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Legends at Work, Post-Katrina

by Kate Parker

As a displaced New Orleanian and scholar of folklore and rhetoric, I’m struck by the way people talk about their post-Katrina lives. In this essay I explain why I think hurricane survivors tell terrific tales about their Louisiana neighborhoods, yet hesitate to return to them.

In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, a quarter of a million people suddenly showed up in Houston, most of them bringing nothing but a change of clothes and extraordinary stories. The Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Project (SKRH), for which survivors were trained to interview each other, offered these individuals a venue for their stories.[1] Motivated in part by my own experiences as a Katrina survivor, I sought work with SKRH project organizers, transcribed dozens of interviews, and began to notice paradoxical patterns in interviewees’ descriptions of New Orleans and Houston in their stories. Many people offered an unfavorable comparison of Houston to New Orleans, yet this was coupled with frightening stories about the Big Easy. I posit a potential relationship between those two trends in this essay. First, though, a caveat: because evacuees are by definition a transient population, and many of the survivors interviewed in Houston lived at temporary addresses provided by family, churches, and FEMA, quoting individuals in an ethical way provides more than the usual obstacles to oral history research. Therefore, I follow the model of folklorists such as Elaine Lawless, who "create[s] a ‘fictive’ construction" in order "to respect the confidentiality of sensitive personal information."[2] Unlike Lawless, however, I do not use a "fictive" or imagined construction. Instead, whenever reproducing interviewees’ exact words would encroach on their privacy, I use examples from already published sources that are similar to the interviews I have transcribed with SKRH.

I am here. I have a gun.

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In one interview given as part of the Surviving Katrina and Rita collection, a New Orleanian named Shawn is asked whether he will settle back in his native city for the long term. Shawn is the youngest of the evacuees cited here—he was 25 at the time of the interview—but in other ways he is at least demographically representative of the other voices included. He is African American, and his New Orleans home was in the predominantly African American, working class neighborhood of the Lower 9th Ward. While not all the individuals quoted throughout are former 9th Ward residents, all are from primarily African American neighborhoods that were hard hit by Katrina: the St. Bernard Projects, the 7th Ward, and New Orleans East. Shawn is also one of the few SKRH participants who at the time of these interviews (2006) were already in the process of returning to New Orleans. In response to the question about his future plans, Shawn answers, "I don’t know, I can’t seem to be leaving [New Orleans]... I felt out of place for Katrina, and not just because of what happened down here, but it’s like—just living away from this city. I just be feeling out of place."[3] Surely many of us can relate to feeling disoriented in a new spot, but is there something unique about the feeling Shawn identifies? Among other stories of those who landed in Houston, there is a similar sense of "out of place-ness," which I believe reveals there is more at stake for these survivors than simply an adjustment to new surroundings.

My aim is to explain some of the work that the rhetorical recourse to legend is doing for survivors.

The way evacuees like Shawn describe their feelings about both New Orleans and Houston sheds some light on the second puzzling trend within these survivors’ stories. While describing the days during and after Katrina, many of the people interviewed in Houston share incredible secondhand information, commonly known as urban legends. Although these aren’t necessarily the same legends you may have read in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark growing up, they share a lot of similarities: they are told as if they might be true; they happened to "a friend of a friend" so they are believable but not traceable; and they contain—once you really dig into what they are about—some kernel of a real fear about the quickly changing society we live in. In folklorist Elliott Oring’s words, urban legends are "narratives which focus on a single episode, an episode which is presented as miraculous, uncanny, bizarre." Oring continues, "[t]he narration of a legend is, in a sense, the negotiation of the truth of these episodes…at the core of the legend is an evaluation of its truth status."[4] Along with telling urban-legend-like stories, many of the survivors talk in their interviews about how Houston pales in comparison to New Orleans, but they also insist that Houston is now their home. What do these phenomena have to do with each other? My aim is to explain some of the work that the rhetorical recourse to legend is doing for survivors: put simply, faced with a new home that is strange, perhaps they need to make their old home seem stranger.

