The good news is that the tourist precincts in New Orleans are back. The bad news is everywhere else.

PAUL WELLS September 4 2006


The good news is that the tourist precincts in New Orleans are back. The bad news is everywhere else.

PAUL WELLS September 4 2006



The good news is that the tourist precincts in New Orleans are back. The bad news is everywhere else.


“New Orleans in da house!” Spike Lee, resplendent in an all-white suit, bellowed at a crowd of more than 10,000 in the New Orleans Arena. The maverick film director judged the roar of applause to be satisfactory, so he offered the same sentiment again, slightly amended: “In the hizz-oxisel” More applause.

And that was nearly all the introduction Lee had to offer for the world premiere of his latest film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. For one of cinema’s most notorious provocateurs, Lee clearly believes his work will speak for itself. Or in this case not even the work so much as the story. Lee’s fourhour HBO television documentary, which will also be shown at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, chronicles the savage punishment New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast suffered after hurricane Katrina’s landfall on Aug. 29,2005. For Louisiana, the death toll stands at 1,464. The damage was caused by a toxic mix of wind, rain, flood waters—and administrative incompetence so widespread it is still hard to know where to stop blaming people.

Nearly everyone at the arena had lived through this nightmare, because nearly everyone in southern Louisiana did. The grief is still fresh. For most, the dislocation, job stress, financial crisis and emotional trauma are nowhere near over. As Lee’s film rolled on the arena’s giant screen, there was a mood of catharsis in the air.

The crowd booed at images of President George W. Bush and of Michael Brown, the hapless former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. African-American audience members cheered any suggestion, from the residents Lee interviews on camera, that from urban planning to rescue management to the perceptions other Americans have of what happened here, prejudice had stacked the deck against New Or-

leans’ black majority. Some in the smaller white contingent cheered back at any suggestion that the situation was more complex. (The TV critic for the Times-Picayune complained in a front-page review that Lee only shows the experience of black New Orleanians. “You must have been sleeping for four hours,” Lee told his critic at a news conference, and for once he was being too gentle:

part of what makes the film so valuable is the ethnic and socio-economic richness of Lee’s subjects, who mirror what has always been one of the most diverse American cities.)

Lee’s movie is a good reminder of what happened to New Orleans. The short evacuation notice—Katrina didn’t turn toward the city until Friday evening, and local officials didn’t start issuing mandatory evacuation

notices until Sunday morning, less than a day before landfall. The botched evacuation. The looting, the chaos, the lack of charitypolice in Gretna, across the river, lined the bridge and turned back evacuees at gunpoint.

Because Spike Lee is behind the camera, his subjects give vent to anger, humour, and the sometimes extraordinary paranoia of people who are never guaranteed a fair shake. That paranoia extends even to comments by Mayor Ray Nagin, who managed to get reelected after Katrina, even though many New Orleanians don’t hold him blameless for the chaos. As he listens to a clip of himself losing his temper on radio and pronouncing himself “pissed” at the slow federal response, he tells Lee: “The first thing I thought was, ‘Man, I really screwed up. That’s the end of my business career, that’s the end of my political career, and maybe the CIA is gonna swoop in here in two months and inject me with somethin’ I don’t know about.’ ”

The humour offers a counterpoint to an almost unbearably tragic story. At one point, Lee quick-cuts more than a dozen people together, commenting on how hot it was in those late August and early September days. One young black woman gets to elaborate. “The heat was beyond African,” she says. “If African heat is anything like what we lived through, and they keep saying, ‘Go back to Africa?’ Hell, no!” But the next scenes show corpses lying on porches or floating, bloated and face down, in muddy water, and the point is driven home: Louisiana heat is funny when you’re running from your air-conditioned car to your air-conditioned house. If you were trapped outside for three days with no food or water, it could kill, and it did.

The same mix of relief and despair will greet any visitor who spends a few days in New Orleans. As Katrina’s first anniversary approaches, the Crescent City has become America’s national capital of good news, bad news. The good news is that the tourist precincts are nearly back to normal. The French, no fools, built the French Quarter where they did because it was the only reliably high and dry ground in the marshy Mississippi Delta. Wind and rain took some toll, but Katrina’s flood waters spared the Quarter, the Central Business District to the west, and much of elegant Marigny to the east.

