New Orleans Blues

New Orleans Blues

If New Orleans is to reclaim its greatness, the scope of the solution must match the scope of the problem. The city could become the nation’s classroom by re-engineering levees, responsibly building neighborhoods and schools and repairing the environment, but time is running out.


Three months ago, after chafing from criticism over his failure to even appear to respond to the suffering in New Orleans, George W. Bush finally made it to Jackson Square to deliver his promise that “this great city will rise again.” Yet today the great city remains largely in darkness. Most citizens of New Orleans are outside its boundaries, many with no real prospect of returning. What’s rising in New Orleans are divorce and suicide rates, toxic dumps, foreclosures and rage.

The rage was evident in early December just a half-dozen blocks from Jackson Square, in Congo Square, where African-Americans performed ancestral music in the early nineteenth century, heralding a new American culture. On a recent chilly Saturday, Congo Square was the meeting point for a crowd of about 500 demonstrators who gathered to march behind the Soul Rebels Brass Band to demand the return of New Orleanians to New Orleans.

By now it should be obvious that the drowning of the city was a man-made disaster. Multiple investigations, including those sponsored by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the National Science Foundation, conclude that the sea walls and levees were poorly designed, constructed and inspected. A not-too-subtle whispering campaign quickly suggested that the fault might lie with those gaudy New Orleanians who insist on rollicking below sea level, or with a state whose legacy of political shenanigans dates back to before “The Kingfish,” Huey Long. The city and state have much to account for, including an evacuation plan that failed to protect their most vulnerable citizens. But the ongoing campaign against New Orleans obscures the simple truth that erecting barriers against floods is a federal responsibility. The Army Corps of Engineers failed its job. The Bush Administration now has the obligation to launch a massive effort to rebuild the city that the federal government destroyed.

Bush last visited the Gulf Coast on October 11. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the President, and many in Congress, would prefer to look the other way while New Orleans collapses. Over the past quarter-century, conservatives have waged their most effective war against “big government.” This model was advanced by Ronald Reagan and endorsed by every President since. Now, when a federally coordinated solution is required, agencies from HUD to the EPA to FEMA are flummoxed. Bush faithfully followed the script by endorsing only limited solutions like the Gulf Opportunity Zone and Worker Recovery Accounts. In doing so, he advanced government as a stop-gap for what couldn’t be handled by his private and faith-based “armies of compassion.”

Stymied by this lack of leadership and by no national call for an ambitious regional rebuilding effort, Louisiana legislators, among them Democratic Representative William Jefferson and Republican Senator David Vitter, are now fretting aloud that demands for protection from the strongest hurricanes could actually work against the city’s interests by raising hopes too high. That’s pathetic. A half-day’s drive through New Orleans–at least, through the 80 percent of it that still looks nearly exactly as it did three months ago–should reveal to anyone what happens when levees don’t hold. You can start by reading the body count still scrawled in red marker on some homes. Yet there are those who dare to offer New Orleans protection on the cheap.

In October this magazine called for a coordinated “people’s reconstruction” that would provide for a “democratically accountable, economically viable, socially just and environmentally sustainable plan for regional rebuilding.” This effort must begin with the physical reclaiming of New Orleans–an ambitious, two-step process including a re-engineered levee system capable of withstanding a Category 5 hurricane and a fully funded restoration of the coast, using the Coast 2050 blueprint. A people’s reconstruction would then address the multiple effects of urban poverty that opened like fresh wounds during those days immediately following the levee breaches. Long before Katrina entered the Gulf, far too many New Orleanians lived on dangerous streets, worked low-paying jobs in the service industry, were unable to insure their families and sent their children to bleak public schools long abandoned by the middle class. For these citizens, the desperation experienced in post-Katrina New Orleans is nothing new.

New Orleans could become the nation’s classroom. A reinvigorated dialogue about urban America is newly possible–or at least it was three months ago, when images of suffering children on Louisiana bridges and highways played across the nation’s TV screens. So far, the President has squandered this opportunity, just as he squandered the post-9/11 opportunity to realign the nation’s energy policy. No wonder it’s widely feared in New Orleans that the Katrina moment has passed.

If New Orleans is to reclaim its greatness, the scope of the solution must match the scope of the problem. Each inch of the 200 miles of levees that are supposed to keep the city dry is now suspect. The wetlands that buffer the region continue their relentless disappearing act. Bush’s EPA has downplayed the effects of oil spills following the hurricane; there is no real plan to deal with the toxic refuse of the flood. The Administration does not acknowledge the science of global warming and the consequences of a warmer ocean. Many New Orleanians long to return to their homes, but it is an unsteady feeling to raise children and care for elderly parents in a city on the brink. Meanwhile, decisions about homes, neighborhoods, schools and jobs will be made in their absence and without their input.

It doesn’t have to be this way. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the rhythms of Congo Square sprouted into jazz, which gave the world a soundtrack of improvisation and democracy. A hundred years later, another democratic revolution could begin in New Orleans–but its song is quickly playing out.

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