We remember the big ones. There was Carla in 1961, Camille in 1969, and Andrew in 1992. Katrina will not be the last. When she hit, I checked the National Hurricane Center website, which indicated that names are already chosen for the next ones to hit the Atlantic Coast: Lee, Maria, Nate, Ophelia, Philippe, and Rita. I don’t know what happened to the others, but we’ve already heard from Ophelia and Rita. The names are nicely gender-balanced. Names are scheduled for hurricanes through the year 2007, and history will, it seems likely, not end in 2007. But Katrina will, I expect, have a very special place in that history. Our anthropomorphic naming does not seem to personalize our disposition toward such disasters. In Katrina’s case, a lot of people are very mad, but nobody appears to be very mad at her. Or at Mother Nature, or, for that matter, at God.
Only a few months ago, David Hart published his powerful little book, The Doors of the Sea, which asked in its subtitle: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Few people seem to be raising that question this time around. Maybe it was asked before because most of us didn’t know anyone else to blame in Thailand, Sri Lanka, or Indonesia. This time there are lots of people to blame, and we know their names. Edward Rothstein of the New York Times says we’re not asking the theodicy question because belief in God is weaker, and we assume human beings are, or should be, in control of everything. I’m rather sure the first part of that is wrong, but, if by “we” he means the media, he is right that the news business is more comfortable talking about human culpability than about a fallen creation, very much including nature, raging against the will of God.
Katrina concentrated, or should have concentrated, our minds on the fragility of both nature and human circumstance. “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more,” Psalm 103 declares. Make that the wind and the water. Many barely knew the names of some of those places, such as Delacroix, Mandeville, and Gulfport. But just about everybody knew New Orleans, either personally or by reputation. There were those who said it was a wicked city and deserved what it got.
Wickedness takes many forms. Beyond the fragility of nature and human mortality, the fragility of elementary decency was repugnantly on display during those September days. The looters, the rapists, the people shooting at rescue workers: They were on around-the-clock display on the television screens of the world for days on end. Reporters and anchors shied away from mentioning the obvious, that they were black—since one ineptly phrased reference to that reality, and a journalist is looking for another career.
Among racists, as well as those inclined to think unsentimentally about race, Katrina probably did more to reinforce stereotypes than anything since the urban riots of the late 1960s. That unhappy consequence was bolstered by the sadly predictable interventions of ethnocrats such as the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who had only to change the specifics of time and place in delivering their familiar indictment of racist America.
They were not alone. “National Shame,” declared a New York tabloid headline in six-inch type. The Times carried a long op-ed by New Orleans author Anne Rice: “But to my country I want to say this: during this crisis you failed us. You looked down on us; you dismissed our victims; you dismissed us. You want our Jazz Fest, you want our Mardi Gras, you want our cooking and our music. Then when you saw us in real trouble, when you saw a tiny minority preying on the weak among us, you called us ‘Sin City,’ and turned your backs.” America turned its back by watching and praying day and night, by sending tens of thousands of volunteers, by opening its cities and homes to hundreds of thousands of refugees, by donating nearly a billion dollars through churches and voluntary organizations, not to mention more than $200 billion in federal aid and reconstruction. Callous, unfeeling, hard-hearted America.
Incompetent America? Well, that is quite another matter. We now know there were all kinds of elaborate plans in place: thick strategy books developed by government bureaucracies over months and years, with much conferring, Powerpoint presenting, coordinating, facilitating, and interfacing in preparation for something precisely like Katrina. Almost none of it was implemented. While hundreds of school and transit buses sat neatly parked in the water, the mayor of New Orleans complained the poor could not get out because they had no cars. A third of the police force, one of the most notoriously corrupt and incompetent in the country, went AWOL, and those who did show up were offered a week in Las Vegas to recover from stress. As for the Louisiana governor, the less said the better. President Bush did not distinguish himself—not at least in the first days. It may have been unfair, the nature of the catastrophes was very different, but comparisons with Rudy Giuliani, and the president himself, after September 11 were inevitable. Monstrous bureaucracies such as Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) appeared to be clueless.
Of course, some people did work, and there are heroes and heroines in abundance. The ordinarily sensible Mickey Kaus at Slate seems to be urging that we scrap the federalist system and let the national government run the country from Washington. The Feds will be the first responders, the second responders, the only responders. That would conveniently wipe out the mediating structures of society—the churches and voluntary associations—that proved, once again, to be the best responders.
Still, Katrina was a massive blow to America’s pride in its can-do spirit. David Brooks wrote that it was one in a long series of such devastating blows: “Over the past few years, we have seen intelligence failures in the inability to prevent Sept. 11 and find WMDs in Iraq. We have seen incompetent postwar planning. We have seen the collapse of Enron and corruption scandals on Wall Street. We have seen scandals at our leading magazines and newspapers, steroids in baseball, and the horror of Abu Ghraib.” “There will be a reaction,” he writes. “There is going to be some sort of big bang as people respond to the cumulative blows of bad events and try to fundamentally change the way things are.”
Maybe, but I doubt it. The serial blows to American can-doism may instead induce something like humility. If that means tuning the “national greatness” agenda down a few notches, so be it.
