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Fifteen years ago today, Hurricane Katrina blew apart the bayou.
While many people suffered in the storm and its aftermath, Black and brown people who lived in the path of that category 5 Atlantic hurricane were disproportionally traumatized.
New Orleans and its surrounding bayous were soon filled with the dead bodies of more than of its 1,200 citizens. Eighty percent of the city was under water and didn’t drain for weeks. Survivors waited on bridges and rooftops for days in the blistering sun. The Superdome shelter became a vision of hell—steaming hot and filled with thirsty, wounded, and moaning hurricane survivors. The government’s lackluster rescue operation, as well as the determination that the Army Corps of Engineers had built faulty levees that failed to protect the city’s residents, are the bitter pills that New Orleans had to swallow.
Poet Patricia Smith, like most of the rest of America, watched horrifying images on television of the storm and its aftermath. But Smith turned the horror into something beautiful, a collection of poems, Blood Dazzler.
In 2013, as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, HoCoPoLitSo hosted Smith. She read her suite of poems about the hurricane as the Sage String Quartet played Wynton Marsalis’ “At the Octoroon Balls” for an audience that was struck silent and teary-eyed.
HoCoPoLitSo also produced a television interview that weekend. Poet Joseph Ross interviewed Smith for a conversation that touched on her origin as a writer listening to her father tell stories on their Chicago back porch, and her inspiration for Blood Dazzler. Ross describes the collection as coming from a choir of voices, including that of the hurricane herself. Smith explained that she’s not from New Orleans, she has no tether to the Gulf region.
“The primary role of a storyteller is as a witness,” Smith said. “And Katrina was not just a regional story, it was a national story. You’re seeing what your country is capable of. I watched Katrina unfold the way thousands of other people did. The difference is that in my role as witness, in my role as writer, I felt that I could use my writing to process that story. I’m trying to make the story makes sense–that’s how I approach a lot of stories–this can’t be possible, this can’t be true. Let me enter it through my writing and see if I can find something that I’m not seeing on the surface.”
This Poetry Moment’s poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005”, is in Katrina’s commanding, menacing voice. Finding Katrina’s voice, Smith said, was easiest for her.“Persona allows me to enter a story in a way that is going to open up a lot of other avenues right away,” Smith said. “It never occurred to me not to give Katrina a voice. That also left me some touchstones – I tried to keep it roughly chronological and follow the development of the storm, but every once in a while, I’d say, “Now Katrina is feeling this. Now she’s angry, now she’s remorseful, now she’s saying ‘Maybe I overdid it.’ ”
Katrina, like one of the Greek goddesses spurred into destruction by humans’ blunders, came down hard on the planet. But she was fed with warm water from the oceans, growing warmer by the minute thanks to humans causing climate change.
This summer has been a hard one for so many. As I write, Hurricane Laura is barreling toward Category 4 status, with the Gulf Coast in its path. Wildfires are blazing in California, destroying homes and animals and redwoods and people’s lives. Death Valley hit 130 degrees, the highest temperature recorded since 1913 on this planet. Climate change isn’t in the distance. It’s here. And there is an intimate link between racial injustice and climate change, with communities of color disproportionately suffering as the world warms.
Poetry can tell stories, and it can bear witness. We’re going to need to witness much more in the coming years, as climate change whips up storms and harsh weather that will batter this country, and the world. Words can change the world, yes, but only if humans listen.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life