Amtraks Across America: Hurricane Katrina Sinks the Bush Presidency

This is the fourth part in a series about Amtrak travels during summer 2022.

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A typical street in New Orleans, most of which lies below sea level. Many neighborhoods flooded in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which broke many levees that had previously kept the city dry. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

Before taking an Amtrak train to Chicago, I spent several nights in New Orleans. I had not been since 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which came ashore on August 29, 2005.

On that occasion the playwright and novelist John Biguenet drove me around the flood zones, where—beyond the ever-so-slight high ground of the French Quarter, which was spared—I saw waves of water-damaged neighborhoods and families living in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers. In the high waters, John, himself, had lost 2,000 books and much of his house.

Many of the homes that we passed had holes chopped in the roof with an axe, through which residents had crawled, and nearly all the houses had an Urban Search & Rescue X code spray-painted on the front that indicated to rescuers whether a house had been searched and whether anyone had been found—the hieroglyphics of yet another lost civilization.

Later, the Xs on still-standing houses because a symbol of defiance to the elements, although since many storm-damaged houses were one-story bungalows made of laminated wood, there was little to do but tear them down and start over, and rebuild on a raised concrete foundation—there to await the next storm surge.

George W. Bush: Sittin’ on the dock of the bay

About the only good that came from Hurricane Katrina was to expose the empty shell that was the presidency of George W. Bush, who was on a month-long vacation at his ranch in Texas when the storm came ashore.

Bush made a few hollow statements about “being there” for the “good folks” of the Gulf states, and then departed on a two-day political junket to Arizona and California.

At a stop on August 30, a country singer gave the president a guitar, on which he played a few bars from Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. It turned out to summarize W’s entire response to the Katrina crisis:

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

On August 30, sensing something wasn’t quite right in New Orleans (which by then was underwater), Bush took the bold executive decision to get back to his vacation, although the next day he decided to “cut short” his four-week holiday and return to Washington.

It was on the flight back to the capital that Bush showed his empathy and compassion for the flood victims by ordering Air Force One to fly low over the inundated city, so that a White House photographer could take his picture in a presidential jacket scanning New Orleans as water washed over its streets. By August 30, some 80 percent of the city was flooded.

Hell and High Waters

Back in Washington, the heads of Bush’s Homeland Security department and FEMA, respectively Michael Chertoff and Michael Brown, assured the president that “everything was being done” for New Orleans, although it was on that same day that there was neither food nor bottled water in the hundred degree heat of the Superdome, in which many survivors had sought shelter.

When Katrina came ashore, Chertoff was at home and then decided to attend a bird flu conference in Atlanta, while Brown was joking with his staff about what to wear for his televised interviews.

Only five days after Katrina hit New Orleans did Bush land in the city so that he could tour (again by air) the flooded neighborhoods and share the pain of local residents, some of whom were still clinging to their rooftops. In all, some 2,000 residents died as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

At one of his stops on September 2, the oblivious Bush complimented the FEMA director for his life-saving work—“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job…”—although as John pointed out on our drive around New Orleans, “the ASPCA got here before FEMA.”

New Orleans By Bicycle

In 2006, New Orleans looked like an abandoned city, but sixteen years later, riding in the from the airport on a shuttle bus, I was back in every American town, with traffic, hotels, gas stations, and discount warehouse stores filling the approaches.

Foregoing a $350-a-night room in a hotel (a product of post-pandemic travel giddiness and website pricing algorithms), I stayed in an Airbnb in Treme, on the edge of the French Quarter. Guests were promised a bicycle, but after I checked in and inspected the frame, I discovered that many of the components were rusted in place, as if it had spent some months underwater.

The next morning, in addition to hunting for breakfast food, I went in search of a rental bike and came away with a one-speed beach cruiser that had balloon tires and a basket on the front.

At first I scorned my clunky ride, but quickly, trying to navigate the city’s endless potholes, I grew to love it—a gondola suitable for a city that has Venetian qualities.

For two days I beach-cruised around the city, trying to pick up the story of the New Orleans that I first saw in March 1965, on a train trip with my father, when I was transfixed that local cemeteries had to bury their dead above the marshy ground.

Sin City: Historic New Orleans

I first grew to love the city in the 1970s, when I stayed in the French Quarter and bought a copy of Lyle Saxon’s Fabulous New Orleans, which I read in a corner of the Napoleon House, an evocative old-time bar with ceiling fans and long-neck Dixie beers. (Local legend has it that the mayor of New Orleans offered the first French emperor use of the house in 1921, should he manage to escape from exile on St. Helena, a barren island in the middle of the South Atlantic.)

