Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Questions for James Lee Burke

By Jane Ciabattari

It's hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. This is the tenth in our series, Thinking About New Orleans.James Lee Burke, whose Dave Robicheaux novels are set in New Iberia in southwest Louisiana and in New Orleans, is one of the first to write fiction set in this new universe. There are two short stories set during Katrina in his new short story collection, “Jesus Out to Sea,” including the title story, in which two musicians and former junkies wait on a rooftop in the Ninth Ward hoping against hope to be rescued. It is a lamentation, a love song to a city that has disappeared. “That's the way it was back then,” the narrator thinks. “You woke in the morning to the smell of gardenias, the electric smell of the streetcars, chicory coffee, and stone that has turned green with lichen. The light always filtered through trees, so it was never harsh, and flowers bloomed year-round. New Orleans was a poem, man, a song in your heart that never died.” Burke's new novel, “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” the sixteenth in his Dave Robicheaux series, sets Robicheaux in the eye of the storm and its devastating aftermath. NBCC member Susan Larson, book editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune calls the novel “a literary rendering of the visual images that made such a powerful impact during the storm…this is the truth of what haunts us still.”I spoke with Burke this week by phone; he was at his ranch in a Montana valley, where the air was murky from wildfires.

Q. Where were you when Katrina hit?
A.In Montana. In Lolo.

Q. What did you do in those early days?
A. It was awful to watch. I grew up down on the Gulf Coast. I'd been around many hurricanes and I knew what was coming. It’s hard for anyone who hasn't experienced a category 3 or a category 5 hurricane to understand the depth of fear. This is the most catastrophic force that can be released upon the earth. Louisiana is like a bowling pin. It gets hit regularly.

It looked like Katrina was going to the west and might hit New Iberia. We had just missed the bullet, a bad one came in and hit the wetlands south of New Iberia and dropped to 75 miles per hour, which doesn’t sound good but it is, compared to 150 mph. Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, was on CNN on the Friday before Katrina begging for any help she could get. Later the administration in Washington claimed she didn't request federal assistance, but she did. She's from New Iberia. She knew what was about to happen. Pearl and I watched a state emergency official lost his composure on CNN in a live interview, He started waving his hands, and said, You have to understand what is about to happen here. This was on Friday. Our computer model is saying that if a category 5 hits, 62,000 people will die. We have to have some help. He was literally frantic. Later the administration in DC said no one thought the levees would be breached. It was the exact opposite. Everyone knew if a category 5 hit the city that would happen.

On Saturday we were watching on CNN as people lined up at the Superdome, many were from the Iberville projects. I said, It's the stadium seating. That's the only parachute if Lake Ponchartrain dumped into the city. Otherwise they would drown. If a 5 had hit instead of a 3.

Pearl and I watched and it seemed people were going to die by the thousands. I called friends in New Orleans and said go to New Iberia and use our house. One friend got in his car and it took him 10 hours to drive from Covington to New Iberia. It's a two hour drive. I called Patty Friedmann and tried to get her to leave, she's a single mom, living in the Garden District. I told her she could go to New Iberia and use the house along with other friends and family who were there. Patty decided to ride it out. She had to wait five days in flooded house for rescue. I don't know what I would have done, if I'd had a New Orleans residence. At what point do we leave?

On Monday I woke up in the morning and Pearl said, It missed the city. A category 3 hit the city. Early Monday the levees broke. It's an enormous tragedy.

Q. When was your first time back to New Orleans after Katrina?
A. November.

Q What was your reaction? In “The Tin Roof Blowdown,” you describe Dave Robicheaux coming into New Orleans after the storm: “From a boat or any other elevated position, as far as the eye could see, New Orleans looked like a Caribbean city that had collapsed beneath the waves.The sun was merciless in the sky,the humidity like lines of ants crawling inside your clothes. The linear structure of a neighbhorhood could be recognized only by the green smudge of yard trees that cut the waterline and row upon row of rooftops dotted with people who perched on sloped shingles that scalded their hands.”
A. What people don't understand is, the devastation isn't bordered by city lines. It begins in Beaumont and extends to Alabama. The southern rim of Louisiana is gone. Rita followed in the wake of Katrina after three and a half weeks. The amount of damage throughout the entire coast has not been covered. The loss of life is where the camera focuses. There are several different stories there–sociological, geological. They are related. The flooding, the aftermath is one story. The storm is another. All across Southern Louisiana is like nothing I have ever seen. South of Iberia parish, there is nothing left. The land looks like it was sanded off the face of the earth. Cameron, Louisiana is not there. Iberia Parish bleeds into the Gulf of Mexico. There is not a living thing in view. Every house without exception is targeted for the bulldozer. One hundred thousand cattle died in Vermilion and Cameron parishes. They climbed into the upstairs of houses trying to get away from the water. There was not a rabbit, a bird, a leaf on a tree. I've never seen the aftermath of a nuclear test, but I think it would look like this. From 200,000 to 400,000 houses, lost, destroyed. This is a small and poor state. The devastation is enormous. It's pretty bad. The book deals with some of it.