So the dinnertime crowds still flock to Emeril Lagasse’s bustling NOLA restaurant. The beer trucks line Bourbon Street at noon to stock the bars for another night’s assault on the limits of alcohol tolerance and good taste. On a Tuesday night in the dead of August, never a big tourist season, I heard two jazz musicians almost without peer on their instruments-the banjo player Don Vappie and the drummer Johnny Vidacovich—in two

clubs a few doors apart on Frenchmen Street.

The bad news is nearly everywhere else.

Ten hours before Vappie’s trio hit the bandstand at Snug Harbor, I stood in an open field in the Lower Ninth Ward with Stephen Nelson, wondering when our tour of the levee breaches was going to begin. Nelson is the chair of the department of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane University, and moved here from Utah more than 25 years ago. He has been giving these levee tours to almost anyone who asks.

There are three reasons for this. First, while Nelson’s specialty is volcanology, he has long


taught about natural disasters more generally, and his adopted hometown has become a better laboratory than he could have wanted. Second, he is still so angry at the hash the U.S. Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers made of the city’s flood-protection system that he doesn’t want the world to forget. Finally, if Nelson brings guests, the Army Corps work crews repairing the levees are less inclined to chase him away. They know the tale he’s telling. It is not a flattering story.

Katrina’s storm surge hit New Orleans from the east, roaring past Lake Borgne and up two canals, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, that converge in a V near the Industrial Canal, Nelson told me, pointing to maps he keeps in a

three-ring binder and comparing them to landmarks near where we stood. Some of that wave of water might have been high enough to top the 14-foot levees. But the real problem wasn’t that the corrugated steel walls built into the levees were too short, it’s that they were too shallow: they went down only about 10 feet into loose, sandy earth. So water under high pressure surged under the walls through the soil, eventually corrupting it until the whole structure collapsed.

What is so sadly typical is that the Corps should have known this. “Back in 1985, the Corps research branch went out to the Atcha-

falaya Basin,” west of New Orleans, and conducted experiments to simulate flood conditions against walls like these, Nelson said. “Presumably the experiment was done to help in the design of flood walls in New Orleans. But it never got to the people who were designing flood walls in New Orleans. So all of these flood walls were built after those experiments.” This is a common refrain in New Orleans. “It wasn’t going to work and they did it anyway.” Slowly, as Nelson described the events of Aug. 29,1 realized this open field hadn’t always been one. This was a residential neighbourhood, houses packed close together, some stacked up on piers so flood waters only a few inches deep would go right underneath them. When the levee broke, the house directly

-, in front of the breach disinte31,2005 , . , , . grated in the rushing water.

Others floated up off their moorings and drifted on the rising water, shattering neighbouring houses. “Anybody living in this part probably didn’t survive, if they were still here,” Nelson said.

After Katrina, newspapers ran many photographs that showed, say, a single artfully framed house whose infrastructure had collapsed. But you really need to drive through the city, as we did, to see how widespread the devastation was. Eighty per cent of New Orleans was underwater for weeks. Entire neighbourhoods were shattered; in much of the rest of the city, houses whose structures survived became infested with mould that must be removed before humans can inhabit them again. A year later, thousands of New Or-

leanians live in FEMA trailers parked on their own front yards, banned indefinitely from their own houses. Last week, FEMA admitted that a single key can unlock the identical locks on hundreds of the trailers’ front doors, and all the locks will need replacing.

Near the London Avenue Canal breach, Nelson showed me two wrecked houses where the flood waters had dumped sand to a depth of nearly eye level. One house had a hole in the roof. “As the waters rose, sometimes the only way to survive was to chop your way out through the attic roof with a knife or something,” Nelson said. The house next door had


a corrugated metal roof. There would have been no way out of that one.

By the time we got to the 400-foot-long breach in the 17th Street Canal, it was obvious that Katrina was never a case of an impossibly large storm breaching heroic defences. It was a larger-than-average storm collapsing a levee system so archaic and shabbily constructed that it could never have withstood serious assault.

