Friday, August 28, 2009


Here's what I've written about New Orleans before on this blog.

I mention that because one never takes a city in all at once, but instead develops a relationship with the place, which is transformed and changed by time. I've spent the better part of two years here, and my feelings are very different than where I started out.

Initially, I came to Tulane because I found the premise of a college committed to rebuilding a city after a natural disaster to be both exciting and refreshing. I have long been eager to be thrown into good works. That hasn't happened as much as I would have liked yet; it is easy to forget the the key component of good works is works. But I've done some, and I've joined a church here. I've also moved into my first apartment, near the campus and still paid for by folk not me, but an actual residence with implied duration. It's small steps, signs of more permanent action.

I've evacuated this city once. Last year, Gustav looked ominous and deadly. It wasn't; the storm got weaker, and they city, having already had it's difficult evacuation, came back together much more smoothly. It was an odd moment, to be a refugee within the US and leaving a city I was only slowly growing into. For me, it was novel. For my co-congregants, it was very close to traumatic. They'd fled Katrina. They had seen the worst that could happen to a city, lived through it, returned, and spent a week anxious that the very worst would happen again. I've no idea how one gets used to that, but apparently it is possible.

There's a lot to say about Katrina, four years later. I've gone from viewing it as a natural disaster to a human one. Sobering, but it means that it was preventable, and the next one is preventable too. There's more to say than that, but I'll leave it to the (hopeful) next First Couple of New Orleans, Melissa Harris-Lacewell and James Perry:

While these grassroots efforts are extraordinary, they have proved insufficient for the herculean task of restoring New Orleans. Despite the spirit and commitment of its people, the city's levee protection is inadequate, its violent crime is soaring, its school system is failing, its local economy is overly dependent on tourism, and its neighborhoods are ravaged by blight. For example, millions of volunteer hours over four years have put more than 2,000 units of housing back into commerce. While noteworthy, the success pales when one considers that more than 80,000 units of housing were damaged.

New Orleans teaches us that individuals and families bear an important responsibility in restoring the city and our nation. New Orleans shows the innovative capacity of civil society and local entrepreneurship. But New Orleans also reveals that recovery is limited without effective, transparent, responsible government action.

There's a lot more here, but I'd be remiss if I didn't include their excellent conclusion:

The lesson from New Orleans is clear: racial injustice and racialized politics too often stand in the way of doing what is best for the whole community. We need both local and national leadership that will stand for fairness for all people while also refusing to misuse historical racial antagonisms for their own purposes.

The survival of New Orleans is no longer just about restoring America's most distinctive city. We are all living in Katrina Nation now. Learning the lessons of New Orleans may just have the power to save all of us.

Four years ago, negligence nearly killed this city. I'd like very much for it's suffering to have not been a death, and for the lessons here to be well learned.

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