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Storm Surge: Entertainers respond as tragedy hits New Orleans

Entertainment Weekly

16 September 2005

Byline: Benjamin Svetkey Additional reporting by Michael Endelman;
Leah Greenblatt; Paul Katz; Gregory Kirschling; Jeff Jensen

NOBODY YET KNOWS EXACTLY HOW MUCH DAMAGE has been done to New Orleans. It will be months or more before the true dimensions of the disaster can be fully calculated. But there is one thing we already do know with absolute certainty: the value of this region to American culture.

This is the place where Louis Armstrong first blew his horn (in the honky-tonks of the French Quarter, miraculously one of the few neighborhoods to survive the storm more or less intact). The place where writers like William Faulkner (and Anne Rice and Sherwood Anderson and Walker Percy) learned to tell their stories. The place where so many artists and entertainers--and especially musicians, like Little Richard, the Neville Brothers, Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., Fats Domino, and even Elvis himself--found so much inspiration.

"New Orleans for musicians is like Israel," says singer-songwriter Shannon McNally. "It's a sacred land, a psychological and spiritual center. It's the base of American culture, of rock & roll, of jazz, of all our music, of what we consider cool. In New Orleans, you see America close to the bone. It's hot and it's poor. It's all the things that beautiful music comes from."

It's still all of those things--or will be again, in six months or six years--but Hurricane Katrina has made it something else, as well. It's now a stricken city, victim of one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history. For the time being, at any rate, New Orleans is a bit like Blanche DuBois, the most famous character ever created by the town's most famous playwright--dependent, as she declared in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, on the kindness of strangers.

Not to mention friends. "I was going to go down there next week and look for locations," says The Big Easy star Dennis Quaid, who now has to rethink where to film the movie he'll be directing about the life of swing-fiddle musician Spade Cooley. "I'd still like to do it there, now more than ever because they're going to need business. People are going to need jobs."

Katrina, it turns out, scuttled plans of lots of filmmakers. Lately more and more of them had been flocking to Louisiana, lured by tax breaks and abundant local talent, turning the place into a sort of Gulf Coast Hollywood. Andrew Davis was preparing to shoot a Kevin Costner movie there called The Guardian; the film, ironically about Coast Guard rescue swimmers, will relocate to Shreveport, La. Another crew was in New Orleans making a Michael Keaton movie called The Last Time just before the hurricane hit. "We've shot five films [there] in the last two years," reports Element Films president Adam Rosenfelt. "At first we made a little horror movie, but we were starting to make bigger films there. So was everyone else."

Rosenfelt and his crew evacuated before the hurricane hit--he'll be making the rest of this film back in Los Angeles--but not everyone had an easy time getting out. Fats Domino disappeared for a bit after heavy flooding in the 9th Ward forced him from his home. But then the 77-year-old R&B legend turned up in a newspaper photo showing him being lifted into a rescue boat. Rap star Master P, at last report, was still searching for at least three of his relatives missing since the storm. Lucy Lawless, in New Orleans shooting a TV movie called Vampire Bats, couldn't find a flight out, so she and one of the show's producers tried driving to safety. They made it to Baton Rouge. "They spent two nights without power or water in a friend of a friend's house," reports Vampire's executive producer Frank von Zerneck. "Then they finally managed to get to Texas and back to L.A. I talked to Lucy an hour ago. She's fine."

Meanwhile, as all this was unfolding on the Gulf, entertainers on a different coast were gearing up to help. As always, the response to national catastrophe was deeply sincere, and at times a tad tacky: Michael Jackson surely raised eyebrows in announcing plans for a benefit song, and Jessica Simpson's fans may not have done the star a big favor when they used her name to promote a campaign focused on helping animals while human survivors were desperately searching for missing loved ones.

Avoiding tastelessness, though, was priority No. 1 at the TV networks, where programming and promotions were scanned for disaster references. ABC didn't have to look far: One of its big new shows this fall, Invasion, premieres with an episode about a hurricane wreaking havoc on a Southern town. The network yanked a promo for the show, but so far hasn't made any changes to the hurricane episode itself (scheduled to air Sept. 21). "The catalyst in our show is a hurricane, but the aftermath is totally different from Katrina," says the show's creator and executive producer, Shaun Cassidy. "Our little TV show is inconsequential in the big picture of human suffering."

Priority No. 2 at the networks: telethons, naturally. NBC's A Concert for Hurricane Relief on Sept. 2, a one-hour "special event," may have aimed in part to comfort a shocked and grieving nation but wound up antagonizing some viewers when rapper Kanye West voiced his frustration. "George Bush doesn't care about black people," West declared. (Others in the entertainment community have also expressed exasperation with the government relief effort, as has the mayor of New Orleans.) NBC edited the statement from its West Coast broadcast. Featuring appearances by Faith Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Wynton Marsalis, and Richard Gere, among others, the NBC telethon raised more than $20 million. An even bigger event, airing on all six broadcast networks simultaneously, with appearances promised from Chris Rock, Sheryl Crow, and Jennifer Aniston, is scheduled for Sept. 9.

Still, despite the awkward moments within the entertainment industry, individual heroes have emerged from the storm: Harry Connick Jr. rushing into New Orleans at the height of the chaos to help his neighbors in the city of his birth; singer Macy Gray dropping in on the Houston Astrodome to pass out bottles of water; rapper David Banner traveling to Jackson, Miss.--an area also devasted by Katrina--to help victims in his own hometown. "There hasn't been electricity there for three days," he says. "People are fighting over gas and water. So I filled my tour bus with water and food and just drove to a shelter."

These kinds of moments, not always captured by TV cameras, provide some reason to have hope for New Orleans, a place director Andrew Davis describes as a true American melting pot. "It's French and Spanish and Haitian and Latin and English cultures all coming together," he says. "It represents a bohemian freedom that's unique in the South. It's the most open-minded, cross-cultural city in America. And that makes its impact unique."

It may also be what enables the region to endure. "I don't think New Orleans is gonna die," says Dennis Quaid. "I think this is going to add to the legend of New Orleans."* (Additional reporting by Michael Endelman, Leah Greenblatt, Paul Katz, Gregory Kirschling, Jeff Jensen)