We’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, in case you’ve been locked in a closet for the past few weeks and have thus been spared the maudlin, self-indulgent navel-gazing of every commentator that comes down the pike.
For some, Katrina was an opportunity seized. The guiding narrative is that of a city in decline that took advantage of adversity and emerged stronger. It’s a characterization of Katrina that’s equal parts appalling and inaccurate. We are not in a better position as entire swaths of neighborhoods lay in ruin and our population is greatly reduced.
Yet the myth persists. Just last week the internet was abuzz over an opinion piece by Kristin McQueary that ran in the Chicago Tribune in which she yearned for a Katrina-like disaster to strike Chicago and give it a firm kick in the pants.
“I find myself wishing for a storm in Chicago — an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury,” McQueary wrote. “A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops. That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.”
This revolting emission of verbal diarrhea struck a nerve with, well, virtually everyone in New Orleans. The levee breaks after Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and directly caused more than 1,800 deaths. Viewing Katrina as a positive event, even an enviable one, is nothing less than disgusting.
McQueary later apologized and clarified that she was merely wishing for a catalyst for dramatic political change in Chicago, particularly relative to the city’s finances. Even then, however, her narrative was off. New Orleans didn’t suddenly change after Katrina. Reforms have been a mixed bag at best, and scandals still trickle out. The struggle for clean, efficient government continues much as it did before the storm.
Nevertheless, for all the kvetching about McQueary’s absurd piece, our own leaders often seem to be saying the same thing.
In his “State of the City” address given this past May, Mayor Mitch Landrieu boasted that New Orleans is “no longer recovering, no longer rebuilding.” Citing a laundry list of improved statistics, Landrieu continued: “It didn’t happen by accident. It is all part of our larger approach to government — cut, reorganize and then invest the savings in what matters most so we can grow.”
Admittedly, there’s nothing shocking or particularly offensive about a politician tooting his own horn. However, the degree of triumphalism is a bit unsettling. One needs only drive through New Orleans East (you don’t even have to leave the freeway) to see that there are parts of the city that are definitely still in the process of recovery and rebuilding.
Yes, progress has been made on some fronts, and there’s no gainsaying the idea that the storm itself made certain reforms possible. However, even those reforms are hotly contested, and even the most ardent opponent would have to concede that they involve trade-offs. For example, many in the city are justifiably pleased that the old, Dickensian public-housing complexes are being replaced. Nevertheless, at the same time, there’s less public housing overall.
Regional Transit Authority head James Reiss summed up the feelings of many after the storm when he declared: “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.”
Reiss’ words, opportunistic as they were, resonated with a certain class of locals. In hushed quarters, you can still hear them speak of Katrina as some sort of cleansing rain.
Thus, it’s an easy thing to ask the diaspora of New Orleanians to return, as Landrieu has prominently done. It’s easy to proclaim that the city is recovered. It’s harder to acknowledge that sections of the city are still in horrid condition ten years later, and that Katrina was, in fact, seen by many locals as an opportunity to change the city in ways that make others feel less welcome.
Perhaps what unnerved us so much about McQueary’s column wasn’t that the sentiment was reprehensible, or that it was expressed by an outsider. Perhaps the real problem was that we’ve heard it all before, albeit not quite so explicitly.
Alas, it’s easier to rally the villagers with pitchforks and torches than it is to engage in genuine introspection. As we approach Katrina’s tenth anniversary, we could definitely use a great deal more of the latter.
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.