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Gary Younge

A woman walks through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, May 2006. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty
Gone with the wind

This particular saxophone had sentimental as well as musical value: in 1965, some of his colleagues at the Tulane medical centre in New Orleans had a whip-round and told him to buy whatever he most needed to replace what hurricane Betsy had destroyed earlier that year. Doc was a lab technician by day and a jazz saxophonist by night, bringing in a much-needed second income for his growing family. So he bought himself the Selmer Mark VI.

In the Lower Ninth ward, some drowned in their attics while trying to escape Betsy, but Watson was relatively lucky. The water rose only as high as the door knob. Forty years, several children and grandchildren later, he was still living in the same house when Katrina approached. "I wasn't going to go," says Watson, 74, "but I had my oldest daughter and her children staying with me at the time. I left my horn up there where I thought no water could touch it. My ceiling's nine feet from the floor and my house was raised two feet from the ground, so I figured it would be safe."

Watson went to Houston, guessing he'd be back home in a few days. He guessed wrong. It was months before he was even able to visit his home - he found his whole neighbourhood destroyed. One of the two cars in his driveway stood on top of the other. Lake Pontchartrain had filled his house to the rafters with filthy water and toxic waste. "Everything had floated and then just fell where it was," he says. "The refrigerators full of rotting meat, the furniture, clothes ... everything."

His wife, Annabelle, had come back to see if she could recover some of her favourite coats. She couldn't. Doc came for his Selmer Mark VI. He got it. "I had to fight my way through everything, but I wasn't going until I found it. It had been washed through. It was wet and it had mildew on it," he says, clutching an instrument that looks as though it's pocked with green liver spots. "The pads were gone but I think I can get it fixed."

Doc has a head of white hair and a salt-and-pepper moustache that is more salt than pepper. When he talks about the state in which he found his house and all that Katrina took from him, his voice halts and tears take over. "When it gets real quiet and I get to thinking about it, it's depressing," he says. "I'm longing to be back and play my music. If I can get the money together to build the house and they get the levees fixed, I'd be willing to take a chance on that." Until then, which could be never, he's stuck in Houston.

It is difficult to imagine New Orleans - the city that bore Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton and the Marsalis brothers, among others - without musicians such as Doc. Yet within weeks of Katrina, property developers, politicians, town planners and government officials were doing just that, actively imagining the city without the neighbourhoods that have made jazz what it is. Mass buyouts in areas like the Ninth ward were mooted. The idea was not to move the city's evacuees to a safer place in the city, but to remove them altogether. Blueprints without black people - elaborated by the wealthy to exclude the poor.

"Within the general pattern of flood risk, water flows away from money," writes geography professor Craig Colten in his book, An Unnatural Metropolis. "That is, away from the property of those who can afford to live in less floodprone areas and those with the influence to secure adequate publicly financed water-removal services ... With greater means and power the white population occupied the better-drained sections [of New Orleans], while blacks typically inhabited the swampy 'rear' districts."

It's the inhabitants of these swampy "rear" districts that continue to give jazz its life force. Here, second lining, where a jazz band accompanies a wedding or funeral procession through the street, is still common. The city used to boast around 3,200 musicians, and around 10 times that number - just under one in 10 of the pre-Katrina population - made their living as a result of music.

"New Orleans is nothing without jazz," says Marcus Hubbard, the 28-year-old trumpeter with the Soul Rebels, who has now moved to Houston. "It's the soul of the city. If you take that away, it's just an area with nice buildings. The food is good, but that goes with the jazz, not the other way around."

Most of the Soul Rebels lived in New Orleans east and have known each other since school. Now three are in Houston, two are in Baton Rouge and one is back in New Orleans. "We got into it by watching a lot of people older than us," says Hubbard. "But now we're all over the country, so it's hard to see where the next generation of Soul Rebels is going to come from."

"Jazz was not a phenomenon that started in one place," says Dan Morgenstern, of the Institute of Jazz at Rutgers University, "but New Orleans is the place where it first flourished. You can't dispute that. It's a culturally unique place in the United States because it comprises so many elements. The French and the Spanish regimes were here and it is a port city. There are influences from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. It was a special blend."

By the 1930s the city and the music were so inextricably interlinked that they had both become metaphors for subversion to its devotees and its detractors. "New Orleans became a multiple myth and symbol," wrote historian Eric Hobsbawm. "Anti-commercial, anti-racist, proletarian-populist, New Deal radical, or just anti-respectable and anti-parental, depending on taste."

