Blown Away: New Orleans to Las Vegas via Katrina

New Orleans
Damage on the deserted streets of New Orleans, Louisiana on August 29, 2012, as Hurricane Isaac battered the city and surrounding region, flooding homes and driving stormy waters over the top of at least one levee, seven years to the day after Katrina devastated the city. | Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GettyImages

Hard to believe, but it's been seven years since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans and transformed it forever. The displacement of so many black denizens, many of whom had lived their whole lives there, cracked a cultural and historical foundation that can't be repaired by the resurgent tourism in the French Quarter and the garden district and in all the other places that aren't the ninth ward or New Orleans East. Just like here in '92 after our own hurricane-force storm of civil unrest, the terms of rebuilding aren't being defined by the people most in need of it, so the progress since has not been measured with those people in mind. By that definition we're all doing just great.

I was born and raised here, but my family -- the generations before me -- is from New Orleans. My father came out to L.A. in 1942, my mother in 1955. Both sides of the family trekked steadily west away from the south and the confines of Jim Crow; relatively few people stayed put. One of those who did was my cousin Shirley, who was among those displaced by Katrina.

Shirley and her husband Ed evacuated ahead of the storm and never went back, couldn't go back really. They resettled in Las Vegas, an unofficial desert exurb of L.A. and about as starkly different from New Orleans as you can possibly get. Shirley's abrupt exodus from the place she and Ed had lived their whole lives was made more memorable by the fact that they had planned a big 50th-anniversary party at a hotel in New Orleans; the date set for the festivities was Sept. 2, 2005. I had got a formal invitation and was thinking of going. Needless to say, nobody went. Amazingly, the hotel eventually refunded their money, but it was poor compensation for what they'd lost.

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Or maybe for what I'd lost. I used to stay with Shirley and Ed when I visited New Orleans, which wasn't often, but the visits were major events for me because I, a native Angeleno, got a chance to re-orient to the mother country of Louisiana, a place I knew mostly as an abstraction. I haven't been to New Orleans since '05 (since well before then, actually) and don't know who I'd stay with if I did. Shirley and Ed made me feel part of New Orleans when I was there, part of its history and continuity; I can't bear the thought of going there and feeling like a tourist. So I don't go.

Shirley has long ago made peace with living in Las Vegas. It's not too surprising; other relatives who'd moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles decades ago moved to Vegas in the '80s and '90s in a second, minor migration out of another big city gone stagnant. Las Vegas represented a new western frontier with unknown possibility.

That possibility has curdled severely in this recession/depression, but Shirley and Ed are retired and safely beyond the chaos of trying to find jobs or jump-start careers midlife. They're lucky that way, but only that way. Though that seems to be enough for Shirley: the house she lives in is spacious and comfortable, if constantly air-conditioned, and Vegas (Henderson, to be exact) has just about every retail amenity you could wish for in a two-mile radius. And that's pretty much it. Kind of like L.A., but without the subtlety and context we always think L.A. doesn't have. And, as I've said, not like New Orleans at all.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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