I have to admit that I have loved New Orleans ever since 1968 when my cousins, brother, and I took a raft down the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans. I loved the feel of it with the French Market, Jackson Square, and yes, Bourbon Street although I was too young to go inside any establishment there except a nice Italian restaurant. My aunt and uncle made sure of that.
I returned there four more times during the 1970s and 1980s, lured by its mystic, literary presence and celebration of life. New Orleans had undergone changes each time I came back. It grew more commercial and Bourbon Street had become just a party street, crowding out the jazz clubs to the side streets of the Quarter.
Returning there last week was painful and numbing. At first, it was hard to discern the change. The drive from Louis Armstrong Airport to the French Quarter where I stayed didn't show any real effects of Hurricane Katrina. It was less crowded in the French Quarter, but I attributed that to summertime and the middle of the week when people are taking care of business. But then, as I drove northward on Banks Street toward Lake Pontchartrain, the scars of Katrina became evident. At first, while driving by, not much is noticeable. Then, you have to ask "Where are the parked cars and the people?" And looking into the houses, you can see that they have been gutted. No one, except for the people who live in the occasional FEMA trailer, lives in these houses. There are blocks upon blocks upon blocks of bricks and mortar "ghosts." Massive public housing tracts lie vacant, surrounded by chain link fence. Dillard University is closed because it sustained a tremendous amount of damage. Bungalows that lined the Lake Pontchartrain harbor have had their guts wrenched out of them. The once magnificent City Park now looked like a scruffy, backwoods tract of fields and dilapidated structures.
The commercial districts were worse, in a way. Block after block on some of the major thoroughfares contained the remnants of businesses. Fast food businesses were no longer to be found in many parts of New Orleans proper. Scenes like a tattered McDonalds sign with no building were common sights.
And then there was New Orleans East across the Industrial Canal. A large commercial district equivalent to the West Towne -- Mineral Point -- Odana Road area on the west side of Madison was vacant save for a gas station and a snow cone stand. Hundreds of businesses lay dormant; either ravaged by Katrina's floodwaters or the economic vacuum it left behind. The middle class and working class housing remained vacant and damaged with watermarks and mold rising on the walls to the ceilings.
While all of this was heart wrenching and numbing -- delayed-reaction depression set in when I returned home -- ; the worse was in the Lower Ninth Ward where several blocks of houses were literally washed away when the flood waters surged through the major breach in the Industrial Canal levee. There were no FEMA trailers between Claiborne and Florida Streets. No houses were habitable. I doubt if any of the houses there can be rehabbed. The area looked as if it had been bombed, a modern day Dresden. This tract of land had been a crowded urban area with a high school, an elementary school, churches, and a commercial district on Claiborne Avenue. Now, it was destroyed and vacant, peopled only by the clean-up crews, occasional military police vehicle, and volunteers.
Not everything was destroyed, of course. The French Quarter, the Garden District, the Central Business District, and other "high ground" areas on the east bank of the Mississippi River did not experience major flooding, although many businesses didn't survive the loss of goods to people trying to survive and the looters looking to take advantage of the situation. Most of these are "high rent" districts and we know who the predominantly high wage earners are and who the predominantly low wage earners are in Southern cities -- or most any urban area in the United States.
While this unprecedented disaster affected rich and poor and people of all racial backgrounds, it was primarily the African American sections of New Orleans that took the biggest hit and experienced the greatest loss of life.
There are some signs that New Orleans is coming back to life. The tourism industry centered on the French Quarter and the Garden District is starting to revive. The cruise ships will begin docking at the River Walk again later this month. The New Orleans Saints return to the Superdome September 25th and a major convention will be setting up in the Morial convention center this fall. This significant, yet small part of New Orleans is rebounding.
And you can see the FEMA trailers scattered throughout New Orleans, a sure sign that some people do intend to stay. Houses are being rehabbed. In fact, there is a dearth of capable and skilled contractors and laborers in the area. Some are choosing to do the rehab themselves rather than risking being taken in by a scam artist, you know, the people who get one-half down to purchase construction supplies and disappear on the way to the store. It appears that the rehab and construction that is going on now is funded through people's personal financial assets or insurance money. That leaves a large class of people sitting in limbo: people who didn't have the insurance coverage they thought they had and low-income people. Outside of FEMA trailers, there is no federal financial presence in New Orleans. The Republicans controlling the federal government have created so much red tape in the past six years that the aid will be too little, too late for many New Orleans residents and businesses. The longer they wait, the more the "weaker" ones get thinned out and people will be vulnerable to land speculators. Already, there are thousands upon thousands of "For Sale" signs spread throughout the New Orleans metropolitan area. We should be ashamed, all of us.
Now there are probably some who think New Orleans will be better off without its poor people. Well, I've got news for them. Poor people end up being the putty, the workers who fill the cracks in our economic system. Without them, it just won't work. While tourism may flourish and the shipping, sugar, and oil industries may return to normal, they can not exist in the long term while a huge gaping hole remains in New Orleans' economic and social fabric. Those decimated neighborhoods and commercial districts are part of the core of what makes New Orleans New Orleans. And with a huge gaping hole at its center, the entire New Orleans area, suburbs and all, will continue to be negatively affected.
Destruction on this level will not be cured by the private sector alone, unless the people of New Orleans have 50 years to wait before getting on with their lives. The complete resurrection of New Orleans is going to take massive federal intervention, not the type that is promised and then effectively withheld by red tape. It's going to take more than President Bush appearing at a prayer service at St. Louis Cathedral. It's going to take massive intervention now and well into the future.
I've always looked at New Orleans as the guardian of America's soul. It is the birthplace of jazz and so much of the culture that we call American. It remains to be seen if we have lost our soul to greed and individualism. If we turn our backs on New Orleans, we turn our backs on every value that makes us truly Americans. God help New Orleans! God help us all!
|September 6, 2006
* Katrina fatigue setting in???
by Dr. Paul Barrows
* 108th Philippine Independence Day in Madison,
by Heidi M. Pascual
* Cuba recuerda al gran poeta Jose Lezama Lima,
Compillado por Elda Gonzalez
* Ganesha: Remover of obstacles,
by Ramya Kapadia
* Random Order: Back to school basics,
by Tracie Gilbert
* Voices: A Call for Igbo prayer,
by Dr. Jean Daniels
* UW Chancellor Dazzell Bazzell interview: The changing face of campus,
by Jonathan Gramling
* Local students enrolled at Tulane University tell their Katrina story,
by Laura Salinger
* Nellie McKay: A great academic gift,
by Valeria Davis
* Common Ground helps New Orleans recover,,
by Jonathan Gramling
* Campus-Community Connection
- Summer Love Fall,
by Keme Hawkins
- 2006 Joyce M. Melville Memorial Awardee,
by Pamela Pfeffer
* Attorney General Forum,
by Laura Salinger
* La Dalia Negra,
por Elda Gonzalez
* Global Connection
|VOL. 1 NO. 13 SEPTEMBER 6, 2006|
|Cover Story: TRUE GRIT
One year after Katrina
Tears for New Orleans