Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Weekend in New Orleans

In all the years I've been doing this job I've flown into New Orleans only once before, a month or two after Katrina, and I stayed in a hotel out by the airport. So I didn't see much, though the devastation of the hurricane was all around. There were lots of boarded up windows, the hotel and all other public buildings in the area had portable generators in their parking lots, there was sand and shit everywhere. The little drainage ditches were all choked with stuff that wasn't supposed to be there: kitchen tables, recliners, plywood, bicycles, mounds of detritus. Now, more than two years later, we're back staying at our regular hotel in the French Quarter, and I had the weekend to look around.

The effects of Katrina on New Orleans were all over the news at the time, and even now there are regular news stories about the aftermath--FEMA trailers and such. There were a lot of people, I know, who came down here in the months after the storm to volunteer their labor, which had the knock-on effect of generating some further news coverage in more far-flung places. So the story has been before people for quite a while. But I think a realistic grasp of just how momentous a catastrophe this region has faced / is facing becomes much more apparent with a personal visit. Having now spent a little time here--in the most functional part of the city by far--I'm far from an expert; but even this exposure has been something of a wakeup call for me.

The French Quarter is the old section of New Orleans, about 6X12 blocks in area, and it's the nexus of tourism in the city. This is the economic engine that has long kept the city afloat, and to walk around the French Quarter you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's all business as usual. But this is where the money is / comes from: the importance of the region on the city's recovery was obvious to everyone, so concerted efforts were made to get the French Quarter up and running as quickly as possible. It helps too that this section was one of the less-damaged parts of the city.

But you don't have to wander very far afield to see what a mountain remains still to climb. "It'll never be the same," our hotel driver said flatly. "The city will never make it back to what it was before the storm. That place is gone." As he says this, we're driving from the airport to the downtown area several miles to the East; the residential area to the North of us as we drive is eerily dark at five in the morning. No street lights or house lights or cars on the streets. Even in daylight many areas seem only shortly removed from the catastrophe, though surely a lot of effort has gone into many of these areas. Big parts of the city, like the fabled Lower Ninth Ward, are still uninhabited, and the fear is that the change is permanent.

The effects extend all through the city and beyond and are ongoing and daunting. Friday's Times-Picayune had an article on the city's public transit system, which is still reeling. The agency is $200 million in the red, and ridership has fallen 75% since the storm. The Katrina flooding destroyed nearly 2/3 of the city's fleet of 350 buses, and the rest are at the end of their 12 year life cycle, which results in over a third of the buses each day needing to abandon their schedules and return to the shops for work. All the bus stops I saw downtown had a bunch of listless people standing around patiently waiting for a ride that was coming god knows when. So in a vicious cycle, ridership has fallen dramatically--taking their fares with them--and what remains is functioning so badly as to almost require people to find an alternate means of getting around. At some point, maybe already well past, it will be well-nigh impossible for the agency to recover its operation. And how does a relatively poor city function without public transportation?

Crime remains rife in the city, with the newspapers full of the police struggle to contain a teetering lawlessness. The city is now the murder capital of the country, and we are told flatly from several sources that straying outside the French Quarter is not advised. Even during the day, there are a lot of people on the streets who seem to have no particular reason to be there except to keep an eye out for opportunity, and (though I'm not much given to paranoia) several times I felt I was being followed as I walked around. There is a palpable sense that commerce is struggling to keep anarchy far enough away that visitors feel safe enough to return. With the police overstretched, it seems that order just barely has the upper hand at the moment.

It's really a question of scope, a question of money. The extent of the devastation takes you by surprise. Block after whole block for miles has sustained from severe damage to total devastation, and even away from the worst areas there's still evidence of the storm, from heaved streets to boarded up windows. There's just so very much left to do, and no sense of how the work will ever get accomplished. A woman tripped and fell over a hastily-contrived cover for a sidewalk repair project near the hotel this afternoon, and the shopkeeper said that the project--something relatively minor--was on hold, and had been for a year. He had been complaining to city officials that long. There is only so much the city can accomplish, and the needs grossly outweigh the ability to cope with them. As many as a third of the region's residents have not returned after evacuating for Katrina. That includes both the poorer people who made up much of the city's labor force as well as the more affluent who provided a tax base. Many of the high dollar properties along the river were flooded out, our hotel driver told us, and many of these people just aren't going to risk the recurrence of this situation. They're gone, and they'll stay gone, he says.