Keep out

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Rumors abounded in the days following the storm. For instance, there were rumors among primarily black victims about a government conspiracy to destroy the levees, and rumors among white middle class observers about survivors shooting at helicopters. It might be easy to follow in the footsteps of much of the news media and write off as pure fiction or paranoia the stories that sound too unrealistic. The problem with that approach is that many Americans wind up believing only the stories that confirm their own fears, and those fears are influenced by race, economic class, and geography, among other things. When we refuse to believe stories that challenge our preconceived ideas, we ignore the underlying fears that feed those rumors in the first place. So what are the fears lurking behind legends about Katrina? To answer this question, I’ll turn to the stories themselves to illustrate the kinds of horrors that survivors describe. For example, Larry Gabriel describes the hurricane’s floodwaters as follows:

You had diesel oil, transmission fluid, gas, natural gas, and water, toxic water, human waste, all that in the water—and dead bodies. They had alligators in the water, they showed that on Canal Street. They had a shark, a white shark in the water that come from the river... They came from the sewer, all that was backed up. There was a lot of stuff they did not tell... The army people found a twenty-foot snake. They found a twenty-foot alligator in the Ninth Ward off Frenchmen... they killed him and froze him. [They] bust him open... had bodies, bodies, arms and stuff in it. He had been eating up the bodies that’s in the water.[5]

grounded boat

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As fantastic as some of Larry Gabriel’s information may sound, there is in fact a whole oral tradition related to the sort of thing he describes here. As Jan Brunvand observes, "The point of urban legends concerning contamination... is [a] revelation of a world of shocking ugliness lying just beneath a surface of tranquility and apparent wholesomeness."[6] Popular urban legends revolve around contamination including poisoned or infested food, bodies, and environments. You may have heard the story about alligators thriving in the sewers of New York City. In the case of New York, the misplaced creatures were attributed to vacation souvenirs or pets that outwore their welcome. In the case of Katrina, Larry Gabriel explains the "white shark" by mentioning that it came "out of the river"; other similar stories point to the Audubon Aquarium as the origin of animals gone astray. The idea of frightening creatures loose in the city of New Orleans echoes the fear created by the disruption of normal lives, the invasion of the natural world into urban neighborhoods, and the surfacing of hidden "creatures" like racism, poverty, and human helplessness.

In another example, Shawn offers a brief mention of a remarkable scene, which he does not elaborate on despite his interviewer’s surprised response:

Shawn:   Yeah, [my dad was there] with his best friend, our next door neighbor…And they, they saw a alligator—he saw a alligator bite somebody leg off, he was telling me about, you know—
Interviewer:   What?
Shawn:   Mm-hmm. They was on a roof and everything.[7]

Other incredible events in survivors’ narratives include babies being thrown from the roof of the Superdome, bodies floating up from their graves, an anaconda escaping from the zoo, and gangs of men raping children in the overcrowded "shelters of last resort."

I want to figure out why people choose these and other unlikely anecdotes to explain their experiences. Why risk the doubt of a listener? Why not stick to confirmed facts?

Rather than figure out whether these stories are true—whether there really were alligators frolicking in the French Quarter, for instance—I want to figure out why people choose these and other unlikely anecdotes to explain their experiences. Why risk the doubt of a listener? Why not stick to confirmed facts? There’s more than one explanation, of course. Perhaps, for instance, the speakers feel that their audience is expecting a "good" story, and they don’t want to disappoint. It is also likely that these legends, like others told before them, reflect fears founded in reality: fear that the city’s white power structure is forcing the black population out of the city, or that Louisiana’s precarious balance between swamp and city is tipping toward swamp. I also think, though, that these legends come up in Katrina stories because of the frightening picture they paint of New Orleans. After all, who would want to return to a city where reptiles roam the streets, where bodies float in toxic waste and sewage, where innocent children are made victim to violence?

To understand why people would tell stories that make New Orleans a scary place to go back to, it may help to consider how evacuees describe their relationships to their old home and their new one. In Houston, many of the people being interviewed talk at length about how tough it is for them in their new environment. For example, survivor Henry Armstrong relates the following:

Okay, now life in Houston for me—and you got to remember you’re speaking about a native New Orleanian, and I just got finished telling you about how I owe [Houston] a debt of gratitude—it’s boring. It’s boring because, for number one, here I have no transportation; it’s boring because everything is too far... I would imagine that probably if I had transportation—because I mean there’s a lot of things you use to do that you can’t do no more—like the old song say, ‘It’s hard for me to be me and be here.’[8]

Katrina destruction

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Many other interviewees emphasize the difficulty they have in navigating Houston. Patrice explains, "Houston is big. New Orleans is small...to come here is a... big adjustment. When you got to drive everywhere, and you need a car."[9] The unfamiliarity, both of the surroundings and the people, is the key characteristic of Houston in the SKRH accounts. Although a quantitative survey about evacuees’ perceptions of Houston is beyond both the scope and the purpose of this analysis, such studies do indicate that these unique stories are representative of a sizeable trend. For instance, one study conducted in the year following the storm concludes that "[b]etween 50 and 57 percent of the evacuees said their lives are worse today than before Katrina in regard to finding a job, transportation, getting around Houston and access to friends and relatives."[10] Knowing that this is a common concern reinforces the need to investigate the rhetorical strategies that individuals use in describing it.

