Learning from New Orleansby Theodore Hamm
Some may consider New Orleans after Katrina to be a tragedy—full of sorrow, fatally flawed by its geography, and now lacking any good options in terms of what to do next. However, after going there this past month, I would simply call it a national disgrace. The present plight of New Orleans results much less from the city’s own historic problems than from the politics of inequality shaping 21st-century American life. And only a fool would say that some variation of Katrina can’t happen here in New York City.
New Orleans yields endless contrasts: enduring beauty, as seen in the buildings, not just in the French Quarter but also in the old warehouses and markets; utter neglect, as found in the abandoned Lower Ninth Ward and beyond; and post-apocalyptic horror, which for me was most eerily symbolized by the shuddered Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans East, its sign still reading “closed for storm.” That Louis Armstrong Park, home to legendary Congo Square, was closed on a holiday weekend in early October is a telltale sign of how little is being done to rebuild New Orleans right now. These, of course, are merely a few observations of a weekend visitor; for a far more authoritative discussion of what the city offers, see Billy Sothern’s interview with the New Orleans-based artist Willie Birch in the Express section of this issue.
The only lesson that George W. Bush apparently learned from Katrina is that crisis management is directly related to partisan politics; in explaining the much quicker help that the federal government delivered to a much richer constituency in the recent Southern California wildfires, the lame duck said, “It makes a significant difference when you have somebody in the statehouse willing to take the lead.” A pathetic excuse for inaction in New Orleans, to be sure. The Democrats, meanwhile, are offering no meaningful plan for rebuilding New Orleans. If they still were the party of FDR, the Dems would revive the W.P.A., putting carpenters and artists to work rebuilding the city. Yet sadly, today’s liberals would rather tie themselves up in intellectual knots explaining why public works projects are a thing of the past.
Flying out of New Orleans, it was easy to see from the air why many outlying areas of the city were so vulnerable to being flooded. Descending into JFK, I was struck by how similar the landscape of southern Queens and Brooklyn appeared. Experts say it’s likely that a Category 3 or above hurricane will hit New York City in coming years, while oceanographers warn of rising sea levels due to global warming. The tornado that hit Bay Ridge and Sunset Park this past summer thus may have provided a frightening harbinger of things to come. If we don’t start paying more attention to disaster prevention, as opposed to simply disaster relief, what happens to New York City will be an even bigger disgrace.