Katrina on screen: How the creators of The Wire are dramatising the tragedy of New Orleans

Treme, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is the latest epic from The Wire's creator, David Simon. Ahead of its American premiere, Tim Walker looks at how the Big Easy and the disaster have inspired great art
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The Independent Culture

For three consecutive nights in early November 2007, 600 New Orleans residents packed into a temporary amphitheatre close to North Claiborne Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward to watch a free production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Performed in the open air, against the backdrop of the city's most devastated district, Beckett's work seemed bleakly appropriate; more than 26 months since Hurricane Katrina had struck, the audience could only chuckle darkly at the inaction and delay that the play's protagonists endure. Yet the event also celebrated the city at its best: a brass band played a thrilling set before the show, a famed local chef served gumbo to the assembled crowds, and the play's star was one of the city's favourite sons – Wendell Pierce, best known to the wider world as the The Wire's wry Baltimore homicide cop William "Bunk" Moreland.

Today, the Lower Ninth is showing signs of renewal. Shocked by the funereal pace of redevelopment, in 2007 the actor Brad Pitt established a non-profit foundation, "Make It Right", and commissioned a handful of leading architects to design 150 striking, eco-friendly new homes for returning residents. The area around North Claiborne is now dotted with so-called "Brad Pitt Houses". Pierce, meanwhile, is one of the stars of a new, 10-part HBO drama series by David Simon, the creator of The Wire. Named Treme, after the working-class neighbourhood in which it is set, it tells the story of a group of musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, chefs and other assorted locals in the months immediately following Katrina.

Simon and Treme's co-creator, Eric Overmyer, were interested in writing a drama set in New Orleans long before the events of 2005. Overmyer owned a second home in the city, Simon was an aficionado of its musical scene, and the two bonded over their convergent jazz collections while working on the earlier series Homicide: Life on the Street. However, like many other artists – not least those who staged Godot – the two writers recognised the storm's consequences as symbolic of all sorts of social, economic and political concerns. New Orleans post-Katrina was "an allegory for the trauma that the country as a whole went through two years later," Simon said. "The levees on the canals were substandard, and done on the cheap at an immense profit... New Orleans was relying on things that were believed to be genuine bulwarks against tragedy and disaster. People felt there were similar bulwarks protecting our financial institutions and foreign policy."

Katrina peeled away the thin veneer of race normalisation in the US; it highlighted the true priorities of a White House that claimed to have its citizens' best interests at heart and proved that civilised society hangs by a thinner thread than we might assume, as large swathes of a major city in the world's most developed nation were wiped out, its residents transformed into refugees overnight. At the same time, however, the hurricane and its aftermath demonstrated the spirit, dignity and resilience of those individuals and their community. It was a story about both the very worst and the very best of America, and it was a gripping one.

Five years on, we are in the midst of a creative flowering inspired by Katrina and by the city that it struck. As well as Treme, which begins on US screens this weekend, there is the author Dave Eggers' recently published non-fiction book, Zeitoun, about a Syrian-American building contractor who spent the days after the flood rowing through his neighbourhood in a second-hand canoe, helping whoever he could; until, that is, he was arrested by federal agents and imprisoned – apparently as a suspected terrorist. The Princess and the Frog, Disney's first D animated feature since 2004, is a fairytale set in New Orleans during the Jazz Age. The Big Easy is also the backdrop for the Bavarian auteur Werner Herzog's most recent movie, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, in which the crumbling city mirrors the title character's moral and psychological decline.

The apocalyptic imagery of the disaster has also seeped into The Road and The Book of Eli, two recent films set in a future where the world has been ravaged by an unidentified natural disaster. A television commercial for Levi's jeans, by director Cary Fukunaga, presented snapshots of a nation submerged beneath the floodwaters of financial and physical ruin, soundtracked by a scratchy recording of Walt Whitman reading his own poem, "America". The echoes of Katrina were unmistakable.

Until this year, the most compelling records of the catastrophe were documentaries: the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water, by the producers of Fahrenheit 9/11, and Spike Lee's 2006 television film When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Originally screened on HBO to mark the first anniversary of Katrina, the magnificent Levees... was conceived as a two-hour, $1m production. But after the director spent almost a year gathering content and interviews, both the running time and the budget doubled. A second Lee documentary, If God Is Willing and the Creek Don't Rise, is due to premiere on the flood's fifth anniversary in August. It will revisit many of the faces in Levees..., as well as widening its scope to the Gulf Coast and the displaced New Orleans natives still living in Houston and other US cities.

