After the deluge: 29 remarkable works inspired by Hurricane Katrina
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1. Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009)
Though Werner Herzog divides his time between fiction films and documentaries, the distinction between the two can get a little blurry. Even when he’s making a feature, he never stops documenting. (And on the flip side, when he’s making a documentary, his so-called “ecstatic truths” bleed into fiction.) With Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, his infectiously batshit remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara-Harvey Keitel policier, Herzog thumbs his nose at genre convention and allows Nicolas Cage the room to elevate this fevered procedural to high camp. Yet for as much as Herzog conceived the film as an irreverent lark, the backdrop tells another story. Visiting neighborhoods that tend not to surface in movies about New Orleans, Herzog’s survey of New Orleans post-Katrina opens with Cage injuring himself while attempting to rescue a prisoner wading in floodwater. He then proceeds to charge through a ravaged backdrop where lawlessness is answered by police corruption. It’s a tale of two movies: a hysterical thriller in the foreground, a sober snapshot in the back.
2. Juvenile, “Get Ya Hustle On”
Few escape New Orleans native Juvenile’s wrath on one of the more ferocious, politically charged songs inspired by Katrina: FEMA, Fox News, then-President George W. Bush, then-Vice President Dick Cheney, and then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. While the song mixes Katrina references (“Fuck Fox News! I don’t listen to y’all ass / Couldn’t get a nigga off the roof with a star pass”) with typical hip-hop braggadocio, the point is clear: The government response was as much an unmitigated disaster as the storm. The video for the song is even more blatant in its criticism, showing three young boys donning masks of Bush, Cheney, and Nagin as they roam the ruined landscape of one of New Orleans’ flooded neighborhoods.
3. Treme (2010)
David Simon doesn’t have the instinctive feel for New Orleans that he had for his old stomping grounds in Baltimore when he made The Wire, and this show’s name-dropping approach to music, food, and the city’s other touristy delights often seems awkward. But New Orleans is also home to a community of devoted hedonists who regard their city as living history and take great pride in feeling that they couldn’t fit in anywhere else. With a lot of help from a superb cast (Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Melissa Leo, Khandi Alexander, Steve Zahn, John Goodman, David Morse, and on and on), Treme gets that right, making viewers feel like a part of that community, which makes it easy to share in the show’s furious anger over how badly the powers that be let the city down in the moment of crisis and its aftermath.
4. Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge (2006)
One of the first historical accounts of the events surrounding the storm, Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge also remains one of the most thorough. Confining the timeframe to a week, beginning two days before landfall, the scope is still impressive, encompassing dozens of people across the entire Gulf Coast. Brinkley’s account also delves into behind-the-scenes wrangling between government officials at all levels, a source of controversy in the weeks and months following the storm. His familiarity with the area—he’s a former instructor at Tulane—gives Brinkley’s account more depth, authenticity, and context than work from an outside writer. Six years later, Deluge is still the one to which all other and future accounts will be compared.
5. Dave Eggers, Zeitoun (2009)
Where The Great Deluge takes a widescreen scope of the events of Hurricane Katrina, this Dave Eggers work takes a narrow view. The book follows just one family, the Zeitouns, through the events of Hurricane Katrina, focusing mainly patriarch Abdulrahman, a contractor and landlord who stays in the city to keep tabs on his properties during and after the storm. Instead, the National Guard arrests and imprisons him for three weeks on suspicions of terrorism. Eggers uses the same straightforward storytelling he did in What Is The What, forgoing his usual purple prose in favor of simple narrative. The book is no less riveting for this choice, and though it’s sharply focused on one man, it manages to tell a bigger story of the complete breakdown of the justice system in the wake of the storm.
6-7. When The Levees Broke (2006); If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise (2010)
While The Great Deluge remains the definitive written account of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke remains one of the definitive documentaries on the subject. Though filtered through Lee’s own subjective point of view, the film takes a harsh, unblinking look at the destruction and chaos caused by the storm and the resulting flood. Lee’s editorializing occasionally gets in the way, but he also gives voice to the angry, disenfranchised residents most affected by the nature- and man-made disaster. If God Is Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise, his five-year anniversary follow-up, revisits many of the same residents, examining both the progress and the stagnation of the recovery process. Creek also includes a look at the effects of the BP oil spill, a kick in the teeth to an already battered Gulf Coast. While not as gripping as Levees, Creek is essential, providing context to what is an ongoing recovery that’s not as easily accomplished as those who live outside the Gulf Coast perceive it to be.
