Two years on from the Hurricane Katrina disaster, New Orleans is still being battered. The city known for its combination of virtue and vice, is being swept by hostile forces — big corporations want to sanitize and package it as The Big Easy Experience. Readers from Scotland to Darfur can relate to clearances: the greater New Orleans metropolitan area has 30% fewer residents than before Katrina, and those who remain are living through record crime and murder rates. Behind the tourist façade, a battle is on for the soul of the South.
In the days and weeks immediately after Katrina, America’s poor, the oft-forgotten segment of society, lay in plain sight for all to see, and the picture wasn’t pretty. The global media showed the desperation and confusion of the people left stranded in New Orleans: discarded corpses, mostly brown, floating down streets that had become rivers; survivors clinging to life on rooftops, waiting in vain for help that would never arrive; panic and confusion inside the Superdome, where 25,000 people had fled to safety only to be trapped for days with insufficient food or water; and the mass hysteria and rioting which followed.
When help eventually arrived, attempts to get the residents out of the city only added to the confusion. Families were pulled apart, forced on to different buses not knowing where their final destination might be or when they might see their loved ones again.
Two months later, on the night of All Hallows’ Eve in New York’s Greenwich Village, evacuees from New Orleans lead a Jazz Funeral at the annual parade. For many, it was the first time they had seen each other since the storm. The Jazz Funeral, unique to the real Big Easy, offers an opportunity for people to come together to work through a tragedy, and memorialize those who’ve been lost. Local parade goers joined in costume and parody of George W. Bush and his Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
As night fell in New York on October 31, 2005, thousands of spectators lined the parade route while the New Orleans Jazz Funeral began its march up Sixth Avenue. In 2001 the parade’s guiding mascot was an orange phoenix rising from the ashes of Ground Zero. This time the phoenix rose from a coffin. Leading the parade as Grand Marshal was Glenn Hall, a 10-year old boy, playing a dirge on his recently donated trumpet. Six men followed, with the phoenix-coffin balanced on their shoulders, ushered by a brass band and displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors.
As is the custom in New Orleans, once the body is buried (“cut loose” as they say down South) the procession changes pace and the brass band picks up the tempo. The mood shifts from memorial to joyous celebration. So too in New York, people started dancing with their umbrellas and hats lifted high in the air, raising the spirits of the living and those who were lost, and no doubt prayers for the return of their city and the 43,000 fellow New Orleanian families left destitute by their government.
Two years on, much of New Orleans is still in ruins. The city’s education system is being sold off, with only four public schools remaining, the remainder handed over to private charter schools. The message is clear: if you don’t have money, don’t come back. The message back from the Jazz Funeral: the spirit of New Orleans is not broken; the musicians continue to play. The music will never die.
Geraldine Sweeny is a photographer/writer in New York City. Originally from Ireland, she has travelled extensively throughout the world to photograph the beauty of the people and landscapes of faraway lands, including the Himalayans in Nepal and the temples of India. Her work has appeared at a number of group shows in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico.