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DIETMAR FELBER Tulane University At Lafayette School after Hurricane Katrina: An American Ghost Story In a catastrophe one is confronted with oneself. That is true of individuals, if they are involved in the events. But it is also true of entire societies. Catastrophes are junctures in a society’s development, [turning points] that render visible what otherwise remains hidden. They are moments in which one can try to decipher the processes at work in a society. (Prisching 160; my translation) APRIL 2006 Around the beginning of April, I return to Lafayette Elementary School on South Carrollton Avenue, not far from where I live.1 Built of carmine brick with corners neatly trimmed in white, Lafayette Elementary is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who supported the colonies against the British and subsequently entered the pantheon of America’s independence heroes. I had first been in this building seven months earlier, in the days following Hurricane Katrina, when the school served as an evacuation center for a small portion of the over one hundred thousand people2 who found themselves stuck in the flooded city: on rooftops, in hospitals, in nursing homes, at the Superdome, at the Convention Center, on overpasses, in the streets. Now I have come back to Lafayette to see how the school has fared in the months since the flood. I fully expect to find school officials, or workers, or at least a cleanup crew—someone involved in the rebuilding effort, well under way in this part of the city, barely begun in others. From the air, Lafayette Elementary must look like an H in relief, an H with an elongated middle bar. The hundreds if not thousands who were airlifted by helicopter from the school’s flat roof would have seen 1 This essay employs my personal Katrina experience as a lens that makes larger American contexts, meanings, and processes manifest. For suggestive comments on an earlier draft I am indebted to Katherine Gracki, Maureen Shea, and Annette Trefzer. 2 Large numbers of people could not leave, and many chose not to. Bob Faw puts the figure of those who “couldn’t leave because they couldn’t afford transportation” at 134,000. “The people who were left behind in Katrina,” Bill Quigley concludes, “were the poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, children, and prisoners—mostly AfricanAmerican .” 572 Dietmar Felber it that way, looking down on the building once they were airborne. Now, as I stand in front of Lafayette seven months on, the water is long gone, and the grounds are utterly deserted. Grass and weeds sprout from the cracks between the red bricks of the steps leading up to the main entrance. Behind me, the traffic on Carrollton Avenue rushes by much as it did before wind and water brought the city to an abrupt halt. I walk up to the front doors framed by a stocky white portal. To my surprise, they are unlocked, and I enter. It is quiet inside the entrance hall. The students and the teachers who once streamed in and out of this building before Katrina have long since departed, and the evacuees who passed through here on their exodus from the submerged city after Katrina must now be in Baton Rouge or Houston or Atlanta or Dallas or Memphis or who knows where. Some of them have been able to return to the city they love, but many have not. On the right and the left of the entrance hall, stairs lead down to the first floor. I can see that some of the floorboards down there are warped, a sure sign that the building flooded. I am about to head straight up the middle set of stairs to the second floor, but I linger for a moment to contemplate the mural on the right wall of the entrance hall. I realize it is actually a collage of children’s motifs painted or pasted on a set of giant,interlocking,differentlycolored,three-dimensionalpuzzlepieces: hands, flowers, hearts, a sun, footprints, animals, and children all on green, red, yellow, brown, and blue backgrounds that shift with each piece of the puzzle, and sometimes on it. The inscription “Lafayette Elementary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 571-591
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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