8. Terence Blanchard, A Tale Of God’s Will (A Requiem For Katrina) (2007)
New Orleans native Blanchard is an established name in jazz music, but he’s also a go-to musical keystone for Spike Lee, who recruited Blanchard to score When The Levees Broke. That serves as the inspiration for this elegant, heartbreaking song cycle, which combines songs written for that documentary with other works. Blanchard shares composing duties with members of his quintet, each writing songs that share their respective views on the storm and its aftermath. Blanchard’s music is the perfect score to Levees, but it’s just as strong as a stand-alone work, taking the listener through the Katrina experience while remaining rooted in the form of music the city of New Orleans is best known for.
9. The Legendary K.O., “George Bush Don’t Like Black People”
Taking the song’s title from Kanye West’s controversial, ad-libbed comments during a Hurricane Katrina telethon, Houston’s The Legendary K.O. also lifted the Ray Charles sample from Kanye’s “Gold Digger” as the song’s foundation. But what could be passed off as a borderline novelty song actually carries some heft, as it appeared within two weeks of Katrina’s landfall, one of the first songs that was inspired not just by the storm itself, but also by the racial and class divide spotlighted by the response. That the members of The Legendary K.O. hail from Houston, which received a large influx of evacuees, also lends credence to the song’s eyewitness perspective of Katrina’s diaspora.
10. Dan Baum, Nine Lives (2009)
It takes more than 200 pages for Dan Baum’s Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, And Life In New Orleans to actually get to the Katrina, but the wait makes its impact that much more devastating. The story of nine New Orleanians—from a cop to a Carnival king—the book follows their lives from decades before Katrina up to and beyond the storm itself. Baum is a sympathetic biographer, vividly depicting the struggles and odd turns his subjects take in the years leading up to the storm. Readers know the characters well, making it impossible to think of those hit by the storm as statistics on the news.
11. A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge (2009)
Cartoonist Josh Neufeld’s three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer in Mississippi soon after Katrina led to his graphic novel, A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge. What began as a webcomic morphed into an acclaimed 2009 collection that stitches together the stories of a handful of New Orleanians—based on actual Katrina survivors—whose choices to stay or flee during the hurricane and its aftermath are gorgeously, understatedly dramatized by Neufeld’s simple yet evocatively realist art (which he honed by illustrating numerous stories for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor). The book’s perspective veers from wide-lens to close-up, but it never loses sight of the heart and soul at the core of the debates over race, preparedness, and policy. Above all, A.D. is a gripping drama that humanizes those otherwise lost among the statistics.
12-13. R.E.M., “Houston”; R.E.M., “Oh My Heart”
R.E.M. has never steered clear of politics, and it wasn’t about to start with “Houston,” from 2008’s Accelerate. A beautiful, downtrodden dirge, “Houston” is told from the perspective of a Katrina survivor relocated to the titular city after the storm to start a new life. Inspired by controversial comments made by former First Lady Barbara Bush implying that displaced evacuees were better off huddled in the Houston Astrodome than at their old homes, the song begins with the ominous line, “If the storm doesn’t kill me / The government will.” Three years later, the band revisited this character on the elegiac “Oh My Heart.” Back in New Orleans, the narrator reflects on “a city half-erased,” and defiantly, if not triumphantly cycles back to “Houston,” noting, “The storm didn’t kill me / The government changed.” While sadness permeates the song, there’s also a note of hope: “This place needs me here to start / This place is the beat of my heart.” For added emphasis, the song features New Orleans brass band Bonerama.
14. The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008)
Though Baltimore is the setting of the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story that was adapted into The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, the filmmakers decided to shift the setting to New Orleans, which better incorporates the story’s magical realist spirit. (It was also cheaper than Baltimore.) Though Eric Roth finished writing the script before Katrina struck in 2005, he added the storm to a framing story in which an elderly woman (Cate Blanchett) tells her daughter the unlikely tale of a man who aged in reverse. It could be (and has been) argued that the use of Katrina is shallow and exploitative, reducing a real-life tragedy to mere atmospherics. But Katrina’s devastation serves the film’s themes of impermanence and loss: Everything changes and nothing lasts forever, whether it’s a city or a life.
15. Mos Def, “Katrina Clap (Dollar Day)”
Mos Def takes his swings at the Bush administration and the federal government’s response (or lack thereof) to the storm in this song that takes part of its name and main sample from song “Nolia Clap” by Juvenile side project UTP. (It was later tweaked and renamed “Dollar Day” for release on the album True Magic.) Channeling simmering anger over a beat borrowed from one of New Orleans’ own, he takes swings at Bush (“It’s water water everywhere and people dead in the streets / And Mr. President he ’bout that cash”), as well as a potshot at charity ringmaster Bono. (“Like where the fuck is Sir Bono and his famous friends now / Don’t get it twisted man I dig U2 / But if you ain’t about the ghetto then fuck you too.”) As a mainstream artist whose reach stretches farther than many of New Orleans’ homegrown rappers, Mos Def gives a megaphone to those who can’t overcome the din.
