As August slipped into September six years ago, Hurricane Katrina blasted ashore out of the Gulf of Mexico and into Louisiana and Mississippi, delivering widespread devastation and death. Evacuations in its wake outnumbered those of any other storm, earthquake, drought, or war on American soil. In particular, the ruination of romantic New Orleans, inundated when a levee burst along a storm-swollen canal, tore at the hearts of the millions of us who hold a special fondness for that saucy Louisiana city.
The old seaport had already shouldered its share of sorrows over three centuries: other dreadful hurricanes and floods; yellow fever and cholera epidemics so severe that bodies were stacked throughout the above-ground “cities of the dead”; termite infestations; slave auctions on Jackson Square; horrific fires in the teeming French Quarter.
Even before Katrina, the decaying city, economically reliant on tourism and little else, was hemorrhaging population.
Its stately mansions and skinny “shotgun” cottages, great cathedrals and gourmet restaurants, courtyard gardens and clattering streetcars, ancient oaks and swaying palms, Bourbon Street honky-tonks and back-o’-town jazz clubs were the last, vivid remnants of her wealthy and carefree past, when cotton and sugar fortunes and oil money made New Orleans the “Queen City of the South.”
Until Katrina left it shattered and shuttered and half-empty.
In those sad and terrible days, Randolph Delehanty, who wrote the book Elegance and Decadence about this oasis of privilege and pleasure in the prim and proper South, told me that more than architectural rebuilding lay ahead in the aftermath of Katrina. Global coverage of the desperate search for the trapped and drowned in New Orleans’ fetid floodwaters, he said, had removed a veil from the old port city:
We are seeing the unfortunate and tragic consequences of a deeply split society of haves and have-nots. Those with resources and options left the city. And those who had no choices remained behind. It’s unfair and tragic, and it has resulted in the collapse of civilization. It is a social catastrophe, and it breaks my heart. It’s the society that needs reform. We need to rebuild from the heart out.
Two decades earlier, Frederick Starr, who was a vice president and professor of architecture at Tulane University uptown, captured the flavor of the city in New Orleans Unmasqued, a book of vignettes about “The City That Care Forgot.” It had absorbed many cultures — French, Spanish, Sicilian, uncouth “Kaintuck” from highland Appalachia, African slave and free black — taken the lighthearted parts of all of them and produced the city’s unbridled Mardi Gras festival. But, Starr said, New Orleans had grown indolent, self-indulgent, with an air of fatalism about the fragility of life and the capriciousness of nature.
What will be will be. Meantime, let the good times roll.
“I know that we’re going to be subject to the same vagaries in the future,” Starr told me in 2005 as the waters receded from the house he still owned in New Orleans. “But I intend to rebuild, and I think you’ll find tens of thousands of New Orleanians — thanks to their fatalism — will go back and will do more than any other population to bring some kind of continuity out of this extreme disorder and discontinuity.”
Frederick Starr told me he worried, though, that developers would rush in like jackals on a wounded gazelle and level poor neighborhoods, destroy the city’s character, and replace it with what his New Orleans Unmasqued called the “Houstonization” of New Orleans. Meaning rampant, unbridled development.
There certainly weren’t jazz festivals, open fine restaurants, lively school classes, or sporting events any time soon after Katrina. But somehow in the months ahead, the private social organizations called “krewes” managed to throw a scaled-down Mardi Gras in the nearly bankrupt city, irrespective of whether or not any outsiders came.
Tens — maybe hundreds — of thousands did come, though, throughout the traditional Carnival season, with a level of enthusiasm, as one writer put it, “even more intense than usual, as an affirmation of life.”
The Hurricane, But Not Hard Times, Passed
Carol and I returned to “The Big Easy” last month with the express purpose of giving the city that we love an “eyeball test.” Carol’s photographs, below, will show you much of what we found, but here are some observations:
• In the days before Katrina howled ashore, almost 500,000 people lived in the City of New Orleans. A week later, 40 percent of them had gone to friends’ and relatives’ homes, motels, and makeshift camps in all 50 states; to parts unknown; or to watery graves. Some of the living — mostly those of means — returned and rebuilt, and additional, optimistic newcomers moved in.
But the city population still stands 150,000 short of its pre-Katrina level. And half as many people now live in the Crescent City — a name reflecting a dramatic bend in the river right past the French Quarter — as lived there 50 years ago.
Many of those who died in the flood or left and have not returned represented what I call the soul of a soulful city: some of its best writers, line cooks, small-business owners, street and pro musicians, joyful shoeshine artists, and other ordinary folk who brought joie d’ vivre to even the gloomiest days.
• Contrary to Frederick Starr’s fears, few developers bothered to rush in. Those that have have faced fighting-mad neighborhood opposition. Even in the ruined Lower Ninth Ward — the poorest part of the city — which has barely begun to rebound from the deluge, most residents have clung fiercely to what little they have, and told speculators to get the hell off what’s left of their property.
There are no slick new subdivisions in the Lower Ninth.
When New Orleans’ new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, took office last year, he announced, “We are no longer recovering. Now we are creating.”
• Among those who did come back to town, unfortunately, are criminals, including violent, doped-up predators who menace the city’s poor as well as affluent residents and the tourist trade. In one four-hour span, three days before our visit, 16 people were shot, and two died, on a bloody Halloween night. Even Mayor Landrieu decried a “culture of violence” that has sparked “a battle for the future of our city.”
It has not helped that 60 New Orleans police officers have resigned or been fired in the 19 months since a wholesale NOPD corruption investigation was launched, or that 140 more officers have left as well.
• Still, Mardi Gras and a hundred other festivals are in full flower again. Thanks to bustling construction and reconstruction in some parts of town, wages have caught up with the national average. The city crackles with entrepreneurial fervor — not just in commerce and the arts but also in “knowledge-based fields” such as technology, information, and education, where it is sorely needed. This cannot, however, make up for the ongoing exodus of oil and gas companies that was well underway even before the big storm.
It didn’t yet feel like “old times” in New Orleans to Carol and me. Too many abandoned shops, right on Canal Street. Too many kids lazing about on stoops during school hours. Too many wrecks of houses still emblazoned with painted Katrina codes marking the number of dead found inside.
Especially in the ravaged Lower Ninth, where, one evening six years ago, thousands of the unsuspecting who thought they had beaten yet another howling hurricane had called it a night. They slept as the storm abated, until a levee on the Industrial Canal collapsed, disgorging a deadly, roaring wave that submerged the entire neighborhood, and much of neighboring St. Bernard Parish as well.
With a few remarkable exceptions in those poor places, recovery hasn’t turned into creation just yet.
I’ve arranged Carol’s photos below in a sort of alternate order: something positive or normal first, disappointing next, and so on:
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Fetid. Foul, rank, stinking.
Indolent. Idle, slothful, lazy.
Stoops. From the Dutch, this is a word for a short flight of steps leading up to a house. One finds neighbors lolling and watching their children at play in the streets from their stoops in blue-collar neighborhoods, especially, in older American cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans.