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Left to Chance

Left to Chance
Hurricane Katrina and the Story of Two New Orleans Neighborhoods

With vivid, firsthand accounts that illuminate the immediate, mid-range, and long-term effects of an unmitigated disaster, this book describes how the residents of two African American neighborhoods have experienced Katrina and the long road to recovery.

Series: The Katrina Bookshelf, Kai Erikson, Series Editor

September 2015
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180 pages | 6 x 9 | 10 b&w photos, 4 maps |

How do survivors recover from the worst urban flood in American history, a disaster that destroyed nearly the entire physical landscape of a city, as well as the mental and emotional maps that people use to navigate their everyday lives? This question has haunted the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and informed the response to the subsequent flooding of New Orleans across many years.

Left to Chance takes us into two African American neighborhoods—working-class Hollygrove and middle-class Pontchartrain Park—to learn how their residents have experienced “Miss Katrina” and the long road back to normal life. The authors spent several years gathering firsthand accounts of the flooding, the rushed evacuations that turned into weeks- and months-long exile, and the often confusing and exhausting process of rebuilding damaged homes in a city whose local government had all but failed. As the residents’ stories make vividly clear, government and social science concepts such as “disaster management,” “restoring normality,” and “recovery” have little meaning for people whose worlds were washed away in the flood. For the neighbors in Hollygrove and Pontchartrain Park, life in the aftermath of Katrina has been a passage from all that was familiar and routine to an ominous world filled with raw existential uncertainty. Recovery and rebuilding become processes imbued with mysteries, accidental encounters, and hasty adaptations, while victories and defeats are left to chance.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword by Elijah Anderson
  • Prologue
  • Introduction: Water, Conversations, and Race
  • Part I: Navigating Contingency in Two Historic Neighborhoods
    • Chapter 1. "Katrina Takes Aim"
    • Chapter 2. Geographies of Class and Color
  • Part II: From Evacuees to Exiles
    • Chapter 3. Life on the Road
    • Chapter 4. From the Road to Exile
  • Part III: Traversing and Rebuilding
    • Chapter 5. It's Available, but Is It Accessible?
    • Chapter 6. Rebuilding in a Broken City
    • Chapter 7. "The Katrina Effect"
  • Epilogue: Making a Space for Chance
  • Notes
  • Index

Greensboro, North Carolina

Kroll-Smith is currently a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He was formerly a research professor at the University of New Orleans.


New Orleans, Louisiana

Baxter is a professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of New Orleans.


New Orleans, Louisiana

Jenkins is a research professor of sociology and a faculty member in the women’s studies program at the University of New Orleans.


Water, Conversations, and Race

Any Thing is said to be contingent,
or to come to pass by Chance
or Accident . . . when its Connection
with its Causes or Antecedents,
according to the establish’d Course
of Things, is not discerned.

Jonathan Edwards, 1754

In 1718 the governor of French Louisiana, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, made what we might call today an executive decision.1 Against the advice of the regent’s royal engineers and the regent himself, Bienville sited a new outpost on a plat of high ground that would later be called the Vieux Carré. In a letter to Regent, Philippe, the Duc d’Orléans, Bienville made a case for the site as a valuable find on this riverine corridor, with the Mississippi River on one side and swamp draining into a massive lake on the other. Tellingly—and with a practiced talent for flattery—he called this dry land surrounded on all sides by water “l’isle de la Nouvelle Orléans,” the island of New Orleans.

A year later, in 1719, Sieur de Bienville wrote again reporting that the Mississippi River regularly overflowed her banks, leaving his newest discovery under a half foot of water. It was, after all, in his words, an island. Levees and drainage canals were needed, he opined. The royal engineers could not be blamed for smiling just a little on receipt of this news. They knew what many later inhabitants of the region would over time forget and others would simply take in stride: as cypress swamps were backfilled and bayous drained, New Orleans would become what one urban historian has called “the accidental city.”

