"We Stay On": How the Arts and Humanities Will Save New Orleans

Stories and Research in Honor of Hurricane Katrina Survivors

charnel, or charnel house: 1. A building, room, or vault in which the bones or bodies of the dead are placed . . . 2. A scene or place of great physical suffering and loss of life.

American Heritage Dictionary

August 2010

  by Kristen LaRue 

Part of the way the arts and humanities are necessary in the world
is that we stay, record thoughtfully, ‘sing off the charnel steps,’ as Emily
Dickinson wrote of the Civil War. We stay on because essays, stories,
poems, [and] research take a long time to do well, but without them,
the event slips into vague memories.

Cynthia Hogue

Most people know of Katrina: the storm that nearly overcame New Orleans.

The stories of this hurricane’s devastation are now part of our collective memory. In the days following the storm, people across the U.S.—and the world—were stunned and shocked at the images of chaos from New Orleans’ Superdome and Convention Center, from the flooded neighborhoods, from the ravaged landscape, from the televised cries for help from the many stranded.

For those of us here in Arizona, the deserts of the Southwest were so far removed from that destruction. We wished we could do more.

That very distance, both literal and figurative, has proved beneficial for many who wanted to help. Thousands of Phoenix-area volunteers mobilized to welcome traumatized residents of Mississippi and Louisiana to the Valley of the Sun, which became home for at least 500 evacuees. Arizona was a dry and welcome refuge in the storm.

Today, no longer inundated daily with Katrina devastation and recovery news, we are cognizant that there remains still much work to be done to restore New Orleans.

Although many of New Orleans’ flood zone schools are finally being re-opened, they are without books in their libraries. Rebuilding in the decimated Lower Ninth Ward is ongoing, with the help of some high-profile investors (Brad Pitt, for one). But it is slow and incomplete.

The recent BP oil spill in the Gulf has added a new layer of complication in efforts to resurrect and revitalize, testing the resilience of the place and its people yet again.

Thankfully, New Orleanians and those who care about them don’t give up easily.

Five years post-Katrina, hands and hearts continue the work of helping the Crescent City and its environs come back together. Several students and scholars in the Department of English at ASU are among those doing this restorative work. Not surprisingly for creative types, most of this work isn’t done with hammers and nails but with pens, compassion, and a generosity of spirit that refuses to forget.

Professors Cynthia Hogue and Jewell Parker Rhodes and photographer Rebecca Ross contribute their expressions of grief and hope in their artwork: their stories, poems, and photographs.

Professor Karen Adams and graduate student Michael Lopez expose the disappointments of social injustice and inequity through their careful scientific and documentary research.

Professors Don and Alleen Nilsen, as public scholars, and Lecturer Larry Ellis, as a former resident of the bayou and a spokesperson, articulate questions about national and personal identities.

All came to their projects through a humanitarian concern for New Orleans.


Singing off the Charnel Steps

“What happens is that news is crawling all over for about three months, and then [it] all [goes] away and those who lost everything must put the pieces back together, often without the emergency resources available in the initial weeks,” explains Cynthia Hogue, Professor of English and Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry.

A former New Orleans resident who taught in the MFA Program at the University of New Orleans in the 1990s, Hogue and collaborator Rebecca Ross, a Phoenix-based photographer, document the lives of Katrina evacuees who re-located to Arizona in When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (UNO Press 2010). The book is a collection of poems drawn from survivor interviews. Black and white photographs accompany.

Excerpted from When the Water Came:


Kid Merv’s Story

"Kid Merv" Photo copyright 2010 by Rebecca Ross

    Saturday before the hurricane
    my girlfriend went into labor.
    Everybody’s leaving town
    and we’re going uptown to Touro.
                  My son was born
                             at 2:13 am Sunday morning
                                         and I was, Wow!
    I went through years of music—
    Sunshine of my Life, James Brown,
    Bob Marley, some jazz,
    It’s a Wonderful World, some
                  Brass Band, Curtis Mayfield—
                              so they were the first song
                                         that he heard though
    our world had crashed.
    Monday night, we went for a walk
    and could hear water everywhere—
                   but we could not
                                see it and did not know
                                         what was happening.
    People called in to the Mayor on the radio,
    asking, Why’s the water rising?
    Is the levees…is the pumps on?
    The pumps are working, sir.
                   Mayor Nagin was stalling,
                            knowing he had a whole set
                                          of people to move out,
    as if we were all on Survivor.
    If it been Nebraska or Idaho, everybody
    would have been rescued, given thousands
    of dollars. This is the land of the free.