Q How was your home in New Iberia affected?
A. We were fortunate. Our house lost three shingles, we had tree limbs down. The house structurally is okay. Our house is on the water, on Bayou Teche. But it is on the geological Teche ridge, and there was no flooding. At the end of the book, Dave notes other factors at work. The loss of wetlands, I've heard anywhere from 25 square miles to 46 square miles. Oil companies have carved 10,000 miles of canals through the freshwater. The introduction of saline caused destruction to the living marsh. The natural barriers have all been eroded over the decades.When Katrina hit, New Iberia was not greatly affected. Rita is the one that hit southwest Louisiana and ripped it apart.

Q. You mentioned earlier hurricanes.
A.I've been in hurricanes before. Audrey in 1957 killed 550 people in Cameron. The tidal wave surged over the town and came down on the courthouse like a giant fist and killed them all. I was on a seismologic job in the water west of Morgan City. Our next job was cancelled because of the dead bodies in the water. I was in Hilda, too.

Q. How did Katrina and Rita and the aftermath affect your work?
A. I always work. Never stop. The storm to degree came into my novel “Pegasus Descending.” It ends with a projection about what would happen if a major storm hit the city.

Americans are brave people. I have heard criticism of people who stayed behind in New Orleans. As though they invited their fate. If you live on the Gulf Coast, hurricanes are a way of life, just as earthquakes are a way of life if you live in California. You cannot second guess them. It’s like guessing where lightning will strike. My mother will be 101 her next birthday. She lives in her own apartment in Houston, Texas. Louisiana is a poor state with few emergency resources. Texas is different. I was worried about her when Rita was approaching. It looked like Houston was going to be safe when Rita hit. Two hours later it shifted. Suddenly it looked like it was going right for Houston. I started making plans to go move my mother. But the question was, move her where? Cars were backed up all the way to Dallas. There was not a hotel room from Houston to El Paso, 500 miles. Relatives had reserved a room high up in a hotel. They said they would take my mother over there. The storm shifted again, and hit Cameron. My greatest fear was that I would put my mother in an automobile in summer heat and spend days on the highway.

Q. When did you start writing “The Tin Roof Blowdown?”
A. In 2006. I wasn’t going to write a novel about Katrina. It was too depressing.

Q. How did you end up writing about it?
A. It was a peculiar occurrence. An editor at Esquire called me in New Iberia on a Friday and asked if I could write a short story about Katrina. I said I didn't think I could. I didn't want to. He said to think about it. The next day was Saturday. Pearl and I went to mass at a little town nearby, and when we got home I thought, “Jesus Out to Sea.” And that was the title. I had heard an account of the priest in the lower Ninth Ward who tried to get his parishioners to leave. He stayed and he died. I wrote the story based on two of his parishioners.

I wasn't going to write another novel I was planning to spend more time ranching, I was going to write short stories. But then I figured, if I was going to write about Katrina, this was the time. I wrote a story called “Mist” about a black woman in the Ninth Ward who was a heroin addict and ended up in New Iberia. It's one of the best stories I've ever written. Esquire reinstated its policy of publishing fiction after they ran “Jesus Out to Sea.”

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m writing a novel called “Swan Peak.” Set in Montana.

Q. Susan Larson, the Times-Picayune book editor, has called your writing over the past 50 years “one long ongoing story of what has happened to the state.” Has that been your intention?

A. Yes, but if my work will be remembered it would not be remembered for being about Louisiana. I write about Louisiana as a microcosm of the larger culture. Montana is similar in its history. They are affected by the same issue. It's energy and resources. It started in 1914, and we're in the middle of the vortex. It's all about oil. The great wars of the twentieth century and the war we've been enmeshed in since 9/11 are about oil. If people wish to see the fate of this country under a petrochemical oligarchy, visit Louisiana. It's not the past, it's the future.

The key to the novel is the epilogue. It's not about the storm, it's about the betrayal and abandonment of the people, the poorest of the poor. It's about greed. And the same people wage war. People who never go themselves. They use the suffering they cause to validate their deeds. They are timeless. It's always those who do not go themselves who are the most bellicose in their rhetoric. We're living in a time where we've seen a level of cynicism and prevarication I've not seen in my life. I was born in the Depression and grew up in the War years. We thought we were one people. We felt government was on our side. The scene with LBJ going into Algiers, in the book, I took from real life.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson flew into New Orleans the day after Hurricane Betsy in September 1965 and announced at the airport, “I am here because I want to see with my own eyes what the unhappy alliance of wind and water have done to this land and people.”