray Volvo, competing for space with Max and Mabel, our two dogs. I was dirty and sticky after a night on top of a twenty-eight-foot ladder boarding up the windows of my home and was made all the more uncomfortable by the heat—we were unable to use the air conditioning for fear that the car might stall, as it often did with the toxic combination of staggering heat, traffic, and air conditioning. Through my half-sleep,...

    • CHAPTER 2 A Stranger Comes to Town
      (pp. 15-22)

      WE PULLED UP TO Will and Siobhan’s simple house on the outskirts of Oxford early Sunday evening and parked beneath a cluster of three tall pines. We dragged ourselves out of the car, not bothering to remove the bags of fast-food trash, and walked up to their door.

      I knew Will from college and had seen him only a handful of times in the intervening years. He and his wife were both graduate students at Ole Miss, Will in creative writing, Siobhan in biology, studying wetlands. The last time I saw Will had been about three years earlier, the only...

    • CHAPTER 3 “This Blues Is Just Too Big”
      (pp. 23-32)

      THE NEWS ON WEDNESDAY morning was sobering. Mayor Nagin was on television estimating the death toll in New Orleans, “Minimum, hundreds. Most likely, thousands.”¹ Hope for a quick return home had dissipated with his further appraisal, “The city will not be functional for two or three months.”² Even President Bush had caught wind of the disaster, explaining what he had seen of New Orleans during his Air Force One flyover: “It’s totally wiped out. . . . It’s devastating; it’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”³ The White House went on to announce what we had begun to...


    • CHAPTER 4 A Dollar Short
      (pp. 35-46)

      WHEN THE LEVEES THAT HELD Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River out of New Orleans broke at critical points along canals, on the Monday following the storm, the vast majority of the city, along with one hundred thousand of its residents who had not evacuated, took on water at an alarming rate. Many of those who remained suffered the dual indignity of the threat of death and the knowledge that their younger, richer, whiter counterparts had been able to flee. Although the causes and the consequences of the breaches may be hard to grasp and explain, the reality of thousands...

    • CHAPTER 5 Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short
      (pp. 47-58)

      “WE HAD BABIES IN THERE. Little babies being raped!” exclaimed the New Orleans police chief, Eddie Compass, in tears. He was onOprahrecounting the atrocities that occurred in the Superdome while thousands remained stranded there in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.¹ It was a gruesome picture that seemed consistent with the images of total collapse and mayhem that streamed over the airwaves in the days following the storm.

      Mayor Ray Nagin made comments that corroborated the police chief’s account: “About three days we were basically rationing, fighting, people were—that’s why the people, in my opinion, they got to...

    • CHAPTER 6 Not in My Backyard
      (pp. 59-70)

      ONCE IT BECAME CLEAR that help was not on the way and that people needed to fend for themselves, groups began attempting to evacuate the city on their own two feet. From the business district, where both the Superdome and Convention Center are located, the most natural point of egress from the city is the Crescent City Connection, a twin-span bridge that arches over the Mississippi River and connects the east bank of New Orleans with the west bank neighborhood of Algiers, part of the city of New Orleans, as well as Jefferson Parish’s west bank.

      Not only was the...

    • CHAPTER 7 Left to Die
      (pp. 71-84)

      IF, AS DOSTOYEVSKY CLAIMED, a society’s degree of civilization can be measured by its treatment of prisoners, we are in even deeper trouble in New Orleans than many realize. In this city, Hurricane Katrina spurred on the biggest prison crisis since Attica. Unlike Attica, which brought about a period of thoughtful examination of American prison policies, the crisis in New Orleans has failed to create a meaningful conversation about the treatment of American prisoners. The lack of concern highlights the extent to which prisons have become invisible in the United States over the past thirty years while marking the lives...

    • CHAPTER 8 Bring the War Home
      (pp. 85-102)

      ABDULRAHMAN ZEITOUN, WHO HAS lived in New Orleans for more than fifteen years, owns and operates a painting and contracting business whose sign, reading “Zeitoun’s Painting” above a colorful rainbow, could be found on the front lawns of houses all over New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. He is a hardworking businessman and tradesman whose reputation for honesty led his customers, many of whom owned the grandest houses in town, to simply turn over their house keys to him in anticipation of occasional odd jobs or continuing work. His values are grounded in an old saying from his native Syria, “small...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Dry Run of the Apocalypse
      (pp. 103-112)

      AFTER A WEEK IN OXFORD, and with little hope that we would be returning home to New Orleans anytime soon, Nikki and I started looking for an apartment by posting signs around town, including an offer for a housing swap that we posted in the bookstore on the Square, thinking that an attempt at levity might evoke sympathy among the town’s readers: “New Orleans Couple Seeks to Trade Downtown Greek Revival Townhouse for an Apartment Close to the Square.” The ad failed to bear fruit but, in asking around, we heard of a big apartment near the Square above a...

