Behind the Scenes
On August 26th, 2005, my husband and I drove to Wetumpka, Alabama, where I’d agreed to speak at a luncheon to raise funds for the library. As we left East Tennessee, Hurricane Katrina came ashore in Florida as a Class 1 hurricane, and was quickly downgraded to a tropical storm.
During the long drive we talked about my book in progress, which was, at the time, titled Impulse. Those of you familiar with my books know that New Orleans is one of my favorite cities – to visit and to write about. But even loving it as I do, I was still planning to have it hit by a major hurricane.
When I arrived at the event on the morning of August 27th, I discovered that while we’d been away from newscasts, Katrina had turned back into a hurricane and the National Hurricane Center had issued a hurricane watch from Morgan City, Louisiana to the Louisianna/Mississippi border. By the time lunch was over, the watch had been extended eastward, across southern Mississippi to the Alabama/Florida border. Given that Wetumpka’s 190 miles from the coast, I never felt in any personal danger, but concerned about people in the watch area, I decided to take the hurricane out of my story.
Later that night the watch was changed to a warning and while we were driving back home to our mountains on August 28th, NHC was warning people of a “catastrophic Category 5 hurricane” with “devastating damage” expected. New Orleans declared a state of emergency and the mayor called for the first ever evacuation.
Katrina made landfall in Louisiana on the morning of August 29th and hell broke loose. Like much of the country, I spent days glued to my television watching as 80% of New Orleans became flooded – the water in some places twenty feet deep — and decided there was no way I could finish writing that particular book at that time. Even without the fictional hurricane, there were other events in my story I felt would be perceived as “piling on” a city already reeling. (Making things worse, New Orleans was rocked again by Hurricane Rita on September 24th.)
So, I put my story on the shelf, and began an entirely different book set in Wyoming, which kept the title Impulse. After I finished that story, I decided enough time had passed to get back to work on the book you’ve just read. Coincidentally, I finished No Safe Place in the early morning of August 29th, 2006, during the same hours Katrina had come barreling ashore a year earlier.
I’m writing this letter on September 29th, thirteen months after Katrina. Although the situation remains fluid, and numbers are always changing, at least 1,740 Louisianans died, 135 are missing, there are 52 unidentified corpses in the Orleans Parish morgue, and bodies are still being found. One-third of the hospitals and libraries remain closed. The residential Lower 9th Ward, once home to 14,000 people, remains a devastated and abandoned ghost town, the only neighborhood in the city still lacking drinkable water and other basic utilities.
Less than half of the pre-Katrina 460,000 population has come home; again, numbers are hard to pin down, but the Postal Service puts the figure at 171,000, which is equivalent to the population of 1880. Only 56 of the 128 schools have opened and more than 18,000 businesses have closed permanently since the storms.
Daily life in New Orleans can be a struggle. In a recent poll, only 16% of the citizens felt their lives had returned to normal.
But there’s also good news. Tourists are returning; the city has celebrated Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest; the Port of New Orleans is nearly back to normal; the convention center has bookings; the Saints won their home opener in a newly refurbished Superdome, which had been the site of so much suffering and despair; and although, according to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, 1562 of the city’s 3414 restaurants are still closed, Commander’s Palace, a famed new Orleans landmark since 1880, finally reopened this weekend with a celebratory jazz brunch.
One of my favorite things about New Orleans has always been its fabulous food. It’s the only city in the world where, as soon as I finish one meal, I begin planning where I’m going to eat my next. People in my Louisiana stories are always cooking and eating, and Cajun and Creole recipes from my novels and local restaurants can be found on my website.
Which is why I’m going end this letter with a quote from Charles Bohn, a talented New Orleans potter and optimist who owns Shadyside Pottery on Magazine Street: “Hell, you can’t let New Orleans die. The food’s too good.”