It seems impossible to suss out the economic impact of the diaspora of any given social stratum, but the general numbers give some sense of the larger issue (from the Times-Picayune):

  • Metro area population. Pre-Katrina: 1,292,774; June, 2007: 1,084,072
  • Airport traffic (monthly passengers). Pre-Katrina:716,362; August, 2007: 638,261
  • Hospital beds. Pre-Katrina: 4,083; August, 2007: 2,367
  • Hotel rooms. Pre-Katrina: 38,505; August, 2007: 31,888

A Time Magazine article lays plenty of blame on the entirety of the catastrophe at the Federal Government. Katrina was a man-made disaster, they say:
Katrina was not the Category 5 killer the Big Easy had always feared; it was a Category 3 storm that missed New Orleans, where it was at worst a weak 2. The city's defenses should have withstood its surges, and if they had we never would have seen the squalor in the Superdome, the desperation on the rooftops, the shocking tableau of the Mardi Gras city underwater for weeks.

I certainly don't dispute any of this, though the disaster raises inevitable questions about the wisdom of sustaining a city below sea level built on the edge of volatile waters. They've done it for centuries in Holland, of course. But Amsterdam, for example, has a 10,000 year levee system, whereas New Orleans needs something like $15 billion to achieve a healthy 100 year levee system.

I suppose it's the kind of thing that just happens, the building of a city where one probably shouldn't be, and unlike Amsterdam, New Orleans has not been the country's economic engine such that the equivalent 10,000 year levee gets built here. Louisiana is a poor state. But this place has had a cultural impact on our country that far exceeds its population or geographical area, and the argument that this kind of a catastrophe just shouldn't happen in the world's richest country has some traction. Still, here we are. And with the prospect of rising ocean levels and the potential for worse and worse storms, which exacerbate the pressures on the city's defenses, it seems fair to ask whether the most damaged and vulnerable parts of the city shouldn't be ceded to the sea and the rebuilding occur on higher ground.

Even more heartbreaking to me is how much of the city's implosion was self-inflicted. The stories of what went on inside the Superdome are really dispiriting, and the widespread looting and arson that followed the storm were, beyond a certain obvious point, indefensible. People needing diapers and water and food after a week of no rescue services is completely understandable; but the many photos of people walking off with television sets and the stripping of houses and the rampant carjacking inevitably temper one's sympathy. Even now it seems like part of the city's population is having to struggle against another part of the same population to return the city to health and prosperity. Certainly it's not the tourists who are threatening anarchy; it's the same people who are loitering opportunely downtown day after day now, the same people who were (I think) following me around.

I guess in the end it was what it was, and I cannot claim to know how I would behave if I were utterly without resources or options and my life was in peril. As I walk around I think about what these people faced: Figure out what of your stuff you care about and get it to safety. Where? Upstairs? You're going to lose your roof. There IS no safe place in your house. What if you're in a ground floor apartment? Everything will be lost. What is there time to save and where do you take it? What do you do if you don't have a car? What if you have no money saved? Or no relatives? And money only buys you a bus seat. What if there are no bus seats? Even driving was an exercise in futility, people taking a whole day to go 20 or 50 miles. So you abandon your stuff and seek shelter. And that was another jungle nightmare, maybe worse than the storm.

People--lots of them--came out the other end with nothing but the clothes on their backs. And some with less than that.

What we see now, 30 months later, is a city with a unique cultural identity and legacy trying to claw its way back from an almost unimaginable calamity, with much work already done and a hell of a lot more to go. Nobody here seems to be wallowing in self-pity, and the job is being tackled a day at a time; but there is a sense of wonder in the air of how much is lost never to return.

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