Maggie Galehouse of the Houston Chronicle offers up a brief list of books that explore the impact of Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast. I would add two others to her list: Sheri Fink’s Five Days At Memorial, and Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, the latter being quite the best general book published on the city in many years.
As the waters receded a decade ago and the authorities began to take stock of exactly what happened in New Orleans, the damage and the fatalities were almost too much to take in. As my rescuers from Miami-Dade EMS hauled me into the boat and we drifted west down I-10 toward safety, I could see bodies floating in the water around us. Even then, however, I had no idea of the scale of the tragedy. I knew it was bad: the constant helicopter flights to Slidell, LA north of Lake Ponchartrain over the previous week told me that, and I greatly feared for the survival of that community; but the idea of 1833 people dead was, in those early moments of rescue, beyond my comprehension.
There was talk in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane of abandoning New Orleans, of simply letting it go; there was more talk in the weeks after the storm of not rebuilding parts of the metro area (including New Orleans East) that had been most severely damaged. My own hope was that the area around Downman Road and Morrison Road and Chef Menteur Highway farther to the east would not be rebuilt, and used instead as a flood plain. Decades of human-caused coastal erosion have wiped away the natural protection that New Orleans used to receive against every hurricane that approached near the mouth of the Mississippi, and I thought that the city needed every bit of natural help it could get. My wish was not granted. New Orleans East has rebounded. I’m told that the large apartment complex I used to live in has been rebuilt, although I have not been back to see it and will not go back to see it.
Arguments to the contrary, there were good reasons to rescue New Orleans, and rebuild the city. First among those reasons was the quality of its citizens. There are many, many good people there–talented, resilient, resourceful, and brave people. We may be justly faulted for staying through such a destructive storm but, as I said yesterday, the storm itself was no worse than many others we had survived in the past. Although we knew the risks of a levee failure, no one who stayed behind had absolute knowledge that the levees would fail on this occasion. The cost of abandoning our homes, our apartments, and our businesses, had we abandoned them, would have been even higher than it was. It’s very hard to salvage anything if one is not around to salvage it. I have been grateful every day since the storm that I chose to ride it out in my apartment rather than in the chaos of the Superdome. I made a tough choice, maybe a poor one, but there were worse choices I could have made. I did not panic; I stayed calm. I was certain that, eventually, I would be rescued. All I had to do was wait.
I cannot justify the behavior of the criminals who ransacked businesses along Canal Street, or that of the police who abandoned their posts, committed crimes themselves, and then tried to cover up their acts. I do, however, have some sympathy for Police Chief Eddie Compass, a good man who was overwhelmed by appalling circumstances. I have no sympathy for Mayor Ray Nagin, a man in over his head as mayor from day one, a man who had every opportunity to rise to the occasion as leader of the city but failed miserably to do so. I voted for him, but seeing his constant shifting of blame, his grandstanding, and his sickening playing of the race card in his Chocolate City speech, I’m ashamed of having done it. He almost single-handedly undid all the good that citizens and business owners–black, white, Asian–had done over the previous decade to get a handle on our crime problem, and to employ young workers who previously had been difficult to employ, either because of their criminal pasts or their lack of education and training. It was those people, the business owners and the persons they employed, people that I knew, that made New Orleans worth saving.
The second reason for saving New Orleans is simply its historical significance. It’s perfectly all right that St. Augustine, Florida has primacy of place in our country’s history. The fact remains that there is, and always will be, only one New Orleans; only one city with its precise blend of political history, architecture, food, music, and ethnicity stretching back to 1718. If America does someday lose New Orleans, we’ll never get it back. What the city has in the mix of the elements I’ve just named is utterly unique. That mix can’t be transplanted. You can try (the Houston Brennan’s is a very good restaurant), but you’ll fail (the gumbo at Houston Brennan’s cannot match what you’ll get at Mr. B’s or K-Paul’s in the French Quarter). Yet there’s much more at stake. If you do not preserve New Orleans, if you do not cherish it, what you’ll lose is the living embodiment, the flesh and blood example, of what Jesus meant when he talked about being “a city on a hill” in the gospel of Matthew. Every city along the Gulf Coast, from Brownsville to Homestead, Florida, must suffer through hurricanes, but only New Orleans stands as a place and a people that will show you how to endure a storm and protect those things most worth keeping. That spirit of survival–the spirit Jesus was really talking about–is learned behavior, year after year, and it is essential to all of us, whether we live along a fault line or in Tornado Alley or right next to the Canadian border in December. If you want to know how to survive, if you want to know how it’s done, look to the south. The city on a hill can’t be hid, and New Orleans can’t hide from anyone, despite the constant erosion that threatens its very existence. Everything that makes the city great and every flaw in the city’s character is on display twenty-four hours a day. The people who live there know full well when a storm is coming, but that is no matter to them. A storm is always coming. What matters to them is to live, even as the storm does what it will.