I haven’t missed an episode of HBO’s compelling new series Treme. I have watched most of it in bars and restaurants in New Orleans. Creator David Simon has captured much about life in the city. Most critical, the series understands that New Orleans is, at its core, a physical experience. It’s routine to spend a Tuesday night standing shoulder to shoulder with 200 strangers in a tin-ceilinged sticky-floor bar, dancing to the blaring horns of a brass band until your hair falls in a wet pile around your ringing ears. Treme evokes New Orleans as the unbearable weight of summer’s humidity, the sobering perfection of a midnight beignet, the magnificence of a crane taking flight in City Park, the familiar taste of home in a plastic bowl of red beans and rice bought from a street vendor.
Perhaps this is why so many New Orleanians love the show. It feels so… real. Seamlessly incorporated locals like musicians Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins are just the start. The city’s landmarks, restaurants, newspapers, T-shirts and taxis are the authentic fixtures that give the show substance. But I worry that, for all its authenticity, Treme is ultimately reductive. It is still a fiction whose characters only gesture toward the far more complicated reality they portray.
Take the case of Phyllis Montana-Leblanc, who plays Desiree, the girlfriend of Antoine Batiste, portrayed by Wendell Pierce. Leblanc is not an actor by training. She entered the national scene as the most compelling voice in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. Her personal testimony and stinging analysis were the captivating threads holding Lee’s long documentary together. In that film Leblanc told her story with unflinching honesty and well-directed anger, without a hint of self-censorship or self-pity. In Treme she is scripted, cast as a fictionalized rendering of herself. Leblanc’s story is given back to her as lines written by someone else. Desiree, the character, is an allegory for Leblanc, the citizen.
This representation is especially disturbing because throughout her post-Katrina ordeal Leblanc insisted on her humanity even in profoundly dehumanizing conditions. In her memoir she writes of her frustration while waiting for help to evacuate the flooded city: "I am a person, a living breathing person with a heart beating inside of a body, and you can’t help me?" Her insistence that the government violated human rights and flouted basic human dignity resonates throughout her book. But each time her story is mediated—first by Lee’s editing and then by the writers and directors of Treme—it becomes more palatable, even entertaining. With each translation some meaning is lost.
This is not a criticism of Leblanc; it is a criticism of a pervasive trend, of which Treme is perhaps the best example, of reducing Hurricane Katrina to a mere metaphor. These days it is fashionable to use Katrina as a discursive tool.
In March 2009, Frank Rich wondered if AIG bonuses would become Obama’s "Katrina moment." A few months later Politico reported that "Republicans hope General Motors is President Obama’s Hurricane Katrina," only to be topped by the Washington Times, which asked, "Will Swine Flu Be Obama’s Katrina?" By January of this year the Wall Street Journal readily declared that the Haiti earthquake was Obama’s Katrina, while Arianna Huffington recently assured readers that it was jobs, not the BP oil spill, that would be Obama’s Katrina.
Sometimes it feels like commentators can’t wait for another Hurricane Katrina. After all, catastrophes focus public attention, reveal institutional shortcomings and evoke powerful emotional responses. Maybe it was inevitable that Hurricane Katrina would be reduced to a casual metaphor. For thirty years pundits have described political scandal involving intrigue and corruption with the handy suffix "gate." Now Katrina is shorthand for administration-crippling unresponsiveness. Mention Katrina to remind politicians that they need to look concerned and engaged when citizens are suffering. Deploy Katrina as a lesson in bureaucratic incompetence. Shake a scolding Katrina finger at leaders who seem overwhelmed by a current challenge. Katrina is unexpected disaster. Katrina is spectacular debacle. Katrina is the beginning of the end of a flawed leader.
Except that it is not. Eighty percent of the city flooded when the levees failed. More than 1,500 people were killed. Tens of thousands were permanently displaced. Billions in property was lost. The levee failure caused by Katrina wiped away entire communities, irreparably damaging homes, schools, churches and stores. It stole decades of family memories. It altered centuries of tradition in a matter of moments. It left a legacy of blight, economic devastation and personal suffering in its wake.
Each time Katrina, whose fifth anniversary is on the oil-soaked horizon, is evoked as a political metaphor, we risk a dangerous mediation of experience. These metaphors reduce catastrophe to an object lesson, implying that the effects of the disaster have been resolved, that the plot has been resolved and that the continued suffering of our fellow citizens is little more than a literary device.
Yes, New Orleans is a city whose cultural excess and eccentricity cry out for understanding through the literary, the poetic, the musical, the athletic and even the magical. But when we reduce Katrina to fiction—even really good fiction—we risk making it little more than a trope. The fifth anniversary of Katrina reminds us that to fully restore New Orleans, and to change it into a more just and equal city, we must build tangible political will based on sober assessments of the city’s continuing challenges.
Katrina is still our Katrina. This story does not yet have an ending.