Of the innumerable Hurricane Katrina reports pouring out of New Orleans, some of the most heartfelt words came from Michael Tisserand. The editor of Gambit Weekly, the city's alternative newspaper, Tisserand wrote about packing up his 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter and fleeing the Big Easy with a Shrek CD on the stereo. And about the pain of seeing his beloved city in ruins.
WW tracked Tisserand down near Lafayette-a city 130 miles west of New Orleans that's become a temporary home to refugees like Tisserand, his wife and their children. He talks about life as a journalist/refugee, about the disasters that plagued New Orleans long before now, and about a deeply uncertain future.
WW: How functional are things where you and your family are?
Michael Tisserand: It didn't get hit by the storm, but it's overwhelmed by New Orleanians. The school system had 600 applications from New Orleans kids.
Louisiana has never been considered a paragon of administrative efficiency. What's your take on the local and state response?
I've drawn inspiration from Kathleen Blanco, the governor. She's emerged as the real leader during all this. In New Orleans itself, it's been a local joke how corrupt and inefficient the local government is. Now, we see how ill-equipped the city was. We're all analyzing ourselves and asking, "Were we complacent?" Not just complacent about building the proper levees. This was the most impoverished city in the United States. The most illiterate. The worst place to have babies, and the worst in every other index. That continued and continued-and now we're seeing the worst possible outcome of all that.
And the looting we've all seen on TV?
A lot of that is for food. I'd go in and get some cans of food, too. People might look strange on TV. They might be laughing. But you can't really blame people for their demeanor at a time like this.
Does the city's unique culture give it a backbone to rebuild on?
I guess I have to believe it will. I have to believe there will be a Jazz and Heritage Festival next year of some shape and form. I have to believe there will be some Mardi Gras next year. But the families I'm talking to here don't know what they're going to do. There will be an exodus.
A permanent exodus?
I don't know. If people have little kids and they have to get in schools, or find jobs, some will make their way back, some not. We're trying to get the kids into school. I feel very determined not to let our 7-year-old lose her second grade. There's a teacher we know who's been evacuated, and we're trying to get a hold of him. We might see if we can run a one-room schoolhouse.
What about the newspaper?
Hard to say. The publishers are doing everything they can. The last I heard, they were trying to find a way to meet payroll this week. I've made contact with half of my editorial staff, but I don't know where anyone else is. What role Gambit will play in the rebuilding, I don't know. It'll be a different newspaper, but it'll be a different city.
Did the rest of us just think New Orleans was a good place to get wasted and never cared about a Third World city in our midst?
I don't want to overstate it. But of course when you go on vacation, you don't look too deeply into the eyes of your busboy or waiter or maid and try to think what their lives are like. Those are the people who are in the Superdome right now.
If you were dictator, are there any parts you'd not rebuild?
New Orleans has had dictators, so it's not out of the question. There's some public housing that's terrible. But if I were dictator, I would just try to strengthen the fabric of life at every point for the poorest New Orleanians. I feel the need to sound one boosterish note. Anyone who has danced to a Doc John song or followed a Paul Prudhomme recipe-anyone who has enjoyed the fruits of New Orleans, I guess-I hope they'll be part of the hard work it'll take to build New Orleans back to a place where it can be like that again.
For a longer version of this interview, go to www.wweek.com, where you'll also find an interview with ex-Portlander Ben Ellis, now a New Orleans resident.
Will this be a chance for particular interests to pull off scams or schemes that would do even more damage in New Orleans? I'm thinking about the opportunity to bulldoze whole neighborhoods, build nine-lane freeways, that sort of thing.
Hell, yes. On the personal level, we're stopping ourselves from making huge decisions right now. That has to apply on the macro level as well. Sure, there'll be scamsters and shysters and big-idea guys. They'll have the ear of certain interests. The strength of New Orleans is always its communities, and there's always been a war between the communities and the powers that be. Whatever the rebuilding is, there has to be a recognition of those communities rather than a top-down American model.
It's occurred to me that people in the national media and the country are puzzled, in part, because they don't get New Orleans. It's about the most culturally distinct city in the country, right?
That's one of the saddest things for me to see. That culture has been able to absorb so much in the past. The national stereotype of New Orleans is "let the good times roll" and "drink a Hurricane on Bourbon Street." The actual culture and soul is much deeper than that. The familiarity among people, the ties and traditions really link people together. I look to New Orleans now through the window of the news, and it's just devastating to see it reduced to a question of survival.
Do your kids understand what's going on?
My 4-year-old keeps talking about what he wants to do when he gets back to New Orleans, and that's really hard. My 7-year-old is a very tough little girl. She gets what's going on. She understands there's a flood and our house may be damaged. But she's very resilient. And they're dealing with the whole routine-this isn't like a vacation. Mommy and Daddy are trying to figure out a lot of things right now. We're trying not to neglect the kids.
You wrote a very moving first-person piece for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies website about the evacuation, the city, and the emotions this catastrophe stirred. Beyond that, have you been able to work at all?
Yeah, I wrote that in a house with four cats, four dogs, a combined total of four evacuee families with six children. I left my laptop in New Orleans. That was a smart thing for an editor to do. See, we've evacuated so often over the last few years, and it became like a little road trip. We had an agreement with friends that we'd all meet at Dino's Pizza in Lafayette-I'm not answering your question here, but anyway.... Last year, we met and the kids ran around. They've got great crawfish pizza. This time, we met there and just kind of sat and stared at each other. As far as work, no. Personally, I'm trying to figure out, do I throw myself into national media work and cover the hurricane? That could take me out of the house and away from the kids for 12 hours a day. I'm trying not to do that yet.