16. Public Enemy, “Hell No We Ain’t All Right!”
Where there’s political smoke in hip-hop, there’s usually Chuck D., and Hurricane Katrina proved no different. Public Enemy dropped “Hell No We Ain’t All Right,” a PE song in the classic mold on which Chuck D audibly seethes, proclaiming from the top, “The anger in this song seemed to write its damn self.”
17. Fats Domino: Walkin’ Back To New Orleans (2008)
Even in the midst of the death and devastation caused by Katrina, one particular story emerged from New Orleans that put a smile on the faces of music fans around the world: Fats Domino, rumored to have been a victim of the hurricane, was pulled alive and more or less well from the second story of his home, along with his family. Alas, Domino lost virtually everything in the wake of the flood, but with his name in the headlines, there came renewed appreciation of his work, culminating in a triumphant May 2007 concert at Tipitina’s. That performance serves as the major thrust of the PBS special Fats Domino: Walkin’ Back To New Orleans, a look back at Domino’s life and career narrated by John Goodman and featuring interviews with Dr. John, Randy Newman, Robert Plant, and Allen Toussaint, who each discuss the effect the Fat Man’s music had on their own work. Domino—long considered a founding father of rock ’n’ roll—is more than worthy of tribute, but were it not for Katrina abruptly raising his profile, it’s possible that the majority of these plaudits would have been delivered posthumously.
18. Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, The River In Reverse (2006)
The funky R&B of transatlantic collaboration The River In Reverse suits the sensibilities of both Elvis Costello and New Orleans stalwart Allen Toussaint. The album mixes reworked versions of old Toussaint songs with new numbers the pair composed, featuring references to Katrina both oblique and direct. (The album’s title refers to the storm’s surge that caused the Mississippi River to literally flow backwards.) Those older tunes also get new meaning in the context of Katrina: “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further” suddenly becomes about those failed by the government response in the wake of the storm, and the slave-ship spiritual “Freedom For The Stallion” connects the stories of families broken apart and scattered to all corners of the country after the evacuation. As if to emphasize the role post-Katrina New Orleans played in the creation of the record, both Toussaint and Costello had cameos in the first season of Treme, with the recording sessions woven into one of the show’s storylines.
19. Dark Rain (2010)
Rather than tackle Katrina head-on, writer Mat Johnson and artist Simon Gane enter the Big Easy through the back door in Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story. The noir-steeped graphic novel is, at first, a heist caper, but like the best such stories, it doubles as a morality play. As evacuation begins and the waters start rising in New Orleans, two halfway-house bunkmates—each incarcerated for different reasons—form an uneasy alliance to rob a half-submerged bank. Of course, it’s not that easy, and with the clock ticking, the duo struggles with the physical and psychological implications of their plan. Refusing to cram the act of looting into a black-and-white box, Dark Rain examines, with sensitivity and complexity, what it truly means to own, to take, and to be on both ends of victimization.
20. Trouble The Water (2008)
If When The Levees Broke is one of the definitive documentaries about Katrina, then Trouble The Water is the other. The film follows Kim and Scott Roberts, New Orleans residents whom Trouble filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal met by chance while filming a documentary about Louisiana National Guardsmen redeployed from Iraq to post-Katrina Louisiana. Following the Robertses across the country as they move on from the storm, return home, and try to rebuild their lives, the film loses a bit of focus in the second half as it tries to expand its scope. But the Robertses’ personal footage is more harrowing than anything shown on any network: The weather deteriorates and the water rises rapidly while Kim hangs out her attic. Particularly effective are scenes from Kim’s footage set to the audio of 911 calls made by residents trapped in the attics of their homes.
21. Dr. John, City That Care Forgot (2008)
If anyone was more or less obligated to make a post-Katrina album, it’s Dr. John. The idiosyncratic songwriter’s rich, swampy “gris-gris” has been synonymous with New Orleans for more than 40 years—and his Grammy-winning 2008 album, City That Care Forgot, went above and beyond the call of native-son duty. Boasting a slate of celebrity guests that includes Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton, the disc’s horn-drenched, bittersweet grit celebrates his town’s resilience and spirit even as it mourns its many losses. The government’s failure to respond adequately to the disaster is addressed in no uncertain terms throughout City, but Dr. John focuses most of his attention on the collective blues and backbone of his neighbors, to whom he’s long been a figurehead.
