This is the second and last installment of the ninth in our occasional series about New Orleans writers. (The others are linked at the bottom left of this page.) It's hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. As we approach the second anniversary of Katrina, we spoke with a New Orleans native, Jason Berry, a jazz historian and author of “Up from the Cradle of Jazz,” a history of local R&B and jazz. In 1984, he got information about a priest who had abused altar boys in Cajun country. He took an apartment in Lafayette and commuted on a joint assignment for two weeklies, the Times of Acadiana and National Catholic Reporter, an investigation that became national in scope and formed the basis for his book “Lead us Not Into Temptation” (Doubleday, 1992). More on his books, including his essay in the Chin Music Press anthology “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and his newly published first novel, “Last of the Red Hot Poppas,” here.
Q. A few months after Katrina you called New Orleans “Pompei on the Mississippi.” Do you believe it will come back to life in the long run?
A. If we don’t flood in the next five years the city will endure at half to three-quarters its previous size. The recovery is still born. People wait for federal funds, bottle-necked in the state-administered Road Home program, to reach them so they can repair. These delays have done incalculable damage.
There are also encouraging signs. Downtown apartments are being built or renovated. The public schools are undergoing a transformation via a charter movement; young people are moving here for teaching jobs and to work in the rebuilding. In some ways this will become a city of the young. My daughter Simonette, an artist who just graduated from Tulane, is committed to living here, which gives me hope as well as pride. The museums have come back; the music infrastructure lags greatly. The pity of where we are is that there is so much good will, nationally, and this emerging civic ethos, and then these political dunces pushing down, blunting the energy trying to work up. Historically, people here are passive and cynical about politics, nothing like the high-octane activist cultures of New York or Boston or San Francisco. This is a Latin and African city with jaded assumptions of power to begin with.
In my travels, people always ask about the Ninth Ward, with little realization of the destruction elsewhere. It saddens me to see performance artists drawing crowds to gutted houses in Lakeview; I mean that in no criticism of the dancers. Artists go to places that yearn for truths to be expressed. It’s the need, the continuing loss, that sickens me. The long run? That’s a tough one. With climate change we’re a target for another deluge. It is in our history, many times over. Yet the city has endured. I know good capable people pushing hard to make restoration of the wetlands and upgraded levee design a front-burner issue. I want them to succeed. I’d like to think the better impulses of humankind will have a resurgence. The birds are still a symphony outside my window each morning, which makes me think that God may yet smile on us. I do pray for that.
Q. This series focuses on New Orleans writers. But you also know the musicians of New Orleans. How are they doing now? How many have been able to maintain residence in New Orleans?
A. Many musicians are displaced, and return irregularly. Henry Butler is in Denver. Michael White commutes between here and Houston. Aaron Neville bought a home near Nashville and has been back only once, briefly, for his wife’s funeral. Cyril Neville moved to Austin. Joe Lastie, a drummer with the Preservation Hall band, lives outside of Atlanta. The list goes on. My guess is that about a third of the musicians are back, which is less than the 45% of the general populace returned, and that’s because more musicians lived in downtown wards that were hit heaviest in the flooding. A lot of the parading clubs and Mardi Gras Indian members have been dispersed. Many groups are working hard to help bring them back: Habitat for Humanity is building a Musician’s Village in the Upper Ninth Ward with help from Harry Connick Jr and Branford Marsalis. The Tipitina’s Foundation raised $100,000 to restore Fats Domino’s house, among many other projects; the Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation has given grants to many gospel and neighborhood groups; the Musician’s Clinic is involved in major projects. Wynton Marsalis spearheaded projects that have raised nearly $3 million, with $100,000 grants to several museums and $15,000 grants to a number of musicians. This is quite a remarkable effort, totally outside politics.
Although they’re not music-focused, I should mention Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who bought a large home in the French Quarter and have been contributing to a green-friendly rebuilding effort. They’ve been good citizens in the best sense. How far all of this collective energy goes toward re-rooting musicians is hard to quantify; but the efforts are an encouraging sign of this emerging civic ethos.
Q. How do you respond to the death of Alvin Batiste during Jazz Fest this year?
A. Alvin Batiste’s death was a great loss indeed, though the two-day funeral ceremony was a graceful mirror on his life. (I did a profile of him and a follow-up on the funeral in Gambit Weekly, which can be accessed on their website, Bestofneworleans.com. Whenever an artist and a teacher of his stature passes, it leaves quite a space; but the musicians he educated – Donald Harrison Jr. Wess Warmdaddy Anderson, Marlon Jordan, Stephanie Jordan, let me not go on – are a tribute to his legacy. He was a wonderful man, and as he often said, “Jazz is a continuum.” His own recordings are part of that continuum.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m writing a history of New Orleans, using burial traditions as the narrative prism. In 2001 I had a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed me to get about 100 pages done. I've nearly doubled the length in the last year. This narrative has taken shape gradually as I followed jazz funerals, filmed them, and watched them change. The flood forced me to make some changes to the structure and scope of the book. Katrina caused a diaspora of musicians that I had to confront–and with it the idea that the city might be in its death throes. This is not a book about the hurricane, but in the final section I follow a small constellation of artists, picking up with their lives, trying to return. Through them the narrative will dramatize a quest for the city's resurrection by those who perform burial traditions that are famous the world over.
Q. You have done environmental reporting in New Orleans and in Cajun country. How would you describe the ultimate causes of the devastation of Katrina and Rita and the possibiliies for the future? What solutions and preventive measures do you think could keep keep another disaster from happening?
A. New Orleans flooded for several reasons. The levees were badly designed and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency. The wetlands south of New Orleans – historically, a buffer to storm surges from hurricanes – eroded because of thousands of miles of finger canals carved by the oil industry, and because of a huge canal dug in 1965 as an alternate shipping lane from the river through St. Bernard Parish out to the Gulf: The Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. MR-GO as it’s known went right through St. Bernard just below the Lower Ninth Ward. MRGO destroyed the wetlands there, creating an open alley for Katrina’s storm surges which were 20 feet or more. Congress and the Corps are now moving to close MRGO, a project that Sen. David Vitter, a Republican and no friend of the environment, has supported. Even he realized that something was wrong in the marsh down here. The larger issue is repairing the wetlands and fortifying the levees at a stronger, higher level. How that happens depends on whether this emerging civic ethos puts pressure on the legislature and next governor, presumably Cong. Bobby Jindal, a very intelligent Republican.
Hurricane Rita drove water up the dead wetlands too; but Rita came down harder on the coastal parishes west of the city, wiping out several towns. I don’t know that one can prepare for a storm of that intensity; several communities are not rebuilding, which is sad, but a grim bow to reality in the age of climate change.
Quite a number of well-informed people across the socioeconomic spectrum want the levee upgrading and wetlands rebuilding to happen. The state legislation will pass; the wild card is cost. It is going to be a gigantic undertaking. The state will have a guaranteed revenue stream for part of it through recent legislation in Washington pegged to a portion of offshore oil profits in the Gulf of Mexico. But it will take a much larger federal infusion, on a regular basis. We need the equivalent of a Tennessee Valley Authority for climate change defense along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. That cost will run into the trillions. I suspect it will take another major storm devastating another area – Tampa, Charleston, Manhattan, or Rhode Island, which is quite vulnerable — before Congress embraces the big planning it will take.
Politicians don’t act unless forced to.