Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Letter to My Friend Henry

Dear Henry:

It was great talking to you today, and congratulations on your new job teaching at the local university-- all the better that you didn’t have to go to grad school to land the gig. I have so much respect for you and all the people, including our good friend Kelly McClure, who have stayed or come back to New Orleans to make it a better place.

Yet, I was struck by the divide between your sense of the recovery as someone living it on a daily basis and mine, a former resident, who recently visited for another post-flood look around. Your cheerful rendition of progress and hope, including the ten-year perspective when everything will be better, the levees repaired and the city improved, didn’t jive with my experience, reading or gut instinct. I hope and pray you’re right, but fear that neither hope nor prayer is enough in this situation.

Since Katrina, dialogue can be easily strained between those who are there like you, doing the Lord’s work, and the rest of us like me watching on safely from the sidelines. But then talking about New Orleans is never simple. It’s a place whose insiders cling passionately to her charms and take a historically laissez faire attitude to her many challenges. As you said today, it’s not for everybody, certainly not in the city’s present condition. Sadly, it’s not for me.

I am afraid for New Orleans, but probably more to the point I am afraid of New Orleans despite a deep love for the place. That was true before Katrina, and I left in 1998, slightly heartbroken and feeling a little like Lot leaving Sodom. Death and decay linger over every aspect of the joy-filled life there. My fear is only amplified by crime, a seeming lack of progress in rebuilding and what looks from the outside like an unwillingness to demand more from local leaders and the outside world. New Orleans deserves more than what it can muster on its own – better levees than the ones the Corps is currently building, safer streets, a true and sincere approach to Wetlands renewal and a more progressive and tax/regulation friendly environment for would-be entrepreneurs and adventurous business people looking to stake their claim and help grow the city into something new and vibrant.

New Orleans’ unique culture including its music, food and street traditions is near and dear to my heart, as I know it is to yours. I was glad to hear you talk about its revival, hopefully ensuring the heritage of the city’s arts from high to low. But powerful hurricanes care nothing for the things man creates, and longstanding local bravado aside it’s really only a matter of time before the real Big One hits home. The levees that are being rebuilt today will offer little protection when that happens. As LSU’s Ivor van Heerden says: “Katrina wasn’t even close to being the big one.”

I realized today, after we talked and as I was sitting in the suburban shopping Mecca of Austin’s Arboretum having ice cream with my kids, that I wasn’t willing to pay the price necessary to come back to the New Orleans that remains today, making my sense of loss all the more poignant. Frankly, it’s the New Orleans that was, if only in my memory banks, that I miss, not the place that it is today. That’s OK. New Orleans will move on with or without me, and my talents are better suited to that of memoirist than post-storm polemicist.

Some people will fight to the death to stay in New Orleans even as catastrophe looms, making their way through the wreckage to have yet another party. To expect otherwise, is to miss the point. Maybe I’m just relieved that my curfew forced me to leave the fete before things got really wild!

I look forward to seeing you the next time I come through town. Hopefully we can have dinner at Galatoires, again.

Yours truly,

Friday, August 24, 2007

Home to Katrina-Land

"Nature does not like to be anticipated but loves to surprise; in fact seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time, the true fountain of youth."

Artist and naturalist Walter Anderson

By Steve White

We just got back from a trip home, and life in Katrina-land seems worse in some ways than it did a year ago: the novelty of calamity has worn off and post-storm struggle has simply become a way of life for many. Rising crime, rising taxes and rising insurance rates all followed the rising waters that took so much from so many. The result: a simmering sense of malaise for many that can easily accelerate into rage or depression for locals who continue to dig out – two years later!

As a native son, I am torn between the urge to be positive and say things are getting better, which they are on many fronts, and to objectively report that the communities along the Gulf are still badly broken, which they are. Unexpectedly, my love for home is re-energized through the sadness of seeing her suffer so. This visit home, uncluttered by the emotional blow of seeing the devastating wreckage that was still present on my last trip, allowed me to more fully connect my past there with its troubled present and, more hopefully, all the possibilities it holds for the future. All those open fields, barren lots and empty houses are just waiting to come alive, again.

The Gulf Coast region is a luminous place like no other. It’s not surprising that Sissy Anderson titled the memoir about her brilliant but mad husband, artist and naturalist Walter Anderson, who made his home on the Coast and the barrier islands that surround it, “Approaching the Magic Hour.”