22. Black Lips, “O Katrina!”
Atlanta’s Black Lips are known for making lewd, primal garage rock shorn of posturing and full of raw, quivering nerve. The quartet upped the intensity for “O Katrina!,” a particularly stinging track from the 2007 album Good Bad Not Evil. (It later surfaced on the Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World soundtrack.) Personifying the hurricane as an abusive, vindictive woman, the song obliterates subtlety and cuts right to the chase: “O Katrina! / Why you gotta be mean?,” screams frontman Jared Swilley. Outrage rarely comes in such an infectious package.
23. Rise Against, “Help Is On The Way”
Rise Against has never had a problem hitting its listeners over the head with a message. “Help Is On The Way” is no different. In the video for the song—the punk band’s hit single from its 2011 album Endgame—the devastation and aftermath of Katrina is staged in a series of scenes showing New Orleanians scrambling to save their homes and themselves as helicopters whiz obliviously overhead. Granted, the reenactment is as melodramatic as the song itself. Credit’s due, though, for acknowledging that—six years after the storm hit—Katrina is still very much an issue that needs to be addressed, remembered, learned from, and angered by.
24. Tom Piazza, Why New Orleans Matters (2005)
Part memoir, part history, Why New Orleans Matters is a defense of the beauty of New Orleans and a celebration of its soul. While the book, published just months after the storm, may seem initially like a knee-jerk reaction, its importance has only grown as the country delves further down a news cycle that discards news as fast as it absorbs it. In the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill, Piazza’s book still stands as a stark reminder that the nation nearly lost one of its greatest cities and provides an important, compelling argument in defense rebuilding the city.
25. Down, “On March The Saints”
Phil Anselmo isn’t known for his sentimentality. But the former Pantera guitarist loves his hometown of New Orleans so much that he chose the title NOLA for the 1995 debut album by his sludgy side-project Down. When it came to writing the band’s first post-Katrina album, 2007’s Down III: Over The Under, Anselmo dug deep and got personal; many of the tracks deal with the devastation of New Orleans, including the destruction of his own restaurant, Anselmo’s. But rather than wallowing in their singer’s misfortune, songs like the pulverizing “On March The Saints” lock their jaws onto the widespread lapses that rendered Katrina as much of a manmade disaster as a natural one.
26. Steve Earle, “This City”
Written for the show Treme, on which Earle played a recurring character, “This City” captures the indelible stubbornness (for better or worse) of the residents of New Orleans. Defiant even in the face of tragedy, the spirit of the people of New Orleans is captured here as well as it has been anywhere—ironically, by a Texan. But Earle’s outsider-looking-in perspective provides a perfect complement to the complexities and contradictions of Treme’s characters: “Doesn’t matter, let come what may
/ I ain’t ever going to leave this town
/ This city won’t wash away
/ This city won’t ever drown.” The song, which also appeared later on Earle’s LP I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, received both a Grammy nomination and Emmy nomination.
27. Lil Wayne feat. Robin Thicke, “Tie My Hands”
“Tie My Hands” is striking for being one of the more sedate tracks New Orleans native Lil Wayne has laid down, complete with soothing R&B backing vocals from singer Robin Thicke. This somber post-Katrina track finds Wayne, like New Orleans, at his most vulnerable and downtrodden: “I knock on the door / Hope isn’t home / Fate’s not around / The luck’s all gone.” Like Juvenile, Lil Wayne was hit hard by the disaster, but the resulting song is filtered through sadness and desperation rather than anger.
28. Free Agent Brass Band, “We Made It Through That Water”
One of the city’s up-and-coming brass bands, Free Agent Brass Band fuses funk, gospel, and hip-hop into a Technicolor celebration of the city’s culture. It’s appropriate, then, that the band used “Wade In The Water,” a traditional gospel tune, as a basis for one of its best songs. A song of survival and a celebration thereof, “We Made It Through That Water” updates the original gospel tune for the Katrina flood with a dash of social-commentary hip-hop for good measure. While hip-hop artists took the lead in reacting to the disaster through song, this comes from a group whose style originates from the city, a truly New Orleans sound.
29. Jane Fulton Alt, Look And Leave (2009)
Of all the artifacts of Hurricane Katrina, the haunting photography of its aftermath is among the most indelible. Photographer Jane Fulton Alt volunteered with a program run by the U.S. Department Of Health And Human Services that assisted residents in returning briefly to their homes to salvage what possessions they could before immediately leaving. During these trips, she photographed the destruction of the storm’s floods, mostly in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Focusing on small, personal objects among the ruins, Jane’s photos bring the human element to a large-scale disaster. Alt finds beauty in the intricate patterns of caked mud or footprints across a dusty floor, but also hope: green grass and sunflowers tower amongst the brown and gray ruins, signs of rebirth in the wake of desolation.