Thursday, August 30, 2007

Post-Apocalyptic New Orleans

As I drove out of New Orleans on the eve of Katrina, I surveyed the scene. Even though I’d grown up in New Orleans, everything looked a little different. Things just sort of glowed under the early morning sun.

I made it out. I was one of the lucky ones. Picture the tens of thousands at the Superdome or in their homes riding out the storm. They experienced the full fury of God. One friend of mine watched her ceiling fan spin on its anchor as though it were possessed. The walls of even the sturdiest buildings shook under the assault of a powerful hurricane. Just imagine what raced through the minds of those in the Superdome as power went out and part of the roof was ripped off. And then the levees broke…

To say Katrina was a traumatic experience is an understatement. Katrina, from the perspective of New Orleanians, might as well be the apocalypse. Present day New Orleans resembles a post-apocalyptic society.

A post-apocalyptic society is a civilization that experiences goes through a cataclysmic event that pushes its society to the brink of death, but the civilization survives and is changed by the experience. Japan, Dresden, and the Netherlands have all been at some point post-apocalyptic cultures. The key markers of a post-apocalyptic civilization are how the pre-disaster state of the civilization is forgotten or mythologized, the infrastructure bears physical scars of the disaster and the people suffer from mental scaring. However, there are some positive aspects of a post apocalyptic society that revolve around a unified society that is willing to confront problems it otherwise didn’t have the courage to.

New Orleans has always been a city steeped in tradition and that aspect has taken an unusual turn after Katrina. The city has blossomed fleur-de-lis (the symbol of the city) flags overnight just like the flag after 9/11. At Jazz Fest, musicians played new, New Orleans-inspired music. Bookstores have been filled with New Orleans books, most notably “Why New Orleans Matters” by Tom Piazza. Each one seeks to eulogize New Orleans. Many of the less savory aspects, such as crime, poverty, drugs, and racism are glossed over or completely left out, but the popularity of these books cannot be understated. New Orleans has been made out to be the very soul of America and it’s getting a lot more traction post-Katrina that it would have before the storm.

The public infrastructure has been devastated and there is absolutely no way not to notice. The St. Charles streetcar line, one of the most visible symbols of the city, has been knocked out of commission. Every day, New Orleanians drive by huge piles of debris. In the words of Chris Rose, “It looks like a war was fought here and we lost that war.” Many homes still bear water lines and spray paint marks. Many streetlights are out of commission. And yet, people carry on despite the conditions. Life goes on. People have continued their routines. People still go to their favorite bars to hang out. People commute to work and drive their kids to school while almost ignoring the debris piles.

New Orleanians have been through a lot lately. Unlike most American cities, most people in New Orleans grew up in New Orleans. Being forcibly divorced from New Orleans against their will has traumatized the populace. Abandonment is an issue everyone has had to deal with it in one way or another. Extreme anger towards FEMA, Michael Brown, W, Tom Benson, Scott Cowen, etc. has been evident in even the most reserved New Orleanian. The mental strain has manifested itself in several forms. Many New Orleanians have sought counseling and gone on anti-depressants. I personally have felt sluggish and had trouble sleeping for months. The most disturbing manifestation is the dramatic increase in suicides in New Orleans. The stress of dealing with post-Katrina life has just been too much for some New Orleanians. What is disturbing is not necessarily that the suicide rate is as high as Sweden, which has the highest suicide rate in the world, but that New Orleans has changed from a place that embraces life to one where suicide is even a topic of conversation.

“We need a common enemy to unite us,” Condoleeza Rice once remarked and she had a point. New Orleans has always been a fractious community. New Orleans once such a divided city, it filed for divorce and separated itself into 3 municipalities.

From the poorest resident of the Lower 9th Ward, to the richest resident of the Garden District to even the most insulated Tulane student, every New Orleanian has had to deal with Katrina-related issues. In that common suffering, every New Orleanian has a common touchstone. One of the best conversation starters in the city has been “So, where did you evacuate to?” The best symbol of the newfound unity is the slogans of the two mayoral candidates. Nagin’s signs say, “OUR Mayor” and “Reunite New Orleans.” Mitch Landrieau’s slogan is “One New Orleans.” Politicians always seek to capitalize on public sentiments during election campaigns and that is why these slogans are a useful tool in getting the pulse of the city.

Due in no small part to the newfound unity, the city is finally confronting old problems that have plagued the city. The patently unfair and corrupt system of assessors is being dealt with. Regional, professional levee boards have replaced the crooked, parish levee boards. The trashy look of the city is for the first time being effectively addressed. None of the changes have been top-down. Grassroots movements with broad public support affected each change. Citizens for One Greater New Orleans, the Katrina Krewe, and the IQ movement are leading the way.

So the question is now, where do we go from here? New Orleans has taken an awful blow and is in many ways a post-apocalyptic society, but what does that mean for the future of New Orleans? Dresden, Germany and Hiroshima, Japan have recovered from their trauma to become productive, vibrant cities. New Orleans may yet recover and prosper. In fact, because of the very factors that make New Orleans unique from the rest of America, namely the “live life to the fulest” attitude,” New Orleans has escaped most of the effects of the destructive nihilism that takes hold in most post-apocalyptic cultures. And that is something to be very hopeful for.

- Clay ______
May 2006


Leigh C. said...

Doc Powell did us all good, honey, when he told you you had to write.

Keep on keepin' on.

judyb said...

Great post. Thanks.

oyster said...

Exactly what judy said. Great post!

Tim said...

I love it when I meet people who think engineers can't write!

An excellent essay. The people of Dresden and Hiroshima had the advantage of knowing the bombs were not coming back. New Orleans is saddled with the burden of both rebuilding and preparing for the next one.