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!


Anonymous Erich P Rapp said...

Thanks for the write up on New Orleans and south Louisiana. We need all the attention we can get. Torbjorn Tornqvist's statements in the National Geographic are some of the most poignant comments on why New Orleans should be rebuilt that I have seen to date.

Check out my blog at

Erich P Rapp

11:10 PM  
Blogger Steve White said...

They certainly energized my thinking, Eric, at a time when I had become despondent. I may not live there today, but the Coast and New Orleans are my home, where I grew up and where my family still lives. I can't imagine life without them.

2:00 PM  

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