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Katrina Dreams and Fears

A year ago the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. A month later Hurricane Rita destroyed the western part of the Louisiana coast  not affected by Katrina. Storm surges made flood walls fail and led to a devastating inundation of vast parts of the city of New Orleans. Katrina unleashed one of the largest natural disasters in American history. A recent visit to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and to Venice in Plaquemines Parish, the end point of American civilization on the Mississippi River, confirmed that the devastation is unimaginable. There is very little civilization left in these coastal regions. The city of New Orleans has a similarly hard time to return to pre-Katrina civilization.

The devastating hurricane is now producing a blizzard of anniversary activities. This past week Spike Lee was in town to preview his 4-hour HBO documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts in the New Orleans Arena to an audience in the thousands. People who saw it were very impressed and moved. The Times Picayune’s media critic slammed it for proffering prominent conspiracy theories in the black community of the government dynamiting levees and thus destroying the predominantly African-American 9th Ward. Hearst-Argyle played Song of New Orleans on its local station – a very moving profile of the Rebirth Brass Band, scattered all over the country by Katrina, and its emblematic struggle for survival and recovery.

This coming week every television channel from the Weather Channel to the Food Channel will present their Katrina “specials.” It seems fitting that Emeril Lagasse, one of the city’s most famous and boisterous chefs, would celebrate New Orleans cuisine and himself on the food channel. This in spite of the fact that he made some untoward remarks about the prospects of New Orleans’ chances for recovery last October, which made many locals run a beeline around Emeril’s when the famous restaurant reopened. You have to understand, food is a central part of New Orleans' identity.

International interest continues to be big in the comeback of New Orleans one year after Katrina. New Orleans music, after all, did as much to “Americanize” the world as did the rest of the U.S..

The re-elected maverick mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin, ever ready to put his foot in his mouth with his ad-libbing comments, had planned fireworks and a comedy show as part of the city’s anniversary activities. But withering public critiques of such undignified displays, disrespectful of the memory of the 1,200-plus people who died as a result of Katrina, made the mayor withdraw and pout. Now Wynton Marsalis, the mayor’s favorite cultural ambassador, is involved in producing some spirited commemorative events. City officials gathered for a groundbreaking for the construction of the first major Katrina memorial in the devastated 9th Ward. It is off to a bad start, however, as only a few days later $100,000 worth of equipment (including two bobcats) was stolen from the construction site. Every civic group in town is planning their own anniversary event, as is my university, the University of New Orleans. This past weekend, owners of pets lost in the storm held a second line parade in memory of their lost loved ones. Only in New Orleans….

How do you commemorate the devastation of a major metropolis from natural disaster? Obviously the politics of memory is important, especially for all of those political actors who failed their New Orleans constituencies. Continuing the “blame game” surely will be part of their speeches. Dignified memory is crucial for those who lost a loved one in the storm. Do you leave a destroyed neighborhood for posterity to see what calamity had befallen the Crescent City like Coventry and Dresden left the ruins of their cathedrals bombed into smithereens by Nazis and Allies? Do you wipe out bad memories by eventually tearing down destroyed neighborhoods like Berliners tore down the entire wall that divided them. The almost complete absence of sections of the wall as stark reminders of the divided Cold War status some now regret. Will you eventually build a wall with all the victims of the storm inscribed, which Vietnam vets did so spectacularly on the mall in Washington, D.C.? Should you get such master architects of physical memory construction such as Maya Lin and Daniel Liebeskind involved? Or, do you build memorials like in Oklahoma City after the bombing and New York City after 9/11?

As the struggle over the appropriate commemoration of 9/11 suggests, the fight over adequate memory production will continue for a long time in New Orleans. As always after vast catastrophes a welter of raw private memories will compete with solemnized public memories constructed to achieve some type of acceptable consensus. Will politicians have the courage to keep the memories alive of the true heroes of the storm, namely the Coast Guard and the private “Cajun Navy” rescuers who picked thousands of people from the rooftops of an inundated city as well as the health professionals who stayed with their patients in the flooded hospitals? How much time is needed to exorcise the bad memories and to deal with PTSD before you construct memorials pregnant with meaning to reignite civic pride? After all, it took more than a generation before Holocaust memorials and museums were constructed after the war. To evoke public memories earlier was too painful for the survivors -- and divisive in the perpetrator societies.

How do you commemorate the Hobbesian anarchy that befell the city for a few days after the levees broke? Presumably many of those who looted and stole and willfully destroyed property still live among us. The policemen on the west bank of the river, who did not allow black New Orleans to cross the Mississippi River bridge to escape the mayhem in the city, are still in office. The subterranean racial tensions and fissures that became so visible when a major American city flooded have only been papered over and populists and hardliners on both sides toy with them. Most likely, this quick collapse of the veneer of civilization will not be dwelt on in the commemorations. The bad memories will be suppressed in the public memory culture as societies often do after disasters. Victims will be remembered, perpetrators will be forgotten.

