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Overcoming Katrina: In the Words of the Survivors

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Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. The story of Katrina and its aftermath have been told in many literary venues and through many genres. All the different presentations, from the novel Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, through the graphic novel A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld, through Breach of Faith, nonfiction by Jed Horne, add to our knowledge of what happened in New Orleans five years ago and what the aftermath of that storm has been. But no book has told the story as plainly and as painfully as Overcoming Katrina, a collection of twenty-seven interviews of African-American Katrina survivors. The interviews were edited by D'Ann R. Penner and Keith C. Ferdinand and published as part of the Palgrave Studies in Oral Histories published by Macmillan. Through the words of the twenty-seven men and women, ranging in age from the very old to those in their twenties, come straightforward and genuine stories of Katrina survivors. The interviews are not just limited to the experience of the storm itself. All the interviewees are given the space to place their experience of Katrina within the context of their personal histories, including their connections to New Orleans (most going back generations) as well as their post-Katrina efforts to re-establish themselves.

I was familiar with the horrors of the storm and the flooding, the failures and mishaps of the evacuations, the miscommunications between government agencies, the forced separations of family members, and the terrible conditions inside and outside of the Astrodome. I'd heard about the malevolence of the policing forces, the anger of those left behind (or who stayed behind), and the breakthrough moments of human decency that saved lives, reunited families, and renewed hope. But to read those events as experienced by unique individuals -- to read the words of those who lived through Katrina, within the context of their entire lives, dreams, and hopes -- moved me more than anything I have read or seen about Katrina and its aftermath. There is no abstract here: all the stories are specific and personal, rich in details and truthful in emotions ranging from fear to anger, sadness to pride, and resignation to hope. Overcoming Katrina is profound proof of the strength of the human spirit in the face of horrible adversity, but also of the heavy toll exacted by such adversity, and the lasting scars left on the hearts and minds of survivors.

It is not only individual spirit that is proven in Overcoming Katrina. If it were not for the hundreds of churches, and also the synagogues and mosques, which offered housing, food, clothing, money, and support to the victims of Katrina, the fallout from that horrible event would have been a thousand times worse, with more deaths, more homeless, and more lost. What comes across again and again in the interviews is how churches across the country, some with all-White congregations and some in small, isolated communities, opened their arms, their hearts, and their purses to help urban African-American strangers. As surprised by the generosity as they were, the survivors accepted the help as a joint partnership in faith. Faith runs strong through the interviews. It was the force that provided needed comfort and sustenance when chaos reigned; it was the basis for communities giving support when all was lost; and it was -- and is -- the backbone of the survivors' resolve to rebuild their lives and their city when the floodwaters receded.

The title, Overcoming Katrina, is a declaration that the damages wreaked by Katrina will be repaired. But not everything that was lost can be replaced or rebuilt; family mementos and treasures were destroyed by the floodwaters, entire neighborhoods were wiped out, and age-old community dynamics disrupted. Survivors mourn the loss of the way of life they had in old New Orleans, yet they move forward, trying to make new homes, new communities, and new ties to the damaged city. Some of the interviewees have managed to rebuild their homes and re-establish their identities as New Orleanians, yet even they point out the empty lots that make gaping spots in the once familiar landscape of their communities. Others are still far from home, living as refugees in other towns and states. By reading the twenty-seven narratives of Overcoming Katrina, we support the survivors, and not only these twenty-seven narrators, but all the thousands of New Orleanians who suffered under Katrina. These narratives perform one of history's most important functions: to acknowledge the reality of experience. Overcoming Katrina forces its readers to acknowledge the ugly truth of the ordeal of Katrina and to appreciate the amazing beauty of the survivors' resilience, tenacity, and faith as they try to rebuild their lives and their city.