Thanks to his relationship with the city, its music and HBO, Lee was asked to direct the pilot episode of Treme (though it was eventually helmed by the Wire alumnus Agnieszka Holland). The title of his epic documentary was a nod to the blues standard "When the Levee Breaks", about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and the curtain fell on its final act to the strains of "Walking to New Orleans" by the famed jazz pianist Fats Domino, who was himself rescued from his home in the Lower Ninth by the Coast Guard during the 2005 flood. One of the many reasons creative people worldwide feel so attached to New Orleans, and so invested in its fate, is its history as the cradle of jazz, the great American art form.

Dave Walker is the television critic for New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune, which famously maintained its newsroom operation throughout the storm and the flood that followed. "People everywhere have been profoundly affected by this city," he says. "Either they tasted or heard something in New Orleans that moved them in ways that they're not moved in other cities; or they're touched by the city's culture without even realising it: African-American jazz is a global export that started in New Orleans. The mixing of European instrumentation, African rhythms and the influence of the Delta could only have happened here." The jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis described the destruction of his music's hometown in an interview for Levees...: "It's like somebody violating your mama," he said.

In fact, Simon has suggested, the origins of jazz can be traced more precisely to Treme, the few square blocks of the city that give his new series its name. Like Levees..., Treme's pilot episode opens and closes with music indigenous to the district: a street parade, and a funeral procession. Simon sent his treatment for the show to HBO executives with a CD of relevant music included, which he insisted they should listen to as they read.

Unlike The Wire, which encapsulated the life of an entire city (Baltimore) by depicting its institutions, Treme tells the story of a single neighbourhood through its individual inhabitants. The Treme area's contribution to world culture is matched by the opacity of its ultra-local vocabulary, traditions and trends – and Simon's show aspires to capture as much of both as it can. He has walked the same tightrope between universality and locality before: with The Wire's faithful adherence to Baltimore street talk, for instance, or the military in-jokes of his last HBO miniseries, Generation Kill, which recreated the real experiences of a marine battalion at the forefront of the Iraq War.

To ensure Treme would be accurate enough to convince even the neighbourhood's real inhabitants, Simon and Overmyer hired two local writers: Tom Piazza, author of the Katrina novel City of Refuge and the non-fiction book Why New Orleans Matters; and Lolis Eric Elie, a former Times-Picayune columnist. They consulted with local chefs and musicians, and gave more than 70 of them (including Allen Touissant, Donald Harrison Jr and Dr John) on-screen roles. Wendell Pierce plays a trombonist, and the cast also includes his fellow Wire veteran Clarke Peters as a Mardi Gras Indian Chief. The film actors Steve Zahn, John Goodman and Melissa Leo portray another musician, a college professor and his civil rights lawyer wife respectively.

Early US reviews of the show have been ecstatic, and though there's no word yet about when or or on which channel it will air in the UK, fans of The Wire are slavering over the snippets seen in trailers on YouTube – of Pierce, Peters and Goodman, whose character's tone sounds like the angry Simon of old: "What hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast was a natural disaster, a hurricane pure and simple," Creighton Bernette (Goodman) tells a haughty British reporter before throwing his microphone into a canal. "The flooding of New Orleans was a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions, and decades in the making."

Despite the show's focus on the struggles of individuals and their families, Simon cannot entirely resist the invigorating polemic of The Wire; Treme will supposedly deal with local political issues, such as public housing problems, the criminal justice system, political corruption and the difficulty of restoring tourism to the city after the storm. And just as not every Baltimorean appreciated Simon's grim portrait of their city in The Wire, so not everyone in New Orleans will be overjoyed at the prospect of watching Treme.

"There are moments in the show which are terribly heartbreaking," says Walker, who has seen its early episodes. "Locals will not enjoy revisiting the very dark period in which Treme is set, three months after Katrina. It was a terrible time and it was very difficult to live here then." When the New Orleans Saints overcame the odds to win this year's Super Bowl, to the delight of both New Orleanians and neutrals, he explains, "A lot of people saw it as an exclamation point on the Hurricane Katrina sentence. Many think the continued discussion of Katrina is actually hampering the recovery, and that it's time for everybody to move on.

