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Katrina Jokes

[Katrina] Flattened Home

Flattened Home by Joshua Miller / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A friend of mine made a joke last week in an online discussion, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. It was a Katrina joke. I tried to play it off and make some jokes of my own, but ultimately I found, even after a couple days, that I was still ticked off. Finally I came clean with my feelings of frustration. He promptly apologized. I actually respect him more then ever for that; we kissed and made up, and as far as I can tell we’re buddies again.

But it has given me pause for reflection. Was this a simple case of misunderstanding by e-mail? It’s a famously “flat” medium where irony and nuance are lost. However, I don’t think that’s the case here.

Rather, I think that Katrina remains a sensitive topic for me, and probably lots of other people. Given the fact that it’s been four and half years, I don’t anticipate this changing any time soon. It’s beginning to look like a permanent condition.

The very word “Katrina” conjures up images of death and destruction in my mind. It conjures up the smell of mold. It reminds me of friends and neighbors who are no longer with us. It puts me back in an emotional roller coaster ride that is still not over.

As such, I’m not inclined to laugh at certain jokes.

It’s not that I have no sense of humor on the subject. To the contrary, I joke about Katrina all the time. Once, it was a coping mechanism. I laugh at such jokes when they come from certain quarters, from fellow travelers who have also had to cope with the bizarre circumstances of post-disaster reality. But when the jokes come from other quarters, my reaction may be very different. I’m liable to lose respect for the joker. I might even get a little angry.

To understand where I’m coming from, ask yourself the following:

What’s the worst thing that’s happened in your life? How do you feel when other people make jokes about it?

I’m guessing that, for most people, “the worst thing” is something private. Thus you might never hear anyone making jokes about it. So maybe it’s not such a good comparison.

But Katrina and its aftermath was a media phenomenon. Everybody saw it on TV. Everybody’s got an opinion. Everybody thinks they know what happened — especially those who don’t. Therefore it’s fair game for everyone to offer their opinions and crack their jokes.

For example, there were some Bears fans a few years ago threatening that their team would “finish what Katrina started.” There was some deranged Colts fan who thought it would be funny to superimpose the team logo on an image of Katrina.

Or a more personal example: I recently shared an article about how “New Orleans ranks eighth among the nation’s largest cities for the percentage of residents who walk and bike to work.” A friend on Facebook quipped, “Well all your cars washed away.”

A harmless comment, a little throwaway line, right? Sure. But I didn’t laugh. If anything, I find myself making excuses on his behalf — “He probably didn’t think much before tossing that off,” and so on. If the remark had come from someone who lived here — if “your cars” became “our cars” — it would read very differently to me.

But as it stands, that comment just evokes a lot of bad memories.

White Car Under Pink House

Under the Broad Street Overpass

Side Car

I’m sure he didn’t intend that.

This is not a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s not a case of unresolved issues. Sure, my mental health took a hit from the stress of Katrina, but I think I’ve made a (pretty much) complete recovery. I know plenty of people who haven’t. I know a guy who gets choked up every time he speaks about Katrina. It’s sad to see a grown person cry in public, but I understand where that comes from. Still and all, that’s not where I’m at. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to be able to rebound so fully.

It’s just that there are some thing which remain, for lack of a better word, serious. I’m not down with the mindset that everything’s fair game to be mocked and satirized. I don’t cotton to the perspective that we have to be cutting up all the time. To me that’s a form of mental totalitarianism.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying, pardon me for not laughing at your joke. Only, really, I’m not sorry. Would you make a joke about my friend who was murdered? Would you make fun of my baby being lead-poisoned? Damn, I hope not; that would be in poor taste. To me Katrina is very much the same territory. So I’d advise steering away from such jokes unless 1) you really don’t care about what I think, or 2) you are really, really good at it. Comedy can be an art form. I can respect that. But for most people, you’re just making an ass of yourself.

Published inKatrina


  1. I second your emotion. There’s too much sorrow that involves what happened to New Orleans. I have to admit I’m somewhat obsessed with it & have viewed as many “documentaries” as I can get ahold of. As if it will help to reach the depth of loss and torment, and to perhaps overcome it.
    I am still stunned by y’all who’ve re-built and repaired. That takes more than any personal strength I possess.

