Apocalypse in New Orleans

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Willie goes on to explain that most of neighborhoods are going to be condemned, and that people will be asked to sell their properties: "They're getting all of y'all out of state, sending you to different part of the country. And they're hoping you don't hold on to what you've got. They're hoping you take the money and move. And then they'll bring in the developers, and they'll make new neighborhoods, with a new tax base."

I am about to interrupt here, but white guilt slaps a hand over my mouth. What am I going to say – that white people aren't dastardly enough to blow a levee on purpose? This is the wrong audience for that joke. As for the rest of it, it rings unpleasantly true. Deep in my white heart I can appreciate the brutal logic of shipping 300,000 blacks out of town and hoping they stay away at a barbecue somewhere while you auction off their houses. I am definitely not going to argue with that part of it.

"But what is your advice for poor black people?" asks Carter.

"Hold on to your properties," he says. "Don't let them take what you've got. And you can listen to me. I'm not in it for the money. I'm in it for the blessings of God."

A few hours later, Willie and I sit in the office of the Noah's Ark Baptist Church, which is surrounded on all sides by water. It is a small church, with just a few pews and a little table full of pamphlets along one wall providing information about STDs and low-interest home loans.

Back in the office it is about a thousand degrees, and we are eating MREs – I am the only one hungry enough to try the tortellini – by the light of Sterno lamps and flashlights. Willie, who first checks to make sure everything is there ("I've had eighty-six break-ins"), talks about the neighborhood. He's never heard of "gentrification," but this is what he is describing to us: parts of his community going to hell, vacant lots bought up by developers, the community slowly vanishing. It is his idea that the flood from Katrina will give him an opportunity to raise money to buy up the ruined lots himself – a process he's already started with a few adjoining partitions behind his church.

His thoughts are grand in scale, and at times he is unable to separate the hurricane and the bureaucratic response to it from the other forces that have helped bring ruin to his neighborhood over the years – drug dealers, venereal disease, bankruptcy, municipal corruption. Katrina offers him a final showdown with all of these forces.

"An empty cart makes a lot of noise," he says. "I don't have anyone paying me to be quiet. I'm going to save this neighborhood."

Eventually we all fall asleep; I sack out on the floor, amid mice and various other creatures. We are all tired, and despite the heat and the mean conditions, we are all deep asleep not long after midnight.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Willie wakes us up.

"They're here," he shouts.

"What?" I say. "Who's here?"

"They're kicking the doors in," he says.

I get up. Willie is standing at the back door, his gun drawn. He is silhouetted by the light from a helicopter spotlight, which for some reason is trained on the swamp behind the church.

"They're coming. I knew it," he says.

"I don't think so, man," I say. "I think he's just hovering."

"If he comes," Willie says, "I'm shooting."

"I don't think he's coming," I repeat.

Finally the helicopter flies away. Willie puts the gun down and goes back to sleep.

The next day, he goes back out on the water.

America is a country that has been skating for ages on its unparalleled ability to look marvelous on the outside. We've long had things arranged in such a way that our public exterior is always shimmering and clean – our airports, our food courts, our anchormen, our chain restaurants, our fleets of bombers and our warehouses full of nick-free products in polymer-coated packaging. For most of the uglier things that are under the surface – the bitterness, the rancor, the greed, the selfishness, the loneliness, the isolation we feel from each other, our inability to communicate and empathize – we've found ways to keep these things out of sight. They can be heard, maybe, and read all over the Internet and elsewhere, but not seen – and in any case they have always been subordinate to our legend of supreme competence and efficiency. We may be many things, we Americans, but we always get the job done.

But what happens when we stop getting the job done? What are we left with then?

September 11th, the first great paradigm-shifting event of our century, was a disaster that the American psyche was prepared for. As horrible as it was, it spoke directly to our most deliciously satisfying persecution fantasies: It was Independence Day, Deep Impact, War of the Worlds. Stinky Klingons attack Manhattan; America straps it on and kicks ass. We knew the playbook for that one.

But no one was ready for Katrina. He was ridiculed for saying it, but George Bush was absolutely right – painfully if unintentionally honest – when he said that "I don't think anyone anticipated" this disaster. New Orleans falls into the sea; whose ass do we kick now? When that isn't an option, we're just left staring at each other. And that's what really hurts.

This is from the October 6th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

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