Book Review: Not Just The Levees Broke by Phyllis Montana-Leblanc
Back in March of this year I wrote about Joshua Clark’s memoir (Sussurus OR Heart Like Water) and concluded by suggesting that those who are not die-hard New Orleanians wait for a better memoir to come along. Phyllis Montana-Leblanc’s Not Just The Levees Broke is in fact an at least somewhat better memoir of surviving hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Though I can hardly recommend it without reservations.
Like me, Phyllis Montana-Leblanc was born in New Orleans in the early–mid 1960’s. Montana-Leblanc was born in the old Charity Hospital on Tulane Avenue in downtown New Orleans, while I came into the world about six months later at Ochsner Hospital out on Jefferson Highway. I’m sure that in the years we both grew up in the city that our paths probably never crossed. I moved away from New Orleans in my early twenties in search of greener economic pastures, while Montana-Leblanc stayed and remained a lifelong New Orleanian. All of this is by way of saying that I was initially quite sympathetic in my approach to this memoir, feeling as I do a kind of kinship with all of those other people out there who live in or truly “know what it means to miss” New Orleans.
The memoir did not begin promisingly. Montana-Leblanc starts by raging that no one warned her and her family that they needed to leave. I very vividly remember, on the Friday before the fateful Monday that Katrina struck sitting in my living room in Seattle watching on television as Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco said in no uncertain terms that this was a huge storm headed straight for Louisiana. And everyone south of Interstate 12 should evacuate immediately. It is true that the seemingly inept Mayor Ray Nagin failed to issue the mandatory evacuation order until mid-morning Sunday. By which time most people in south Louisiana had gotten the hell out of town, But I saw for myself that the governor was telling people like Montana-Leblanc to evacuate at noon on Friday in no uncertain terms.
One point Montana-Leblanc makes, that I think is very critical, and has been largely ignored and mis-reported in the mainstream media is that many of those who stayed behind did not do so simply because they lacked the resources to leave. While Montana-Leblanc does describe herself as poorer than some, it is clear that her immediate and extended family who occupied several apartments in one large complex out on Haynes Boulevard plus a sister who lived in a nearby single family home, did in fact possess sufficient cars and cash to have made the drive out of New Orleans and the danger zone anytime between Friday and Sunday afternoon. The reason her family stayed, was because her mother, an elderly woman who had survived hurricanes Camille and Betsy about 40 years ago refused to leave and the rest of the clan would not consider going without her. This was not an uncommon attitude among lifelong New Orleanians, particularly those who remembered staying in the city and surviving long ago Hurricane Betsy, back in 1965 and Hurricane Camille in 1969.
My family too stayed put during Betsy and Camille and through all of the other late summer hurricanes that threatened the New Orleans area during the twenty years or so I was growing up there. Though my father (who passed away a year or so before Katrina came to town) announced to me much later in his life that HE would evacuate if a big storm was coming . Like most New Orleans area residents who can read the newspaper, my father was well aware of the highly changed nature of his city’s hurricane vulnerability due to wetlands loss and the navigation channels created by the oil and gas industry, particularly the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (locally known as “Mr. GO”) which was pretty much a super fast freeway for storm surge to inundate the levees.
Montana-Leblanc is also quite correct in her criticisms of the US Army Corps of Engineers and their failure to adequately design and build effective levees. Although she seems frankly ignorant of the complicated politics of the local levee boards, which are at least as much responsible as the Corps of Engineers for the ineffective levees. She also has my deepest sympathies for what sounds to me from her descriptions very much like the panic-anxiety disorder that I suffer from myself. That her illness was un-diagnosed and un-treated at the time she experienced the extraordinary stress of surviving the hurricane that blew the roof off of her apartment building followed by the quite unexpected flood that left her and her family trapped in their flooded city almost certainly contributed to the feelings of intense abandonment and rage Montana-Leblanc felt in the days after the storm when she and her family were reduced to waiting endlessly in ever-changing, very poorly managed lines to be rescued and brought to safety. It was more than a week after the storm before Montana-Leblanc was able to shower, eat decent food and sleep indoors in a bed. Honestly, I can not imagine the horror of the experience which she relates, at times quite eloquently.
My criticism of this book is the sense of entitlement that Montana-Leblanc seems to exude, and her frequent perceptions of racism, where I saw only greed, incompetence and ineptitude. While Montana-Leblanc stresses that she has forgiven all of the politicians who let her down (she’s way ahead of me on that score– I still think former president Junior deserves a court martial and a firing squad) and even voted to re-elect Nagin as mayor in the post-Katrina election. She seems a bit full of herself and some of her endless talk about her participation in the Spike Lee movie When The Levees Broke grows tiresome after awhile. Not Just The Levees Broke is Cautiously Recommended to those with a real interest in New Orleans. But it is far from the definitive post storm book that I am still waiting for.
Title: Not Just The Levees Broke Author: Phyllis Montana-Leblanc Format: Hardcover Publisher: Atria Books (Simon & Schuster) Publication Date: August 19,2008