Nov 052012
 

Owen Courreges

The word of the day is “Schadenfreude,” a loanword of Germanic origin that refers to satisfaction received from the misfortunes of others.

Oh, I should use it in a sentence?  OK. “I felt a warm feeling of Schadenfreude when the man who stole my bicycle was struck by lightning, died in intense pain, and then a swarm of rats appeared and urinated on his remains.”  (Note to readers: I really hate bike thieves).

Following Hurricane Sandy, regrettably if understandably, many New Orleanians felt a whiff of Schadenfreude.  We had been told so many times by so many people after Hurricane Katrina that we were poor, stupid, and our city had been built in the wrong place.  People asked if we should bother rebuilding New Orleans, as if we were all just going to pack up our bags and move.

Everyone seemed to take this issue seriously.  PBS, CNN, National Geographic, and even Slate published articles asking whether New Orleans should be rebuilt, moved, or left to rot.  Of course, the vast majority of the “rebuilding” was ultimately done by private property owners with their own money, and thus not really open to public debate.  It was happening, period.  Nevertheless, it was a popular idea to have every yokel from Jerkwater offer his two cents on what to do about that pesky City of New Orleans.

Thus, when Sandy struck the New York metroplex, flooding streets in Manhattan, of all places, there was a feeling of validation in many New Orleans hearts.  Many New Orleanians comically suggested whether major news outlets would once again solicit responses from viewers asking whether we should rebuild New York, move it inland, or leave it to its own devices.

Sandy Rosenthal, founder of Levees.org, recently wrote a column for the Huffington Post that encapsulates this feeling, although she managed to do so in reasoned and temperate language:

Even though parts of Lower Manhattan from Wall Street to 34th Street remain without power, and floodwater is sitting stagnant in miles of century-old subway tunnels, it’s not likely that anyone will suggest that everyone in Lower Manhattan ought to permanently relocate. [Unlike with New Orleans,] [i]t’s not likely that anyone will recommend that the survivors in Hoboken or Queens should not ever return home.

Rosenthal also noted that fifty-five (55%) of America’s population lives in levee-protected counties, which makes sense, because people tend to migrate towards water.  We can’t all live in the middle of the desert, which would raise its own host of problems.

I’m not quite as optimistic as Rosenthal, though.  For some reason, New Orleans is a city that constantly is expected to justify its existence.   While New York can just say: “Hey, we’re New Yohrk, fugettaboutit” (or whatever those people say), New Orleans is always more like: “We have an important port and cultural assets so please don’t tell us to move.”  We’re always on the defensive.

A huge part of the reason is one we can all acknowledge.  New York is a growing economic powerhouse, while we’re the proverbial poor man of the Sunbelt.

But there’s no valid reason why this has to be the case.  We’re not in a bad location.  Sure, we’re prone to being struck by hurricanes, but so is the rest of the Gulf Coast.  However, we’re an old city that’s hard to navigate legally and politically, where connections often matter more than qualifications, and where new commerce just generally feels like the low man on the totem pole.

This is why I’m such a knee-jerk, business-friendly guy.  It always seems like local politicians are droning on about neighborhoods and how they’re threatened by commerce, when the story of New Orleans over the past fifty years is a massive loss of population due to a dwindling economy.  Thus, we have way too much residential housing stock (much of which is therefore blighted) and we’re trying to cram business into small corridors.  This is supposed to be a winning strategy?

There aren’t easy fixes to all of this, either.  Government can’t just step in and change the prevailing business culture, nor can it give everyone a good smack to make them see the big picture and look beyond their narrow interests.

Ultimately, it’s going to take fundamental changes from all of us, and I hope we’re working our way in that direction over time.  I hope, because feeling Schadenfreude when New York floods isn’t a side-effect of their problems – it’s a signifier of our own dysfunction.  If it were self-evident that New Orleans is a vibrant, necessary city, we wouldn’t have to defend ourselves.

I truly do pray that the nation looks at the outcome of Hurricane Sandy and better understands the need for good flood-control infrastructure nationwide (instead of mouthing platitudes about people needing to move).  Still, if we were economically vibrant there would be no question of New Orleans’ importance.  That, dear readers, is our core problem.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ToddAPrice Todd Price

    I agree. And it’s worth noting that even the port doesn’t need us anymore. Since container shipping took over, it’s no longer necessary for a great and busy port to be located in a major city.

    • Cade Roux

      New Orleans doesn’t compete well against other containerized ports, because it’s not what we mainly do. It could be growing, though, with the Panama Canal changes.

  • Kim Ranjbar

    Well said! I admit it…I was bitter when I heard nothing but sympathetic comments to both the flooding and looting that took place after Sandy.

  • birdwell

    And, hey! Let’s not forget being called Sodom and Gomorrah: God is punishing us for our wicked ways! But, wait! There’s more! As some walkers in Audubon Park commented yesterday, “They are victims. WE were called refugees”. Are we really that different from coastal humans around this globe?

  • http://www.facebook.com/DoubleUsmith Wardel Smith

    I like your thinking!!!!!

  • Cade Roux

    “If it were self-evident that New Orleans is a vibrant, necessary city, we wouldn’t have to defend ourselves.”

    I think it is self-evident. Not least of which is that New Orleans is a center among centers – it provides an anchor for an entire economic ecosystem from Baton Rouge to Mississippi. Regardless of its failings. We already know from Katrina that it is MORE than tourism – all parts of our economy are linked – whether it’s the federal facilities, the professional sports, the port, the oil and gas, the movie and digital tech industry and tourism – this isn’t all new since Katrina.

    In any case, having to defend ourselves in the first place is wrong. There are so many positive things coming out of New Orleans. And many of those things started before Katrina.

    The elephant in the room is the people drain before Katrina which will come back again at some point. The only way to fight the people drain is to work on the schools. And that isn’t going to happen because of the strong private school industry and Gov. Jindal isn’t helping do anything but further solidify it as an industry.

  • tim c

    And…it is also worth noting that these two disasters occurred under different administrations. I seriously doubt that Obama would appoint a man as unqualified as Browne to run FEMA. The same Michael Brown who criticized FEMA for acting TOO SOON for Sandy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Pepper.Bosworth H. J. Bosworth JR.

    We need to remind ourselves what our industry is – here. It is the Port of New Orleans. Our city was built here for that port and even with the containerized cargo being available in Houston and Mobile, more tonnage flows past the French Quarter than every other US port except New York. Think of whom you know that work for shipping, grain oil and gas and know that these are all port related businesses. A refinery and a grain elevator work much better when there is a big river dock right there.

    When FEMA showed up in September 2005, their goal was to put the port back in business. Cargill and others told Bush to make it happen and they did the job – saving people in the floodwaters of the Corps Federal Flood was probably job #2.

    And The Port of New Orleans is a State agency. Jindal and the folks north of I-10 / I-12 get the port revenue and our mayor has to beg for scraps from the State.

    There will be haters that laugh at the pain we all went through in 2005. Our NOPD and the JP pump guys evacuated thanks to the now discredited doomsday flood report that was manufactured in the 1990′s by Edwards and the LSU hurricane center. I am proud of our mayor that recently told the population to hunker down and I am proud of the people for preparing for Isaac instead of running away. With the new floodgates and great wall to the east, we are much safer – and in my neighborhood we followed the motto of “Make ice – not traffic”….