Web extra: Q & A: Ben Ellis
Catching up with ex-Portland musician and filmmaker as he ponders the fate of his new hometown, New Orleans
Benjamin Arthur Ellis-musician, filmmaker, "all-around vagabond artist bum"-once presented an indispensable figure on Portland's underground scene. As part-owner of West Burnside's X-Ray Cafe (1990-1994), Ellis helped to create a chaotic zoo of artistic experiment that remains part of the city's rock-and-roll mythology. Last on Portland's radar when his homemade documentary X-Ray Visions screened a couple of years ago, Ellis relocated to New Orleans in search of-get this-domestic stability and steady employment.
Ellis happened to be back in Portland, on vacation, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana. Last week, as the scope of the devastation sank in and Ellis nervously waited on news of unaccounted-for friends, WW talked to the ex-Portlander about his Big Easy community, the strange parallels between two cities and what happens next.
WW: When did you move to New Orleans?
Ben Ellis: I moved down there for the first time in '97, and I lived there for two years. I came back to Portland and made the X-Ray movie. Then I spent a couple years paying off the movie. This Thanksgiving, I'll have been down there two years.
What part of the city do you live in?
Since last January, I've been living in Uptown. And actually, according to the brief glimpses I've had of satellite photos, it may have been spared the worst of the flooding. I'm right by the river, up on a ridge. But if there's no town to return to...that's hard to figure out.
What's it been like to watch the whole thing from sunny Portland?
I love to do my annual summer vacation in Portland, because it's swelteringly miserable [in New Orleans] and it's so beautiful here. I've been kind of moseying along and, oh, there's a hurricane. But it hit Florida. Too bad, oh well. Then I'm watching the news while I'm eating a burrito-and oh, my God, I better call some people. I got my landlady to do some minor preparation before she took off to Mississippi. But I don't know if she's even OK. It's all up in the air right now. I'm assuming that I don't have a home for at least a couple months.
Did you lose art projects you were in the middle of?
I told my landlady that if she saved nothing else, to grab the bag full of videotapes I've been shooting for three years. It would be a great shame if that washed away.
What's the movie?
It's the documentary of the writing of my autobiography.
Absolutely. Beyond that, I'd have to yammer at ya for hours. This whole deal might add a whole new chapter. For the most part, for the past couple of years-I've been such a transient artist bum that I wanted to get a job and a home and a phone with my name on it, y'know? Everyone I know in New Orleans is buying their little house and putting some work into their future. Everyone I know has been sinking everything they've got for the last five years into building a home.
The only time I ever visited New Orleans, one thing that struck me was how cheap property was. Twentysomething kids were living in old mansions.
It's changing. I've got to start talking in the past tense. It has been changing. It's a shifty town, y'know? There's been a lot of weird stuff about appraisals, all kinds of exposés. If there's money to be made, there are a lot of hands in the pot in that town. There are houses that would have been $50,000 five years ago, but now they've got a new coat of paint on it, and now it's $200,000. Some moron is gonna move into town and buy it, because it's in a quaint historic neighborhood.
What brings people there?
It's a good town for aimless twentysomethings, in that there's a whole arty, party vibe down there. One of the reasons I went down there was that I was having a hard time finding a job in a pizza parlor in Portland and I was going a little crazy. I'm sorry I ain't the president yet, but I can get a goddamn pizza job, can't I? But in New Orleans-a handshake pays off a lot more. That's the same place the corruption comes from-you can give a firm handshake and a stern glare and you're in.
New Orleans seemed very, very different from Portland to me.
Well, there are some weird parallels. Built on a river. Checkered past.
But obviously, both places can be attractive to a similar group-people who maybe care more about culture or creative pursuits or having a good time than making money.
New Orleans is good for people trying to figure out what they're doing. It's certainly a fun party town for morons, but we stay away from them. There's a whole different scene. It's a town with a central, French Quarter, historic jazz, la-la-la, surface whaddya-call-it, cover story. But there are a million pockets behind that.
Can all those little social networks be rebuilt? New Orleans is a city a lot of people love from afar, in part because it is so quirky and strange. Will that still be the same?
Harry Connick Jr. was on TV about a half-hour ago, and he said something along the lines of, "Well, a lot of the city structurally is going to be wiped out. But these people are animals. You can't slow 'em down." And it's true. These are balls-out people who won't let it die. It's gonna change form and shift. But you got people right now still drinking. They're evacuating people by force, and some of the last people to go will be stumblin' drunk motherfuckers with beads all up their ass. And you've got people who have lived there their entire lives, and so have their great-grandparents. They're going to come back and make something out of it. It might be even crazier, I don't know.
What's your plan?
I'm hoping I can get some contact with my landlady, seeing what's going on. Will we be allowed into the city to get our belongings? It sounds like that's possible. Ultimately, I think I will be returning to help rebuild. Eventually, I'm trying to think about how I can contribute as sort of an ambassador between the two cities.
For the moment, it's a beautiful sunny day, I'm still on my damn vacation, and I can't think of a damned thing I can do about any of it. I'm trying to breathe easy. I bummed a Valium off a friend of mine, and I'm going to wait.
To read Tisserand's story about the disaster, go to www.altweeklies.com/gyrobase/AltWeeklies/Story?oid=oid %3A149966 .
Gambit, like WW, is a member of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. The trade association is coordinating various efforts to assist the newspaper's staff. See www.aan.org .