New Orleans Mythbusters
1. Hurricane Katrina flooded the city in 2005.
This New Orleans urban legend is widely believed to be true. News reports still claim Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans; even President Obama says Katrina flooded the city. In fact, levee breaches flooded the city. Katrina absolutely devastated coastal areas in Mississippi and Louisiana, but Katrina's rainfall and storm surge did not flood 80% of New Orleans. The Seventeenth Street Canal levee was the first to breach, flooding middle-class and predominantly white Lakeview. Around the same time, a barge loose in the Industrial Canal rammed into a floodwall and poured water into the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard parish. More levees breached as Katrina passed over the metro area, flooding the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Wards. Storm surge did affect a small low-lying section in New Orleans East, along with sections of St. Bernard parish, as it funneled through the now-closed Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet Canal (MR. GO to us, as in "MR. GO has to GO!").
2. The Lower Ninth Ward is below sea level.
This is another New Orleans urban myth that many believe to be true. "Lower" refers to the area's location in relation to the Ninth Ward further north toward Lake Ponchartrain. Much of the Lower Ninth Ward is near the Mississippi River. All along the river, the city is one, three, six, even thirteen feet above sea level. Further inland from the river, you get some lower readings, but those sea level numbers do not tell the story of the flooding. Even high ground floods if you slam enough water into it.
3. In New Orleans, the Westbank is not west.
To make sense of some New Orleans mythbusters, you have to think like a local. Don't try to ask a native from New Orleans if a street, neighborhood, bar, or hotel is north, south, east, or west. These things mean almost nothing to us. We use the river and Canal Street, which runs northwest, as our guideposts. The Westbank is southeast of the French Quarter on a map and should be called the Southbank. Ask which side of Canal something is on and ignore the fact that I-10 West sometimes sends you south, and you'll do all right.
4. New Orleans is primarily a city of black folks and white folks.
Though the news coverage after Hurricane Katrina seemed to focus on black and white, New Orleans, like any port, has a range of ethnic groups-enclaves of Irish (though not necessarily centered in the Irish Channel, wherever that is-ask five people and you'll get six answers), Germans, Greeks, Jews, Italians (largely from Sicily), and Asians have thrived and faded throughout New Orleans' history. Chinatown, first centered around Tulane Avenue near the river and Canal Street, thrived from the late 1800s until 1937, when the center of Chinatown was slated for demolition. Only a single building from that era remains, at 1100 Tulane Avenue. The current, largely Vietnamese enclaves of Village de l'Est, Versailles Gardens, and Versailles Arms fought Entergy to get utilities when some wanted to give up on swaths of the city. Hispanics in the city limits, in suburban Jefferson, and in St. Bernard Parish weren't spared and are a big part of the metro area's recovery.
5. In New Orleans, poor black people were the most heavily affected by post-Katrina flooding.
The images recycled when Katrina or New Orleans is mentioned give the impression that this New Orleans urban myth is true. We all love a little drama. But with so many shoddy levees, everybody got it. About 80% of the city flooded to some extent. One of the first levee breaches happened in Lakeview. Also affected were Gentilly and New Orleans East, middle-class and majority, but not all, African American; Vietnamese sections of the East were heavily flooded.
6. The stolen kidney urban legend, started in New Orleans, was so rampant that the New Orleans Police Department put up a website debunking it.
The legend generally involves a tourist or out-of-town businessman who has a drink in a bar and wakes up in a hotel room bathtub packed in ice, a nasty scar down his back and one or even both kidneys removed. There's no basis in fact. So many folks fell for the stories that the NOPD, either to spare themselves all the nonsense or to help the tourist trade, put up a website on January 30, 1997, and with the persistence of the legend, it doesn't look like many folks know about it.
7. There was a real Annie Christmas, a notorious, almost giant river woman who ruled the Mississippi in the days of keelboats, pre-1816.
Over six feet tall with a moustache, Annie Christmas was tougher than any river man and proved it by fighting with any and all men who dared. She dressed as a man and worked on keelboats or as a stevedore on the levee. She could carry more cargo than any man, three barrels of flour one story says, and pulled a keelboat up the river from New Orleans to Natchez, against the current. (A keelboat was a long, narrow boat used in rivers, shallow waters, and canals.) She sometimes shaved her moustache to dress as a woman and run a floating brothel along the river, serving some of the same river men with whom she worked and fought. The stories are too outrageous to be true and even come in white and black versions, the white version saying Annie ended up murdered in a gambling house in New Orleans. Two New Orleans writers in the 1920s made up the Annie Christmas story and fed it to Carl Carmer, and others have used him as a source, spreading and multiplying the urban myth and reputation of Annie Christmas. Though there was no Annie, there were women riverboat captains in the late 1800s and one woman river pilot. Mary Gehman and Nancy Ries trace women on the Mississippi in the 1800s in Women and New Orleans: A History (New Orleans: Margaret Media, 1988).
You're not a native yet, but you're ahead of the curve.
A native and resident of New Orleans, Dedra Johnson is the author of the coming-of-age story Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow, a William Wisdom–William Faulkner novel finalist. Read her blog on Red Room.
- Overview:New Orleans Travel Guide