Voices From the Storm.
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In the late summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, leveling entire cities and leaving others under vast amounts of water. Thousands of Americans were stranded on rooftops and in dangerous makeshift shelters.
The narrators of Voices From the Storm survived the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina only to find themselves abandoned—and even victimized—by their own government. These 13 men and women of New Orleans recount, in astonishing and heart-rending detail, the worst natural disaster in American history.
Voices From the Storm is the second book in the Voice of Witness series. Please visit the Voice of Witness website for more information on the book and the series. There you will find the full text of the book’s introduction, a sample chapter focusing on the day Katrina made landfall, an explanation of how the book was made, and biographies of each of the book’s narrators.
“Lift Every Voice: Katrina Survivors and Rescuers Tell Their Stories”
By Susan Larson
Monday, December 18, 2006
The books that tell the stories of the storms and flood of 2005 are still emerging—from works of fine photography, to scholarly collections of essays, volumes of poetry and first person narratives, books devoted to single issues.
Among the most recent is McSweeney’s Books’ “Voices from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and Its Aftermath,” edited by Lola Vollen and Chris Ying. McSweeney’s is the publisher of the Voice of Witness series, which began in 2005 with “Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated,” edited by Lola Vollen and Dave Eggers. The intent of the series is to examine human rights crisis in the U.S. and throughout the world through oral histories.
“Voices from the Storm” includes oral histories from 13 New Orleanians. They are Patricia Thompson, mother of six and a resident of the William J. Guste housing development; Renee Martin, a clinical nursing assistant who lives on the West Bank; Jackie Harris, music promoter and founder of the Louis Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp; Rhonda Sylvester; Dan Bright, who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder in 1996 and released in 2004; the Rev. Jerome LeDoux of St. Augustine Church in Treme; the Rev. Vien The Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church in eastern New Orleans; Sonya Hernandez, mother of five; writer and teacher Kalamu ya Salaam; trumpeter and “master chef” Kermit Ruffins; artist Daniel Finnigan; Anthony Letcher of the 9th Ward; and Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian native who owns a construction business.
These 13 very diverse citizens introduce themselves in individual narratives; then their voices intertwine in a chronological account of Aug. 27-Sept. 4, 2005, followed by a chapter taking place weeks later, then an epilogue, “Looking Back.”
This is painful reading indeed, but inspiring, too. Father LeDoux’s account of weathering the storm in Treme and Father Nguyen’s memories of keeping his community together in eastern New Orleans are particularly moving stories of heroic men of faith in a testing time.
Later would come more tests: the struggles of St. Augustine have been well documented, as has the unity of the Vietnamese community, which has risen so strongly to meet post-Katrina challenges. But even now, to read Father Nguyen’s account of staying behind with a sick parishioner, waiting for help that never comes—the shock of what human beings endured here just never goes away.
Kalamu ya Salaam, a longtime commentator on and participant in New Orleans culture, writes of watching the disaster unfold from his refuge in Houston, lamenting the ignorance of the national media.
“They had no idea. They were just covering a disaster. They had no idea of the geography,” he said, citing the losses of St. Bernard Parish, the Vietnamese community, the large Honduran community that only later came to light.
For others, struggles were matters of life and death. Abdulrahman Zeitoun, out in a canoe doing rescue work and feeding trapped animals, was arrested and kept in custody for weeks, deprived of the most basic legal rights, accused of terrorism, of all things. Dan Bright, picked up on a misdemeanor charge, made a harrowing escape from parish prison. Rhonda Sylvester found herself on the interstate near Lakeside Shopping Center. Patricia Thompson, along with 22 members of her household, attempted to cross the bridge into Jefferson Parish, but was turned back by armed police. Later, when she emerged from the convention center, it was to see armed guards with weapons trained on her 5-year-old granddaughter. Renee Martin was stranded in the Superdome.
Some, such as Anthony Letcher, found a kind of redemption in his struggles as he found himself rescuing family and acquaintances. He says, "I was glad I was able to help. I ain’t looking for nothing in return, nothing. Well, maybe a little thing from God….
“That water was hectic … a lot of lives got tossed around. Ain’t but the grace of God all my family got out of it, nobody got left behind, killed. We’re not mourning deaths. So that’s good. I rather mourn my property and my $157 Timberland boots. I rather mourn them than have to mourn a person’s death. That’s cool with me. God is good. All my family’s straight, man.”
“Voices from the Storm” is a powerful book with a clear agenda that draws its strengths from the real voices of real New Orleanians.