Post by Myron Uhlberg
Ten years ago, on
August 28, 2005, like millions of Americans around the country, I sat glued to
my television screen as a monster hurricane came barreling out of the Gulf of
I grew up in
Brooklyn, barely two miles from Coney Island and the surly Atlantic Ocean. In
those pre-electronic days of no TV (let alone computers, iPhones, and IPads),
life seemed fairly dull. But one wild September day, when I was eleven years
old, the Great Atlantic hurricane of 1944 hit land just east of Brooklyn. I
remember holding my coat open, being swept up and down my street by winds that
were later reported to be over 100 miles per hour.
Ever since that day
in my childhood, hurricanes had held for me an odd fascination. I had begun
following the path of Katrina as it approached the southernmost coast of
Florida on August 2. At that time the storm was seemingly on a collision course
with Aventura, a city founded by Don Soffer, a friend and football teammate
from my Brandeis University days. My first girlfriend, whom I’d met as a
freshman at Brandeis, also lived in Aventura. This hurricane was personal.
Katrina passed over
south Florida, causing considerable damage. With much of her energy spent, she
limped, like a dowager in high heels, into the Gulf of Mexico.
However, within a
matter of hours, fed by the warm waters of the Gulf, Katrina regained her
strength, flexed her muscles, and headed west. The guessing game began: When
would she turn toward land? Where would she hit? The Florida panhandle,
Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, or perhaps even as far west as Texas?
Anyone who watched
the course of that storm over the next two days will remember how Katrina
finally made up her mind and hooked to her right, northwards. The suspense
ended as it became obvious that she was headed straight for New Orleans—a
man-made, crescent-shaped city built on reclaimed land, much of it below sea
level, surrounded by two lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Who can forget the
images we saw on our TV screen? Winds up to 140 miles per hour and rain falling
with biblical intensity. The mighty Mississippi River, one of the largest and
most powerful rivers in the world, being pushed backwards, upstream, like a mere puddle. And then the canals
overflowing, the levees collapsing, and New Orleans being inundated.
Whole sections of the
city had been reduced to roofs poking up like tiny islands in a new lake. And
on the roofs were people, in plain sight but apparently ignored. That image
struck me. In that moment, those people were experiencing the reality that my
deaf parents lived with many times—in plain sight but ignored by the hearing. I
couldn’t get that actual, as well as metaphorical, relationship from my mind’s
eye. Yet how easy it was, at the end of the day, to click off our TV sets, and
as the screen went dark, to turn our back on what we had witnessed.
Over the course of
the next three days, I watched the horror of what Katrina—and years of neglect
and indifference—had spawned. New Orleans was drowning right before our eyes.
And where were the
- During the following
year I was obsessed with Hurricane Katrina and the answer to that question:
what had happened to the children of Katrina? I read the statistics:
had flooded over 80 percent of New Orleans.
million people—men, women and children—were driven from their homes.
people sought refuge in the Superdome; 76 percent had children under 18 with
in the Superdome meant living for days hungry, thirsty, half-dressed, with
garbage piled high and the bathrooms turned putrid.
- Three months after
Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans, the waters had receded, but according to Newsday, “1,300 children were still
Every one of my
children’s books have started with some aspect of my life, lived as the hearing
child of two deaf parents. What I witnessed on TV that August, and later
researched in newspapers, books, and websites—the words and the photos—brought
to my mind the powerlessness, the confusion, the terror, the uncertainty, and the
need for adult reassurance that all the children of Katrina must have
experienced, as I had experienced at various times in my young life, and as all
children experience at some point.
I was compelled to
write the story of one such child of Katrina—a boy who loved his parents and
depended on them to see him through any situation—and the story of his parents,
who provided him with the love, protection, and hope for the future that we trust
all parents will offer to their children.
I thought for a long
time about my fictional character, Louis Daniel, and his strong, protective,
and loving parents. Then as I wrote about them, they became real to me. I could
have been that boy; those could have been my parents. We could have experienced
what they experienced. Just as my parents had chosen always to see hope for our
family, so Louis Daniel’s parents saw hope for theirs.
Once the book was
written, I felt I could say no more. Then I considered who might be best to
illustrate Louis Daniel’s story. Who could feel what Louis Daniel felt? Who
could express artistically what this boy and his family went through during
this horrendous life-altering event?
I visited New Orleans
for the first time in 2006, less than one year after Hurricane Katrina. I was
there for the American Library Association convention. Illustrator Colin
Bootman and I were to receive the ALA Schneider Family Book Award for Dad, Jackie, and Me, a book we’d worked
on together. We had never met. But I felt, in a way, that I knew Colin. His
artistic interpretation of my deaf father in that story was so emotionally
accurate, he might very well had known him.
I had brought the
manuscript of Louis Daniel and hurricane Katrina to the convention. My thought
was to show it to Margaret Quinlin—the president and publisher of Peachtree
Publishers—who would join us in accepting the award.
Prior to the awards
ceremony, I saw the Superdome and visited the Ninth Ward. What I saw on those
visits and the emotions they triggered have remained with me to this day, nine
Finally, at a
luncheon in honor of the Schneider family award recipients, I met Colin
Bootman. We—a kid from Brooklyn and a boy born in Trinidad—hit it off
immediately. The next day we met for coffee in my hotel’s lobby, and he asked
me what we could do as a follow-up to our collaborative award-winning book. I told
him that I had been working on a story about a family from the Ninth Ward who had
been caught in Hurricane Katrina.
“Tell me more,” he
said. And I did, laying out the entire incredible story of Louis Daniel and his
family’s escape from the rising floodwaters, and their subsequent misery during
their stay in the Superdome.
Colin listened with
rapt attention. When I was finished, he only asked me one question: “How do you
visualize the boy, Louis Daniel?” I described a ten-year-old boy who loved playing
his cornet, just as Louis Armstrong had done many years before him, when he was
a boy living in New Orleans.
“I want to do this
book!” Colin said. “I know this boy. How long will it take to write?”
“I already wrote it.”
“When can I read it?”
“Now,” I said, and
went up to my room to get the manuscript.
Colin Bootman’s art
for this book was beyond my greatest expectations; he captured Louis Daniel
perfectly. And his cover art showing Louis under a blue cloudless sky, joyously
blowing his cornet on a flooded street in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, was
breathtaking. It was all there: catastrophe, the aftermath, life continuing, and
the miracle of hope.
It has often been
said, you can’t judge a book by its cover. But in the case of A Storm Called Katrina, I believe you
As an American
History major in college, I was taken with Gore Vidal’s shorthand description
of America. He called it “The United States of Amnesia.”
I’ve just turned 82,
and often reflect on how much America, and life lived in America, has changed
since I was a boy. So much has happened—a series of brutal wars, growing
economic inequality, continuing struggles for human rights, increasing
dependence on lightning-fast electronic communication and quick sound bites at
the expense of building deep commitments and personal relationships. All this
does seem to have resulted in a mind-numbing national amnesia.
In writing a story
about what happened to a family in New Orleans during and after Hurricane
Katrina, I hoped to suggest that there was still time to recover, to see the
light of what’s truly important in America: family, community, shared purpose,
and hope for a better future for everyone.
Whether I succeeded
or not, I will always treasure the time I spent in the effort.
Labels: Guest Posts, Historical Fiction, Hurricane Katrina, Myron Uhlberg