What is the mood in the New Orleans one year after Katrina? It is hovering between deepening dejection over the lack of progress in rebuilding the city and signs of hope that things only can get better. Stories have made it around the world of worsening crime as a result of wars between Latin American gangs and local drug lords displaced to Houston. They flood New Orleans with their wares, hoping to add to their profits in a city on the edge where traditional crime organizations were swept away by the storm too. Governor Kathleen Blanco shipped Louisiana National Guard contingents back to help police the streets of New Orleans after a particularly gruesome murder spree in June (recently the local paper featured a front page story of two Louisiana National Guard troopers who extracted money from motorists at gunpoint).

The health crisis continues. There is a scarcity of hospitals and health professionals in town. Eighty percent of the city’s shrinks left after Katrina and this at a time when almost everybody had some sort of stress and “post-traumatic stress” problem. Most of these mental health problems are obviously left unaddressed. Some people in the city -- like a local newspaper reporter recently -- are cracking from the stress of rebuilding their personal lives and witnessing the lack of progress in the reconstruction of their beloved city. Maybe the most heart-wrenching debate in the city centers around one doctor and two nurses who allegedly euthanized elderly patients with overdoses of painkillers in Memorial Hospital. To some they are the heroes who stayed to take care of their patients; to others they are criminals who abandoned their professional oaths. But most people agree that the grand-standing attorney general of Louisiana is trying to make political hay out of this sad affair.

The city is broke and has a hard time paying decent wages to first responders such as police and fire fighters. Driving around the potholes in the streets of New Orleans is like driving an obstacle course as the city has no money to fix the streets.

Above all, the city of New Orleans seems to have a hard time getting a concentrated planning process initiated around which neighborhoods can rebuild. You would think a year’s time would be sufficient to make some hard strategic choices about which hard-hit low-lying areas not to rebuild. In a way, the city and the private utilities make surreptitious choices by not providing basic services to some areas. Yet the overwhelming appearance is one of scattershot rebuilding. People make choices individually if they have the money. Most are still waiting for a government buyout through the Louisiana Recovery Authority. The Feds have appropriated billions of dollars to help individuals rebuild their properties; but officials are taking their time setting up the program. A year after the storm no money has been doled out yet in Louisiana, while the people of Mississippi who lost their properties already have collected their money.

Some courageous souls are rebuilding their properties -- never mind whether their neighborhoods are coming back or not. You drive down any street and you will see individual houses lovingly restored and grass replanted while most houses are standing derelict, windows broken, the ominous Katrina floodlines still visible, and jungles growing all around. What most people on the outside don’t realize is that one can still drive for miles and miles through the streets of New Orleans and find vast destruction and entire neighborhoods still in shambles. To be fair, we should remember that it usually takes a generation to rebuild major urban centers destroyed by natural catastrophes or war. Tokyo, Berlin and Vienna were still cities in ruins in 1946, and Chicago, San Francisco, and Kobe were not rebuilt in a year after the great fire and earthquake.

Yet rays of hope and signs of progress co-exist with despondency. Brave volunteers from all over the country keep pouring into the city to help gut and rebuild houses. Federal dollars keep flowing in to rebuild lives and institutions. Musicians keep coming back to restart the cultural engines so vital to the well-being of this city. Tourists keep coming back, though slower than anticipated. But after the usual summer doldrums and with the resumption of the convention season in the fall, tourism should rebound too. For better or for worse, tourism has become the driving engine of this city’s economy. The oil patch in the Gulf of Mexico is booming as it did in its best days in the 1960s and 1970s. Boat captains have seen their rates double since the storm and are now offered 600 dollars a day to supply and work the platforms in the Gulf. Like the oil and gas boom, the construction boom in the city continues and will go on for a long time.

The New Orleans Saints will play their first game in the restored Superdome on “ESP Monday Night” in late September. The vaunted Louisiana Superdome, which had become a symbol of social breakdown with its thousands of suffering evacuees after Katrina, will become a vital symbol of rebirth. That night the entire nation will see a remarkable example of New Orleans' recovery efforts. And should Reggie Bush be successful with reverses and breaking tackles, bringing victory to town, the city will go wild. Not much has changed since the gladiators of ancient Rome. Amazing how much “panem et circenses” still define civic pride in the 21st century.  

Maybe the biggest act of faith in a better New Orleans comes from the reopening of the schools. New Orleans public schools easily were amongst the worst -- and the School Board among the most contentious -- in the nation. Baton Rouge took over the management of most of the New Orleans public schools. Some reopened under the supervision of the state, a considerable number as charter schools. Both Tulane and the University of New Orleans have taken the lead in reopening schools as charters under their supervision. These schools will be anchors in their respective neighborhoods, Uptown and Lakeview. Children will get a much better education in these schools and that may keep their families here. The reinvention of the school system, more than anything, produces hope and pride in this torn-up city.

The city’s universities are not doing as well as anticipated in the spring. Both Tulane and Loyola are only seeing two-thirds of their traditional freshmen classes show up. The University of New Orleans and the other public institutions are not faring better. There are record freshmen enrollments in Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Southeastern’s freshmen class in Hammond has ballooned by 30 percent. Parents from the suburban areas of New Orleans seem to be sending their kids to higher and safer ground. The universities, squeezed already after post-Katrina firings of faculty, can make it through another year. But more than one reduced freshmen class would gravely impact long-term growth projections. In a way, it will boil down to the activity of this year’s ongoing hurricane season. If New Orleans is spared “another big one,” the recovery will continue. Another big blow and faith in the future of the city is in serious doubt.

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