    • CHAPTER 10 History Repeats Itself
      (pp. 113-122)

      IN NEW ORLEANS, history does not always seem so long ago. The old city streets don’t look so different from seventy-year-old Walker Evans photographs, in which the city’s nineteenth-century frame buildings, then as now, droop under the weight of cat’s claw vines. The sadder aspects of our history are also with us. People casually talk about renting apartments and living in “slave quarters,” small buildings that used to house slaves and the kitchens for the connected big house. Inmates, mostly black, are still sent to Angola Prison after conviction, a prison named for the country of origin of the slaves...


    • CHAPTER 11 Going Home
      (pp. 125-138)

      LESS THAN TWO WEEKS after the storm, I saw the sunrise over the Mississippi River from my roof on Carondelet Street in New Orleans. I was up there with Wallace Lester, a fellow displaced New Orleanian I had met the day before in Oxford.

      I had vaguely recognized Wallace when I saw him in Oxford. We talked for a minute and he mentioned that he was a teacher and I was able to place him. He was the hip public school English teacher at George Washington Carver High School, a struggling, all-black school in New Orleans where I had taught...

    • CHAPTER 12 Oxford Town
      (pp. 139-150)

      TOWARD THE END OF SEPTEMBER, I drove to the Memphis airport once again, this time to deposit my wife, who was embarking on a trip to Europe of indefinite duration. The trip had been planned, in a very different form, months earlier for Nikki to attend a friend’s wedding in Leuven, Belgium. She had grown miserable in Oxford, felt incapable of producing art, and grew to believe that her unhappiness, which I was preoccupied with correcting and talking her out of, would only distract me from focusing single-mindedly on my work, work that she believed in more than I did...

    • CHAPTER 13 I Do Believe I’ve Had Enough
      (pp. 151-166)

      I WASN’T ACTUALLY ON the road until late in the afternoon, after handing off the keys to my apartment to a New Orleans couple who needed a place to stay and agreed to take care of our already fed-up cat. My departure had been delayed by complications in posting a petition for a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court for one of my capital cases before the deadline. The petition was a shot in the dark, although I file one in every case, believing that even when I lose an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court, the Court...

    • CHAPTER 14 Everyday Reminders
      (pp. 167-180)

      I FOUND MYSELF in a small apartment in a gray, prewar building near Columbia University in Manhattan. The building sat high above Morningside Park on a quiet street that snaked ninety degrees around the building, recalling the fast and loose city plan of an old European city more than the rigid, geometric grid of New York.

      The apartment belonged to a couple, a historian and the former university chaplain, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years and who years earlier had helped me avoid going to prison after police raided their home in Massachusetts, where I had been selling...


    • CHAPTER 15 Second Line
      (pp. 183-192)

      WORD SPREAD IN BARS, coffee shops, and New Orleans’s independent radio station, WWOZ, that there was going to be a second line on Saturday morning, starting at Sweet Lorraine’s on St. Claude Avenue at ten o’clock. The parade was with the Black Men of Labor, who second-line annually on Labor Day. There were to be two brass bands, the Hot 8 and a group of teenage musicians, To Be Continued.

      By the time I arrived at 10:15, an odd assortment of recently returned city residents was milling about on the sidewalk and the trash-strewn neutral ground in front of the...

    • CHAPTER 16 Gideon’s Blues
      (pp. 193-202)

      WHEN THE MEN AND WOMEN held at the Orleans Parish Prison—essentially a county jail—were finally evacuated following Hurricane Katrina, they were scattered to prisons around the state, some more than four hundred miles from their homes in New Orleans. They were safe from the flood but, without access to any means of communication, could not find out about the safety and whereabouts of their families and loved ones. Just as bad, the system that had provided lawyers for poor people in New Orleans, already anemic and failing before the storm, had totally collapsed after the storm. This left...

    • CHAPTER 17 Live from the Circle Bar
      (pp. 203-210)

      AT NEW ORLEANS’S CIRCLE BAR, a few months after the storm, Luke Allen, the front man of the Happy Talk Band, welcomed people back to New Orleans: “Thanks for coming back, folks. It’s a great city. Everything else is a strip mall. We will lose in the end, but have fun while it lasts.”

      With his postpunk imperfect pitch and his cigarette jammed in the tuners of his guitar, he proceeded to sing his songs of New Orleans: having a broken heart at the Huey P. Long Bridge, Collins mix and methadone, and the melancholy jealousy of dating a stripper....

