When we first got down to New Orleans, nearly five months after the flood, we were told it was too late. The story–the drama of the levees breaching, people on rooftops, governmental failure–all that was over. The public had lost interest. Katrina fatigue had set in.
But on the first anniversary of the disaster, Tavis’ nightly show dedicated five episodes to the people we met in New Orleans and the issues still facing them.
When we kept returning to the city–about every three months for the next four years–we were regularly told the same thing. Not by residents: they wanted their stories heard. But out-of-towners, media experts, friends and relations assured us that no one wanted to know anymore. Yes, it was a shame what had happened, but…Katrina fatigue.
Yet, here we are on the fifth anniversary of the flood, helping Tavis create an hour-long PBS special about the people of New Orleans and the issues still facing them.
In the early part of the 21st century, one of the great cities in the United States suffers a disaster that means it essentially has to rebuild from the ground up. Everything is on the table, and anything is possible. Whole neighborhoods may be turned into parks, or developments. Canals may be closed, or new ones dug. Entire sections of the population have been moved out and may, or may not, return.
Behind these local issues are national questions fundamental to who we are and who we want to be. There’s the history of how we’ve treated poor people; here’s an opportunity to change that. There’s the history of how our economy works; that, too, could change. How about our schools? Educational thinkers cite the re-opening of New Orleans schools as a chance to rethink public education. For that matter, are we satisfied with our government–and if not, do we have a better alternative? And in a city built mostly on a swamp, protected (and betrayed) by human technology, what will our new relationship be to the environment?
The implication of Katrina fatigue is that we’re tired of these questions. That we’ve given up the democratic right to have a say in answering them. Because, with some help from experts, planners, scientists and artists, the average citizen is supposed to determine these key issues. And that’s who we mostly talked with on our visits: regular people faced with extraordinary decisions.
Their courage and tenacity offer real hope. Which is why, in the end, Katrina fatigue is a ridiculous idea. The issues raised by the event we call “Katrina” are as old as the nation. Do we have civil rights fatigue? Or, for that matter, Civil War fatigue?
As we move forward, the fundamental question underlying the recovery of New Orleans is how we’re going to treat each other. And that’s not going away.
Daniel Wolff is a writer and documentary producer who, along with Jonathan Demme, co-produced Right to Return: New Home Movies from New Orleans as well as The Agronomist, a film about slain Haitian civil rights leader Jean Dominique. The pair returned to New Orleans for Tavis Smiley Reports “New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long.” Wolff is the author of How Lincoln Learned to Read and has a forthcoming book about the return of residents to New Orleans–The Fight for Home (Bloomsbury USA).