And so it was that as a young white woman growing up in Natchez, Mississippi, Bethany Bultman recalls seeing a sign in the late 1950s put up by the Ku-Klux Klan stating: Coloured Music Corrupts White Youth. "I thought, if it's that good, I want some of it," Bultman says. She moved to New Orleans.

Years later, when her husband became involved in creating a clinic in the late 1990s to provide health care and outreach facilities to the city's musicians, Bultman decided to get involved. "I'm a cultural historian," she says, "and I decided I no longer wanted to write about some sad-arse guy who was dying of something that could have been prevented. I wanted to do something about it."

There was plenty to do. Around 90% of the musicians the clinic served lived below the federal poverty line; few had their own health insurance. Across the board, Louisiana has the highest poverty rate of any state in the union and vies with its neighbour, Mississippi, for the title of most unhealthy. One in four of the state's adults is clinically obese, smokes and has no medical insurance. Break these statistics down by race and you have to leave not just the state but the western world for a comparable plight. Rates of black infant mortality in Louisiana are on a par with those in Sri Lanka; black male life expectancy is the same as Kyrgyzstan's.

Before the storm, musicians were prone to some occupational hazards - glaucoma in horn players, polyps in singers, deafness in general - as well as all the other illnesses suffered by the rest of Louisiana. Since Katrina, the emphasis of the musicians' needs, and therefore the clinic's priorities, has changed. The outreach work has become crucial, trying to find people housing and rebuild their lives. Wardell Quezergue, the "Creole Beethoven" who wrote Mr Big Stuff and the Creole Mass, seems to have lost all of his sheet music in the storm. Quezergue is blind and the clinic managed to get him assisted housing at the Chateau de Notre Dame in New Orleans.

Allergies have become more common as a result of the pollution caused by Katrina, but the principal change has been the rise of mental health problems. "On some level everyone here is depressed," says James Morris, the clinic's social worker. "They don't live in their houses. They're not sure where they are going to be living. They've lost their communities. They're surrounded by destruction."

Since the storm, the suicide rate in the city has quadrupled. Meanwhile, the state has lost more than half of its mental health workers; according to the Louisiana Hospital Association, the city has only around 60 hospital beds for psychiatric patients.

"They keep saying, 'Come back,' " says Bultman, "but there's nothing for people to come back to. No schools for their kids. No public hospitals. Nothing."

So they stay away. Before the storm, New Orleans had a population of 484,000 - last month it was estimated to be from 190,000 to 230,000. A report by Brown University in January revealed that as many as 80% of the black population may never return. Census bureau estimates released last month indicate those most likely to return are white, wealthier and older. Before the storm, two-thirds of New Orleans city was African-American; now it is less than a half. "As a practical matter, these poor folks don't have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn't have the resources to get out of our city," wealthy New Orleans property developer Joseph Canizaro told the Associated Press. "So we won't get all those folks back. That's just a fact."

In truth, it is more a self-fulfilling prophecy. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin says that everybody who wants to come back and rebuild the city has the right to do so. But so long as there are no basic services, not even housing, this remains a hollow invitation - and the business model of a smaller, richer, whiter city, which Nagin rejected, endures by a combination of default and design. "The continuing question about the hurricane is this: whose city will be rebuilt?" asked the author of the Brown report.

On a tour of hurricane relief shelters in Houston shortly after Katrina, president George Bush's mother, Barbara, said, "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this [and here she chuckled], this is working very well for them."

Six months later, the statistics suggested otherwise. According to a Zogby poll in April, 93% of those who resettled in Houston are black and 82% are women. More than half were families with children, earned less than $15,000 (£8,100) a year and had no car. Sixty-nine per cent had jobs before Katrina; 85% didn't have jobs seven months later.

On the third floor of Houston's Herman Memorial Hospital, Barbara Frazier keeps on praying for divine intervention. Kerwin, her 33-year-old son who played tuba for New Birth brass band, had no medical insurance and has had a massive stroke that has left him almost completely paralysed. The doctors do not hold out much hope. But Barbara, who left New Orleans for Dallas with just a scrapbook of photos, birth certificates and a Bible, keeps going over their heads to a higher authority. "I'm willing to run this race as far as God wants me to," she says. She sits in his room, taking every flicker of Kerwin's eye and twitch of his hand as a sign of hope, and tries to sing him out of his coma.

Kerwin's stroke is directly related to Katrina, says Bultman, who's been trying to help the family. "This is a result of the terrible stress that people are under. They not only have to keep playing, but they have to go back and forth between where they live and where they work." As for Barbara's uphill struggle to care for Kerwin, "If she were back at home, her church would be there for her", Bultman says. "People would be bringing her food. People would be trying to get him into a home. This is what displacement is all about. We're like a culture in exile."

