New Orleans, Haiti linked by history and tragedy

New Orleans, Haiti linked by history and tragedy
January 28,2010
By Rick Jervis

NEW ORLEANS — From the pots of red beans and rice bubbling in French Quarter restaurants to the amulet bags for sale in neighborhood botanicas, Haitian influence is seen, heard and tasted across this city.
For two centuries, Haiti and New Orleans have shared deep cultural and historical ties, dating to when several shiploads of 19th-century Haitian refugees fleeing the Caribbean island's slave revolts relocated to New Orleans, forever stamping their culture on the city.

Now the two places share another, less-desirable commonality: near-total destruction of their cities. Fundraisers and live-music benefits quickly sprouted across New Orleans after the major earthquake convulsed Haiti on Jan. 12, reducing its capital and other cities to rubble and killing perhaps 200,000 people.

New Orleanians say they can offer more than money and medicine: They can share hard lessons learned about rebuilding — both physically and psychologically — from the catastrophic floods following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which destroyed 80% of the city.

"If anybody should understand this situation, we should," says Lolis Eric Elie, a local writer and filmmaker who has written about Haiti-New Orleans connections. "New Orleanians need to be the first folks to remind the world that tragedy can happen to anyone, and humanity and charity are required of everyone."

Influx of Caribbean refugees

French colonists from Saint-Domingue — later renamed Haiti — had traveled to New Orleans since the early 1700s, says Emily Clark, an associate professor of history at Tulane University. That connection flourished in 1809 and 1810, when 10,000 refugees arrived in New Orleans from Saint-Domingue, she says. The refugees were a combination of French colonists, their slaves and free people of color who had fled the slave uprisings.

The refugees doubled the city's population and infused New Orleans with Franco-Caribbean traditions, including theater companies, elaborate dances and black political activists, Clark says. Also, as Saint-Domingue's lucrative sugarcane fields burned during the revolution there, New Orleans' sugar industry soared.

"A lot of the things about New Orleans we view as unique came from those Haitian refugees," Clark says.

Over the years, the Haitian riz national morphed into red beans and rice — a New Orleans staple — and the city's brightly colored Creole cottages are direct descendents of similar homes found in Haiti, Elie says.

Another thing the Saint-Domingue refugees brought to New Orleans: voodoo. At the Island of Salvation Botanica on Piety Street, rows of candles with images of Ayizan, Loko and other voodoo deities sit next to ritual perfumes and gris-gris bags — small cloth bags filled with herbs, oils and other items used to cast spells. Dried chicken feet bedecked with colored feathers (to repel thieves) dangle from nails.

"Our whole culture is steeped in Haiti and steeped in voodoo," says Sallie Ann Glassman, the shop's owner and a leading New Orleans voodoo priestess. "That mix of African slaves and European Catholics — it certainly left its footprint all over."

'Most Haitian city in America'

Some New Orleans residents, like Beverly Bell, learned of Haiti's devastation through e-mails and text messages from friends. "Utter disbelief," says Bell, who has organized human rights groups in Haiti. "You can't sit there and see those scenes from Haiti and not think of Katrina."

Others got a closer look. David Baron, a local Haitian arts dealer, was in a Port-au-Prince school tutoring Haitian students when the earthquake struck and the building nearly collapsed. He spent six days sleeping in open fields and eating campfire meals before he was able to return to New Orleans. On Saturday, he held a fundraiser in his home-gallery to raise money for Haitian friends.

"This is the most Haitian city in America, much more than Miami or New York," says Baron, who has traveled to Haiti dozens of times over 25 years. "Part of New Orleans' uniqueness is that it's where France and Africa met — just like Haiti."

New Orleans is now also connected to Haiti by disaster. The slow response in evacuating survivors and heavy-handedness of local law enforcement there is eerily reminiscent of Katrina's chaotic aftermath, says retired Army lieutenant general Russel Honoré, who led the military effort on the Gulf Coast following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "They're doing all the right things," he says. "They're just doing it slow."

Haitian faith-based groups and community activists should also be closely involved in long-term rebuilding plans — a lesson learned from Katrina, says John Renne, an urban planning expert at the University of New Orleans,

"We had a lot of outsiders from all over the world come to New Orleans and say, 'This is how you should do it,' " he says. "They gave good advice, then left. That did not contribute to the recovery of the city."

As much as Haiti gave New Orleans the past two centuries, New Orleanians now need to return the favor by sharing their knowledge from their own cataclysmic loss, Elie says.

"What happened here immediately post-Katrina was a lesson in how not to do emergency relief," he says. "We need to help the nation and the world understand how emergency relief can effectively be accomplished.
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