In the best of times living in New Orleans is a dicey proposition, and while there are many forces at play contributing to a palpable sense of the precarious, surely one thing ruinous to a settled way of life is an unstable environment. It is estimated that roughly half of present-day New Orleans sits above sea level and half below. Approximately ten square miles of the city rests level with the sea. It is not uncommon to walk near the Mississippi River in the Algiers Point neighborhood and glance up beyond the rooflines of the shotgun houses to see a ship whose bow soars ten to twenty feet above you, gliding as if on air rather than water.

To make matters even soggier, sixty-four inches or more of rain falls on New Orleans annually. Rainfall above one-half inch per hour will typically exceed the capacity of the city’s 148 drainage pumps, ensuring that streets, cars, and the occasional house will flood. New Orleans rests on land a few feet below sea level that itself sits on a soggy chemical composition of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. Fickle and capricious, such a city slips easily from human control. It is, as some say, a “city in a bowl.”

This vertical cross-section of the topography of the city shows how dependent New Orleans is on its levee system. It has a maximum levee height of twenty-three feet on the Mississippi River bank and ten feet on the bank of Lake Pontchartrain. Remove or damage either of the two levees and the bowl begins to fill. When water gets into the bowl, getting it out is no easy task.

Between 1816 and 2005, New Orleans experienced serious flooding on twenty-seven separate occasions. In 1849 a breach on the east bank of the Mississippi several miles above New Orleans left the city awash in brown, fusty water for forty-eight days. Between 1849 and 1874, the city flooded four more times. Eight years later, in 1882, New Orleans was under floodwater for more than three months.

Hurricane Betsy swept through the New Orleans area in September 1965, flooding 164,000 homes, 6,600 of them in New Orleans. One survivor of this billion-dollar storm recalls, “God, it was like one giant swimming pool as far as the eye could see. A woman who lives down the block floated past me, with her two children beside her.” In 1995, ten years before Katrina, twenty inches of rain fell in a single day, flooding approximately 20,000 homes and causing seven deaths and more than $1 billion in damage across three parishes, including Orleans. But it would take a weak category 3 hurricane that glanced off the city’s eastern flank to create the most devastating flood in New Orleans’ almost three-hundred-year history.

Left to Chance is a close-up look at residents of two historic African American neighborhoods who put words and sentences together to tell about their many and varied experiences with “Miss Katrina” and all that followed. The moniker “Miss Katrina” was given to us by Jo Johnston of Pontchartrain Park. Without hesitation or even a raised eyebrow to signal a hint of self-awareness, Jo spoke of this storm and all that followed it as if it were someone she knew to be an unsavory person, a caller unbidden and bent on raising hell. We make use of Jo’s expression at various places from chapter to chapter when we want to give this totalizing disaster a more personal, human form.

Hollygrove is a working-class neighborhood situated on the western edge of the city. Pontchartrain Park is a middle-class enclave on the city’s eastern edge, close to the lake from which it takes its name. Each settlement sits on what is sometimes called “liquid” or “made land,” created when swamp was drained and backfilled with soil. Hurricane Katrina, in alliance with a woefully inadequate levee system, left each neighborhood under four to nine feet of water for roughly two weeks.

But nature, failed levees, and wild water were not yet finished with the city. On September 23, less than a month after Hurricane Katrina, winds from Hurricane Rita pushed yet more water into an already soaked city. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers described it this way: “The areas being flooded at this time are, essentially, being reflooded. Rita simply overwhelmed the makeshift levees constructed after Katrina.” Flood levels, however, were well below those of Katrina.

In a short time, Rita was eclipsed in the public imagination by her far more potent sister. The people we spoke with in both neighborhoods rarely mentioned Rita. For them, and most everyone in the city, the disaster was Katrina. We follow suit and allow “Hurricane Katrina” to signify both storms.

