Hurricane Katrina was one of the most destructive natural disasters in United States history, maxing out as a Category 5 hurricane before doing its worst over southeastern Louisiana on August 29, 2005. Katrina's storm surge caused 53 different levee breaches in greater New Orleans, submerging 80 percent of the city. The hurricane caused an estimated at $108 billion in damage, and the confirmed death toll was 1,836.
Though many fled the city of New Orleans prior to Katrina's arrival, those who remained were forced to weather a ferocious storm and after it, an unprecedented failure of city infrastructure, services and federal response. Those who'd stayed told stories of scrambling to their roofs to avoid the floodwaters that inundundated their homes. Many others sought refuge either in the city's convention center or in the Louisiana Superdome, where some 30,000 people waited out the storm in miserable, overcrowded conditions.
The Superdome is where Samuel Thompson found himself during the storm, with a suitcase and his violin. He had spent the summer of 2005 in New Orleans, preparing for the Rodolfo Lipizer Competition, and he did not have means to leave the city.
"The only truly unnerving thing that I remember was the sheer number of people who were stranded, and the fact that we had no idea when we would leave," he told me recently.
On the Wednesday of that week, he was fortunate to move from the Superdome to the smaller New Orleans Arena next door, with a group of about 100 people.
"It was honestly not until then that we began becoming painfully aware of the magnitude of what had taken place," he said. "There were hundreds of people in the basketball arena, including residents of an assisted living center who were being prepared for helicopter evacuation, a medical triage unit, and many National Guardsmen."
"Those of us in the group that I was with immediately stepped in to help organize the elderly, and at one point someone asked me if I would play something," Thompson said. "I must admit that it seemed an odd request, as there was much to do. So I asked both a National Guardsman and a nurse if I could play a little."
They said yes, and as it happened, LA Times reporter Scott Gold witnessed the scene. Here is how he described it: "(Thompson) had guarded (his violin) carefully and hadn't taken it out until Wednesday afternoon, when he was able to move from the Superdome into the New Orleans Arena, far safer accommodations. He rested the black case on a table next to a man with no legs in a wheelchair and a pile of trash and boxes, and gingerly popped open the two locks. He lifted the violin out of the red velvet encasement and held it to his neck.
"Thompson closed his eyes and leaned into each stretch of the bow as he played mournfully. A woman eating crackers and sitting where a vendor typically sold pizza watched him intently. A National Guard soldier applauded quietly when the song ended, and Thompson nodded his head and began another piece, the Andante from Bach's Sonata in A minor."
"These people have nothing," Thompson told the LA Times reporter. "I have a violin. And I should play for them. They should have something."
At the time, Thompson felt no hesitation and certainly no sense of stage fright; these days he can laugh at the irony: "In the middle of chaos, taking out the instrument and playing all of this repertoire was easy, yet everyone deals with performance anxiety and nervousness in some way when playing under 'normal' conditions."
Thompson's generosity in playing Bach in the midst of such difficulty and disorganization is something that struck a chord; the story circulated widely and quickly. In the 10 years since the storm, Thompson has felt ambivalent about his 10 minutes of fame, which on one hand brought some opportunities, and on the other hand was something he did not wish to have exploited.
"During the first year after the storm, I did receive invitations to play concerts, including one at the New Haven International Festival of Arts and Ideas," he said. "That recital was so beautiful. Conceived and directed by a wonderful man and a dear friend named Peter Webster, it included works by Bach, Ysaye, and Tom Benjamin in black box theatre with photos of Mardi Gras Indians and post-Katrina destruction being projected on a screen behind me. It was at the Arts and Ideas Festival that I met members of Alternate ROOTS. ROOTS is a tremendous organization based in the Southern United States that consists of artists and organizations whose cultural work strives for social justice.
"It was through meeting these incredible people that I joined ROOTS, and through membership in Alternate ROOTS which lead to associations with the National Performance Network. I have met and befriended artists across all genres that are creating thought-provoking and excellent works of theatre and dance, all while remaining aware of issues that affect our society. Three groups immediately come to mind: Knoxville's Carpetbag Theatre, with whom I performed from 2008-12, which is currently touring "Speed Killed My Cousin", a play that deals with veterans' issues. Also, UNIVERSES, a national/international ensemble company that will be presenting their "Ameriville" - one of the most riveting and well-researched stage works about Hurricane Katrina - at Western Michigan State University in October of this year. And third, Jump-Start Theatre Company, a San Antonio-based company that presented "I'll Remember For You," a poignant two-person play that deals with Alzheimer's disease and the challenges faced by adults who find themselves acting as caretakers for their parents.
"In March 2006, I reconnected with a mentor after many years, and at that time she encouraged me to keep writing," Thompson said. "Well, I had no idea that my private musings would turn into a vehicle through which I would interact with the world, let alone one through which I could share that there are people on the ground in our field both within and outside of the legacy institutions who are truly engaging with their communities in ways that are sincere, innovative, and unprecedented. Those writing platforms have included my personal blog, Violinist.com, and writing for the San Jose Chamber Orchestra."
"Since Katrina I have, through following my inner guidance and that of people that I trust as well as taking opportunities that both furthered me and challenged me, started contributing to and participating in the world in ways that I have always dreamed of - including musically, and for that I'm grateful."
Thompson now lives in Baltimore and plays in the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and the Delaware Symphony. He said he'll probably spend the 10th anniversary of Katrina doing what he is alway doing: playing, teaching and writing.
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