    We arrived 8 p.m. Wed. night
    in Phoenix—Katy’s sister lives here—
    and it was like a movie
                   starring Us. We were
                              in Green Pastures.
                                         It was beautiful.
    The church I went to,
    Valley Presbyterian, helped us
    with a nice little apartment, a car.
    And that was it.
    We were here.
    I left everything.

    Now it’s rough. A year ago
    today we’re not together.
    I have a 12 month lease and no gigs.
               I don’t know what God
                           has in store for me,
                                     but I’m here for a reason.
    I come up through
    the old tradition. Never had any
    formal training. Started on the horn at 11,
               youngest member of
                           the brass band at 13.
                                      That’s how we did it.
    I’m writing a song for my son,
    Hector, named for my father,
    a Jamaican seaman, died when I was 11.
                Never heard me play.
                            I’m calling the song,
                                      Has Anyone Seen Hector?

Text ©2010 Cynthia Hogue. Photo ©2010 Rebecca Ross.


Hogue and Ross are exhibiting their collaborative work at several locations in Arizona throughout fall 2010.


Chronicling Chaos and Calm

Hannagan Meadow, March 2010. An inscription reads: "In memory of the Irish immigrants who dug the New Basin canal 1832-1838 this Celtic Cross carved in Ireland has been erected by the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans. Dedicated Nov. 4, 1990." Photo by Larry Ellis.Like Hogue, Larry Ellis is a former resident of the Crescent City. He is at work on two projects: one, an essay exploring his reactions to post-Katrina New Orleans, and the other, a scholarly work on pre- and post-Katrina folklore.

An Arizona native, Ellis spent his years in New Orleans (1978-1988) embracing its bohemian vibe. Never settling anywhere for too long, he lived in several of the city’s singular, historic neighborhoods, including the French Quarter and the Garden District. At one time or another, he worked in television, burglar alarm repair, and offshore oil exploration, “among other peculiar professions,” he confides.

Since moving back to Arizona, Ellis has visited New Orleans frequently—both before and after Katrina.

On a trip in March 2006, Ellis serendipitously encountered an annual St. Patrick’s Day ceremony honoring Irish immigrants who perished digging New Orleans’ famed canals. During the 1830s, Irish workers were plentiful and thereby considered disposable; those who died on the job were buried in mass graves along the banks of the canal.

“There, dwarfed by mounds of dead trees and mulch and the devastation of the most destructive storm ever to hit the city, six or seven men and women in green sashes, accompanied by a piper playing tunes I could barely hear, honored their dead, Hell and High Water be damned.” An engraved Celtic cross marks the site of this homage.

Several days prior, Ellis had visited the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly African American neighborhood. There he glimpsed “a concrete slab of a building sheared away by the flood, with the exception of a barber’s chair bolted to the foundation. Barber shops are traditionally centers of community. A metaphor of cultural resilience, perhaps?”

His academic work on folklore contextualizes that resilience. According to Ellis, contemporary folklore often emerges as “urban legend,” accounts, for example, of phantom hitchhikers, deranged hippy babysitters, or psychokillers hiding in the backseat of a car.

“What the legend recounts may be possible, but its tellings are so far removed from the original witness that there is no possibility of verification. Such narratives are often presented as having been told ‘by the friend of a friend of a friend.’ They are, by nature, heavily embellished, but they will always retain a core of believability.

“Were dolphins that escaped from the zoo [during Katrina] ‘rescued’ by locals who kept them moist by splashing them with water until animal control folks arrived to take them away? Were people eaten by alligators that had wandered into the flooded city from surrounding swamps? Did gang members break into convenience stores and steal food and water which they later gave to refugees in the New Orleans Convention Center?

“For a folklorist, the big question is not whether [these stories] are true, but rather, what do they say about the needs, priorities, and motivations of people facing disaster?”

