City of Refuge by Tom Piazza


City of Refuge

In a beautifully written illustration of very real stories, Tom Piazza has managed to draw an incredibly vivid picture of what it was like for two families living through and after the greatest man-made disaster this country has known. Make no mistake about it, this was a man-made and preventable disaster. New Orleans has weathered many storms, literally and metaphorically, and has survived. People have been screaming for years before Katrina that the levees weren’t suitable to handle these storms, that the cracks and poorly engineered systems needed to be fixed, that catastrophe was always one storm away. In the words of Will Hoge’ “Washed By the Water” tune:

“Damned old levees, well they knew that they would go. Been talking ‘bout it since before my daddy’s born…but ain’t nobody listen to what a poor man has to say.”

1,836. One thousand, eight hundred and thirty-six. That’s the number of lives lost from Katrina and the levees failing. Stop and think about that for a minute. Almost two thousand people. Thousands more evacuated from the only place many have ever known. Entire house – entire families – washed away.

City of Refuge is a novel about two families from New Orleans and their very different experiences with the tragedy that was Katrina. The families are drastically different and this is highlighted in the way the aftermath of the levy breaches . One black, one white; one doing well financially, the other living week-to-week; one choosing to evacuate, the other not – or more accurately, one able to evacuate, one not.

This book is hard to read at times and you know what? Good. That’s the way it should be. It should be hard to read about the fictional characters that are living very real stories that happened to very real people that were treated as less before this storm and even worse afterwards. Piazza digs into this through these two families and their experiences after the storm – one watching from Chicago after being able to evacuate in plenty of time, one that wasn’t able to get out and watched as the water rushed into the home he built himself and filled the entire first floor. Nothing in this book is fake (except crawfish boils in August, maybe) despite it being fiction.

It’s about loss and love. It’s about strengths, weaknesses, emotional attachments and survivor’s strength. It’s about family we’re given and family we choose, about selfishness and selflessness. It’s about faith in your God, your home, your community, your people. It’s about falling down and getting back up. It’s about falling down and wanting to give up. It’s about life. It’s about starting over and ending chapters. It’s about history and the present and the mingling of the two. It’s about New Orleans.

You’ll be better off for reading it. I promise you that. And when you get the chance? Go to New Orleans. It’s still beautiful. It’s still chaotic and tranquil, fueled by alcohol and faith and music and silence and bars and cathedrals and, and, and, and…

It’s still there. It always will be. Maybe molded a bit differently, maybe with some new shapes or colors. Some parts may look a little different, some parts will always be the same. But New Orleans? It’s been to hell and back and it’s still standing. That’s a lesson many of us could follow.


You can stop reading here if you just wanted my thoughts on the book. The rest of this is something I wrote in 2010 after my third trip the city. A love letter of sorts to NOLA and all it has to offer a girl. It seemed fitting to include it here.

I had heard and read things where people would say, “oh I fell in love with that place.” I blew ‘em off at the time, probably rolled my eyes. In love with a place? Infatuated with a particular local? Riiight. I’d laugh to myself and think they must’ve had a good time on vacation but eventually it would wear off. They’d fall back into their normal routines of daily life and forget about the place they were “so in love with.” For them, it usually did wear off and fade away. A once upon a time never to be revisited.

Then… Then there was us. It was a quickly agreed to plan in a tent at a fair that first led me in your direction. Like most of the greatest destined-to-be things in life, I didnt know what I was agreeing to at the time. I figured, at the very least, it would be a fun roadtrip for the best friend’s birthday. A nice little “remember that one time” story we could laugh about when we were older. I’d go, I’d visit, I’d take in your sites, have a good enough time and be on my way.

But me and you, Nola? It was love at first sight for me. From your slate walks of the French Quarter to the muddied brown of your Mississippi River, to the way even the light seems a little bit different – I fell in love with a city that first trip. A city! The same thing I’d secretly scoffed at other people for saying, I was now doing myself. I’m happy to say that the feeling hasn’t faded at all. Three visits in as many years and I still feel the way I did on that first night we shared. Filled with wonder and amazement and any other cliche I could throw at it, but each one is true. You cut through to the core of me in a single day.

I came back about a year later, wondering if you’d changed since the last time I saw you. Wondering if that magic that I felt would still be there. Full of anticipation and fear and excitement and nervousness. Were you the same? Was I? Was it possible to match the experience we shared last time? Could we ever top that or would I be let down and disappointed and the magic lost? Would the fact that it wasn’t our first dance make it less magical? The car drove over that last final hill on I-10 leading to you and there you were… There you were.

The fear that you’d be different, that *I* would be different all disappeared the very moment I could see that familiar roof of the Superdome in the distance and even from the expressway I knew then… This was love. You were there for me still and you always will be. I knew it. It was like a second date, we were a little familiar with each other but still had so much to learn. So much to dig in to, to really get to the heart of the matter and discover even more. Sure we both love music more than any one person should. Sure we both love your Spanish ironwork, your balconies, your hidden courtyards. Sure we both love the limitless forms of art and artists that call you home. Sure we have these things in common, but was there more? I had to find out.

We laughed so deep we cried, we drank some of your famous concoctions, we ate food people world-wide try to duplicate but never get quite right, we listened to some of the best live music one will hear. Wandering the streets without thinking twice, you made me feel free. I didn’t know what that word meant before you. Free. Free to stop in the middle of the street and breathe. Free to stop in the middle of the street and DANCE. Free to finally, finally just be.

