And Now We Return to Your Regularly Scheduled Amnesia

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the day the levees broke, I am reminded of the primary emotion that ruled my feelings in the years that followed: Anger. The years have loosened its grip on me, but the widespread media coverage of the anniversary is bringing it back to the surface. It is a full-body anger, a buzzing in the brain and the bones, a heat in the skin, a shortness of breath. An anger that makes me want to scream, to break something. I’ve learned to hold the anger in, to push it away, but today I’m letting it out.

Yes we (most of us, but not all — so many died, so many were broken, so many could not return) survived. Yes we have shown resilience and creativity and fellowship and generosity. And all that should be celebrated — it is what makes going on worthwhile. But I don’t need to be told about how plucky, inventive, and lucky we all were. We know it.

Across from the break in the London Avenue Canal.

What I want people to remember is how fucked up it all was. Remember how corruption and dismissiveness by the Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for the flooding of New Orleans. Remember how the government treated New Orleanians like criminals, like rabid dogs! Remember how the government sent refugees to the four winds without a thought to bringing them home. Remember how profiteers gorged themselves on billions of dollars while people waited for help to rebuild their homes and their lives. Remember how powerful institutions — the state, the city, universities, and corporations — used the chaos, the destruction, and the mantle of reform to perform a social and racial cleansing of New Orleans. Shipping off the poor, tearing down affordable housing, favoring developers over the needs of existing communities.

Artist Ashton Ramsey in his “History” suit, a chronicle of loss.

So much of the media coverage has parroted one version or another of the flooding’s aftermath as “out with the bad, in with the good.” Well, fuck that! Katrina is not your feel good story. It is not your experiment in social policy. It was tragedy on a grand scale — and yes, human goodness, too — but also a theater of institutional neglect and spite, a perfect stage for our American propensity for forgetting and for silver linings.

The flooding will happen again: here, there, somewhere. And we’ll fuck it up again because we never seem to learn. It’s one of our defining traits.