When it mattered most—when federally built levees collapsed, when 80 percent of the city lay underwater, when citizens were dying in the streets—government at all levels failed New Orleans. The inadequacies of officials on the local, state, and federal levels were on view for the nation to witness in the days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.
Less well known is the story of the city’s recovery after the August 2005 storm. There again, the official efforts to rebuild the city often stalled and sputtered, leaving residents feeling frustrated and abandoned.
But as anyone familiar with the Crescent City knows, New-Orleanians are a unique breed, deeply loyal to their sometimes infuriating, often insane, and never imitated hometown.
It’s that spirit that Tom Wooten captures in the new book, We Shall Not Be Moved: Rebuilding Home in the Wake of Katrina. Wooten follows community leaders in five very different city neighborhoods as they struggle to take rebuilding into their own hands. He divides the book into three sections, introducing the individuals and their neighborhoods before the storm, recounting the rebuilding efforts, and finishing with an update on the recovery five years later.
Among the tales are those of 78-year-old Phil Harris, who struggles to rebuild his home in Hollygrove, an often-marginalized neighborhood; Father Vien The Nguyen, a Catholic priest/force of nature dedicated to rebuilding the largely Vietnamese-American community of Village de l’Est; Lower Ninth Ward resident Pam Dashiell, who refused to let her neighborhood go without a fight; and Terry Miranda, a bastion of the Lakeview section of the city.
The book includes a forward by Walter Isaacson, a New Orleans native, noted journalist, and former vice-chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. He concludes that, for him, Hollygrove’s Harris is the book’s defining character. In the months after the storm, Harris hitchhiked across the city daily to rebuild the home where he’d raised his family, where his wife had been born. Isaacson says:
Through his steady, unfailing effort, Phil embodied the humble determination and resilience that has brought New Orleans back to life. “It was heartbreaking,” Phil said of the work, “but we couldn’t give up. I just said, ‘Well, I’ve got to get in and do it.’”
That same spirit fills citizens like the so-called “Broadmoor’s trifecta.” Hal Roark, LaToya Cantrell, and Father Jerry Kramer “were the Holy Trinity or the Three Stooges, depending on the storyteller and the day,” the book notes—who helped rally their neighbors when they saw an early city plan to turn their residential neighborhood into green space. It’s the same determination that inspires Dashiell, of the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood of Holy Cross, to go head-to-head against the Army Corps of Engineers.
Wooten writes from the residents’ perspectives, often using their own words, creating a narrative that rarely stalls. He draws attention to the heroes of New Orleans’ recovery: the residents themselves, as well as the thousands of volunteers—from schools, nonprofit organizations and religious groups—who gave time and money to help rebuild one of the country’s treasures.
Wooten, who now lives in New Orleans, recounts how he visited the city in February 2007 as a college student eager to help with the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. He found a ravaged city that was far, far from recovery. Thanks to a fellowship from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he returned to the city after his graduation to work on his book, moving into the city’s Broadmoor neighborhood, which is featured in his narrative.
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One of the impressive things about Wooten’s book is how right he gets it. He knows the neighborhoods, knows the players, knows the challenges. He brings home the frustrations of dealing with insurance companies and new entities like the Road Home Program, which provided homeowners with grants to rebuild. He manages to boil down complex bits of information—be it about meteorology or bureaucracy—into readable paragraphs. His research is impeccable.
As of 2012, New Orleans remains a work in progress. But Wooten’s book shows how far it’s come. We Shall Not Be Moved is recommended for anyone with an interest in New Orleans, in reconstruction after disaster, or in community organizing. In some ways, this book tells the stories of many Davids fighting multiple Goliaths—and often triumphing. But unlike David, these people do not fight alone; they join forces with their neighbors—former strangers—and take on big government. This book shows there is strength in numbers and in organization. It proves that a few determined people can change the fate of a city.
Poverty and inequality magnified Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the Gulf. A resilient New Orleans means addressing these social issues first.
Lessons of dedication, solidarity, love, and recovery, five years after Katrina.
YES! Magazine's special issue on building resilient communities now for hard times ahead.