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Beating the Forecast

Josh Neufeld talks about his experiences helping people recover from the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the lives of seven remarkable people he met in New Orleans, he was able to create a classic work that captures the horror of what the victims went through—and how they survived.

You worked as a Red Cross volunteer right after the hurricane in Biloxi, Mississippi. How did you get involved with the effort, and what did you experience there?
I signed up as a Red Cross volunteer because of the horror and sadness I felt after seeing what happened in New Orleans: the flooding after the levees broke, people stuck on roofs and overpasses, and the whole Superdome/Convention Center situation. The fact that there was no contingency plan—the government was completely failing those people—was distressingly obvious, and I wanted to do what I could to help.
After a few weeks of training, I was certified as a disaster relief worker and deployed to Biloxi, Mississippi, about 90 miles outside of New Orleans. Along with the hundreds of other volunteers there from around the country, I bunked in a warehouse barracks and worked 12- to 16-hour days delivering hundreds of hot meals to families around the region. It was exhausting, but I have never in my life been shown such gratitude—for anything I have done for anybody—than by some of the people on our feeding routes. I mean, literally people with tears in their eyes thanking us for making their food. It was inspirational, to say the least.
I kept a blog about my experiences, which was an intimate look at my reaction to the hurricane; signing up and getting trained by the Red Cross; the conditions in the Gulf; working with the survivors; visiting New Orleans for the first time since the hurricane; Port-a-Potties; my coworkers; issues of race, religion, and regional background; returning home; and much more. Being a public forum, my blog was read and commented on by people from all over the spectrum: not only by my friends, associates, and regular readers, but by other Red Crossers past and present, and by Biloxi-area survivors and former residents. Many of those comments (and responses to them) were included in Katrina Came Calling, a self-published book I put together. Those experiences—even though they’re in no way related to the events in A.D.—were vital for providing background and context when it came to researching, writing, and drawing A.D.
How did you meet the seven people whose stories form A.D.?
The people I ended up choosing for A.D. came from multiple sources. It was really important for my first editor, Larry Smith (who ran a shorter version of A.D. on his storytelling site SMITH Magazine), and me to find a cross-section of folks that were a demographic representation of the city—men and women, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, people with a connection to the music scene, people who were greatly affected by the flooding and even those who weren’t. We cast a wide net and did tons of legwork. We asked around, talked to people, listened to the radio, and asked journalist friends familiar with the region. Some presented themselves early on. Others came via articles, radio programs, and various personal contacts. One character I found through the blog I kept when I was a volunteer. Another one I heard on a radio program broadcast shortly after the flooding of the city. Another character is an extended family member of a transplanted New Orleanian friend of mine. Still another character goes to the same college I went to. And another character was recommended by a friend of mine who knew him when he lived in New Orleans.
After a long process of culling and elimination, Larry and I found our group and went down to New Orleans to meet them in person and “seal the deal.” We were really lucky, because everyone we found turned out to be great in person and everybody was onboard. We were lucky enough that in a three-day weekend trip in January; all five of our main characters were in town or nearby. We hung out, met them, and even made some audio recordings, which ended up on the website later.
As you developed friendships and relationships with these seven people, how did your understanding of what had happened grow and change? How did it inform what you were working on in this book?
Upon first hearing of the characters and their stories, I knew immediately what story points they would represent in the book, whether it was Denise’s experiences at the Convention Center, the loss of Leo’s comics, Kwame’s years-long odyssey around the country, or Abbas’s suffering through the flood. So perhaps at first I saw the characters more as “plot movers” than people. But of course the more I got to know them, the more nuanced and idiosyncratic they all became. The more that happened, the more important it was to me to “treat them right,” to show as many sides of their characters as possible. And ultimately that just made the story that much better; my hope is that by the end of the book, readers will come to care for these characters—these real people—as much as I do.
What did doing this book teach you about what the government did wrong in their handling of the situation?
My agenda in doing this book wasn’t to score points against the “authorities”—the events as they happened did that for me. (If that had been my intention, I would’ve done a book about President Bush and FEMA director Michael Brown and the book would’ve been called You’re Doing a Heckuva Job!) And it’s not like in the course of doing this book I discovered all sorts of new governmental blunders. One thing I did intend from the start, however, was to show through Denise’s story that the reports of gang violence, rape, and mayhem at the Convention Center were not factual—that in the main, any “violence” that was perpetrated there was entirely due to the failure of the forces in charge to respond to that situation in a timely fashion. Essentially, the Superdome and the Convention Center, the so-called shelters of last resort, were completely left to their own devices for two/three days after the flooding, during the time that assistance was needed the most. And I think Denise’s story—and to some extent the Doctor’s—bears witness to that.