The catastrophic flooding of New Orleans in late summer 2005 disordered lives and landscapes. But these waters did more than wreak havoc with the physical world; they seeped into a person’s interior, putting at risk that innermost part of us. Some were left wondering what they meant when they said “I.” As in, “What am I to do?” “Where am I going?” “How long will I be gone?” “How do I fix my everything?” For those tasked with remaking their lives, the winds, the waters they troubled, and the often Kafkaesque efforts at relief that followed conspired to create a seemingly interminable moment when lives skidded sideways, ruled more by happenstance than the predictable first-this-then-that of the reasonable.

We wrote this book to present and comment on the narrative accounts of people in two New Orleans neighborhoods who lived through these historic storms and the muddled relief efforts that followed. We did not interview with a well-defined schedule of questions that assumed what is worth knowing. Rather, we made every effort to encourage each person we spoke with to talk about what life was like in the slip-sliding world of disaster.

People described passing from the familiar and routine into another, ominous world, one populated with mysteries, accidental encounters, adaptations, defeats, victories, and more. Their accounts of living on the edge, on the stretch, clinched and tense, fairly erupted off the hundreds of transcribed pages. They grappled with a world that Eric Hobsbawm puts into words while recalling some of the lasting echoes of World War I: “The past was beyond reach, the future postponed and the present bitter.”

We don’t have a theory about their stories. Nor will we offer a bevy of concepts to tidy up the existential disorder narrated in the dozens of firstperson accounts we collected over the past many years. The disorder that is disaster is far more accessible when it is attached not to generalized abstractions but to particular named people and the words they find to chronicle their trials, tribulations, and occasional victories on the makeshift road away from chaos.

Our goal in this book is to create a little disorder of our own. As we stand outside and look at the seemingly endless stream of pickles and jams that beset the residents of two neighborhoods, Hurricane Katrina invites us to write the surprising and unforeseen into the literature on disaster. We place front and center the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of disaster as it is remembered by the residents of Hollygrove and Pontchartrain Park. If this book has a lineage, it is closer to the family of the heart than of the head. It is written for anyone who can understand and share the feelings of another. If this book were a letter addressing the audience we had in mind while writing it, the salutation might well read, “To Whom It May Concern.”

Read one way, Left to Chance is a litany of memories, a collection of recollections gathered over a five-year period beginning in the winter of 2005. It is in this way an oral history, one in which the authorship is shared among those who told us about disaster and the three of us who have edited and commented on their accounts. In this collaborative telling we bring to public attention the disordering forces of unleashed water on the one hand and the often greater chaos created by a disaster-assistance culture favoring a privatized response model on the other.

If understanding remains a worthwhile pursuit among those of us who study disaster, one place it is surely found is in the words people use to bring to life the thousands of tiny moments that make up their experiences of escaping, returning, rebuilding, and starting over. If we are seeking answers to the most human of questions—our “why? how? what? wither?”—they are likely “to be found,” as Geertz knew well, “in the fine detail of lived life.” We seek, in sum, to write about real people in real places making whatever sense they can of a real nasty disaster.

So Many Conversations, some Notes On “Being There”

Each of us, Steve, Vern, and Pam, has far more than an academic relationship with this disaster. Pam and her husband and Vern and his family lived through, and in some ways continue to live with, Hurricane Katrina. Steve’s daughter, Amanda, and her husband also lived in New Orleans at the time of the flood. All three families evacuated, spent some time in exile, and struggled with disaster assistance, insurance companies, building contractors, and more. In short, each of us had a personal relationship with this historic disaster.

We had several conversations, deliberating on how we might write about it. Inevitably, these talks would come back to how Pam and Vern navigated the craziness of disaster, skidding from here to there in the concerted effort to make sense of it all. Steve would fill in with stories of his daughter and son-in-law. We spent hours talking to each other about the personal details of evacuating, finding long-term housing when return to New Orleans was not possible, accessing disaster assistance, rebuilding, and so on. We were a small community of survivors passing information back and forth, trading experiences, helping one another.

