Tuesday, September 08, 2009

City of Refuge

City of Refuge is Tom Piazza’s fictional account of the tragic impact that Hurricane Katrina had on the city of New Orleans and, in particular, on two families who lived there, one white and one black. It follows Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, his heartfelt response to those who argued almost immediately after the storm that portions of his beloved city should be leveled and closed forever to future housing. Piazza’s obvious outrage at the way the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was handled is at the core of both books.

Craig Donaldson, despite his Michigan roots, loves the city as much as anyone born in New Orleans, as he proved by relocating there to start a new life for himself and his family. His wife, however, even before the hurricane strikes, is starting to wonder about the wisdom of raising their two children in such a place. She is so upset, in fact, that her husband does not share her concern about the environment in which they are raising their children that the Donaldson marriage is getting shakier by the week. And then there is SJ Williams, a black carpenter and Viet Nam veteran who has lived in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward his entire life. SJ lives alone but feels responsible for the well being of his sister Lucy and her son Wesley. None of the three can even imagine living anywhere other than New Orleans, specifically in the Lower Ninth.

The Donaldson and Williams families warily watch the progress of Hurricane Katrina as it begins to look more and more likely that the storm will strike their city. Craig Donaldson and SJ Williams do everything they know to do to prepare their homes and property for the devastating wind and rain approaching New Orleans at its own methodical pace. But when it is time to decide whether to evacuate the city or to hunker down inside their homes and hope for the best, the families make different choices. One family decides to leave; one family, with near disastrous results, decides to stay.

City of Refuge does a remarkable job of describing the helplessness of being in the path of a major hurricane with no place to go. Most people caught in such a situation have survived enough previous storms and near-misses that they long ago decided the gamble of staying put outweighed the tortuous evacuation of a major American city – an evacuation that could see them caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hundreds of miles and more than a dozen hours. Despite all the warnings, those who die in their own homes never believe it can actually happen to them until it does. Tragically, however, a substantial portion of New Orleans’s citizens could not have left the city even if they had wanted to because they had no way to leave on their own and their mayor, their governor, and their President failed them.

By focusing on two very different families who briefly cross paths only twice, Piazza is able to explore the equally different experiences of those who managed to evacuate prior to the storm’s arrival and those who did not. However, while several cities are given credit for taking in the hundreds of thousands of people who left their homes before and after the storm, the story would have been more complete with some reference to the storm's impact on a city such as Houston, which is still home to tens of thousands of former New Orleans residents. Houston was rewarded with open warfare between New Orleans gangs striving to claim territory in a new city, a spike in its murder rate, gang fights in its public schools, and a probably permanent increase to its welfare rolls. Despite this, most Houstonians would be willing to do it all over again because it is the right thing to do.

Striking in its absence is any criticism of Mayor Nagin or Governor Blanco, both of whom failed miserably to prepare their city for what was about to happen to it. Rather, Piazza has his fictional characters direct all of their anger and disdain of government directly at President George W. Bush. There is no doubt that Bush has much to answer for in his handling of the hurricane’s aftermath but equally, if not more, guilty are a mayor and governor who sat back and let a bad situation turn into a nightmare. Neither the mayor nor the governor provided the public transportation necessary to evacuate those who could not do it for themselves or made sure that well-stocked shelters were prepared for those who chose to stay. Having been through Houston’s experience with Hurricane Ike last year, I know that the most important governmental official during the city’s crisis was its mayor – not the governor and not the president. Perhaps most citizens of New Orleans do place the blame exclusively on the shoulders of George Bush (Nagin was, after all, re-elected) and Piazza is reflecting that reality. And, then again, perhaps not.

City of Refuge will be an eye-opener for those who have never experienced a natural disaster of the magnitude of a Katrina or been faced with the unenviable choice of having to decide whether to run or make do with what is left after a hurricane’s passage. The novel deserves praise for vividly recreating what happened in New Orleans during the terrible ordeal of Katrina. But that is only part of the Katrina story.

Rated at: 3.0

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