Interview with New Orleans Musician Amanda Shaw
With Hurricane Gustav threatening the Gulf Coast, TreeHugger's meeting with Cajun-pop prodigy Amanda Shaw takes on a certain urgency. A shadow of concern for her family, friends and home hangs over the interview about her wetlands activism, her part in the IMAX film Hurricane on the Bayou, and her memories of Katrina.
Amanda Shaw and her band, the Cute Guys, are in Minnesota to play the 17th annual Grand Portage Bayou Boogie festival and the potentially hurricane-delayed Republican National Convention. As fears of Gustav grow, the musicians walk past the sound booth between sets to check the weather satellite images looping on the mixer's laptop. Amanda Shaw finishes playing her tribute to those who helped in the aftermath of Katrina and making a pitch for saving the wetlands, then ducks away from her worried family to give a few minutes of her time to TreeHugger.Getting Active in Voice of the Wetlands
When she was 14, Amanda got a phone call. Before Katrina, wetlands in the Louisiana bayou were disappearing at a rate of one acre every 38 minutes. This statistic inspired Academy-award nominated producer/director Greg MacGillivray to begin documenting the threat of a hypothetical hurricane to this critical coastal buffer in the prophetically titled IMAX film Hurricane on the Bayou. MacGillivray wanted to explore the unique natural environment and cultural treasures of South Louisiana through the eyes of four established and up-and-coming musicians, including Amanda Shaw, a fiddling prodigy who was the youngest violinist ever to solo with the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra and a growing voice in the New Orleans music scene.
Just before film previews planned in September 2005, Katrina landed. MacGillivray's mission switched gears from computer model projections of the potential destruction a category 4 or 5 hurricane could wreak on the historic coast to documenting the tragic aftermath which demonstrated the validity of MacGillivray's alarm. Before Katrina, Amanda notes, the loss of the wetlands wasn't talked about. It was during the filming that Amanda fell in love with the "beautiful, peaceful" environment in the bayous and after Katrina that she became passionate about preserving and restoring the wetlands.
Voice of the Wetlands
"Wetlands are a natural speed bump against storms," Amanda posits. After Katrina, Amanda joined forces with many famous New Orleans musicians in the organization Voice of the Wetlands, started by Tab Benoit. VOW took their case to Congress, which passed a bill for wetlands restoration. VOW continues to advocate for funding the mandate for coastal restoration.
Amanda points out that restoration requires a re-examination of the levee system. Louisiana needs "not just levees, but gated levees for promoting replenishment of sediments." Coastal restoration also depends on soil retaining plants and fewer boat canals, which increase erosion. Amanda emphasizes:
We cannot wait to be safe. We have to do it ourselves. It is not the government, it is us as people. Take care of Mother Nature and Mother Nature will take care of us.
For her 18th birthday, in early August 2008, Amanda threw a Voice of the Wetlands benefit party. The cream of New Orleans' thriving music community, including George Porter himself, turned up to celebrate with Amanda. The event raised over $8000 for VOW, with guests lined up outside waiting for someone to leave so they could join the overcapacity crowd at the famous Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl.
Fear of Hurricane Gustav
Amanda becomes visibly agitated as the interview turns back to the current threat of hurricane Gustav. "To watch it happen...it's really hard, not knowing what is going to happen." Does she have family now in the path of Gustav? Amanda points to her grandfather, Dr. Armando Amaya, who has joined the interview. She is glad they were able to get him up north with the family; some aunts and uncles remain behind. "The levees are a little higher, but we don't know what they will hold," Dr. Amaya adds.
Amanda dwells on her memories of Katrina: "It is kind of like losing your identity. Overnight, everything changed. You have no phone, credit cards don't work. The people you know are scattered."
Why Not Just Relocate New Orleans?
We have to ask the provocative question: why not move everyone to safer ground and rebuild the culture and charm of New Orleans? "That is not how it works!" Amanda exclaims. "There is so much history there. The people make the place and the place makes the people." It is not the first time the city has known tragic devastation, she notes. "New Orleans is extremely resilient. Our roots are deep there."
Amanda recounts how, after Katrina, she despaired at learning that none of her friends' families planned to return to New Orleans. They were scattered across America, deciding to make a new start away from the susceptible coast. In the meantime, every one of them has come back home. "We took for granted what we had", Amanda says. "After Katrina, it became even more special."
What is Next for Amanda Shaw?
Amanda's next gig is with Voice of the Wetlands at the Republican National Convention. VOW played in Colorado with the Democrats as well. But what about the big picture? Music, of course, but what is her dream as she enters adulthood? Amanda blushes. Right now, she says, she just "lives for every day; the future is right now." Her new CD, Pretty Runs Out, has just been released. It includes the song "Chirmolito", a tribute to the workers who helped rebuild New Orleans.
So what is Amanda Shaw's message to other young adults, entering a world where, as Amanda recognizes, "green is growing" but in which young adults face uncertainties unique to their generation? Amanda smiles with a poised self-assuredness that comes from over a decade in the public eye and responds:
It is about people. It is about helping ourselves.
More on Wetlands and Hurricanes
How (Not) to Prevent the Next Hurricane Katrina
National Wetlands Newsletter
The Tide is Turning: natural flood defence makes a come-back
Hurricane on the Bayou
Organizations for Wetland Restoration
Voice of the Wetlands,
Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana
More on Amanda Shaw