From day one, we each brought an eyewitness passion to this research. Fieldworkers who venture to other places with the goal of reporting on their travels face the task of convincing others that they, in Geertz’s effortless phrase, “have been there.” Their aim is to write in such a manner that a reader can say, “Had I been there I would ‘have seen what they saw,’ heard what they heard, ‘felt what they felt, concluded what they concluded.’” Vern and Pam are themselves survivors of the mayhem wrought by this hurricane. Steve was but a step away. Together, we brought a first-person intensity to this work. We were “there.” Our here is the “there” we seek to bring to your attention.

It took us little time to recognize that what we wanted to do more than anything was listen carefully to the accounts of people who lived with and through the mayhem. More like confederates than interviewers, we paid close attention as each person spoke, piecing together their personal accounts, their tellings. Each of us, for our own personal reasons, wanted to hear the stories of others who slogged through this flood and all that followed. We also knew in our discipline of sociology that for those who live in disaster, theirs are often unwritten lives.

Over the course of five years we conducted a series of sixty-eight extended conversational interviews with residents of both neighborhoods, taking anywhere between one and two hours apiece. We asked each person who spoke with us if we could record and transcribe the conversation. We read and reread these transcripts, often transfixed by the strength of the words. In addition to these recorded conversations, we paid social visits to residents of the two neighborhoods, picking up bits and pieces of the continuing stories of life in disaster.

All the people we interviewed had to rebuild. When we first visited them, some lived in FEMA trailers perched on their properties or on streets fronting them. We watched as they moved from their 250-square-foot Cavaliers to the first one or two rebuilt rooms in their houses. Some, unable to secure FEMA trailers, simply moved into their broken houses as they worked on them. Others lived hours from the city, driving back and forth to work on their properties. As the years went by, many people we interviewed took us on “new” house tours, pointing to their new furniture, artwork, colors for their walls, bathrooms, and dishes.

Beyond the five-year interview period we continued to visit the neighborhoods and speak with people informally for two years. Over time we developed personal relationships with a few of the people from Hollygrove and Pontchartrain Park. Driving through both neighborhoods, for example, we would stop occasionally and engage in that old New Orleans’ custom of “porch sitting” with Jesse Gray, or we might stop in uninvited just to say “Hello” to Clara Carrington or Cheryl Haden, a greeting that might segue into a coffee and a chat.

Vern, a man who knows his way around the kitchen, cooked up some jambalaya now and then and dropped it by folks in Hollygrove who were going through particularly hard times. As we write these words, we have known many of these people for seven years, some less. During that time, we’ve had occasion to follow them as they settled their accounts with Miss Katrina. For a few, life ran out before they could find their way to the other side of this disaster. Bo from Hollygrove died more than a year after the flood. Clara from Pontchartrain Park died almost eight years after that fateful day in late August 2005. But for most of the people we interviewed over the past many years, Miss Katrina lives on, reminding them and us that in some tangible ways this flood never truly ends.

We made the decision to talk with people in two neighborhoods to throw into relief some of the fundamental economic and social differences found in this iconic Deep South city. Hollygrove is composed of low-, lowermiddle-, and some middle-class households. This African American neighborhood has, for the most part, been invisible in the larger public story of Hurricane Katrina. More than seven years after the flood, a few houses were raised three or more feet off the ground; some were rebuilt to the same height that could not withstand the surge of the flood in the first place, as if tempting fate to try once again to destroy them. There were a few FEMA trailers left that residents were able to purchase, notorious reminders of an endless disaster. Other houses sit as if it were still August 29, 2005; they have not been gutted or fixed. They sit abandoned by their owners and the city.

Pontchartrain Park was created for middle-class African Americans, the first of its kind in the United States. The houses are primarily brick ranch style set on concrete slabs, built when the suburb was created in the 1950s. The floodwaters did not move houses off their foundations; it simply found its way inside and, more often than not, rose to the ceilings, remaining in place for the better part of two weeks. What strikes us as we drive through the neighborhood so many years after the water is the number of abandoned houses and the stillness that comes when people leave and never come back.

