1 DEAD IN ATTIC – Chris Rose (the first of the three Katrina books)

Sunday, August 29, will mark the fifth anniversary of the near death of New Orleans.  A city known for its music, food, outstanding architecture, poverty, corruption, and racial divisions came close to succumbing to a hurricane because the Army Corps of Engineers, entrusted with the safety of the levees, had failed to do its job.  The federal government was slow to provide clean water, food, medical treatment, and shelter for the residents of one of the fifty states.  The United States, known throughout the world for its quick response to disaster anywhere at anytime , ignored the desperate citizens of its own country.

Brian Williams, of NBC news, was in New Orleans during the storm and the deadly chaos that followed.  He was in the Superdome and saw the loss of dignity that led to a loss of humanity among the thousands of people who were left there without electricity, food, water, and information.  Desperate people had no idea what had happened in the city.  Within a week or so of his return to New York, he did a special edition of the news that was re-broadcast last week.  At the end of the program, taped five years ago, he commented that over the next few months the people of the United States were going to have to engage in a serious, long-term discussion about race, poverty, and social class, all of which played a role in the abandonment of New Orleans.  That conversation has yet to take place.

Those who had the financial means to do so escaped from the city before the storm struck.  Those who did not have the resources to do so went to the Superdome or the convention center or stayed in their homes.  They were poor, most were black, and they belonged to the underclass.  The people of New Orleans who didn’t have the resources to demand better from their leaders on the city, state, and federal levels were abandoned by all.  If the French Quarter or the Garden District had been flooded the response would have been very different.

1 DEAD IN ATTIC is a compilation of newspaper columns by Chris Rose, a writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  He got his wife and three children to safety and then he returned to New Orleans so he could tell its stories.  Rose joined the paper as a crime reporter in 1984.  He covered national politics, economics, the southern regi0n, pop culture, and New Orleans night life and entertainment.  And, as the biography in the book says, on August 29, 2005, he became a war correspondent

In the section of the book from which it gets its title, Chris Rose describes his compulsion to tour the city, to see what has happened to this place that has been his home for over twenty years.

“I…try to figure out those Byzantine markings and symbols that the cops and the National Guard spray painted on all the houses around here…. In some cases, there’s no interpretation needed.  There’s one…on St. Roch Avenue…in the 8th ward…. It says: “1 Dead in Attic.”

Rose writes:

“I wonder who eventually came and took 1 Dead in Attic away…who claimed him or her?  Who grieved over 1 Dead in Attic and who buried 1 Dead in Attic?”

“I wonder if I ever met 1 Dead in Attic.  Maybe in the course of my job or maybe at a Saints game or maybe we once stood next to each other at a Mardi Gras parade….1 Dead in Attic could have been my mail carrier, a waitress in my favorite restaurant,  or the guy who burglarized my house a couple of years ago.  Who knows?”

My uncle was a hospital chaplain in New Orleans for the last 30 years of his life.  He died before Katrina; he definitely would not have left when residents were ordered to evacuate.  He would have stayed with the people who had become his family, a family so many miles from the one in New England.  When any of us would visit he would bring us around the hospital and introduce us to his friends, the porters, the kitchen help, the housekeeping staff.  They were the reason he loved New Orleans.   He gave everyone nicknames; this was so well known that when he died, people who spoke at a memorial service introduced themselves by the names he had given them, knowing their real names wouldn’t mean anything.  People were delighted when they could put the nicknames to faces because they were all friends having met each other through his stories.

Some of these people opened their homes to us when he was dying.  We knew their names and their phone numbers but after Katrina the phone numbers were useless and we still don’t know where they are.  Anyone of the people who were so important in my uncle’s life  could have been 1 Dead in Attic.

Chris Rose identifies 1 Dead in Attic on the back cover of the book.  “This book is dedicated to the memory of Thomas Coleman.  He was a retired longshoreman, a storyteller, a guy who liked to spend time with family and friends.  A New Orleanian.  He was 80 years old when he died in his attic at 2214 St. Roch Avenue, in the 8th ward, on or about Aug.29, 2005.  He had a can of juice and a bedspread at his side when the waters rose.  There were more than a thousand like him.”

The city is being talked about this weekend, the fifth anniversary of the unthinkable.  Boosters claim that New Orleans is back but thirty percent of the population before Katrina have not returned.  Those that didn’t have the financial resources to leave their homes before the storm likely don’t have the resources to return now that the storm is over.

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2 Responses to 1 DEAD IN ATTIC – Chris Rose (the first of the three Katrina books)

  1. One of the problems with Katrina was that older people who did have the means to leave did not want to, they would rather take the chance of dying in their homes than leaving their belongings. If my grandparents had still been alive, I have no doubt they would have done the same thing and met the same fate, no matter how hard I would have tried to make them leave. There is a fierce loyalty to home in New Orleans.

    Chris Rose did an excellent job portraying one side of the hurricane, but there are other sides and other stories that may never get told.

    Holli Castillo

    • Beth says:

      Holli – Unfortunately getting older people to leave their homes is a problem everywhere. My in-laws had a home on the ocean, on a private road so no town services. Eastern New England was predicted to get a severe blizzard, very high winds and upwards of two feet of snow. We live about an hour away; we thought there was an agreed upon plan for them to come to our home. My husband drove to get them and in the time between his leaving our house and arriving at their’s, they had changed their minds.

      The storm was worse than predicted and it was over a week before their area was plowed. It frightened them enough that they sold the house and moved ten minutes away from us.

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