  2. Liza Liza

    This is a great entry. I felt similarly yesterday when a slew of friends/acquaintances were joking about the guy from Growing Pains who killed himself. In most cases, they weren’t joking about the suicide itself but making some really lame jokes based on the character’s name, Boner. Now, I get that Boner is a funny name for a character, but when those jokes are tied to a suicide victim, it’s extremely difficult for me since just less than a year ago my best friend committed suicide. And a few years before that, one of my close childhood friends committed suicide. And a few years before that my very close friend’s partner committed suicide. And all of my close friends know this and know its impact on me, so when jokes like that are told in my presence (or on my Facebook page or wherever), it’s nearly impossible for me not to take offense.

  3. I guess it all depends on the joke.

    My aunt’s house in Lakeview was wiped out in the FF, and my Dad (who lives in St. Charles Parish, so obviously not wiped out) decorated her a Christmas stocking out of an MRE bag – it’s funny, and sad, and everybody in our family who evac’d together and ferried pets and relatives to Houston and Florida and back shared that experience and it’s OK.

    She still wears some of my clothes from the evac period which she scrounged up at my parent’s house, and we all laugh and joke about it, but I remember the horrible days in Houston when she agonized about leaving her cats to die in her house (bodies not recovered, though), and we don’t talk about that or joke about that.

    I think she’s tired of using the MRE bag and would like someone to give her a real stocking this year, though.

  4. Saying “all our cars washed away” is definitely in poor taste. But I’ll be one of the first to acknowledge that the effects of the disaster affect everyone in different ways, and everyone is also recovering in different ways. And one can’t simply attribute it to how much a victim or evacuee experienced, how much damage was done to their home, how many feet of floodwater, how many insurance companies or Road Home hurdles these folks have had to deal with, etc., etc. That is what makes a lot of this scary, and the most anyone can get out of it in the humor department is some way to deflect the sadness and the anger.

    It’s still largely a rough and raw subject, and it will be for some time.

  5. I am with you, Bart. It’s the same kind of mentality who make jokes about the Space Shuttle blowing up (I work at Michoud). Jokes like that will never be funny, if only to the person who spoke it.

    We stayed for the storm (in Slidell), we lived thru the aftermath, although we didn’t experience the flooding that NOLA did due to the levee failures, I had enough AA batteries to keep WWL radio on constantly for three weeks till we got our electricity back. NOTHING that happened due to Katrina is fodder for a joke, unless – as is stated by both you and your commentors – the joke is made between fellow Karina victims.

    Thank you for this post.

  6. oh, I got a little spaced out in that last comment. (watching Olympics).
    I mentioned listening to WWL radio the whole time. It was so painful to hear what the radio hosts (led by Garland) were describing, the calls that were coming in from people stranded in their attics as the water rose, it was heartbreaking.

    Once in a while I think of Katrina and cry, but I’ve moved enough past it to remain composed. But I never forget about it. It’s hard not to when you live here and see the dead trees and lost wetlands in the East.

  7. I know this isn’t in response to your subject matter, but those pictures – where did you get them? I mean, that picture of the house on the car – – Wow – I’ve never seen that before.

  8. Amazing post, Bart. I am so enormously grateful that y’all have included me in your wonderful community; I try hard to be cognizant of the fact that I am still not one of you, that my experience of the event, while personal in that I was the parent of a resident (albeit a temporary one of the college student nature), I wasn’t there, didn’t suffer. Your worst thing that ever happened to you analogy is perfect. It’s interesting that two others have already mentioned this, but having lost two young people who were very dear to me to suicide, I have no tolerance for suicide jokes of any kind, or for the casual mention of it in any way. Until you’re sensitized to this, you have no idea how often suicide is casually referenced in everyday conversation. I’m sure this is true of Katrina too. Sadly, I doubt that’ll go away any time soon.

    On a lighter note, I’m getting psyched for RT! You did good. B rox! 😀

  9. I recently had this conversation via email with an editor at the New York Times.

    They had run a piece on New York cracking down on bars using raw eggs in drinks. A anonymous bartender said (more or less), “If they won’t let us use eggs, that will be our Katrina.”

