No shelter from this storm

It’s been three years since Hurricane Katrina, and New Orleans has lost one-third of its population, perhaps never to recover it. That’s not just a number; instead, it represents individuals and families forced into a diaspora, flung to far corners of our country, most of whom probably would have told you the day before Katrina that they would never leave their city. Those who were able to return are coping with psychological trauma, a soaring murder rate and the indifference of the Bush administration to their continued plight.

The novel City of Refuge by Tom Piazza tells the stories of two families who lived through the hurricane.

Two very different protagonists lead lives that intersect very briefly at the beginning and the end. One is S.J. Williams, a 55-year-old African-American native of NOLA, and his immediate family: his sometimes-addict older sister Lucy and his troubled nephew Wesley. S.J. is a carpenter and a homeowner in the Ninth Ward, a vibrant neighborhood that he loves and that is all he’s ever known.

The other story arc involves alternative-weekly journalist Craig Donaldson, a white New Orleans transplant. His wife, who at first embraced the city as he did, has become increasingly anxious about raising a child in a city that is struggling with violence and substandard schools even before the hurricane hits. In the pre-hurricane portion of the book, Piazza lovingly and skillfully details the truly unique culture and rituals of New Orleans.

He sets the stage and fleshes out the characters just as Katrina is rolling in, enumerating the various reasons that many chose to stay, and the fact that most expected the hurricane to roll on by as had many before it. The reader’s knowledge of what’s to come ratchets up the tension to page-turning levels. It’s one thing to have heard about Katrina; it’s another to put oneself in the shoes of someone watching the waters rise up the stairs in the dark, as S.J. does, and then watching the sun rise on a muggy, hot morning to a landscape transformed with no help on the way. Or to wait 10 hours in traffic to escape the city, as Craig does, only to fall short of your destination and spend days sleeping by a hotel pool, not knowing when you will be able to go home, or even if you have a home.

City of Refuge reaches a nightmarish crescendo in the aftermath, and Piazza falters in attempting to convey the horror. The reality was bad enough (1,577 confirmed dead in Louisiana), but one protagonist comes upon two very young victims, highly unlikely given that the overwhelming majority of the dead were elderly. It feels like a cheap trick to grab the reader by the throat.

Similarly, in describing the chaotic scene inside the Superdome in the week following, Piazza goes on a cringe-worthy riff, attempting to convey the topsy-turvy world that the evacuees are now living in: “Prince Hamlet plays the sitar on a cooler full of body parts, Santa Claus has lice … Mister Rogers blows Paul Robeson for a cigarette,” etc. In general, any attempts at levity in the book fall flat, and the portrayal of the protagonists’ inner lives feels pat and unsurprising.

These imperfections aside, City of Refuge brought Katrina to my doorstep in a visceral way as nothing else has. It made me mourn for the victims and for what we as a nation have lost. As the presidential election approaches and we prepare to elect a new leader who just might give a damn about New Orleans, this book can serve both to dramatize and remind that the great city is still there—and still needs our help.