Whenever I have a case of the blues, I take a ham hock and a pound of spicy smoked sausage out of the freezer and put two cups of red beans in a pan to soak. Thawing and soaking take eight hours, cooking another two, but red beans and rice provide comfort which passes all understanding.
‘Red beans and rice’ is part of my culture. It’s also the culture of New Orleans, our ‘big town’, my family’s escape hatch, our spiritual watering hole: a hundred-mile journey that delivered Mississippians out of their ‘dry’ state, to the amphibious city where liquor flowed and the motto was ‘laissez les bon temps rouler’ (let the good times roll). Last October I bought 10lb of red beans from the French Market and a bag of file – the powdered leaves of the sassafras tree used to flavour my other edible cure, seafood gumbo.
Today, while the red beans soak, I listen to the radio, read the papers and press the redial button. For three days my calls have been met with: ‘All telephone lines are down. Please try later’. Last night news as tangled as the mimosa and bougainvillea in the city’s steamy grotto gardens began to emerge via emails: my cousin Jamie, whose flat is on Conti Street in the French Quarter, was safe out in California; cousin Steve’s house between Gulfport and Biloxi is damaged but still standing. English friends whose daughter Catherine teaches at Tulane report that she stayed in New Orleans until Tuesday night because she didn’t want to leave her two dogs. Finally, friends drove her and the dogs to Baton Rouge, picking up another distressed dog on the way.
Every few hours I go to www.nola.com to read the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the city’s newspaper, whose presses are all underwater. The lead article begins: ‘No one can say they didn’t see it coming…’
That rings true. Last October, sitting in the Cafe du Monde eating beignets and drinking chicory-flavoured coffee, I read a report issued in 2001 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency warning that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the US. (The other was a terrorist attack on New York City, I’ve forgotten the third.) But by 2003, the federal funding for flood control was diverted to the war in Iraq. In 2004, the Bush administration cut by 80% funding requested for holding back the waters of Lake Ponchetrain. Meanwhile, developers were destroying wetlands and barrier islands that surround New Orleans, areas that historically have held back the surge of hurricanes.
But if a storm as Biblical in its fury as Hurricane Katrina was predictable, no one could have predicted the fatal delay in establishing order, organising shelter, food, drinking water, tents, lights, sanitation and the descent into violence and anarchy.
No one now remembers the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 when a million people lost their homes and black sharecroppers spent months on top of a levee without adequate food, shelter or medical care. My grandfather, a Delta planter, saw the ’27 flood as a parable of ineptitude and greed. He believed that natural disasters expose man-made injustices, wash away the foundations of one society and plant the roots of another. The world is now witness to a powerful country’s long-hidden darkness to the limits of power. They say that New Orleans will never be the same. I don’t believe that America will ever be the same.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on September 15, 2005.