City of Refuge is a passionate love letter to New Orleans. This story about how Hurricane Katrina affected two families—one white and middle class, one poor and black—is by turns heart- and gut-wrenching.
On a sweltering hot, late August day in New Orleans we meet SJ Williams, a widowed carpenter and Vietnam vet, who lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward. Williams must care for his ailing sister Lucy and her troubled son Wesley. We also meet Craig Donaldson, a native of Michigan, who lives in a comfortable middle class neighborhood near Tulane with a wife and two children. These two families make radically different plans for getting through the coming storm. Williams opts to board his windows and tough it out at home. Donaldson and his family evacuate north across Lake Pontchartrain to Mississippi.
After the levees break and the flood waters rush in, SJ and his family are scattered to the Convention Center, the Superdome, and eventually across state lines. Do you remember being glued to the television that summer, observing with horror the plight suffered by thousands of New Orleanians? The Williams are those people. City of Refuge paints a much more intimate portrait of them than we saw on television.
Meanwhile, the Donaldson family manages to evacuate first to Mississippi, then to Chicago. Safe and sound thousands of miles from home, Craig and his wife must confront their rocky marriage and make the difficult decision of whether or not to return to their adopted hometown. Whereas the Williamses feel like composite characters based on thousands of victims and evacuees, Craig reads like an autobiographical character and it is clear that the author really relates to him.
Large chunks of City of Refuge read like narrative non-fiction: descriptions of the city, the levees, the damage, and media attention during the storm and its immediate aftermath, and diatribes about an ineffective and disorganized government response. Nevertheless, Piazza weaves his concerns about race and class through the contrasting experiences of the Williamses and the Donaldsons with great compassion and a compelling intensity.