The Year Before The Flood: an introduction

(Boing Boing guestblogger Ned Sublette is a writer, historian, photographer, and singer-songwriter who lives in New York City and travels often to New Orleans. Embedded audio in this post: Ned reads the introduction to his latest book, The Year Before The Flood, live at Joe's Pub in New York City. After the jump, the full text of that intro, republished in entirety here on Boing Boing.)


I'm Ned Sublette. I'll be guest-blogging for the next two weeks, serving up a few excerpts and ideas from my new book The Year Before The Flood (Lawrence Hill Books). (Which is not to be confused with a similarly-named book by Margaret Atwood, unfortunately published about the same time as mine - jeez, couldn't she have called it Oryx and Crake 2?) As well as words and ideas that turn up in my two previous, The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Lawrence Hill) and Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press), along with other topics from my usual beat of music, culture, and politics.

I study history through music, and vice versa, including the history I've lived through. I place music at the center of understanding, and at the center of my musical understanding is the current that sweeps around the Gulf of Mexico, linking New Orleans to its historic great trading partner Havana by a river in the sea.

To give what I do a name, I've started calling it "Postmamboism." It's clear there are a lot of Postmamboists out there. More on that later. I also write songs and occasionally release recordings, and I travel with my guitar wherever someone wants me to speak or sing.

I've lived in New York City since 1976, but my wife Constance and I spent the almost-year from August 2004 to May 2005 in New Orleans. I'm not an academic, but I had a one-year (non-teaching) fellowship from the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University that gave me the opportunity to do full-time research into that most American of cities, studying its history in the libraries and archives and the living culture in the street.

We set out memorizing New Orleans as if it were about to disappear. The World that Made New Orleans is the product of that--a history of Louisiana's colonial years, from 1718 to 1819, about the layers of Africans and Europeans that made up New Orleans culture.

The Year Before The Flood, on the other hand, is a memoir of what we lived in New Orleans--a play-by-play of the last year the city was whole, as we experienced it from our highly subjective point of view. The World that Made New Orleans is about the city's space, while The Year Before The Flood is about its unique sense of time--its calendar rhythm of festivals, parades, and observances. It's about the music we lived that year, and the city's horrifying murder rate that kept ticking off victims.

I started writing in November 2004, when I had no idea that our year in New Orleans would be . . . the year before the flood.

Allow me to begin my two blog weeks on a somber note, with the Introduction to The Year Before The Flood. If you want to listen along while you read, here's a clip of me reading it on November 20 at Joe's Pub in New York City. And hell yes, we're going to Mardi Gras this year.

INTRODUCTION (MP3 Link to audio)

I knew it was going to happen. I just didn't know when.

On August 26, 2005, I was at home in New York City, working on what turned out to be an early version of this book.

By Saturday morning, August 27, the forecast models had converged. The hurricane was Category Five, headed straight for New Orleans. It was easy to see what was coming. And not because I'm clairvoyant.

Everyone knew what was going to happen.

Not the details. But in the broad outline, we all knew it.

Three weeks before, when I photographed the exterior of Fats Domino's pink-tile-and-yellow-brick house on Caffin Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward, I didn't know it was about to go underwater, or that my childhood hero's white Steinway grand would be lying upside down in six inches of filth when the water receded, or that Fats would have a diabetic crisis in triage, hallucinating that he was about to go onstage after being rescued by boat from the top of his flooded house. But I knew I was seeing something imperiled.

"You described it to me before it happened," said my friend Peter Gordon. During the weeks after New Orleans was flooded, people said things like this to me repeatedly. When pianist/bandleader Arturo O'Farrill visited New Orleans in spring 2005, I took him to see Rebirth Brass Band uptown at the Maple Leaf. The following year, after the flood, he reminded me that I'd talked about the inevitability of a major disaster as we drove around New Orleans that night. "They're all in denial," he remembers I said to him.

My description had always included what was obvious to everyone in New Orleans: the poor would be left behind to drown.

Everyone knew it. But especially, the poor knew it. Part of the fearsome nihilism of New Orleans was the awareness on the part of the city's poor that they were, and had always been, so expendable that they would be abandoned when it started to rain. But fatalistic as they were, even the poor of New Orleans might not have realized what might happen if they survived a catastrophic flood.

They were left to dehydrate and putrefy. They were abandoned and imprisoned for days without food or water in what was more than once described by those who experienced the ordeal as a modern-day slave ship. Rescuers were actively kept away while those who remained in the city were treated as dangerous insurgents. New Orleanians' guns were confiscated in a house-to-house search, and finally, those remaining in the city were expelled, at gunpoint if necessary.

In a federally organized airlift, those with nowhere to go were dispersed around the country with one-way tickets to destinations not of their choosing. Children affected by the disaster were enrolled in schools in forty-six different states, except for ten thousand or so child evacuees who were not enrolled in school anywhere.

The programs that were supposed to help the evacuees return and rebuild were set up in such a way as to make it as difficult as possible for them to collect the promised aid. People who lived in the Magnolia, St. Bernard, Lafitte, or Calliope projects, saw the homes they had left in a hurry closed up tight--not boarded up, but sealed with lead shields--and bulldozed, as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives had recommended be done for the whole city.

"It was as if all of us were already pronounced dead," said one Convention Center survivor.

They had been pronounced dead long ago.

© 2009 Ned Sublette

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  1. beautiful so much emotion. i can tell that ur feet have walked on those soaked streets, n uv picked w its amazing musicians. caint wait ta read the rest

  2. This reminds me of a silent film documentary I watched on Roku (via Netflix) a few weeks ago about a day in the life of Berlin in the summer of 1926, a few years before the world went mad. Now, I had just returned from Berlin on a vacation trip a few days earlier, and the Berlin of 1926 bore scant resemblance to the Berlin of today. I recognized a few of the subway stations, but that was about it.

  3. “and travels often to New Orleans” is one of the weirder resume highlights I’ve heard. I read down further and saw he wrote a book about NO, which is worth noting, but I can’t imagine giving me blogger cred as “travels often to Canal Winchster” …

  4. @Maddy, that’s a fussy and rude thing to say. You’re going way out of your way to find nits to pick with our guest, cut it out. I wrote the italicized bio that precedes the body of this blog post, not Mr. Sublette. It’s not a “resume,” it’s a blog post. The man lives in New York and writes about a specific place, and spends a lot of time there — nothing incongruous about noting that.

  5. I was in NOLA just over a month ago and happened to pick up The World that Made New Orleans, which I am enjoying. And, of course, I greatly enjoyed seeing that the city is coming back to life. Music is the perfect lens through which to view the rich cultural life that is NOLA and I look forward to The Year Before the Flood. Thank you for posting the above intro section.

  6. I’ve read both books; they’re wonderful. The best arguments about we need to save NOLA out there.

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