We’re due for a rash of Katrina retrospectives, I think, with the ‘anniversary’ approaching. For all the horror and general ugliness of that shameful period, there is still hope. People are resilient, and the people of New Orleans are by history and inclination perhaps more resilient than most. Here’s Dan Baum, in the Washington Post, “Five years after Hurricane Katrina, how New Orleans saved its soul”:
… When I was in New Orleans this May, I was dumbstruck by the extent of its physical recovery. I could remember the terrible silence of Katrina’s aftermath, but now I had to go looking for traces of its destruction. Even in the Lower Ninth Ward, so often deemed unsalvageable after the crisis, businesses are open, homes are under construction, and eye-popping houses built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation fill block after block.
There was a time when the Big Easy’s culture seemed likely to work against its recovery. “You pay for your blessings, man,” the New Orleans organizer Jacques Morial told me in the dark days after Katrina. “Sometimes you overpay, sometimes you underpay. Right now, we’re in an overpay cycle.” What we didn’t know then was that the city’s culture would ultimately see it through. The I’ll-help-you-gut-your-house-if-you-help-me-gut-mine communalism, the parties thrown in a neighborhood’s first reopened house in the hopes of encouraging others to return, the palpable sense that nobody was alone — these are the things that brought people home.
Of course, I don’t live in New Orleans. If my perspective seems glass-half-full, it’s because I don’t face daily the glass-half-empty aspects of the city’s post-Katrina life: the businesses that haven’t reopened, the public housing communities that remain scattered, the shuttered Charity Hospital and the abandoned public health system with which it was associated. In a city still trembling with the post-traumatic stress that followed the flood, mental health services are almost nonexistent. Infrastructure is falling apart. The crime rate is terrible; my trip in May was to attend the funeral of a beautiful young bandleader whose murder was the city’s 61st this year. And the BP oil spill has shaken two of the legs on which New Orleans still stands: seafood and tourism.
Five years after Katrina, living in the Big Easy is not for the weak of spirit. It’s a triumph that the place continues at all; that it’s still the singular city it was borders on the miraculous. As we mark Katrina’s anniversary next weekend, it will surely be a time for mourning and for taking stock of the challenges ahead. But since this is New Orleans we’re talking about, it’s a time for celebration, too. As a wise old man of the Lower Ninth Ward once told me, “We’re capable here of holding more than one thought in our heads.”
Supplemental reading: Brentin Mock at The Root reviews “Books About Survival in the Post-Katrina Gulf”.