It’s not every day that something, someone, somewhere can make you feel that alive. Somehow, Nola, you do it with ease. Time and time again. Just walking down your streets makes something in my blood pump a little differently. A little smoother. A little slower.

You’re not without your flaws and I’m not without mine. Some people look at you and all they see are your flaws, your scars, the things you may not be able to overcome in the shortterm. But overcome you will. You do. You always have. Like when you were nearly washed away by thirty feet of water with no help for FIVE days, I cried for you. I didn’t know you then but I cried for you. This shouldnt have happened, there were warning signs that were ignored, people that cried out that your levees couldn’t handle a Category 5 storm and they were ignored. But we knew that somehow, if and when the water finally subsided, if there was anything left, you’d survive. You’d overcome. You will, there’s still a long long road ahead in that recovery. You’ll never quite be the same, no one could be after such tragedy. But you will overcome. It is, afterall, what you do. I didn’t know you before that disaster but somehow feel like I did. I wish I had. But I know you now, and because of that I’ll never be the same.

The flaws people see — sure they’re there. For some that’s ALL they can see – the alcohol, the debauchery, the crime, your poor. But people who get it, who get you – also see your sense of pride that compares to no other, your sense of community, your belief in God and your belief in the person standing next to you. And maybe most importantly your belief in yourself. You welcome strangers like they’re lifelong friends and they leave feeling like they are just that – lifelong meant-to-be companions. Souls that were meant to have shared that moment in time and both were changed forever because of it.

There are people that judge you without knowing you, that think all you are made of is those flaws, people that believe that the only things you’re made of are what they’ve seen on tv. That you’re only poor broken down ghettos and drunken debauchery of your world famous Bourbon Street. They don’t get it, they don’t get YOU. They’ve never sat on the curb of Royal and listened to a brass band play in the street. They’ve never walked down St. Ann’s and heard a lone trumpet playing just the right tune – not begging for attention or money or anything from you other than your ear. Those people, the naysayers and non-believers, they’ll never experience you in the right way, in the way everyone should at least once. They’ll never sit across from Jackson Square on those stone steps and be still long enough to take in the sounds of the Mississippi behind them, of horse-drawn buggies clip-clopping their way down Decatur, of watching artists hang their life’s work on the iron fence of your epicenter. I feel sorry for those people, sorry for those that will never really know you. Dammit if they’re aren’t missing out. If they could only get a quick glimpse, a small taste of what you have to offer, they’d be hooked too.

Our third and most recent whirlwind was the best yet. I began counting down the days six months out, letting that excitement build more and more as the time grew closer. I couldn’t wait to get back and knew you wouldn’t disappoint. It was, afterall, the time your star shines brightest – Mardis Gras. Carnival.

Your peoples’ favorite holiday, when a city that knows how to throw a party manages to outdo itself. Weeks of parades and festivals leading up to the big day. Costumes and floats and beads and doubloons. It’s early in 2010 and you’re already having a hell of a year. Your Saints won the Superbowl for the first time in history. It was more than a trophy and a championship, it offered hope to a city in desperate need of something good, in desperate need of a break. I cheered from my couch over 1000 miles away when that confetti fell over the team you’re so proud of. This was bigger than points on a scoreboard and a newspaper headline. This was your chance to start anew. I got into town five days later and you were still celebrating, and as a lady in a shop put it to me, “Honey, this is New Orleans. We’ll be celebrating this till NEXT football season.” I hope she’s right. You deserve to do just that. You brought your “Who Dat” chants to a nation, and I pray that the spotlight cast upon you because of it helps bring more than just tshirt sales to you and yours. Your Saints are on top, you celebrated with a parade of 800,000 lining your streets and carried it through to Carnival.

We ate in your restaurants and drank in your bars, we listened to live jazz, walked your streets and took more pictures than one could ever really need – trying somehow, searching for some way, to capture just a hint of your magic. We threw beads from your balconies and stood along your parade routes crying “Hey Mister, throw me something.” We made new friends in minutes, sang along to songs that will always remind me of you, and we toasted. Toasted to a perfect moment in life, toasted to the amazement that yes this is in fact our life at this very moment and how lucky are we? Toasted to Mardis Gras, your Carnival. Toasted to music and freedom and we toasted to you – New Orleans. Our dear, deeply loved New Orleans. Two words that meld into one as they roll off your tongue and always, ALWAYS, bring a smile to my face. It was every bit as chaotic and amazing as I’d expected and you managed to blow me away. Again. Like you always do.

I read in one of dozens of books I’ve read about you, “Some people will come visit and think it’s nice enough. Some people will visit and they *get* it. They get New Orleans and New Orleans gets them. Those people that get it? They fall in love and spend each of their days wanting to be back here.”

Truer words were never spoken. Some may visit and not get it, not understand what’s so great that it would cause someone to write a love letter of sorts to a city. I don’t know what those people were doing, but whatever it was, they were doing it wrong.

As for me? Well… I’m already counting down the days till I get to load back into a car with one of the best friends a person could ask for and drive through night to get back to you. I get it. I get you.

This isn’t a fling between you and I, Nola. It’s a long term love affair.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way

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