The Unimaginable

It’s hard, perhaps, for non-Americans to realise how significant New Orleans is to the American psyche. This isn’t some minor midwestern city, but one of the cultural touchstones of America: the home of jazz, of voodoo, of chilli-laced gumbo and Southern gothic horror. Like San Francisco, it’s a city that has attracted artists and bohemians partly because of its precarious physical situation, with the ever-present threat that it could all end tomorrow encouraging its never-ending party atmosphere.

With the news from the city getting worse and worse, it looks as if it can never be the same again: even if the waters are drained and its buildings rebuilt, a million displaced people can’t wait around doing nothing in the meantime; they have lives to rebuild, and without New Orleans they’ll have to start rebuilding them somewhere else. How many will move back, months down the line? How many will feel confident that life in a giant building site will be worthwhile? If you were rebuilding your home, would you do it somewhere that had just been under a dozen feet of salt water, and could be again?

Because the most awful implication of all of this, besides the vast economic and social impact of all these deaths and all these homeless, is that Katrina may only be the first. The oceans are warming, and hurricanes draw strength from warm waters. America could spend billions rebuilding New Orleans and lose it all again in five or ten years’ time, as storms increase in frequency and ferocity.

Will the country take that gamble? Will a million Americans all independently take that gamble?

31 August 2005 · Events

Interesting thoughts, Rory. Speaking as an American who never got the chance to see New Orleans, beyond the horrible displacement and unknown deaths that have plagued a substantial amount of people, I think I've profoundly identified with the extinction (and hopeful rebirth) of this cultural and urban legacy, primarily because I live in San Francisco, which as you point out is quite similar in locale and makeup.

Like San Francisco, New Orleans was a sanctuary, a place close to the edge of a nation that, on the whole, wasn't particularly fond of embracing those who think outside the box. I suspect that this is one explanation for Bush's stunning inability to respond with a promise of aid and assistance (Hugo Chavez has actually pledged some before Bush), let alone a show of leadership involving touring the plagued areas and demonstrating the appropriate confidence that a man befitting his position is required to do. I'd like to think that there's a certain unintentional symbolism here at work: New Orleans didn't play ball. The people by embracing a certain life weren't team players. New Orleans marched to its own distinctive drumbeat. Therefore, it's not acceptable for us to recognize the mortal, cultural and economic destruction that's going down as we speak.

In the end, the response to this disaster, which like the last big one we had four years ago, came largely from the solicitude and sympathies of the national and global population, rather than this sham of a government. It's a telling indication of what the United States has transformed into and a true test for those of who us who hope to maintain human faith and indeed live on the edge.

Added by ed on 31 August 2005.

Thanks, Ed. Good thoughts. I only wish I had time to expand on the ones I’ve been having—although I suspect they’ll be said many times over in coming weeks.

Added by Rory on 1 September 2005.

I think Ed's on the money, but there's another force at work in the President's lame-ass response (both rhetorically and practically), and that's the elephant in the room: the fact that the DoHS-ified FEMA had already bungled this from the early stages, so that by the time the President spoke it was already clear that the administrative setup he'd signed off on for "preparedness" in this country was a joke.

Knowing that, essentially, this was his club's mess to begin with, Bush's response has been to normalize and ac-cen-tu-ate the positive. See how many tons of scooby snacks we've already delivered! The System is Working, so please Go Back to Sleep. If they scrambled with the sense of urgency required, it'd be an admission that they weren't ready in the first place.

On the question of rebuilding: Hastert's bizarre act of insult today notwithstanding (the Governor's response was apposite: kicking them when they are down), it will be tremendously hard to quell the desire to rebuild. I used to live in Long Beach, MS, one of the places that got nearly wiped out by the storm. Not only does that give me a sense of identification with the people (some of them childhood friends) going through hell there, but it means that I've had the good fortune to go to New Orleans many times, as a child and as an adult.

And for all the reasons that you cited above, Ed, I think New Orleans will be rebuilt, unless the engineering demands prove absolutely overwhelming. Those people love their city, love their funky march and their "distinctive drumbeat" and while some may hang it up and live in permanent exile, I believe that there will be an overwhelming drive to go in and rebuild, fierce enough to make it politically impractical for any administration to steadfastly oppose it. (And I think the tradition of "not playing ball" will work in their favor with public opinion).