A considerable amount of time was spent gaining access to these diverse and complex neighborhoods. We gained entrée to Hollygrove through four portals: contacts made through Trinity Christian Community Center, an anchor at the edge of Hollygrove; the Hollygrove Food and Farm Network; the Hollygrove-Dixon Neighborhood Association; and residents of a fourblock stretch of Forshey and Belfast Streets in Hollygrove. In some ways the Hollygrove neighborhood is more diverse than Pontchartrain Park. Income and age are distributed unevenly in this working-class “faubourg,” a local term meaning “neighborhood.” To address this greater diversity we recorded forty-seven conversations with a variety of people who call Hollygrove home. These more formal discussions were complemented by more than two dozen informal chats with Hollygrove residents.

We entered Pontchartrain Park through four avenues as well: the Pontilly Neighborhood Association; faculty contacts at Southern University of New Orleans, a historically black public university in the northern tier of the neighborhood, and at the University of New Orleans; the executive director of the Council on Aging, who has strong ties to both Pontchartrain Park and Hollygrove; and the Pontchartrain Park Senior Center. With greater demographic uniformity among residents of “the Park,” we began to notice within fifteen or so conversations a pattern of reiterated themes. We recorded twenty-one conversations and took notes from more than a dozen informal discussions with residents of this neighborhood.

We began our inquiry by talking with thirteen residents, seven in Hollygrove and six in Pontchartrain Park. Each person talked about the history of his or her neighborhood. They spoke about what life was like in Hollygrove or the Park before the storm. But it was the flood, the water, the fear, the confusion, the anger, and more that people most wanted to talk about. And talk they did, not in the sense of a passive reply to a survey question, but as people animated by the need to give an accounting of their personal and up-close experiences with all that became for them Hurricane Katrina. The first several conversations were transcribed and coded. We then developed a list of themes that followed, roughly, their linear experiences of the disaster from pre-Katrina to their efforts to rebuild.

We collected historical and demographic data on each neighborhood, including maps, pre-Katrina census figures, and narrative descriptions. On many occasions we drove through the neighborhoods to get a visual sense of who returned, who was rebuilding, who was in a FEMA trailer, who was still living away from their homes, and so on. We often stopped and walked the streets to get a close-up look at the morphing social and physical contours of each locality. Finally, we attended neighborhood meetings, visited community centers, and took photographs. These many threads of contextual data gave us a sense of the whole cloth of Pontchartrain Park and of Hollygrove.

Throughout the book you will encounter many names. We wanted to personalize the stories we were told rather than use a more distant, frosty, impersonal approach. At the same time, for a variety of reasons, we chose not to use people’s real names. We use pseudonyms throughout the text. Still, we’ve little doubt that the people in Hollygrove and Pontchartrain Park will recognize themselves and perhaps their neighbors in the pages to follow.

A Note On Race In The Field

All of the people who spoke with us in the course of this study are, in the tortured lexicon of race in the United States, African American. Each author is white. The caustic construct of race in most American cities is never far from the surface of human affairs; this is particularly true of cities in the Deep South. In chapter 1 we address the question of how race figured into the ways people in the two neighborhoods made sense of this disaster. But before we bring this introduction to a close, it is worth asking how the longstanding American preoccupation with the color of one’s skin intersected with our fieldwork.

We began the work in Hollygrove. In several thick descriptions of the history of the neighborhood, people spoke freely and without prompting about the confluence of black and white. To follow is one passage from an extended conversation with Joseph Shearman. His candid recollections of the politics of color while growing up in his neighborhood echo the direct, apparently unfiltered way race is talked about in this working-class faubourg. Recalling a moment growing up, Mr. Shearman puts words to a complex world of color in this part of New Orleans:

It was around Thanksgiving and we were out there playing football, blacks against whites, and a couple of times people stopped on the overpass and yelled at me, “I’m gonna tell your mama. You’re playing with them. . . .” Yes, in the late ’50s people from all over the city would come back here [to Hollygrove] and play football on Monday nights. . . . We’d have big games, and you know, there were high school players.

