Hurricane Katrina: Dystopia, in Real Time

Ten years ago this Saturday, August 28, 2005, I sat at a table in a crowded Cracker Barrel restaurant (don’t judge) in Slidell, Louisiana, eavesdropping. At the next table sat a Louisiana State Police officer, eating with his family. “Drive to Jackson or Birmingham,” he told his wife as he answered a radio call and got up to leave. “I’ll call you as soon as I can.”

His kids cried. His wife cried. The officer had a sheen of tears in his eyes.

Me? I was just scared, reluctantly leaving home four hours before the roads leading out of the New Orleans metro area were to be shut down. All ten lanes of I-10 had been converted to head only north as a monstrous Category 5 hurricane barreled toward us. With an elderly parent, a friend, and three pets, I was headed for what would turn out to be an extended stay in a single hotel room in Bossier City, near Shreveport, then weeks living on the charity of friends.

We were at the beginning of the greatest mass displacement of Americans in history—more than a million people from the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, scattered to every state in the U.S. except the ones we called home.

In case you’ve been under a rock, August 29 is the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Chances are, you’re sick of hearing about it. You’re tired of hearing about the 1,800 people who died, almost 1,600 of them in Louisiana. Tired of the images outside the Louisiana Superdome and New Orleans convention center. Tired of hearing about the $108 billion in damages, still the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Tired of pondering the failure of government at all levels.

Those of us who lived it are tired of it too, but it changed us. We know about the bad, but there also was good that can be seen a decade later. In speculative fiction, it brought us new authors, new outlooks, and the resurgence of an old genre.

Some authors were traumatized by the storm and used fiction as the outlet to exorcise their demons; some were inspired, by loss or shock or desperation, to change genres and found a new life; others, far removed from the direct impact of the hurricane and levee failures but angered or shocked by the images being broadcast 24/7 around the world, began writing dystopian fiction to the extent that it can be called nothing less than, ironically, a flood.

Driven from New Orleans hours before the storm came ashore, unable to return to learn the status of my home and friends for almost two months, and then returning for several intense, depressing years of rebuilding, I read each Katrina book obsessively, searching for understanding and closure. Most were nonfiction: personal and immediate accounts of survival and analysis, beginning with then-Tulane professor Douglas Brinkley’s massive The Great Deluge and the daily blow-by-blow of sensory and psychological assaults on our lives from the keyboard of Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose (collected as One Dead in Attic).

By 2008, while I wanted to write my experiences, I had no special story to tell that scores of other journalists and nonfiction writers like myself hadn’t already told. Being a fan of urban fantasy, however, I knew the Katrina story hadn’t been told from an insider in a speculative genre.

In January 2009, as I was finishing my debut novel Royal Street, set in New Orleans during and immediately after Katrina, I stumbled across The Map of Moments by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon.

Set six months after Katrina, the book tells the story of Max Corbett, a history professor who returns to the city and embarks on a magical tour through moments of NOLA’s storied past, hoping to maybe—just maybe—save his lover lost in the storm.

Golden’s and Lebbon’s story—which, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, is the first work of speculative fiction to directly address Hurricane Katrina (MLN Hanover’s Darker Angels was released later in the year)—was already under contract before the storm hit and was to be the second book in their Hidden Cities series, following Mind the Gap (2008).

“We were still writing Mind the Gap when Katrina hit,” Golden recalls. “So long before we started writing The Map of Moments, we knew the story had changed. If we were going to write about New Orleans in the present day, it would have been totally irresponsible and disrespectful to ignore the devastation caused by the storm.”

The two did their homework, talking to people who had been in the storm, and researching media coverage. Not coincidentally, the two works Golden and Lebbon found “indispensable”? The works by Brinkley and Rose, which ten years later remain the most powerful and emotionally gut-wrenching accounts of the hurricane.

My own Royal Street, drawn from my own experiences and memories (only without the magic and undead pirates, unfortunately) came out in 2012, and in 2013 and 2014, a number of literary novels, urban fantasies, young adult novels, and even paranormal romances began to show up that were set along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in post-K New Orleans.

Some authors didn’t get started by Katrina, but the storm did change their path. New York Times bestselling author Larissa Ione was living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, at the time of Hurricane Katrina—39 miles on the dangerous east side of where the storm’s eye made landfall in Bay St. Louis.

Evacuated with her young son while her husband, a U.S. Coast Guard officer, worked on storm rescue, Ione watched aerial footage that showed her house under nine feet of water—a total loss. Like others along the coast, they found their insurance company unwilling to cover storm-surge damage.

“It’s strange, really, how Hurricane Katrina turned out to be both the worst and the best experiences of my life,” she says. “We lost everything…In fact, we only recently paid off our Katrina debt.

“But Katrina also changed my life for the better.”

At the time the hurricane struck, Ione was on the verge of launching her writing career. She had her first book with an editor, who was going through revisions, and she had won several writing contests. “As we were cleaning up from the storm, I got a rejection letter for the revised book,” she says. “I was devastated…I decided to quit writing. I simply couldn’t take another blow.”

But just as the country rallied around the people of New Orleans and the coast, the writing community got behind its impacted authors and encouraged her to continue. When Ione began writing again, she approached it with a different attitude—writing what she wanted to write, and not what she thought would sell. What she wanted to write was paranormal fiction.

“I let my voice come out in a way I never had before, because really, how could any rejection be worse than what I’d already gone through?” she says. “Turns out that my Katrina-inspired attitude adjustment was exactly what I needed. I sold the first three post-Katrina projects I wrote in three different deals, two of which were multi-book contracts with major publishers.”

Katrina had an impact on other authors, whether or not they were directly affected by the storm, leading to a sharp rise in the number of dystopian novels that, after a decade, continues to be a strong genre.

Think it’s too far a stretch to credit the storm with the rise in dystopias?

Writing for Flavorwire.com, editor Jonathon Sturgeon made a convincing case by tracking the number of dystopian novels since Katrina, even while noting the genre is certainly not new. “We’ve long had depictions of places or spaces that have gone to hell; pick more or less any house in Greek tragedy and you’ll find a ‘bad’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘ill’ place,” he writes in an April 2015 article. “But in the last several years, the flood of dystopian fiction in particular, from young adult blockbusters to genre-bending literary works, has become unavoidable.”

Using Google Trends to track the rate of searches of “dystopian” as a literary genre, he noted a huge uptick in September 2005, just after Katrina, then a steady increase that continues into 2015. Prior to September 2005, searches of the term were flat. A logical conclusion is that if people are looking for dystopian fiction, someone—or a lot of someones—are writing it.

It’s not too hard to understand. The world has had its share of catastrophic events since August 29, 2005, but the images from Katrina, particularly scenes from the long, agonizing drowning of New Orleans, gave us all our first real look at something we’d only imagined before. We saw an American city reduced to chaos, despair, and death. We saw a failure of government. We saw a gut-checking picture of the underbelly of poverty and racial divides that we as a society are all too eager to sweep under the rug. We saw how very quickly our own society could descend into violence and street justice.

We saw an American dystopia. Even for authors who weren’t among us living the story, the images were impactful.

“I think Katrina affected people on such a deep emotional level that even if they weren’t directly impacted, they needed a way express some of that emotion and helplessness,” Ione says. “Authors did that by writing.”

A longtime New Orleans resident, Suzanne Johnson is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series for Tor Books, whose first novel, Royal Street, was set during and after Hurricane Katrina. She also writes thrillers and paranormal romance as Susannah Sandlin.

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