How long it'll take, and what the end result will be is hard to predict. And I may be wrong, I may be dead wrong. But I hope not. Of course, I'm partial to the place, even given its faults, so perhaps my prognostications in this matter are particularly unreliable...

Added by BT on 2 September 2005.

I know this is the wrong time to be writing this, because this week has been insanely busy for me, even leaving aside the feverish tracking of the approaching hurricane and its aftermath. And it’s the wrong time to be writing this when the crisis isn’t even over and the recriminations are flying. But then it’s already clear that this crisis won’t be over for a long time. This crisis may never be over.

I can understand the desire to rebuild, the intense attachment to formative places, the pull of memory and culture and community. I can completely empathise with your emotional state this week, Bill—I felt it myself when Australia was burning in 2003. I’ve even felt a little of it in this case, on the basis of nothing more than a four-day visit to New Orleans four years ago. (That’s the curse and the blessing of travel and migration; it leaves you feeling connected to everywhere. At least shutting down the blog over Christmas meant you were all spared my maudlin thoughts on the tsunami, which flattened another place I once spent a very pleasant week in.)

What I wonder is whether that desire to rebuild and sense of attachment will translate into anything like a return to the status quo ante for New Orleans and the region. It’s physically possible to rebuild; of course it is. And I suspect New Orleans will be, most likely in its present location. It will mean raising the levees, even raising the ground level across wide areas of the city; downtown will be salvaged where it can be; the suburbs will be rebuilt. We’ll see a lot more houses on stilts. Given that dozens of other towns and cities in the region have been devastated and will need to be rebuilt at the same time, the total cost will be enormous.

But New Orleans isn’t just a bunch of pretty old buildings. A city is its people—and many of the people in any city, especially a remarkable place like this, come from elsewhere, and don’t have the family ties and local support network that might allow them to ride out a year of rebuilding. We’re at the start of the college year; all of those students who were going to attend Tulane and the rest will now be scrambling for places somewhere else, and once they’re settled their lives will take a different direction. (I didn’t plan to spend the 1990s in Canberra; it was the unintended result of doing my PhD there. And I very nearly did it at Sydney University instead.) Tourism is a major part of the New Orleans economy, but there won’t be any tourists for months, and who knows how many thereafter. How will the service industry support itself? How will college staff support themselves? Even those who do have strong ties to the city may find themselves forced to look for work elsewhere. That isn’t running away; that’s surviving.

Again, I can understand the strong personal attachments. I applied for work in my home state again and again throughout the ’90s when I was trying to get a toehold in a university career, but despite a few interviews nothing panned out. The result is that even though I’m still deeply fond of the place, I don’t live there. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, because it has environmental challenges of its own, and I wonder if I could help. But mostly I just get on with the life I’ve found myself in.

In light of all that, I imagine that a rebuilt New Orleans will be a much smaller place than it has been, in every sense of the word. It’s a terrible thought, but it’s been a week full of them.

And that’s leaving aside any question of whether it makes sense to spend billions rebuilding on a dartboard for hurricanes. It isn’t just about economics, I know; there’s something in human nature that makes us want to come back and try again. But that very indomitability only highlights the strange sense of denial that grips the human race in the early 21st century. People are talking about this as a once-in-300-years event, but that’s looking backwards; what if it’s now one in ten, or five?

The year we moved to Scotland was a record year for seabird nesting, I heard on the radio yesterday. One northern island in particular had thousands of nests. All the nests failed. The next year, hundreds of birds returned; all the nests failed. And the next, and the next. They’re down to a few dozen this year, and the story is being repeated all around the coast. The waters are too warm to sustain the cold-water food chain. When we visited Orkney in 2003, I was sorry not to see any puffins; it was the wrong time of year. Now there may never be a right time, unless we visit Iceland.

This, in the space of four years. And all the warm water that’s bringing to an end thousands of generations of Scottish birdlife is flowing across the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico.

Added by Rory on 2 September 2005.