By Chris Rose – This collection of newspaper columns from the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the days and months following Hurricane Katrina is, as the cover says, “a roller-coaster ride of observation, commentary, emotion, tragedy, and even humor”—whose shaky pilings are sunk into the physical, economic, and emotional debris of a devastated city.
Rose reports unflinchingly about the horrors and about the small personal triumphs the city’s residents experienced as they tried, not always successfully, to scrabble back to some kind of normalcy. Collectively, his writings probably better than anything else I’ve read answer the question people asked at the time, “Is New Orleans worth it?” His love of the city—its music, food, culture, and traditions, but mostly its people—soaks every page like floodwater.
The ongoing calamity didn’t stop when the wind and rain ceased, but went on and on in the form of poor government decision-making, ill-conceived emergency and reconstruction plans, rapacious utility companies and developers, loophole-seeking insurance schemes, lost possessions and people. To report on it, Rose got out and about, bicycling through the devastated areas, recording the citizenry’s stories. And some stories they were!
Rose’s close attention to these trials was not without its costs. A little more than two months after the disaster, he began one of his essays by quoting the people who said to him, “Everyone here is mentally ill now.” It took a while for him to recognize it—almost seven months—though his wife, his editor, his friends, and his readers tried to convince him much earlier, but he, too, was breaking under the strain. “I feel as if I have become the New Orleans poster boy for posttraumatic stress, chronicling my descent into madness for everyone to read,” he wrote in late March 2006. A few months later, he wrote about his yearlong battle with depression and what he was, finally, doing about it.
He’d been the city’s cheerleader, encouraging people to be strong and stand tall and celebrate what they still had, and his admission of needing serious help loosed a response from thousands. “It boggles the mind to think of how many among us are holding on by frayed threads, just barely, and trying to hide it as I was for so many months.” Even acknowledging that, he ended an essay about his depression with words of encouragement and purpose: “Find some way to shine a light. Together, maybe we’ll find our way out of this.”
This collection of essays is one of those compilations where the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. Yes, there’s repetition among them; yes, his messages are often the same. But the reader cannot help but think that if only the people’s situation were improving faster, he wouldn’t have had to hammer his message home so hard and so often. I pictured him in many ways like the John Goodman character in the first season of Treme—outraged and caring and providing his testimony. The difference is that the real Chris Rose stuck it out.