Ellis believes that verbal folklore often develops as a coping tactic—as a way to tell a story, often with humor. Vocalizing these stories helps the teller resolve feelings about difficult events and hearing them engages the larger group as well.

In contrast to verbal, material or customary folklore is rooted not in narrative and utterance, but in everyday behavior. In New Orleans, this behavior frequently involves social gatherings and, of course, food.

“Some people held post-hurricane parties (New Orleanians love to party, and they love to ‘mask’) in which the women dressed in gowns sewn from blue tarps (FEMA-issued coverings for damaged roofs of houses) embroidered with yellow police tape. Dishes served were ‘levee leek soup’ and ‘FEMA half-baked brownies’ [an allusion to Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown].

Ellis posits that Katrina has forever altered, but not destroyed, the myriad cultures of New Orleans. He intends to explore the “why” of this in his work: “How are folk traditions used as a strategy of survival when things (as it were) go South? And how do they behave as signifiers of cultural endurance and resilience?”


Measuring Resilience

ASU language experts are even weighing in on the word Katrina itself. Professor of English and Director of the English Education program Alleen Nilsen writes and speaks about the significance of naming, being past co-president of the American Name Society (with spouse and fellow name-guru, Professor Don Nilsen, a linguist) and a member of the American Dialect Society, which each year chooses a “Word of the Year.” The runner-up for 2005 was Katrina (which came in behind truthiness, popularized by TV’s The Colbert Report). Curious about how people with the now-infamous name were faring in post-hurricane times, Alleen Nilsen interviewed several women at ASU named Katrina in December 2005. All had thought about their names in relation to the storm, and all had experienced some cultural backlash from the association. The most poignant anecdote came from a Katrina who had started a new job just as the hurricane was pummeling coastal Louisiana and Mississippi. Upon entering work her first day, the woman was greeted with a sign hung by co-workers: “Welcome Katrina.” According to Nilsen, “the cheerful-looking message shocked people, who assumed the allusion was to the hurricane rather than to the new employee.” Despite these and other negative associations, all those interviewed were not distressed enough to shy away from giving the name to their children.

Arguably, New Orleanians seem more motivated to preserve and restore their city than might even be practical. An emergent theme in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina has been this stubborn endurance. Some ASU scholars are working to identify what cultural markers indicate, and possibly predict, this kind of resilience for a successful recovery. 

Professor of English Karen Adams, a sociolinguist affiliated with the Southeast Asia Council of ASU’s Center for Asian Research, along with other scholars from ASU and one from Indiana, wondered how the storm and flooding affected minority populations in New Orleans. Much media attention had centered on African Americans, but “our concerns focused on the ways Southeast Asian American communities might have had to deal with different issues, including language issues, during the crisis and if there were differences in the communities’ recovery efforts based on social networks and other factors.”

The group was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation for their project “Surviving Katrina and Its Aftermath.” Their interviews with Vietnamese American and African American residents of an eastern New Orleans suburb showed cultural differences in coping skills and levels of satisfaction about government responses. Those who were part of more close-knit communities fared better than their more isolated counterparts. Those lacking English skills reported more difficulties in weathering the storm overall.

Acting on these conclusions, the group put forth several policy recommendations for future disaster and relief mobilizations, including the concern that government agencies take language barriers into account with all of its emergency actions, both pre- and post-disaster. To date, they have published their findings in the Journal of Cultural Geography, International Nursing Review, Journal of American History, Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, and in the collection edited by Bates and Swan, Through the Eye of Katrina: Social Justice in the United States (Carolina Academic Press 2007), with Adams participating in the JCG and Bates and Swan articles.


Storying the Storm

Students have gotten involved in efforts to help and to understand Katrina and its aftermath as well. MFA in Creative Writing students hosted a benefit fiction and poetry reading at the home of Melissa Pritchard, Professor of English, in September 2005. And several graduate students have completed their final projects on topics related to the storm.

Michael Lopez, graduate student in the Master of Arts in literature program, is at work on one such project. His thesis project examines closely the rhetoric of the Bush administration, primarily analyzing speeches given by its officials in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina.

Where does he find the “literature” in this politically fraught topic?

