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


  1. Very interesting - your criticism sounds valid. Great review!

  2. I haven't read this one, but loved James Lee Burke's Tin Roof Blowdown - his predictably wonderful Katrina story.

    My parents live on the Mississippi Gulf Coast & I have friends & family in New Orleans all of whom were impacted by Katrina. There is, as you say, plenty of blame to go around.

    One thing that bugs me is the way that New Orleans has gotten all of the attention for the storm & the rest of the Gulf Coast, equally devastated, has been ignored.

    In any event, interesting review - sounds like a book worth reading.

  3. Thanks, Rhapsody. I do think the book could have been stronger in the two areas I mentioned...both open up a whole can of worms that Mr. Piazza may not have had room for - or interest in. I do wonder if he really believes that it's all down to Bush and that Nagin and Blanco deserve "get out of jail free" cards, though.

  4. Caitlin, I have wondered the same thing. Seems like Mississippi was unfairly ignored and maybe even shortchanged when the aid finally got there.

    I was a bit perturbed, too, when Ike got Houston the next year and no one seemed to give a hoot. Very little help got to us from anywhere and the bulk of the load was carried by Houstonians and other Texans. Not a peep from Louisiana except for a lame joke that Nagin made about "come on down and ask for the Nagin discount at area hotels." Texans who did that were shocked to be hit with full rate rooms in Louisiana...my opinion of Mr. Nagin continued to sink even lower. I still can't believe the voters were stupid enough to re-elect such an incompetent leader.

  5. Very good review! I have seen this book and have been curious. My friend has recently purchased it and I may have to swipe it before he starts reading!

  6. Hi Sam and everybody. Tom Piazza here.

    I enjoyed Sam's review, which I thought was straight and fair. One or two quick points. Nagin has been a disaster for the city, and I am on record as saying as much publicly in several places, including in my book Why New Orleans Matters, which Sam cites. But the responsibility for the failure of the levee system is Federal, not local. And, like it or not, the buck does stop at the desk of the president, whose infamous "Nobody could have predicted the levee failure" remark was evidence either of stunning ignorance of the findings of studies easily available to him, or an outright lie. Anyone worried that the Feds have been unfairly criticized should read the Federally-produced report on the response, titled "A Failure Of Initiative." But no argument from me on the topic of Nagin's incompetence. The reasons for his reelection could fill a good semester-long graduate course in urban studies and political science.

    And regarding the Mississippi Gulf Coast -- the destruction there was truly impossible to picture if you didn't go and see it. It was like something out of a science fiction movie. But it was straightforward storm destruction. I think the reason New Orleans has gotten more attention is that, first of all, it is a city with such profound historic and cultural importance, 80% of which was underwater. Second of all, the disaster in New Orleans was a result not so much of the storm as of the levee failures. Mississippi got hit with a storm. New Orleans got hit by a catastrophic human failure, and I think that contributes to its obsessive quality for many observers.

    Also, finally, CITY OF REFUGE is a novel, and the focus is on character and individual human lives. The lives in this novel were profoundly affected by a confluence of large social and even historical forces (as all lives are), so that had to come into the frame. But it is, finally, primarily a book about human lives in a time of epic difficulty.

    Thanks for the good discussion, and it's great to see such engaged readers. Good wishes to everyone.

    Tom Piazza

  7. Christine, if you get to it first, holler back and let me know what you think.

  8. Tom, thanks for stopping by.

    Your point about the federal responsibility is certainly true - the levees were the real problem and they should have been repaired years earlier to make sure that this kind of flooding never happened.

    When I stress the responsibility of the mayor and governor I am pointing to the fact that so many people were trapped in the city because no one offered them a way out. That's where the local and state people failed - and without those failures, hundreds of lives would have been saved.

    I've been through and around hurricanes since Audrey in the fifties, Tom, though nothing like the New Orleans experience, of course, and "City of Refuge" did a great job of capturing that feeling of impending doom. It's always a question of whether or not to flee - and then a feeling of doubt if you stay until it is too late to leave.

    The folks in Galveston and that area learned the hard lesson last year even after witnessing the tragic loss of life of Katrina just a few months earlier. I don't think people ever expect that the worst will actually happen - until it's too late.

    Thanks again, for stopping by and posting your thoughts.

  9. Hi Sam, just a quick note to thank you so much for your wonderfully insightful and thoughtful review of City of Refuge. I really appreciate all the time spent reading and reviewing the book for this tour. Thank you!

  10. Lisa, thanks again for the opportunity to read this one. It really hit home.

  11. This was a great discussion - and I appreciated Tom's input to it as well. I just finished reading the book...and I loved it. I found it to be an important piece of fiction about a shameful time...but I also loved the personal face Piazza put on the disaster; and also the theme of "home" ... what makes a home, why rebuild, etc...

    Here's my review if you're interested.

  12. Wendy, it is a book I still think about when the subject of hurricanes comes up...and around here that subject comes up regularly.

    I'm on my way to read your review...