It would seem that, faced with the strange new city of Houston, New Orleanians would hold up their former home as the favorable contrast. After all, New Orleans is the standard by which they judge things like ease of navigation, sense of familiarity, close communities of friends and family. However, the comparison is not that clear cut. When the interviewees are asked about their current feelings toward New Orleans, or about their desire to return, their responses are conflicted: "I won’t say never, but I don’t foresee me living in New Orleans, ever."[11] Evacuees miss the familiarity of home, but they don’t seem to feel as though that familiarity still exists there. New Orleans has become strange because of real events that transpired there, and focusing on the bizarre and unlikely in stories about the storm makes the decision to settle elsewhere a slightly easier one. All the reasons for staying away are not necessarily making a direct appearance in these legends; the failures of urban planning, civil engineering, political organization, and emergency response might very well be taking the form of a twenty-foot alligator.

In fact, in one survivor’s exact words, it is not home she misses but rather "the sense of home."

When Shawn explains that he felt "out of place" while living outside of New Orleans, he is putting his finger on a larger issue: it is not just that Shawn was displaced from his home, but that his knowledge of that home is shaken to the core. In fact, in one survivor’s exact words, it is not home she misses but rather "the sense of home."[12] The feeling of certainty that people once had about their home is irretrievable, and so it’s no wonder that even five years later, two thirds of residents still find it hard to move back.[13] As the urban legends related above remind us, some form of truth is up for debate when these stories are told. Perhaps that truth is in part the capacity of New Orleans to support the homecoming of its residents, and the ability of evacuees to imagine their place in the city’s long-term recovery. These frightening legends might be one mechanism by which survivors reinforce their decision to stay away, or at least ease their desire to go home.

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Notes

[1]Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston Database. [2006 – present] Containing information on 433 audio-recorded narratives in FileMaker Pro 8.5 format; 207 interviews completely transcribed and 155 completely keyworded as of September 20, 2010. Houston Folklore Archive, University of Houston, Houston, TX. For more information about this collection, and for links to the selected interview excerpts that are currently available to the public, see the project website: Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston.

[2]Elaine J. Lawless, Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment Through Narrative (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 20.

[3]Shawn (pseudonym), interviewed by SKRH, February 1, 2006, interview SKR-DP-SR04, transcript.

[4]Elliott Oring, “Folk Narratives,” in Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, edited by Elliott Oring (Logan: Utah State UP, 1989), 125.

[5]Carl Lindahl, “Katrina Stories, the David Effect, and the Right to be Wrong,” Journal of American Folklore, forthcoming.

[6]Jan Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends (New York: Norton, 1981), 75.

[7]Shawn (pseudonym), interviewed by SKRH, February 1, 2006, interview SKR-DP-SR04, transcript.

[8]Nicole Eugene, “Henry Armstrong and Dorothy Griffin Remembering Katrina,” Callaloo 29, no. 4 (March 15, 2006): 1524, http://journals.ohiolink.edu./ejc.

[9]Patrice (pseudonym), interviewed for SKRH, January 30, 2006, interview SKR-AD-SR02, transcript.

[10]“Most Katrina Evacuees in Houston Plan to Stay Here,” Medical News Today, September 12, 2006, http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/51560.php.

[11]Patrice (pseudonym), interviewed for SKRH, January 30, 2006, interview SKR-AD-SR02, transcript.

[12]Ibid.

[13]Tom Abrahams, “Effects of Katrina Evacuees on Houston?” ABC13 News KTRK-TV, August 26, 2010, http://abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/local&id=7632364.

Kate Parker is a doctoral student in English at The Ohio State University, where she researches Katrina narratives, teaches writing, and basks in the glory of OSU’s Center for Folklore Studies.

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