    I objected because it was insensitive. I also told the editor is was wrong to run that unsourced (the Times let people speak off the record due to fear of reprisals from the health department). If someone is going to show their ass, the Times should make them own their words.

    The editor replied that it was so over the top that he believed readers would see it as ridiculous. I asked if he would run a similar quote about 9/11, and he said he would. I pointed out that there wasn’t an effort to turn his tragedy into a joke.

    To the editor’s credit, he promise to discuss it with some other staff members in case the situation came up again.

  10. Rebecca Smith Rebecca Smith

    As for myself, I’m able at this point to see the positive changes for me that came out of the storm, although for some their lives were thoroughly trashed in a permanent fashion. Still, I’ll have episodes of depression, however brief. Like when I was on my way home from a Coastcon staff meeting in Biloxi last weekend and, while riding over the High Rise in New Orleans East, where I used to live, started thinking about my home there and the good things about it and started to cry again. In fact, I’m tearing up a little as I write this. Sometimes when friends show me high school yearbooks or old letters or I see old, family photos they’ve inherited I start to think about how I don’t have any of those things anymore and why. (At least I managed to save my photo albums so there’s something)

    I saw the same remark about our cars having washed away and it struck me as taking something positive about us and making it sound like a symptom of poverty, helplessness and laziness; all negative stereotypes about New Orleans. There are still people out there who think that the aftermath of Katrina was our fault or that we received too much attention and sympathy. I remember hearing a parody song not long after the storm that implied both that we were all looting and stealing with gusto during the evacuation, using it as an opportunity, and that things would have returned to normal immediately afterward if we weren’t all so lazy and greedy. It seems that most post-Katrina “humor” that comes from those not affected by the storm comes from this attitude of ridicule and arrogance, from victim-blaming.

  11. excellent post bart.

    i’ll be the first to admit that i’m way too sensitive about Katrina. i get *very* upset at the mere mention of “celebrating” the anniversary of the storm.
    there is no celebrating for me, only sadness over what i (and my family) have lost.
    i completely agree with liprap’s comment – it really depends on your personal situation and how the storm affected you.

    of course i’m proud of our city and how far we’ve come since the storm. we have rebuilt new orleans, and we are so much stronger because of it.
    that being said, i’m still very weak from the aftermath of the storm.
    there are no jokes for me.

  12. I left a message on Flickr about your house-on-cars photos, but my Flickr comments come under the name Dr. Delicious, for some reason that I forget.

    Also, this post from you about Katrina jokes somehow seems akin to my current post about ethnic stereotypes. In both posts, I think we are making ourselves a little vulnerable by speaking truth to a sometimes cynical world. You never know what sort of reactions you’ll get. But scanning through it all looks supportive and that you’ve opened up some simpatico feelings in readers.

  13. It was different joke, Michael. The context was rather complicated, but the gist was “that’s why god sent Katrina to punish New Orleans.”

  14. Le Bloc Le Bloc

    Very well said, B… very well thought-out, very well put. I agree with all the sentiments you expressed.

  15. […] Then there’s, say, South Park.  A brilliant show that pokes everyone in the eye.  They make it look easy because they’re so good at it.  But along comes some chump on Facebook who thinks cutting humor about sensitive subjects is an easy trick and  he quickly adds to the Annals of Jackassery with some lame joke. […]

  16. AnnaAnastasia AnnaAnastasia

    Damn straight, Bart. I have lots of Facebook friends who are Colts fans, and I was amazed last month at how many of them posted the picture of Katrina with the Colts horseshoe in the middle. They apparently thought that shit was hi-larious. I thought it was cruel. I’m ashamed I didn’t have the courage to speak up to some of them. New Orleans residents have to deal with these “jokes” all the time, and it has to stop.

  17. I appreciate what you have said. I call Katrina a “public disaster”, as opposed to those most “private disasters” which we don’t speak of. It’s hardly something that people should make jokes about. I really don’t think that anyone knows the whole story even now, certainly not those who live elsewhere. The sum total of all our experiences is the closest we can come to understanding our communal experience. While the healing is ongoing and continuous, yes, Katrina is permanently part of us.

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