Mr. Shearman grew up in a color-coded world. Colors—black, white, and shades in between—are a conscious part of Joseph’s life story. His story is common.

Michael Carrington, a successful accountant, lives in Pontchartrain Park. He talks about race in a more critical and less personal manner than Mr. Shearman does. And yet his words convey a man comfortable with the topic and his audience:

I guess when I look at it, we still live in a very race-conscious society. . . . [The O. J.] Simpson case, if you don’t understand it, it was all about race. The verdict and people’s reaction to it was really about race. It really wasn’t about whether he did it or not. I’m one of those people that think if he didn’t do it, he certainly knew something or was involved in some way. This was a verdict about race relations in this country, in my humble opinion. For blacks it was about whether it would even the score. It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. . . . Personally, I think . . . we haven’t gotten that far in our race relations in the country.

A man who thinks about race, Michael’s account was clipped and declarative, almost as if he were speaking to high school civic students. If our skin color mattered to him, it was perhaps to stress a point or two that he wanted us, as students of disaster, to understand.

These two brief narratives are offered to make the simple point that the people we interviewed knew well that they are African American and we are white. This difference—so plain and obvious—did not prevent them from inviting us time and again onto their porches and into their trailers and houses to talk about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of life challenged by disaster.

A Preview

To follow are seven chapters. The first six are divided into three parts. Part I, “Navigating Contingency in Two Historic Neighborhoods,” includes chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1, “ ‘Katrina Takes Aim,’” sets out our particular way of looking at this disaster, placing front and center the marked confusion of living tethered to calamity. In “Geographies of Class and Color,” chapter 2, we take the reader on a tour of Hollygrove and Pontchartrain Park, paying close attention to the topographical, historical, and social characteristics of these two historic neighborhoods.

Part II, “From Evacuees to Exiles,” is comprised of two chapters. Chapter 3, “Life on the Road,” is a close-up discussion of life lived in evacuation. “From the Road to Exile,” chapter 4, follows the trials people faced in fashioning a place from which to survive the seemingly interminable period before returning to the city.

“Traversing and Rebuilding,” Part III, begins with chapter 5, “It’s Available, but Is It Accessible? Traversing the World of Disaster Assistance.” Here we enter an arguably surreal space where little appears as it truly is. Chapter 6, “Rebuilding in a Broken City,” follows the circuitous and mazelike paths people took to rebuild their damaged homes in a city whose local government was all but in a coma.

Our final chapter, “ ‘The Katrina Effect’: Is There a Coda?” relies on the voices of several people who were asked to appraise their relative well-being years after the flood. Their accounts of life postflood help us to make a case for revising or, at least, reappraising the idea of “disaster recovery.” It is, quite frankly, a term with insufficient reach to grasp the meanings of the many stories we were told in the making of this book.

In the epilogue, “Making a Space for Chance,” we address our colleagues in sociology and kindred fields who study and write about disaster. You are welcome to attend to these few pages. But be advised, they will not add anything to the substance of our discussion in the body of the book. Their purpose is to draw attention to the ideas underlying our look at the place of chance in accounting for the human response to disaster and, we hope, to open up a small space for this line of inquiry into the social, cultural, and psychological study of calamity.


“This book is important, beautifully written, deeply philosophical, and literary. Tragedy and daring and unforgiving social policies are transmitted through the narratives and speak to the reader as if we were there, mulling over unforgivable dilemmas close up and intimately. And yet, the reader is also pulled back through the hand of the narrative to grasp the larger picture.”
Carol B. Stack, Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, and author of Call to Home: African Americans Reclaim the Rural South and All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community

“A compelling account of people working against the odds to make sense of and manage the protracted and bewildering mess that was, and in many ways still is, Hurricane Katrina.”
Elijah Anderson, from the foreword