    • CHAPTER 18 Corporate Limits
      (pp. 211-230)

      MANY MONTHS AFTER Hurricane Katrina, my New Orleans neighborhood remained a shambles. There were square blocks without a single inhabitant and scores of large nineteenthcentury houses teetering at the edge of collapse with no prospect of repair. Although I have heard of people driving through Central City, and other old neighborhoods like it, and commenting that the damage from Hurricane Katrina was worse than they had imagined, it is a sad reality that this neighborhood looked little better before the storm hit and had little of the catastrophic flooding that did destroy many of the city’s neighborhoods. The story of...

    • CHAPTER 19 Fat Tuesday
      (pp. 231-252)

      THE TWO WEEKS leading up to Mardi Gras are always exhausting, with parades and parties scheduled almost daily. Living where we do, a block from the main parade route on St. Charles Avenue, the season is not something that we can opt out of or choose to ignore unless we leave town. In years past, I would sit at my desk on the second floor of our house, trying to work on one of my appeals as I heard the sounds of high school marching bands booming through my office window. Reluctantly, I would get up from my desk and...

    • CHAPTER 20 Hard Lot
      (pp. 253-260)

      DAN BRIGHT TOLD ME that to find his FEMA trailer, provided to him after his New Orleans home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, I should get on the highway toward Baton Rouge, drive about fifty miles to the first Gonzales exit, make a right, than another right at an Exxon station, go a few miles, and the trailer park would be on the right. “It’s a long row of trailers in a field. You can’t miss it.” He told me that once I turned into the park I would pass about a quarter mile of trailers before I reached his,...

    • CHAPTER 21 La Nueva Orleans
      (pp. 261-270)

      UNDER THE HOT LATE-MORNING SUN, men are gathered, waiting for work, occasionally talking but mostly still, in the shade of a row of trees running up the neutral ground on Martin Luther King Boulevard near Claiborne Avenue. Across the street, two stalwarts of New Orleans cooking, Ms. Hyster’s Barbeque, a restaurant that doubles as a gospel music retailer and a de facto campaign office for local politicians, and Gloria’s Place, an eight-foot-wide shed that has sold hot-plate lunches of meat, collards, and yams to workers under a highway ramp for years, have struggled to reopen in this crumbling commercial drag...

    • CHAPTER 22 Yours in Struggle
      (pp. 271-294)

      WHEN I ASKED NIK BOSE, a nineteen-year-old college student from Long Island who was working with the Common Ground Collective, an organization that has worked tirelessly on the recovery of marginal New Orleans neighborhoods since Hurricane Katrina, why she had come to New Orleans, she had two responses: “One, because I can, because of privilege. Two, because there was no reason not to.” She had come to New Orleans five months earlier for a week. When I talked to her, she still had no clear plans to leave, finding personal and political meaning in her work gutting homes. She was...

    • CHAPTER 23 In the Parish
      (pp. 295-304)

      AS YOU DRIVE EAST on Claiborne Avenue through New Orleans’s famously devastated Lower Ninth Ward, you pass the destroyed remains of the Jackson Barracks, a nineteenth-century military base, and then, suddenly, the print on the street signs and the race of the people on the streets change, and you find yourself on Judge Perez Drive in St. Bernard Parish. Both sides of the parish line were so devastated by Hurricane Katrina that the view here would bring to tears both William C. C. Claiborne, the first elected governor of the state of Louisiana, and Leander Perez, the political boss of...

    • CHAPTER 24 Not Resigned
      (pp. 305-310)

      IN ONE TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR PERIOD in January 2007 in New Orleans, a small city of two hundred thousand residents, six people were murdered. The previous year’s total of 161 murders had made New Orleans the deadliest city in the United States by a significant margin. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the violence touched my life directly.

      As I worked at my computer in the late morning one day that month, I received a call from my friend Kittee. She asked sharply, “Where are you?”

      “I’m at home,” I responded.

      “I have awful news,” she said, and...

    • CHAPTER 25 Epitaph
      (pp. 311-316)

      MORE THAN A YEAR after the storm destroyed New Orleans, it has become hard to be optimistic about the city’s future. Much of what was wrong with the country, “the whole country’s garbage,” had long been flowing down the Mississippi to us. Hurricane Katrina seems to have blown in the rest. The weeks and months following the storm made us rally, made us believe, in some mad delirium, that we could return to our homes and to a city so decimated that we could begin again, remaking it in a manner that reflected the common good. I believed we could...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 317-334)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 335-346)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 347-347)