"But people will also see the positive things that Treme disseminates: the music in the show is incredible, and it's not a New Orleans music cliché; it's the cutting-edge culture of the city – brass band parade music that is as contemporary as anything Lil Wayne [another New Orleans native] is doing... Treme represents tens of millions of dollars of production money spent in the city, which is great – but maybe more important is the cachet of the creator of The Wire spending his creative capital on telling the New Orleans story."

The entertainment industry's financial investment could not go unnoticed by grateful New Orleanians. Thanks to a heady mixture of tax incentives and Hollywood's sense of corporate responsibility, Louisiana is now the third most popular state in the US to make a movie. In 2005, New Orleans hosted seven film shoots; this year, there were 15 films in production there before the end of January. Not all of those movies are actually set in the region, but Pitt's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) was a notable exception. When the hurricane hit, it was Denzel Washington who persuaded producers to proceed with the production of his 2006 thriller Déjà Vu in New Orleans as planned. Forest Whitaker is set to star in Hurricane Season, in which his character coaches a basketball team made up of children affected by the flood.

"Sometimes," says Dave Walker, "it feels like Hollywood has done more for New Orleans than Washington has. And film and TV production is a clean industry compared to the others in this part of the country, like petrochemicals and shipping – the only waste that a film production leaves behind when it's done is empty vodka bottles."

As the playwright Jonathan Holmes explains, "Liberal Hollywood has extremely strong connections with New Orleans – not necessarily residential connections, but symbolic and cultural connections. So as soon as Katrina happened people like Spike Lee, Brad Pitt, Denzel Washington and Sean Penn went down there to help. And that's not just because a terrible thing happened; it's because there's a real sense that American popular culture owes a large part of its existence to New Orleans. Entertainment people feel a symbolic sense of responsibility to the city."

Holmes is a theatre writer and director whose previous work includes Fallujah, a documentary play based on eyewitness accounts of the American siege of the titular Iraqi city. His recent play, Katrina (which premiered last year in London), was a promenade production developed from the testimony of the hurricane's survivors. Some sections of the play were extracted from Voices from the Storm, a collection of accounts of Katrina published by the non-profit "Voice of Witness" project, a branch of Dave Eggers' publishing house, McSweeney's.

It was during the research for Voices from the Storm that Eggers came across Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the subject of his new book. Like Holmes' verbatim script, Zeitoun is a work based on testimony, that of its protagonist and his family. Zeitoun's wife, Kathy, a Southern-born Muslim convert, and their four children fled the city before the storm, but her struggle to discover what had happened to Abdulrahman after his arrest – and to see him freed – is integral to the narrative. The film director Jonathan Demme plans to turn the family's story into an animated feature. "First of all," Eggers has said of his book's motives, "you get to know an American Muslim family, and you grow to care about them. Then you realise that what happened to them must have happened many times since 9/11 and that we need to wake up."

An engrossing and incredibly moving tale, Zeitoun takes the heroism and tragedy of an individual and allows it to speak for that of whole communities – Muslim-Americans on the one hand, the people of New Orleans on the other. In many ways, it's a more engaging response to the Bush administration's so-called "War on Terror" than many works that deal directly with 9/11, the decade's other defining national trauma. Even when those seen as chroniclers of the national condition have turned their hand to it – novelists such as John Updike, Don DeLillo or Jay McInerney; film-makers such as Oliver Stone – they have broadly failed to frame the attack and its consequences in fiction. Indeed, some of the few successful attempts to deal with 9/11 creatively have been by non-Americans: the Irishman Joseph O'Neill in his novel Netherland; the British director Paul Greengrass with his film United 93.

"Responding to 9/11 is very difficult for Americans," Holmes explains, "because it's couched in a new narrative that's to do not only with immense shock and trauma, but also with the perceived rise of radical Islam – ideologies and thought systems that are very alien to people in the West. There aren't the narratives there ready and waiting to fit it into. Whereas there's a very clear, pre-existing narrative to understand what happened in New Orleans: the very big picture is the disintegration of late-industrial capitalism, which is something everyone can talk about. Sections of the American Left have been articulating the kind of concerns that Katrina meshes with for 80 years, since the Great Depression."

Katrina, then, has stepped up the manufacture of New Orleans' natural export: the arts. "New Orleans is a city that still creates," says David Simon. "Even in its damaged state, even amid a shocking continuum of national indifference, it remains a city that continues to build things. What it builds – its very product, in fact – is moments. Extraordinary moments in which art and ordinary life intersect."