There remains the question of rebuilding New Orleans. I have friends whose families go back generations there, and they are deeply divided. Some are in profound mourning for its death, and others defiantly declare that a little hurricane, or even a very big hurricane, cannot kill what New Orleans was and will be again. All agree that New Orleans was different from any other American city. Joel Lockhart Dyer once wrote, “New Orleans is North America’s Venice; both cities are living on borrowed time.” Michael Ledeen thinks Naples the more apt comparison: “Naples also faces destruction—volcanic destruction from ‘Vesuvius the Exterminator,’ as the poet Verga once wrote—and Naples, too, is noted for a lively, and often lawless style of life, along with great literature, art, cuisine, and music . . . . The European stereotype of the Neapolitan is very much like the American image of New Orleanians: lazy, happy, spontaneous, and unrepressed, slow-moving but quick-witted, and very happy with the food.”
New Orleans is a streetcar named Desire that has made its final run. The French Quarter, built on the city’s original and higher ground, was not so badly damaged. I suppose it could be revived as a clean, well-lighted place, but that would not be New Orleans. The play city of New Orleans was also situated in a swamp of poverty, corruption, and decadence. Swamp and city were inextricably joined, and the hundreds of thousands who have relocated may not want to return to the swamp. Halliburton and Disney may spruce up the tourist attractions, and it may be a great success, as the cleaning up of Times Square has proved. But it will not be New Orleans. Times Square is not New York; there are many other places to go and things to do. In New Orleans, the central attraction was the French Quarter—and it cannot be the French Quarter without the surrounding decadence, Dixieland, and broken dreams.
Then there is the stubborn matter of time, which no degree of efficiency can accelerate. Paul Greenberg writes, “Even if you could rebuild her just as she was, every cobblestone and lamppost in place, it wouldn’t be the same. For there is no replacement for time, the one indispensable element that adds a unique luster to everything well aged, even the simplest things, like a cobbler’s bench used for forty years, or your grandmother’s thimble.” And there are those who ask, not without reason, whether it really makes sense to rebuild a city below sea level, just waiting for Katrina’s cousin.
On the other hand, urban historian Joel Kotkin envisions a new and exciting future for the place. New Orleans, he writes, has been declining for nearly a century. In 1920, its population was three times that of Houston and nine times that of Miami. Unlike New Orleans, those cities “have fed off the ‘animal spirits’ of entrepreneurs and had the foresight to invest in basic infrastructure.” A new New Orleans of entrepreneurship, foresight, efficiency, and that old American get-up-and-go spirit? Maybe. But it would not be New Orleans. It would be the anti-Big Easy that we uneasily loved.
In the chaos of Katrina, it was repeatedly said that this is the kind of thing that happens in the third world, not in America. There had always been something of the third world about New Orleans. It was an American anomaly. In addition to Naples, there was also the feel of what one finds in Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro, or even of Dakar in Senegal in the last days of colonial control. Throw in the antebellum South. In New Orleans, one often came across historical oddments, such as the crown of thorns that Pope Pius IX plaited for the imprisoned Jefferson Davis, in the tattered Museum of the Confederacy. New Orleans was a pervasively Catholic city that knew all about “inculturation” long before the Second Vatican Council. There was voodoo, pentecostal enthusiasm, and superstition galore, and it was far from clear what had inculturated what. Between the evil eye and sacramental grace there was an unspoken pact, and for everything, if you didn’t get yourself killed, there was absolution. New Orleans lived off absolution. Theologians may call it cheap grace, but it was grace enough to keep the sinners going from day to day.
I spoke there from time to time at the universities, Loyola and Tulane, and once to a group of business leaders. These are the white and wealthy patrons who pretended to let the black folk rule by choosing the politicians for whom they could vote. New Orleans was an unabashedly traditional and hierarchical city that managed to accommodate the civil rights movement with relatively slight inconvenience. Welfare and circuses did not make for prosperity, but it pacified the restless. The “krewes” were the elite clubs in charge of the lavish Mardi Gras floats, and nobody seriously challenged their authoritative delineation of who was who in the social order of New Orleans. I was musing with the business leaders about the strangeness of it all and wondering how it came to be, when a gentleman who was “in real estate” (and was said to own a third of the city) politely interrupted and said, “Well, you have to understand, Father, that New Orleans just kinda happened.”
I expect that’s right, and no amount of local pride, entrepreneurial capitalism, or massive government aid will make it happen again. There will be a New Orleans again. The port and refineries will get back on their feet and the tourists will flock to the “revived” French Quarter. But it will not be New Orleans. It will work hard at being New Orleans, but precisely to the degree that it works hard at being New Orleans, or works hard at anything for that matter, it is not New Orleans. The tourists will tell themselves they have been to New Orleans, and those who remember will kindly decline to disabuse them.
Things happen, both good and bad. New Orleans happened, Katrina happened, and sometime soon maybe all those other hurricane names will happen. It’s a very un-American thought, that we are not in control. It’s a humbling and freeing thought. It’s the truth that created that most un-American of America’s cities. The can-do spirit of mastery that re-creates New Orleans, if it is to be re-created, will give us another American city. A city with a particularly colorful past, as the tourist brochures will put it, but an American city. New Orleans was the un-American city that reminded us that—both despite and because of its insouciant craziness and genius for disorder—there is a humanly attractive alternative to the overweening efficiency, rationality, and delusion of control that we call the American Way.
Richard John Neuhaus is the editor-in-chief of First Things.