A few weeks ago when Hurricane Isaac was roaring toward New Orleans, I had a strange mix of feelings. I felt regret that I wasn’t there. I missed the adrenaline rush of preparing for evacuation, which I did many times in my years on the Gulf Coast. I also felt a sense of relief that I was in the orderly, calm city of Houston. At the same time, I felt guilty that I wasn’t in New Orleans for the chaos and recovery after a hurricane. I was conflicted. I guess the strongest feeling was sadness that I wasn’t there to be a part of it all. I decided to re-read one of my favorite books about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina.
First, let me tell you that I love New Orleans like I love my closest friends. I lived in New Orleans for seven years. I was a transplant to the Crescent City, but I had been attending Jazz Fest and visiting the city since I was young. New Orleans captured me during those years and has never let me go. Part of my heart is forever in New Orleans. When I drive into that city, the smell overwhelms me. It’s an unforgettable mixture of chicory coffee emanating from the Folgers’ Coffee roasting plant on the east side of the French Quarter and the muddy-smelling river water. That smell makes my heart beat a little faster.
The novel, City of Refuge, is both a praise song to the city I love and an editorial about the travesty of Hurricane Katrina. Author Tom Piazza spins of a tale of two different families experiences of the hurricane that devastated the city of New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast. But the devastation of Katrina was not a natural disaster, instead a man-made tragedy. Piazza reminds us that we must never forget the failure on the part of the government and politicians to adequately improve the levies surrounding the city. The poorest neighborhood of the city, the Ninth Ward, was destroyed with 15 feet of water in some places. Almost 80 percent of the city received some damage. The city shut down and its residents left – many of them for the first time – and re-located all over America.
The book starts in the heat of that late summer of 2005 with two New Orleans families – one black and one white – facing the storm that inevitably will change their lives. The families never really meet except by a chance encounter on the first pages of the book, but their lives are intertwined in the storm that will unite the community. The black family is led by SJ Williams, a carpenter and widower lives and works in the lower Ninth Ward. He was born and raised in that community – only leaving for his time in Vietnam. He is a good man, worried about his young nephew and the boy’s mother, his sister. Craig Donaldson, the head of the white family, is not a native New Orleanian. He and his wife, Alice, came to the city by choice from the Midwest. Craig fell in love with New Orleans on several visits to the city. He was a journalist –primarily a music writer.
Craig’s narrative sounds a lot like Tom Piazza’s story. The author of City of Refuge had been fascinated by New Orleans most of his life. He finally made it New Orleans for the first time in 1987 for Jazz Fest. He was 31. He had been planning to make the trip for years but had put it off for one reason or another. He said, “somehow a switch clicked inside me and some spirit of the place entered me.” He fell in love with the city. He didn’t move there until 1994 and he quickly became a fixture on the literary and music scene of the Crescent City.
Tom Piazza is a Long Island, NY native with an “old-school writer’s resume of ambition mixed with odd jobs, false starts, hard knocks.” After graduation from Williams College, he moved to NYC, already with a good deal of experience in writing, mainly about the blues and jazz music. Fast forward to Katrina and Piazza’s evacuation to Missouri with his girlfriend. His publisher asked him to write something about the hurricane and Why New Orleans Matters spilled out of his soul in five weeks. The book was written in response to House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s remarks that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt.
He says that City of Refuge also came from deep within and “insisted on being written.” After writing Why New Orleans Matters in so quickly after the hurricane and traveling around the country speaking about the city, he was burned out on talking about New Orleans. But in the spring of 2006, he had a writing residency in Virginia and while he was driving there the characters in COR began appearing in his mind. He went on to write ten thousand words, as well as a complete synopsis of the novel, in his nine days of residency in Virginia. He knew then that the book would start about a week before Katrina and just after Mardi Gras six months later. He said he had never had a writing experience like that. “It was like having a high fever,” he said. He went on to complete the book in the next two years from several different places.
City of Refuge is a difficult book to read, yet one you cannot put down. The catastrophe of Katrina is placed along side two very realistic, very human stories. The theme of the book to me is one of hope. Tom Piazza honors the brave people of New Orleans who “comport themselves with a defiant grace when their lives have been pushed to the edge, and then over the edge.” While it’s hard to relive the horrible images of death and destruction in our own country, Piazza wants us to remember and to cherish every day and honor life. He says at the end of the book, “You’re supposed to dance while you have the chance.”
The book is also about choices we all have to make. The main characters are both forced to leave the city during and after the storm and they both have to later decide whether to return. Piazza pointed out in an interview that everyone who is in New Orleans now had to make a choice to be there and it was not an automatic choice. My husband and I had to decide whether to go back to New Orleans or not. We were not yet married at the time of the storm. I lived in Pensacola and he lived in New Orleans. Even though his house wasn’t damaged, he had to rent a place in Baton Rouge because the city was not livable for at least two months after Katrina. He went back in late October after the storm. However, eventually in late 2006, he chose to leave his adopted city because his young son and the boy’s mother, his ex-wife, had moved to Houston because of Katrina. We then married and moved to Houston together. Like Craig, we had to choose family and relationships over the city that drew us in like a magnetic force.
We hope to return to New Orleans to live, just as I like to think Craig Donaldson, one of the main characters in COR, does eventually. Because as SJ, the other main character, thinks when he finally goes back to his battered flooded home, “Here was a center, here was his heart.” This book captures the heart of New Orleans.