Did you find they got anything right?
I leave that question to those who’ve spent more time studying the post-Katrina situation in New Orleans than I have. It was the best I could do to document my characters’ individual stories than to capture the region’s as a whole. All the same—and I know this is a controversial statement—I still think back warmly on New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s deportment during the crisis. Instead of distancing himself from the horror and “acting mayoral,” he abandoned his stoic demeanor and put a public face on the city’s suffering. There are many people who remember his voice on the local radio and TV during that first week after the storm, his voice shaking with sadness and rage as he recounted the city’s woes and pleaded for help from the state and national authorities.
A lot of people would blame the people who stayed in New Orleans despite the warnings. How do you view them? How did that influence how you portrayed them as a storyteller?
Truthfully, there were many people who stayed in the city even after the mandated evacuation. But they had good reason—so many previous hurricanes had turned aside in the past and spared the city. And a mass evacuation is no laughing matter—just witness the tens of thousands who spent 10–18 hours on the roads getting out the region. Many of those people who stayed behind, of course, regretted that choice when the flooding happened.
What a lot of people from outside New Orleans don’t realize, however, is that many, many people—including someone like the A.D. character Denise—had no way to leave the city. They had neither the money, a form of transportation, or a place to go. As Leo says at one point in the book, “When you take for granted you can hop on a computer and make reservations at a Hilton five hundred miles away, it’s pretty easy to forget what it’s like to be a have-not.”
How are the seven people featured in A.D. doing now?
For the most part, pretty well. I don’t want to spoil the book for readers, but for most of the characters, things are as much “back to normal” as they can be after having their lives disrupted in such deep and traumatic ways. As most people know, the process of rebuilding New Orleans is a very slow one. So even though the book leaves the characters in February of 2008, about two-and-a-half years after the storm (and more than a year-and-a-half ago), not much has changed since then. Leo and Michelle have gotten married and are in their third apartment since the storm; Abbas’s store is back in business but he’s working a lot harder than before to keep it going; the Doctor’s life is much the same as it was before the storm; and Kwame’s family has yet to return full-time to New Orleans. I’m most happy for Denise, as she has come through a very rough time to really get her life together. She’s a Ford Foundation fellow currently working for an organization helping folks seeking to start self-sustaining small businesses in the New Orleans region.
How often do you visit New Orleans now?
I’ve been to New Orleans three times since the hurricane, each time to make contact with my characters and to do further research. I’m very much looking forward to my next visit, which will be to celebrate the release of the book and to have as many of the characters as possible join me for the party!
Aside from translating the lives of seven people to the page of a comic, one of the challenges of a project like this is to convey the onslaught of a hurricane in its true form. Was it difficult to capture that, as you did in the opening two dozen or so pages of the book?
It was always my intent to lead the book with a portrayal of the raw natural power of the storm. I wanted my readers to really understand that, beyond the finger-pointing, the blame games, and the awful facts of the failure of the New Orleans levee system, that Katrina was a tremendous destructive act of nature. That was why I started the storm sequence from almost a satellite’s perspective, to see the storm as it built in the Gulf and worked its way inexorably toward Southeastern Louisiana.
The storm sequence was difficult to draw, especially because dramatic, cataclysmic–type comics are not my forte. In a way, I had to reach back to my long-ago roots as a wannabe superhero cartoonist! At the same time, I wanted to stay as true as possible to the truth of the events. So I did a lot of photo research before I drew scenes like the breaking of the levees, the hurricane hitting the Superdome, or the Biloxi storm surge.
What’s your next project going to be?
I’m teaming up with NPR On the Media host Brooke Gladstone on a book about the future of media, called The Influencing Machine, scheduled to come out next year. I’m incredibly excited to be working with Brooke as she explores these very issues about how journalism (and books, and TV, etc.) must change with changing technology. Instead of lamenting a golden past, Brooke sees the whole history of media as being filled with these crises, and always being able to adapt. This time is no different; it’s just maybe more dramatic in pace.

Brooke wants to tell the story in comic-book panels for a number of reasons, one being that she feels speaking through a comic-book avatar (a la Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics) is most akin to her radio voice; and also because she feels it is the best way for readers to take in her ideas in a fresh way. As an NPR- and media-junkie, I have as much to learn about this topic as anyone else.

-- John Hogan