In room 210 of the Hilton Hotel on the University of Houston campus, pastor Robert Blake leads a church in exile. In New Orleans east, the New Home ministry stood on 10 acres of land on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain and had a membership of around 4,000. Now Blake tends to a flock of 400 in the Hilton's Waldorf Astoria ballroom.

"This has brought about a whole new approach to ministry that I was never prepared for in the seminary," he says. "In New Orleans the community was already there. In Houston we have to try and recreate it. In New Orleans I could preach the word, but here people need much more than that. They need one-on-one time. They need reassurance. It's psychologically wrenching to lose the people that you know, the community that you know, the life that you know." Blake believes the vast majority of his congregation will end up staying in Houston. They have found jobs, their children are in school.

A gospel vocalist starts off the service with some rousing songs. "If you feel the need to dance in the aisles, then you get your praise on and dance," he says. Soon the 200 congregants are on their feet, swaying as though a soul concert just broke out.

"How y'all doing?" comes the call from the makeshift pulpit.

"On top and going higher," comes the response.

But Blake says many of his parishioners often feel low. "One young man told me recently that he has lost his faith," says Black. "People ask the question why? And that question is asked of God."

Blake has set up a political and social activism ministry to tackle issues arising from Katrina. "Politics failed us at a local, state and federal level," he says. "That failure in New Orleans was due largely to the fact that our constituency was ignorant of what our elected officials should have been doing and what we had to do to make sure it got done."

New Orleans went through two hurricanes in 2004. The first, hurricane Pam, packed winds of 120mph and dumped up to 20 inches of rain on some parts of south-east Louisiana in July. On the Saffir-Simpson scale, which ranks hurricanes from a category 1 (no real damage to building structures) to category 5 (complete building failures with small utility buildings blown over or away), Pam was a 3. A million residents were evacuated in time. But around 300,000 - mostly the poor without transportation - were stranded and half a million buildings were destroyed. The levees held but the water rose over them and filled the city. The death toll was more than 60,000 and the dead floated out of their coffins.

The second, hurricane Ivan, had already devastated 85% of the Caribbean island of Grenada before it reached the Gulf of Mexico. The city was ready with 10,000 bodybags, but many in New Orleans stayed put. "We don't run from hurricanes - we drink them," read one sign daubed on plywood, referring to a popular cocktail. What threatened to be a category 4 was downgraded to a category 1 and did little damage. No bodybags were needed.

Hurricane Pam was literally a dry run - a simulated exercise, based on computer models, involving 270 officials and demonstrating what could happen if the city were struck by a category 3 hurricane. Hurricane Ivan was the real thing.

"I'm not really sure that people took the Pam exercise seriously," says Kate Streva, a research associate at Louisiana State University who participated in the simulation. "A lot of them thought this is a worst-case scenario, not a likely scenario. There have been so many misses and false evacuations, and so many close calls, that people think it's a false alarm." The latest figure for the death toll from hurricane Katrina is 1,836, most of them in Louisiana, and there are upwards of 400 more missing.

New Orleanians have always had an ambivalent relationship to their environment. Sitting mostly below sea level, cradled to the south by the curve of the Mississippi river on its final dash into the Gulf of Mexico and to the north by Lake Pontchartrain, it has always been vulnerable to whatever nature threw its way. Dipping like a bowl between the lake and river, only the levees - raised mounds of earth and concrete - keep it from filling up.

Renowned geographer Lewis Pierce described it as "an impossible but inevitable city". Inevitable because it stands at the foot of the Mississippi, giving access to the Gulf of Mexico - a crucial location for trade in cotton, slaves and alcohol even before the discovery of oil off its shores. This is why Louisiana was so coveted by the French, Spanish and US, which in turn explains why New Orleans remains one of the nation's most distinctive cities: a Catholic town in the Protestant south, a haven for hedonism in the Bible belt, the home of Creole cuisine in the mecca of soul food.

Impossible because of the precariousness of its location, which made early white settlers think it was uninhabitable. In 1708, French explorer Jean Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville wrote home to say, "I do not see how settlers can be placed on this river." In southern Louisiana, town names such as Alluvial City, Port Sulphur and Venice bear testament to the constant battle with the elements in an area where every 13 seconds soil erosion devours land the size of a tennis court. These wetlands provided a buffer between rising water levels and the city. The more they disappeared, the more likely it would be that areas of New Orleans would disappear with them.

In October 2001, Scientific American magazine described New Orleans as a "disaster waiting to happen" and warned, "Only massive re-engineering of south-eastern Louisiana can save the city." The next year, the Times-Picayune published a five-part series called Washing Away, which predicted, "Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days."

