Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Requiem for Katrina

I lived in New Orleans in 2004, trying to figure out whether to start a new life there or return to South Florida. I lived in the Irish Channel, now billing itself as the Lower Garden District. My place was a few blocks off Tchoupitoulas Street, a couple of blocks from the shops of Magazine Street, and a short walk to the famous trolleys on St. Charles Avenue.

I was going through a dark time in my life, and I lived in a shotgun half built so close to the building next to it that it got little light. I ventured forth from my cave to drive around the city looking at property, condos and houses. I hooked up with the city renovation commission, which got me into even more open houses and a lot of interesting information about the neighborhoods. I’ll bet I saw the insides of more houses than many people who have lived their whole lives in New Orleans.

I hooked up with a tour guide, an interesting gent who was extremely knowledgeable about the city. A freelance writer passed a great assignment to me, one of the most profitable I’ve ever had, writing short history biographies for a textbook publisher. A savvy music-lover, who once had her own newsletter about the unannounced jams, was a huge source of information about just about everything going on in the city. People in New Orleans are enormously friendly and generous.

At night, I could hear the foghorns on the river, sounding like great animals bellowing in the night. Then, come November, a chill wind rolled off the Mississippi River, just a few blocks away, and I left for Florida in a hurry. Given the flood that occurred less than a year later, it was a good call not to have purchased property in New Orleans – even though, for the most part, I was looking on the side of the city that didn’t flood or over in Algiers, which everyone agrees is high ground.

Someone on a discussion list to which I belong complained about media exploitation of Kristina with the anniversary coverage. I can’t get enough of it. It is one of the few times when the media is ethically sticking to a story, hanging on until something gets done. The public journalism movement of the 1990s criticized journalists for being Chicken Littles, running from one crisis to another, declaring the sky is falling. Oh look – the ozone layer is dissolving. Oh what shall we do, we need more schools? Oh my gosh, the prisons are overcrowded, and crime is rampant. Public journalists encouraged the media to stick with a story until decisions could be made to get things done, as well as to point out conflicts in public decision-making: We can’t have lower taxes AND more schools and more prisons. (See for example, Daniel Yankelovich, Coming to Public Judgement; anything by Jay Rosen or Buzz Merritt written in the 1990s).

I’m in favor of the media sticking with the story. The Spike Lee documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Parts, is well done. National Public Radio also is doing a good job. Even CNN is keeping on the story. There are many thoughtful books about the situation.

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is a national treasure. I will never forget the first time I drove past the great mansions of Gulfport and Pass Christian in 1976 – or the last time I bade them farewell in November 2004 as I journeyed back to Florida. It was a cold, gray November day, and the white sands were windswept and looked as desolate as Arctic snow fields. I wonder if the small fish joint on the water where I ate is still there. I doubt it. Mansions that had stood 150 years are gone now.

It is sad. Our country needs great flood gates on Lake Pontchatrain like those that protect Holland. We need levees that can stand up to a 10,000 year weather event, like those in the Netherlands. New Orleans is a city that represents the joyous and resilient spirit of the American soul, a city of enormous cultural diversity and spiritual richness. If New Orleans and the Gulf Coast die, a part of US dies, too. There cannot be too much media coverage of this national tragedy.

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