When will the magic hour come again? The question looms large, as I begin again to pore over Google maps of the region, trying to grasp the enormity of what happened there two years ago and imagine what can or will emerge.

Last year, survivors proclaimed their manifest destiny – to rebuild the flooded neighborhoods as the Corps of Engineers shored up the wounded levees. Today, New Orleans is open for business on the higher ground within the boundaries of its centuries old footprint while the modern neighborhoods born from drained swampland (Gentilly, Lakeview and New Orleans East) remain sparsely populated or in redevelopment turmoil. Likewise, on the Gulf Coast the beachfront is empty, devoid of redevelopment, as businesses and homeowners have moved north to relocate along Interstate 10.

Mother Nature giveth, but she also taketh away.

Even the historic French Quarter, which sits on high ground and remained dry throughout, appears to be ailing, despite what some boosters say. The streets were empty of tourists the night we spent there. In fact, the only people we met on the street were panhandlers, some more ominous than others. While not uncommon for the Quarter, we were left to fend for ourselves without strength in numbers from the usual drunken throngs of tourists or T-shirt shopkeepers who have since pulled up stakes from the many empty storefronts.

This month, Americans are being reminded that Katrina remains present, particularly by Time Inc., which hosted a group of editors in the Crescent City and unleashed its impressive journalist powers on the subject in a series of pieces for its various publications. Along with an equally impressive article in the current issue of National Geographic, hopefully this coverage will remind the rest of the world that Katrina was as much a reaction to man’s attempt to control nature as it was an act of nature in its own right. In a tragic moment of cosmic irony, the levees that failed to protect New Orleans from the rising tides are responsible for the ferocity of the waves that breeched them.

“Protecting people from floods and improving local economies as far away as Montana and Pennsylvania actually makes life more dangerous in Louisiana,” explained author John Barry to Time Magazine. Barry’s book “Rising Tide” about the 1927 Mississippi River flood laid out the ominous groundwork for what was to come in 2005. “The nation as a whole is getting most of the benefits of all this engineering, while Louisiana and part of coastal Mississippi pay 100% of the price,” he continued. “Nothing demonstrates that as well as New Orleans East, the lower Ninth Ward, and most of St. Bernard Parish, where 175,000 people were flooded by three man-made shipping canals that create almost no jobs there but carry barge traffic from Houston to Florida, or ocean shipping from the entire river valley to and from the rest of the world. Think about that when you think about New Orleans.”

In other words, man’s attempt to control nature has backfired, big time. The solution to one problem, flooding along the Mississippi River Valley, caused an even greater one, the loss of wetlands and barrier islands. Coupled with global warming, the Corps’ increasing obsession with control through more levees, floodwalls and navigation canals and encroachment by big energy interests, and we realize that the fun has only just begun. Wait until a storm actually hits New Orleans if you really want to see the wreckage of our past actions. All the experts say it’s simply of matter of when, not if, it happens.

Meanwhile, people persevere, as people tend to do. A great example of that is seen in the videos posted by This Old House of locals struggling to get their houses back in order. These are real people celebrating the life and architectural legacy of New Orleans!

Interestingly, the answer to this conundrum is to simply let go: unleash the river to do what it does best, overflow its banks, creating land farther downstream that in turns buffets the force of a hurricane’s tidal surge. Surely, it’s a little more complicated to manage a massive river diversion, but that’s the general idea. These days, there’s activity a plenty in Baton Rouge and on Capitol Hill, but sources like Time Magazine are skeptical that such measures are anything more than old thinking in new, alarmist clothing.

Yet, some experts remain hopeful. According to National Geographic, Tulane scientist Torbjorn Tornqvist sees New Orleans at the vanguard of something many other coastal cities will face as the planet’s oceans continue to warm. “The situation here is a huge opportunity for the city and the nation,” Tornqvist told NG. “If we walk away, we’ll miss a fantastic opportunity to learn things that will be useful in Miami, or Boston, or New York in 50 years.”

Maybe the magic hour for the rest of us is just around the corner in New Orleans. Through their suffering, they will show us the way to deal with the coming challenges of climate change, just as that fine old city’s culture (jazz, Mardi Gras, and Creolized soul food to name but a few) paved the way for the ethnic fusion that modern life has come to embrace.

Only time will tell, but that’s a precious commodity of which the Gulf Coast has little to spare!