On this occasion, back at the Napoleon House, I was reading Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, a biography of the city set largely at the turn of the 20th century, when it first became a festive street party. Krist quotes a local preacher: “It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans.”

The city thrived—if that’s the word—until Prohibition put a clamp on its “sporting houses” and honky-tonk clubs, forcing a generation of early jazz musicians to scatter across the United States to earn their livings. Krist writes:

When Louis Armstrong, now an international star, was invited back to his hometown in 1949 to receive the key to the city, that key apparently opened only the doors to black New Orleans; the beloved Satchmo was forced to stay at a “colored hotel.” And some journalists of the 1960s were quick to note the stark irony of using African American jazz culture to attract visitors to a place “still shackled by the iron grip of institutionalized racism and apartheid.” But the tourist reinvention of the city did at least preserve some of the culture of the past, and a more genuine version of the city’s former self did eventually emerge, especially after the demise of Jim Crow.

The Shadows of 544 Camp Street

The Napoleon House is also where New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison is said to have developed some of his theories about local angles to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Many assassination lowlifes such as David Ferrie and Guy Bannister shared roots in New Orleans, not to mention an office at 544 Camp Street, which was the return address that Lee Harvey Oswald (born on the street pictured above) used on his agitprop brochures for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

That said, the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, known unofficially as the Warren Commission, barely mentions New Orleans in its 26-volume account of the killing.

Is NOLA Really Back?

If today all you saw of New Orleans was the French Quarter and maybe the Warehouse District (where many tourist and convention hotels are located), you might think, “Hey, NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana…) is back.”

As if in a voodoo trance, tourists are milling up and down Bourbon Street, a raunchy strip selling $14 cocktails, and standing in line to eat at overpriced French bistros along Chartres Street that have a few guys out front with trombones.

But beyond the Vieux Carré (ironically, the architecture is more Spanish than French), New Orleans is only part of the way home.

Yes, the FEMA trailers are mostly gone, and new and repaired bungalow houses have filled in some gaps in flooded neighborhoods, but the restoration is patchwork, as if there isn’t one city being rebuilt but about fifteen separate hamlets— suggesting that New Orleans cannot decide if it wants to be a city or a series of random suburbs.

The Garden District (west of the French Quarter) near Tulane University has upscale houses, shops, and restaurants, all back in business, but the Lower Ninth (a largely black ward to the east) is still a mouth missing many teeth—and those it has are decayed and loose.

I spent a lot of time on my bicycle in the Bywater District, which was spared some of the worst flooding in 2005, but the streets and corner stores still feel forlorn. Kids were not playing in their yards or biking on the streets. Think of it as a ghost town, in which the ghosts drive around in cars with tinted windows.

Nor, in general, did I see many people walking around New Orleans beyond the French Quarter and the Warehouse District, which has become an air-conditioned oasis. The only sidewalk presence I saw were the many homeless camped around the city.

The Bivouacs of the Homeless

As I covered the waterfront on my bicycle from Uptown in the west to Chalmette in the east, I came across numerous encampments of the homeless, as if they were part of a wandering tribe.

Nearly all were living in nylon tents that were randomly pitched on patches of grass in front of the train station, under highways, next to decaying warehouses, or in vacant suburban lots—where all were consigned to a purgatory of sidewalk life.

Many of the homeless had coolers for their food, and a lot had camping chairs set up in front of their tents, as you would find in a national park. I was struck by how many passed the time reading hardback books.

When I would go exploring on my bicycle in the evenings—it was more fun than paying double-digits for an Aperol spritz—I could spot the homeless from afar by their campfires, which were often stoked with garbage.

An American Calcutta

Seeing haunted faces in the glow of these embers, often under elevated expressways, reminded me of summer 1983, when I traveled to Calcutta, India, and spent one evening in the worst of that city’s extended slums.

I hesitated before engaging a rickshaw—in those days human powered—but in the end I did, as my driver was eager for the fare, and I wanted to explore beyond the main city streets.

Around midnight he took me to places I never would have gone on foot, in what is sometimes called “the City of Dreadful Night” (although the original Rudyard Kipling story of that title was set in Lahore, which is now in Pakistan).

In the darkness, we navigated a series of twisting alleys in which living quarters spilled onto the sidewalks, where residents, beside small coal braziers, were lying on mats and small beds, as if a bivouac of the dead.

Who knew that a Kipling description—“They lie—some face downwards, arms folded, in the dust; some with clasped hands flung up above their heads; some curled up dog-wise; some thrown like limp gunny-bags over the side of the grain carts; and some bowed with their brows on their knees in the full glare of the Moon…”—would someday come to describe an American city?

Next: The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.