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QC profs recount Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans five years ago, Queens College English professor and poet Nicole Cooley was beside herself.

For days, she could not reach her parents, who had refused to evacuate their city. As her daughter drew pictures of the “weather” in their New York City apartment, Cooley was left to watch the television footage of the city in which she grew up being washed away, the forces of nature and the incompetence of government bureaucracies leaving people to die, their corpses floating down what were once streets.

She remembers everything about Aug. 29, the day Katrina arrived, the day before the levees broke and caused the widespread flooding that a federal judge late last year ruled was the result of negligence on the part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It was a perfect blue sky, a 9/11 sky,” Cooley said at a panel discussion on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina at Queens College Monday.

The discussion was the college’s first presidential roundtable event on the semester. During the discussion, Cooley read from her new book of poetry, “Breach,” about the hurricane, and media studies professor Joy Fuqua, who lived in New Orleans for a decade before moving to New York in 2007, spoke about an art exhibit and the Spike Lee documentary about Katrina, as well as the recent oil spill in the gulf that left 4.9 million barrels of oil in the same waters the hurricane hit five years ago.

“Hurricane Katrina devastated so much of the Gulf Coast and left 80 percent of the city of New Orleans underwater,” said Cooley, who directs the college’s MFA program in creative writing and literary translation. “It is crucial to remember what happened there.”

In her poems, Cooley described the panic she and her siblings felt when trying to locate her parents, who ended up isafe, as well as the loss of the places that held so many memories of her childhood.

Fuqua, who researches the idea of home and belonging in relation to disaster, spoke about an art installation by New Orleans artist Jana Napoli called “Floodwall,” which was exhibited in 2007 at the World Financial Center Liberty Street Bridge, located next to Ground Zero. The piece, which Cooley also writes about in a poem, shows hundreds of drawers Napoli found in New Orleans following the hurricane.

Fuqua also discussed Lee’s documentary, “If God is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise,” which aired on HBO this August.

“Both Napoli and Lee, an installation artist and a filmmaker, respectively, ask us to make meaning about Hurricane Katrina through comparison to and juxtaposition with other national events, such as 9/11 and the recent British Petroleum oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico,” Fuqua said.

Lee’s film compares the natural disaster of the hurricane with the oil spill, which happened as he was wrapping up filming.

“Lee’s most recent film documents the implications of ongoing man-made disasters and our ways of living, the choices we make and their effects,” said Fuqua, who further explores what she discussed Monday in her upcoming book, “Home Free: The Culture and Economy of Disaster.”

A group of about 17 Queens College students will travel to New Orleans in January, as they did last January, to work with Habitat for Humanity on houses in the Ninth Ward.

“The Ninth Ward is still absolutely devastated,” said Judy Krinitz, a special events coordinator for Queens College who attended the panel discussion. “The French Quarter is very lively, but where we were, it was very depressing, very devastated.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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