So, neither the hurricane nor the devastation it could wreak were a surprise. To live in New Orleans, as in San Francisco, meant to live with not just the possibility, but the probability of environmental disaster. There was, however, one crucial difference - unlike earthquakes, there is an annual season for hurricanes and both the approximate time and place of a storm's arrival is known several days beforehand.

What was stunning in New Orleans was the lack of preparation, the full extent of which would not be apparent for months. Two days before the storm, a regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) wrote to the national head, Michael Brown, laying out a situation that was "past critical", and warning of a lack of food and water and that patients would die "within hours". Brown emailed back to say, "Thanks for the update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?"

In 2000, city officials produced a 14-page booklet, City Of New Orleans Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, laying out guidelines for evacuation. No further study on the practicalities was carried out and, when the time came, mayor Ray Nagin (who was re-elected in May), reluctant to issue a mandatory evacuation order in case businesses sued him for loss of trade, ignored the guidelines.

During a video briefing the night before the storm struck, Max Mayfield, head of the national hurricane centre, told George Bush, "I don't think any model can tell you with any confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's obviously a very, very grave concern." Bush said he appreciated "so very much the warnings that Max and his team have given". Four days later, the president, who had slashed funding to repair the levees just months earlier, told reporters, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."

There were any number of reasons why people did not leave the city beforehand. More than one in four New Orleanians did not have a car. Many of those who did, did not have the money to pay for hotels. Some of the old, disabled and insane, and those who cared for them, weighed the stress and cost of evacuation against the threat of the storm and decided to risk it. Some certainly thought they could ride it out. But in general not only were the poorest neighbourhoods most vulnerable to flooding, but those who lived in them simply could not afford to leave.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the reality of the third-world conditions in which many in the world's wealthiest nation live was literally washed up for the world to see.

As tens of thousands of people converged on the convention centre, Fema's Michael Brown said, "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist." Rarely a truer word had been spoken. Indeed, these were people the nation's establishment had long tried to forget. New Orleanians who want the city to return to the state it was in before the hurricane are hard to come by. Before Katrina, you were 10 times more likely to be murdered and three times more likely to be robbed in New Orleans than in the rest of the US. It was a city renowned for corruption, where child poverty rates stood at 40% and levels of illiteracy were not far behind.

To be in the Crescent City that week after Katrina was like seeing what Haiti would look like with skyscrapers. By the end of the week, people were climbing into helicopters with no idea where they were heading but just pleased to be getting out. Many remain wherever they were dropped off.

Everybody has a story from those few days. Steve Pistorius was on tour in Japan when the storm struck and thought, because the hurricane had veered east, that the city and his nine cats and dogs had been spared. "I was getting on the plane when I saw Ray Nagin on CNN saying the 17th Street levees had been breached and the city will be flooded with 15 feet of water. I just started crying." Antoinette K-doe had hunkered down in the Mother-In-Law lounge, the club in Treme where her late husband would play and she would cook gumbo, red beans and smothered okra. When young hoodlums came to loot the lounge for booze, Antoinette held up her sawn-off shotgun and gave them a warning: "I don't think you want to come to the Mother-In-Law lounge. Not now, not ever." They didn't need to be told twice.

"Uncle" Lionel Batiste, the drummer with the Treme Brass Band, sat on his porch, watched the water rise and bought some Jack Daniel's from a looter. "I had no idea the water was coming that high," says Lionel. "But it stopped and then started going down pretty fast."

Fats Domino stayed in his yellow mansion in the Lower Ninth ward with five of his children and their families because his wife was sick. As the flood waters washed away his trophies, he got his family into the attic. Assuming that they had perished, someone scrawled "RIP Fats" on the side of the house, sparking rumours that he had died. In fact, a helicopter came and ferried him away in his blue striped silk shirt. He was taken to the Superdome. Confused and disoriented, when he arrived he thought he was going to perform.

During those chaotic days, New Orleans was on the world's screens and the nation's conscience. The watchdog that was once the American media regained its teeth and started snarling at incompetent public officials. For a month or so the nation remained outraged, and then gradually began to lose interest and focus.

In the meantime, people got on with their lives as best they could. Pistorius, who is still missing one of his cats and one of his dogs, went to North Carolina before finding a new apartment in the city. He fears for "one of the few cities where musicians could really make a living". "One of these days the benefit concerts are going to run out, and then what?"

K-doe returned from North Carolina in a second-hand hearse and set about trying to revive the Mother-in-Law lounge, which was flooded. She got her gas service resumed only recently.

After stints in Arkansas and Mississippi, Lionel got rehoused in New Orleans and is back playing with the Treme Brass Band.

