Always the Tragic Jezebel: New Orleans, Katrina, and the Layered Discourse of a Doomed Southern City

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Consider the following narrative: Just before the disaster hit New Orleans, authorities urged every able citizen to leave at once. Those with means fled to safer ground outside the city, while the recalcitrant and the poor stayed behind. Then, almost immediately, the disaster struck, spawning terror and chaos and sending city leaders scrambling for a plan. They sealed of all the roads and waterways and forbade anyone to enter or leave New Orleans without a pass from the governor. Officials in the outlying parishes had orders to shoot anyone who "crossed the line." This probably sounds to many people like Katrina's harrowing collision with New Orleans in 2005. It is, in fact, the second half of the 1938 Belle Davis film, Jezebel. A Canal Street patrol the week after Katrina Department of Defense photograph by Sergeant Michael J. Carden, U.S. Army.

Consider the following narrative: Just before the disaster hit New Orleans, authorities urged every able citizen to leave at once. Those with means fled to safer ground outside the city, while the recalcitrant and the poor stayed behind. Then, almost immediately, the disaster struck, spawning terror and chaos and sending city leaders scrambling for a plan. They sealed off all the roads and waterways and forbade anyone to enter or leave New Orleans without a pass from the governor. Officials in the outlying parishes had orders to shoot anyone who "crossed the line." And authorities in the city began transporting everyone who needed help to a centralized location to the west--a place where recovery would prove harder, not easier. Gunfire and smoke fouled the night air as armed police guarded the more affluent neighborhoods. Search and rescue teams painted eerie symbols on the doors of houses so the dead could be counted and collected later. Compounding the tragedy, it was clear from the outset that none of this would have happened if the leaders of New Orleans had heeded warnings about the city's shoddy infrastructure. Because they didn't take proper steps to avoid it, a disaster of this scale had become inevitable.

This probably sounds to many people like Katrina's harrowing collision with New Orleans on August 29, 2005. It is, in fact, the second half of the 1938 Bette Davis film, Jezebel. Set partly in 1853, Jezebel fictionalizes the yellow fever epidemic that devastated the city in that year. The last time I had seen this film before Katrina, I was still living in New Orleans, my home for eleven years until 2004. But when I showed it to my Southern Literature seminar in Virginia just two weeks after Katrina, the scenes I had forgotten surprised and frightened me. At the time, I had two close friends staying with me--New Orleans natives who had evacuated the city for the first time in their lives. So I went to the screening of Jezebel hoping for a little Hollywood escapism. Instead, as the epidemic gripped the city, I found myself watching a black-and-white reenactment of what I had just witnessed on the 24-hour news. This seemed more than mere coincidence.

But how can an almost seventy-year-old film, sensationalizing an event eighty-five years prior, so accurately reflect the details of a present-day disaster? As I watched the film wind to its conclusion, I began to realize: the film wasn't depicting something analogous to Katrina as much as it was almost predicting Katrina. For in both cases, Jezebel and the media coverage of 2005 construed these tragic events as the inevitable results of the actions (and inactions) of the city and the people of New Orleans during the time leading up to these events. In hindsight, even close hindsight, New Orleans--and in Jezebel's logic, the South as a whole--must hold responsibility for the terrible things that befall it. The post-Katrina discourse of a perpetually doomed southern city evokes a myth that suggests a pattern in which New Orleans will succumb to tragedy over and over again. …