The first time I saw New Orleans, I was about eight years old, when my extended family went down there for the King Tut exhibit. I’ve probably been back a hundred times since: Sugar Bowls, Jazz Fests, Mardi Gras, and the old faithful, “What the hell–let’s go to New Orleans this weekend.” There was nowhere else quite like it, and very few places even remotely like it. I have a lot of friends from there, not all of whom are accounted for right now. It’s a city I know as well as anywhere I’ve never actually moved to, and a place I love more than most of the towns where I have set up housekeeping.
This week has been like watching an old friend die. Every horrible news story is another icicle in the chest. So much has been lost. So many have been taken. So little may be left. The long-term question we ask each other, over and over, is, “Can it ever be what it was again?”
The answer is, probably not. Some of the physical damage can be repaired or rebuilt. Much can’t be, or won’t be. The dead are gone, and the survivors will never be the same. Just who and how many people will return is a very open question. There’s no economy to return to; the city’s only remaining industry was tourism, and it won’t be fit to host a single tourist for many months. That doesn’t even begin to cover all the lost housing. Even if there were resources and the will available to rebuild every home (there won’t be, not by a long shot), rebuilding them will take years.
And among the harshest of the catastrophie’s side-effects, the very worst of the city has been on display to the world this week. Inept public officials, lack of planning and preparation, and the lethal unleashing of a hard-core criminal element so brutal, it’s been attacking aid workers who were the first to try and help.
Now for the really painful part, said not with anger, but with a heavy heart: As sad and awful as it is, Louisiana in general and New Orleans in particular did a lot of this to themselves.
No, I’m not talking about the storm, I’m talking about:
1. The culture of corruption and general worthlessness that’s been nurtured by apathy and inertia for a couple of centuries. The city and state were responsible for levee upkeep–but every levee has its own state and local “commissions,” not to actually get anything done, but to spread around the money and patronage. It’s not difficult to think that an awful lot of the money earmarked for the levees was siphoned off in boards and studies and boondoggles. That culture also fed into…
2. The state of the NOPD, arguably the worst metro police force in the country. Was anybody remotely familiar with that department surprised when they saw New Orleans cops joining in the looting? I doubt it. Local police are the first line of defense in any disaster situation, quite literally the first responders, and the NOPD–no doubt with hundreds of brave and noble exceptions (they’re the ones who’re still at work right now; the worthless ones have bugged out)–was nowhere near up to the task. New Orleans’ political leadership has never been serious about cleaning up that department, which brings us to…
3. Crime. We’ve all heard urban legends about neighborhoods where “even the cops won’t go.” In NOLA, those weren’t legends. Some of the worst criminal elements in the country have been fermenting in that city for decades, and no level of government was willing to deal with that fact. Now they’re loose, and nobody short of the Army or Marines can handle them (and they’re now in the process of migrating out to the rest of the South; that’s an export we could have done without).
I actually think Mayor Nagin is a good guy, he’s certainly the first mayor in a very long time who even tried (although he didn’t achieve much) to do something about corruption down there. I can also understand his frustration. He’s smack in the middle of a horrific situation, and he can’t see any help coming his way yet–although he hasn’t helped himself any with stuff like telling people to go to the convention center, but not passing that info on to the feds. Americans expect to move mountains instantly; very few of us understand stuff like logistics and staging that have to work properly before any large-scale effort can even begin, much less succeed.
But none of that excuses the slow-motion breakdown of New Orleans. The fact that it got put on fast-forward last weekend is nobody’s fault; the fact that it went on for as long as it did, well, that’s another story. There’s plenty of fault there, and not a little of it laid at the feet of people like me, who fed off the frisson of a city with an edge of danger, where knowing the right local to call could get a friend out of lockup, a place where so many of the usual rules didn’t necessarily apply.
We’ve gotten a harsh reminder this week of why the rules have to apply. When the party stopped, the hangover was worse than we ever imagined.