Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
It’s still hard to believe that in this modern world, so full of radar and up-to-the-second forecasts and technology so advanced that it can seem like magic at times, so many died when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in late August.
Even more incredible have been the stories of the survivors, some of whom have fought through the most desperate brand of hardship to try and reclaim their lives. In many ways, it’s the struggle to exist again, in this country where the things we have often serve as the outward face of who we are.
Though the hardships of the Gulf Coast evacuees might not be nightly news anymore, that doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. From a high of over 70,000 evacuees in the state in the days following the storm, the best estimate is that around 4,000 former residents of Mississippi and Louisiana are still in Arkansas. Mostly, the ones that remain were some of the hardest hit, the most desperate, those with nowhere else to go. In apartments and rent houses all over Arkansas, they’re still waiting — for FEMA assistance, for insurance payouts, for paperwork, for furniture vouchers, for word from family.
With Thanksgiving so close behind us and Christmas looming, we decided to catch up with a few of these long-term evacuees, to find out what brought them here, and why they’ve stayed. Their stories are enough to make even the least of us thankful.
A soul saved by stride piano.
In the tiny bedroom of the West Little Rock apartment he shares with his 91-year-old father, Luther Williams walks his long fingers up and down a second-hand keyboard, snatching a rollicking Fats Waller tune from the air. He might be the best piano player I’ve ever seen in person — one of the few remaining devotees to stride piano, the wonky, incredibly intricate hybrid of jazz and ragtime first popularized in the speakeasies of New York City just after the First World War.
When he’s done, he talks about the music in the brisk and animated tones of a man who has recently found Jesus. If he realizes the similarities between the scenario he lays out and his own, he doesn’t let on.
“Waller was talking about change,” he said. “They were changing, moving from the rural South to the urban North. You can imagine how frightening the prospect of living in New York was if you’ve lived your whole life in South Carolina. But you make the adjustment. You come into the new things that life has to offer.”
In the next room, Williams’ coffee table is covered with Hebrew texts, and his own careful research into numerical codes found in the Bible. To him, the piano is no less a spiritual instrument. Williams believes — really and truly believes — that stride piano can save your soul.
In recent months, since Katrina came and blew away the last of his love for New Orleans, Williams has surely gained new insight into the kind of profound change Fats Waller was talking about. A resident of the Gentilly neighborhood, Williams worked in the professional standards division of the New Orleans Police Department and played in the NOPD Band before Katrina. He says he has a doctorate and once taught mass communications. He and his father were able to evacuate New Orleans the day before the storm hit. Many of his friends and neighbors weren’t so lucky.
“We were blessed to have the resources to evacuate,” he said. “There were people who didn’t have those resources. They may have had the car, but not the gas. Maybe payday wasn’t recent and their account was low and they didn’t have the money to flee.”
Pretty much ending up where the wind blew them, Williams and his father landed at North Little Rock’s Hays Center. After that, they stayed at the Howard Johnson motel before finally settling into an apartment just off Chenal Parkway. Boxes still fill the corners a month and a half after they moved in.
Williams said that he had been set on leaving New Orleans long ago, but it took Katrina to finally “liberate” him from the city. “I never really cared for New Orleans,” Williams said. “I never really cared for the intellectual climate. … I was looking for a place that’s quieter, more natural. A place that will allow me to work undisturbed.”
Williams compares the aftermath of the storm — the looting and desperation shown to America on our television sets — to a white wall that was riddled with decay just under the paint. “Katrina exposed, it didn’t create,” Williams said. “All that it did was reveal the undercurrents that were already there. You can only play the game for so long about who you are. The city officials emphasized the city as a place where you can have a good time, but the souls of the people who lived there, they were dying.”
That, for one, is a reason why Luther Williams won’t be going back to the place he has called home for the majority of his life. Though his house was one of the only structures in his neighborhood to be spared from flooding, three trips to New Orleans since Katrina have only made him more sure that Arkansas is his home now.
“I don’t like to go. I really detest it, but I have to go,” Williams said. “I detest the experience. In that neighborhood, all you see are massive amounts of furniture on the sidewalks, waiting to be picked up.” He’s planning on renting out the house for the time being.
The storm showed many residents of New Orleans what they lacked, he said, and he’s better off with what he lacks in Arkansas. The people here are kinder, more sincere, with none of the “fake finery” of that town, he said.
He won’t let himself believe that the destruction caused by the hurricane was for nothing.
“Though Katrina would seem to be a destabilizing influence,” he said, “it allowed many people who have faith in God to come into their destiny. It’s going to be a catalyst for fulfilling their divine purpose.”
For him, that means working to perfect his piano playing, with the long-term goal of making a living giving concerts and cultural presentations about the history of the form in schools, museums, concert halls and retirement homes. He hopes that will mean getting his father “squared away with the care he needs.”
He believes stride piano can help rebuild people’s lives, the way he’s rebuilding his own here in Arkansas.
“The world is in an awful state,” Williams said. “It’s not the poverty of social structures, it’s the poverty of the people — the poverty of the soul. It’s the fact that people are desperate and longing and unfulfilled. That’s the problem … We’ve lost touch with who we are, and we’ve lost touch with each other. What’s important is this legacy of beauty and strength … stride piano can give people that.”