He regards the hurricane as if it were itself a piece of literature. “The timeline of the events of Katrina feels, at least to me, like a book unfolding,” says Lopez. “There is a lot to extrapolate from the daily events of, say, people being huddled into the Louisiana Superdome and Morial Convention Center. It is to those events that Bush and others involved with the relief efforts [were] forced to respond.”

Like many, Lopez is interested in deconstructing what happened through the prism of his personal experience with the Big Easy. His father was a medical school resident at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans before Lopez was born. Family interest in the city and Lopez’s post-hurricane visits kindled a passion to explore it further. “You could say my appreciation for one of the most unique, bewilderingly charming places in the world drew me to the project.”

Jewell Parker Rhodes, Professor of English and Director of Global Engagement for the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, has a long-standing affection for the city of New Orleans.

Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker RhodesRhodes’s successful Marie Levant novels—two so far and a third will be published this spring—are set there. Most recently Rhodes published her first children’s book, Ninth Ward (Little, Brown 2010), set in that now-infamous New Orleans district. Winner of the Parents’ Choice Gold Award for 2010 and featured on The Today Show as one of “Al’s Book Picks,” the book blends reality and magic as it follows its young heroine, twelve-year-old Lanesha. The girl has the gift of “second sight,” and is able to escape the hurricane and help others along the way.

“My first creative writing teacher said, ‘Write what you know.’ I wanted to write what I could imagine!” says Rhodes.

In search of ideas, she picked up a cookbook. “I read the Time Life cookbook, Creole and Acadian Cooking and learned about bayous, swamps, and conjure. This started me on the adventure of writing about New Orleans. My first adult novel, Voodoo Dreams, took more than a decade of research and writing and inspired my contemporary trilogy about a descendant of the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. So, I’ve been visiting and writing about Louisiana for decades.”

Rhodes’s mainstream novel about Katrina, Hurricane, will be published by Atria in 2011. Begun in 2008, the novel’s plot seems more than a little clairvoyant. “Dr. Marie Levant, a descendant of the nineteenth-century voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, investigates the murder of a young family, environmental racism, corrupt oil companies, and the disappearing New Orleans delta” summarizes Rhodes.

“I feel deeply connected to the landscape, the music, the mixed-blood stew of cultures, and, of course, the food.” ♦


Sources and Suggested Reading

Hogue, Cynthia, and Rebecca Ross. When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2010.

Leong, K. J., C. Airries, A. C-C. Chen, V. Keith, W. Li, Y. Wang, K. Adams. “From Invisibility to Hypervisibility: The Complexity of Race, Survival, and Resiliency for the Vietnamese-American Community in Eastern New Orleans.” Through the Eye of Katrina: Social Justice in the United States. Eds. K.A. Bates and R.S. Swan. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2007. 169-186.

Li, Wei, Christopher Airriess, Angela Chia-Chen Chen, Karen J. Leong, Verna M. Keith and Karen L. Adams. “Surviving Katrina and its aftermath: evacuation and community mobilization by Vietnamese Americans and African Americans.” Journal of Cultural Geography 25:3 (October 2008): 263-286.

Mycoff, Jason D., and Joseph A. Pika. Confrontation and Compromise: Presidential and Congressional Leadership, 2001-2006. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Nichols, Judy. “Elderly Katrina evacuees adjust to new lives in Valley.” The Arizona Republic (3 October 2005). http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/1003katrinahousi...

Nilsen, Alleen Pace. “Word Lovers’ Corner: ‘Truthiness’ and Other New Words.” Accents on English: Newsletter of the Department of English at Arizona State University 9:2 (Spring 2006): 6. http://english.clas.asu.edu/files/spring06newsletter.pdf

“NSF Grant: ‘Surviving Katrina and its Aftermath’ National Science Foundation Human Grant for Exploratory Research.” Arizona State University Asian Pacific American Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences website. http://apas.clas.asu.edu/research/katrina.shtml (accessed 29 July 2010).

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Ninth Ward. New York: Little, Brown, 2010.

Rose, Chris. 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.

Villalobos, Louie. “New Orleans family starts over in Valley: 1 missing as relatives look to regrow roots.” The Arizona Republic (26 September 2005). http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0926katrinafamil...


RELATED: Come Home to English 2007 featuring Kid Merv: http://english.clas.asu.edu/homecoming2007


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