As Though the Waters Had Tried to Erase History Itself
Muddied rings still stain
houses halfway up
and the bodies of rotting dogs
still congeal in the stilted Louisiana sun.
—Walidah Imarisha, “Wade in the Water”
A clock on the wall in Alfred E. Lawless High School has stopped. Its face is streaked and dirty, its numbers chipped and discolored. The hallways are empty and caked with old mud and dust, and the schoolyard is littered with debris, the chainlink fence marking its border sagging and broken.
Lawless is located in New Orleans’ lower 9th Ward, where, June Cross narrates, “Time stopped on the morning of August 29, 2005.” Today, the school remains unrepaired, a looming, lonely reminder of what hasn’t changed in the city since Katrina, the hopes and homes lost, the memories fading. The school also serves as an apt starting point for The Old Man and the Storm, airing tonight on Frontline. Following its first images of the school—whose students are now “scattered so far no one even knows where they are anymore”—Cross’ incisive, heartrending, beautifully crafted film reflects on how the “crippled city [has struggled] to right itself,” despite insurmountable odds. Despite the storm’s fury and floods, on display on television for days in 2005, these odds have precious little to do with the hurricane itself, and much more to do with government neglect and ineptitude. People—communities, church groups, volunteers, even groups roused by celebrities’ calls for help—have surely revealed their fiber and their grace during the ordeal of Katrina. But the government supposedly in place to help those people has failed at nearly every turn.
Cross, whose previous work includes A Kid Kills (1992) and the multipart This Far by Faith (2004), focuses this film’s story through Herbert Gettridge, a fifth generation New Orleanian who was 82 years old when they met. His house was destroyed during the hurricane, and his family dispersed—kids and grandkids and great grandchildren (“60 or 70,” he counts) moved away to a range of locations, from Baton Rouge and Shreveport to Ponchatoula, Atlanta, and Madison, Wisconsin. Mr. Gettridge (as Cross calls him) and his wide Lydia wound up in Madison with their daughter Cheryl, but, anxious to keep hold of the home he built for his family, he returned alone to New Orleans, where he set to repairing the damage. Herbert Gettridge worked for long months on the house, living without electricity or drinkable water or, Cross notes, a bed.
The film observes Mr. Gettridge’s efforts and, especially, listens to his story. His determination soon became legendary (former Times-Picayune metro editor Jed Horne describes him as “the poster child for lower 9th ward struggle and perseverance”), but Mr. Gettridge is a canny guy, using the media attention to make his case and challenge authorities who want to take his home. (Old Man includes clips from his appearances on TV with Billy Crystal and Anderson Cooper, nice white men who lean toward him as he speaks and lament with him over the devastation of his neighborhood.)
With inadequate insurance policies and only occasional promises of help from the Bush Administration (including a bill passed by Congress allotting $116 billion of aid), Governor Kathleen Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin make their own efforts to help New Orleans “right itself.” The film notes these efforts, connecting dots between what goes wrong and who’s not attending to details. When a report commissioned by the mayor and headed by a developer argued that the Ward should be rebuilt with an eye to housing “less poor people,” Mr. Gettridge’s neighbors spoke out against it so vehemently that the mayor shelved it. Blanco’s Road Home Project, intended to organize, finance, and commit to rebuilding homes, FEMA’s input was predictably unhelpful (the agency underestimated the numbers) and the work remained unfinished, owing to extremely poor management by ICF International of Fairfax, Virginia, as well as other built-in obstacles (say, the Stafford Act, a preposterous federal law that insists a structure must be rebuilt after a disaster as it was before).
As the government fiddles, citizens like Mr. Gettridge and his sons (the film introduces Ronald and Leonard) swept and sawed, hammered and painted, daily daunted by the impossibility of their undertaking. Even as Leonard and his wife Geraldine set the new floor in their rebuilt house, Cross comments, “The everyday rhythm of their lives had been destroyed.” The film reveals the city’s inability to deal with numerous effects of Katrina and Rita, not only poverty, poor policing, and material debilitation, but also depression. During one interview, Leonard must walk off screen for a moment to gather himself (apologizing for his loss of composure) and Geraldine can hardly talk about her family, because, she says, “I cry a lot… It’s hard for me to have em away from me.”
Old photos show the Gettridge kids in happier times, in a backyard that no longer exists. More recent images, Cross says, show sad, averted eyes, kids who have been traumatized. The film uses these haunting shots to lead to its next point, that the health care system in New Orleans has been as decimated as any other element of its infrastructure. Jeffrey Rouse, chief deputy coroner of the Orleans Parish, says, “Overwhelming stress has worn out many a brain,” citing increased drinking, crime, and domestic violence, as well as suicide rates. “A year after Katrina,” Cross adds, “It was estimated that 50% of the [city’s] population had a diagnosable mental disorder.”
Even as it offers a harsh and careful indictment of the many ways the post-storm recovery has gone wrong The Old Man and the Storm maintains a close focus on the Gettridges, in particular Herbert’s struggle to bring Lydia home. Married for over 60 years, he’s single-minded about his goal, despite the fact that by winter 2007, he has yet to see his check from Road Home. At the same time, the film cuts to Lydia away in Wisconsin, showing her confusion, her homesickness, and her hospitalization after a stroke. The Gettridges’ eventual reunion is, as Cross puts it, “bittersweet.” Lydia returns to a home that’s necessarily changed: “The house smelled different, the bed was too high, and the house was too hot.” As well, the community is still ravaged, its services diminished, its school unused, its time stopped. “Katrina messed up people’s lives,” Lydia says, “Including mine.”