In May, Fats Domino, whose home is being renovated, was scheduled to close the city's jazz festival, but he pulled out at the last minute because he was ill.

Within six weeks, those dry areas of the city had returned to a peculiar kind of normal - although, driving through the central business district, you had to swerve to avoid the fallen trees and power lines. Elsewhere, the brown flood marks and the rescuers' spray-painted signs telling the date the rescuers arrived and the number of dead began to look like permanent features. The streets were lined with discarded fridges.

One of my wife's relatives lay rotting in the very bed where rescuers found her dead, and left her, six weeks earlier: so common was the story, the local media barely paid attention. It felt like the capital city of a failed state. Hotels charged top dollar for limited service and were filled with relief workers; a huge state presence, but little in the way of law enforcement.

By Mardi Gras in late February, the city was keen to announce its return. "Welcome Mardi Gras Revelers", read a banner outside Rubenstein's department store on Canal Street. "New Orleans' business is tourism and we are ready to get back to business." But the city was anything but ready. Only a third of the restaurants had opened and few hotel rooms were usable and available.

Each time you came back after Mardi Gras, the T-shirts in the French quarter would reflect some new target, wavering between prescient, puerile and priapic. They started out with bawdy single-entendres such as "Katrina gave me a blow job I'll never forget." But soon they were poking fun at Fema, which stood for Fix Everything My Ass. After Mayor Nagin pledged that New Orleans would once again be Chocolate City (a majority black town), he was portrayed as Willy Wonka with the words "Willy Nagin's Chocolate Factory; semi-sweet and a little nutty." As the public opinion against the war grew, so did the number of T-shirts calling to "Make levees, not war".

The huge demand for labour to rebuild the city sparked the second major demographic shift in the city. Alongside the exodus of African-Americans came the influx of Latinos. The city's Hispanic population ballooned from 3% to more than 20% in the months after the storm. Every morning at Lee Circle, hundreds of day labourers gathered under the watchful eye of the Confederate general and waited for work. Every night thousands slept in a tent city in City Park, Scout Island, with a handful of standpipes and toilets between them. Before the hurricane, Ernesto Schweikert, the Honduran voice of the local Hispanic radio station, Radio Tropical, used to field 200 calls a day. Now he gets 2,500. There are long queues at the Western Union stations with people sending money home. In a city once famous for Creole and jambalaya, tamales and Spanish are now common fare. By May, the T-shirts in the French quarter had a new meaning for Fema: "Find Every Mexican Available."

Were it not for the T-shirts, areas such as the French quarter, the Garden district and elsewhere uptown seem almost normal today. The fallen trees have been cleared, the graffiti threatening to shoot looters scrubbed off. On a Sunday morning at the Boulangerie on Magazine street - referred to mockingly as the "aisle of denial" - white and wealthy patrons enjoy croissants and creamy lattes. You could almost believe that Katrina, like Pam, was just a scare story to knock the city into shape.

But if there has been one thing more amazing than how New Orleans has changed since Katrina, it is how much it has stayed the same - and how little the clean-up has achieved. The hurricane season has already begun, and it's an open question whether the city is any better prepared this year than it was last. Driving through the Lower Ninth after her return from North Carolina, Antoinette K-doe kept stopping the car and staring at the post-apocalyptic sight of the neighbourhood where she grew up. It looked as if Katrina had arrived just a week ago: whole houses had been washed off their moorings and into the road; cars had been washed into the houses; trees had been blown on to cars. And there they were still. "We're the richest country in the world," K-doe said. "I don't understand how we can't fix this up." In March alone, nine bodies and a skull were found among the city's rubble. It was only earlier this month that they finally resumed mail service to the handful of Lower Ninth residents who have returned. But the postman keeps finding addresses without houses and houses without doors.

During Jazzfest, the city's annual jazz festival, Craig Kline stood outside Doc Watson's home in a hard hat, big boots and a gas mask. Kline grew up listening to Doc play with the Olympia band and is now a trombonist. As part of the Arabie Wrecking Krewe, a group of musicians who have banded together to renovate other musicians' homes, he was helping to clear Doc's house. In the front garden lay a few shards of the Doc's life. Mardi Gras beads, a camera, a few pictures, a dainty, decorative umbrella used for second lining and a cap that says Preservation Hall Jazz Band. From one of the Krewe's stereos a blues singer crooned, "You don't know how I feel."

"It could be 10 years before this neighbourhood ever comes back," Kline said, "but I think it will come back. If they fix the levees we can take care of the rest. This is still the best place in the world to be a musician, and New Orleans needs the music. We'll get this city back together one note at a time."

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