|The Nossiter Net
The net that shall enmesh them all
Edited, Written, and Published by Josh Nossiter
|Waiting for George
Wednesday, December 14th, 2005
|The Nossiter Net is cast to snare some of the riper rascalities of the day. Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Nearly four months after flooding from hurricane Katrina devastated great swathes of the city of New Orleans, great swathes of the city remain devastated. Entire neighborhoods are emptied of inhabitants. Houses lie crumpled and crushed, their front yards littered with broken walls, breached roofs, gutted interiors, the debris of ordinary life. Abandoned cars sit rusting everywhere, their trunks gaping open. On one street, a home has come to roost in a neighbor’s yard, lifted off its foundations and deposited by water and wind on an adjacent lawn. Uprooted trees remain where they were ripped from the soil.
Frequent signs of “Help” scrawled on exterior walls are among the few reminders of the vanished inhabitants of areas such as the lower ninth ward, Gentilly, and Lakeview. Over it all hangs an invisible pall of acrid dust, a toxic memento of the hurricane and flood. It parches the throat, and results in a dry rasp New Orleaneans call the Katrina cough.
It would be shocking to see any city in such a condition. It is doubly shocking to see an American city, one of great charm and rich history, so leveled.
But most shocking of all is what we don’t see. In the nation that invented can-do, the aftermath of a cataclysm ought to be a bee hive of activity, of ceaseless, round the clock clearing, cleaning, and re-building, with armies of construction workers and convoys of giant trucks and cranes working in concert in a gargantuan reconstruction, to speedily make whole what was broken, and restore what was lost. Beyond that, we’d be certain that the rebuilt version of the wreck would be bigger and better than the original.
But instead of a bee hive, much of New Orleans is a morgue. At distant intervals, isolated knots of former residents move leaden-footed through the ruins of their properties. In one Lakeview front yard, an elderly man slowly sweeps the dusty driveway before his flattened garage. There’s an occasional cluster of construction workers, mere handfuls of them, wearing hard hats and overalls. They move signs around, re-position wooden barricades, not doing much. In one area only, not far from the breached 17th Street levee, great cranes and dump trucks labor at a giant dump, repository for some fraction of the vast ruination.
But in street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood, there is only desolation, emptiness and silence. The vacant houses, even those left whole, may be uninhabitable due to water damage and mold. Their owners, working people mostly, bus drivers and policemen and clerks and bankers, the backbone of New Orleans, have scattered across the country in the Katrina diaspora. Their absence has left districts of the town that are indistinguishable from the many cemeteries one finds here. Like the raised tombs characteristic of New Orleans’ graveyards, the houses still standing rise silently over the deserted streets, little more than relics of the families who have gone.
There are oases in the desolation. Scattered neighborhoods, spared the full fury of the storm and flood, retain their vibrant charm. In the historic Garden District, the gracious nineteenth century manses stand largely intact in their luxuriant grounds. Magazine Street, the district’s commercial hub, has no shortage of customers for its coffee houses and shops. The French Quarter, absent the normal throngs of tourists, seems more dream-like than ever in the shadows of the downtown towers. The Cabildo, the delightful museum of New Orleans history on Jackson Square, is open for business, and empty of patrons. At Donna’s, a Quarter jazz club, a rendition of “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans” leaves the packed room unmoved; it seems a gratuitous selection. An elegant downtown restaurant is filled with diners, though many of them are journalists from elsewhere.
Nearly four months have passed since Katrina blew through New Orleans. Those fragile levees, whose design and construction may have been fatally flawed, breached over one hundred days ago. In September, Mr. Bush promised New Orleans help. In a speech from Jackson Square in the heart of the French Quarter, the President said “The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.” Although the syntax is tortured, the meaning is clear: a presidential promise of a rebuilding program on an epic scale.
But New Orleans is still waiting. It’s not that the city cannot be rebuilt. Our know-how and resources have rebuilt entire countries, whole continents, creating prosperous and peaceful places out of the rubble of postwar Europe and Japan. New Orleans, in comparison, would barely make us break a sweat. And it’s not that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt. In our free democracy, no reasonable citizen would countenance the random dislocation and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of our fellows. Their fate, after all, might be the fate of any one of us some day.
So if we can rebuild New Orleans, and we must, why are we not? Only Mr. Bush has the answer to that question.
©Joshua C. Nossiter, 2005
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