From her charming porch of pink wicker furniture on Tuckernuck Avenue in Oak Bluffs, Jessica B. Harris recently sent this email to her friends and neighbors in New Orleans: “Today I salute you all for your faith and courage. You are all still in my thoughts, prayers and heart more than you can imagine.”
Ten years ago, Jessica, who happens to be a dear friend of mine, received a distress call on August 23 from a pal in Jamaica: “OMG, the water! The water!”
Many of us recall the mixed news reports of the “tropical depression,” which we hoped would fizzle out, as they mainly do. And Katrina was a schizo storm, ferocious as she made landfall on Hallandale Beach, Fla., on August 26, then appearing to weaken, then deepening again once diffusing over the warm waters of the Gulf, reformatting as a Category 5 hurricane.
Now we know Katrina herself never came ashore in New Orleans. Instead, a massive failure of civil engineering took place when Lake Pontchartrain filled and levees burst, and 80 percent of the city and surrounding parishes were flooded. It was the rising water that Jessica watched on my TV at my home on Chapman Avenue. She remembers nothing about being there, and I can see why. She watched the footage in a zombie trance — unusual for this intellectual and celebrated author — and wafted into the night without a word. It’s hard to say how long it took for her to return to the world of the living.
Back at her own Oak Bluffs home, she sent an email blast to friends in New Orleans: “Just wanted to get positions on you all right through here. Could you please send updates and addresses and telephone numbers? It’s time to hear some voice. Take good care and know that my thoughts and yeah prayers are with you all. (Yes — chickens have been killed!!!) Don’t want to be a nuisance, but feeling a bit like an amputee … need the rest of me — that’s y’all.”
Jessica first visited the rambunctious Louisiana seaport some 25 years ago, and bought her house in the Marigny district eight years later. “I tell people, New Orleans is where my soul sings.” To be sure, it sings in Oak Bluffs too — her parents bought her Tuckernuck cottage back in the early ’50s, and she’s been coming here every summer. She attended Bryn Mawr and Queens College/CUNY, where she’s long been teaching, thus necessitating holding on to her family brownstone in Brooklyn. Key notes of her amazing background: She is the author, editor, or translator of 17 books, including “The Martha’s Vineyard Table.” She lectures, has studied at Oxford and the Nancy-Université in France, consults with the Smithsonian, and is soon to produce two books, the first an homage to her vintage postcard collection, “Dignity of Their Work and the Joy of Their Play” (University Press of Mississippi) and, with the same publisher, a memoir, “A Moment in Time,” recalling New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, and her early years as a young member of a circle of friends that included Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.
When I met Jessica recently to discuss the 10th anniversary of Katrina and the levee failure, no sooner had I taken a seat on her porch than she handed me a small beige clay statue of the Virgin Mary, made in the kiln of the Ursuline Convent of New Orleans. “They call her Notre Dame du Prompt Secours. Many people credit their prayers to her for saving the city.”
Of course, much of the city wasn’t saved. Jessica reminds me that New Orleans, still flooded for weeks, was closed until October. She got her first look in November when she visited her late mother’s old friends Louis and Mary Lynn Costa for Thanksgiving in New Orleans. Her friend Poppy Tooker conveyed her on what Poppy called “the trail of tears” to view the wrecked neighborhoods.
What stood out in Jessica’s aghast intake were watermarks going up and up the walls of abandoned buildings, and the curbed refrigerators. “The electricity, of course, was out for so long, the temperature was over 100°, so people’s food spoiled and began to reek. I saw refrigerators left in the street wrapped with tape. There was lots of graffiti, including one that I recall: ‘Bush stinks!’”
I asked Jessica if she’d come across last week’s New Yorker magazine devoted to Katrina. One of the stories followed the research of a sociology professor from Oxford University, who found that many of the underprivileged forced to flee their neighborhoods, and who resettled in more upwardly mobile cities like Houston and Salt Lake City, began to thrive. It seems that families who stay for generations in the same hardscrabble communities — the researchers call it “churning” — remain fixed in poverty and its concomitants: lack of education and opportunity.
Jessica regrets, however, the loss of certain indigenous cultural artifacts of New Orleans. “Those impoverished neighborhoods were also incubators of much of the culture — close families, Mardi Gras, the music, the parades, the ‘Indians’ [captured vividly in the HBO series “Treme”], those high-stepping, feathered performers, and the social clubs. So much of that is gone.”
Now she notices that Northerners who came down to help with the cleanup are buying second homes in the city. “It’s changing. It’s also coming back. But the people who were there during Katrina are marked by it. They don’t talk about it much. It’s too heartbreaking. I’m glad I’m here in Oak Bluffs for the 10th anniversary.”
But her plan remains to one day retire to her house in Marigny, on high enough ground that it survived the floods. Her soul still sings in New Orleans (although Island friends are swearing her to a blood oath to continue spending summers in Oak Bluffs. She says she will). Her new kittens — from a Siamese cat rescue league — Hannibal and Hatshepsut, will one day know the Big Easy, for a long time now Not So Easy, as home.