Now, with rebuilding beginning before the disaster is complete, it’s hard to believe New Orleans will return even to its previous level of squalor and confusion, never mind come back as anything better organized or more beautiful.

Across the street from the 17th Street breach there are empty lots where houses were destroyed or demolished; wrecked houses awaiting demolition; abandoned houses whose fate is unclear; and three Mexican workers putting new stucco on the wall of one resident’s house. Good for that guy—rebuilding, defiant. Except for this: half of New Orleans residents haven’t moved home yet. They may never do so. With the city’s tax base cut in half, how can New Orleans justify providing plumbing, electricity and policing to one or two residents on a street where 40 used to live?

Multiply that question across a city where, even after the Katrina exodus, the population is a quarter of a million. And, as always, add the confounding variable of race. Any attempt to shrink New Orleans to a new, more compact footprint that made any sense from the standpoints of flood protection and

public utilities would, disproportionately, move people out of poor black neighbourhoods. One of the peculiarities of New Orleans is that poor black people own their homes at a higher rate than in most U.S. cities. So any new urban plan will inevitably resemble a plot against the underprivileged, even if it springs from no such motivation. Mayor Nagin, who owed his 2002 election to the white voting minority but needed to shore up the black vote to win re-election this year, quickly abandoned any attempt to shrink New Orleans down to size.

Crime rates are higher than they were be-

fore Katrina. Fugitives from across the country, believing New Orleans will be an easy city to stay lost in, are flocking here: arrests of fleeing fugitives have tripled. The National Guard was brought back in May to help the beleaguered police force; two soldiers (one with the unfortunate name of Caleb Paul Wells) have since been arrested for armed robbery.

None of this even begins to address the big existential question, which is whether New Orleans can hold its own, not just against another spectacular hurricane but against the inexorable encroachment of the swamps that surround this artificial city. Last November, the Times-Picayune ran two photos. One was a map of the city in 1878, hugging the high

ground near the river and surrounded by marshes. The other was a satellite photo of Katrina’s waters a week after the levees broke. The areas under water were precisely the marshlands developers had spent 127 years reclaiming after the 1878 map was made. Turns out the land hadn’t been reclaimed. Turns out it was only on loan from Mother Nature. A year ago the loan came due.

It is extraordinarily common to find a New Orleanian who is taking medication or visiting a psychiatrist for mental distress. The symptoms are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, a combat disease, except the trauma refuses to end. Soon enough you start looking for a reason to hope. I found mine at the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts/Riverffont.

Some full disclosure is in order. A week after the levees broke, I organized a Katrina fundraiser in Ottawa. My friends weren’t sure anyone would give to a multi-billion-dollar reconstruction effort unless we picked a small organization with a worthy mission. I picked NOCCA/Riverfront, which educates students from 100 schools across southern Louisiana in half-day music, theatre, art, cinema and other programs. Half of its students are underprivileged. Nearly all leave NOCCA to go on to higher education, most on scholarship. Alumni include Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr.

We raised $17,000 for NOCCA on a few days’ notice. Typically, our best effort soon seemed dwarfed by the scale of the challenge: the Louisiana legislature decided arts education in a flood zone was a luxury and voted to eliminate NOCCA’s budget entirely. But the prestigious alumni, and artists from far afield like writers Dave Eggers and Sarah Vowell, lobbied hard to save it. While I was in New Orleans, NOCCA began a new school year with $1 million shaved off its US$5-million budget, and half its faculty gone. But enrolment is back up to 85 per cent. One of the school’s patriarchs, the fine old jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste, showed up with an opera this summer he wrote in his temporary digs, a FEMA trailer parked on his front lawn.

Gary Alan Wood, the school’s president and CEO, showed me around the extraordinary facility, a refurbished Civil War-era cotton mill. “We need success in New Orleans,” he told me. “We need to give kids a home. Every time a restaurant or a museum reopened after Katrina, as a local I can’t tell you what kind of hope that gives you—‘Thank God there’s something else that’s open.’ I made the case to the legislature that NOCCA needs to be up and running for hope.”

A year after the levees broke, with half the city gone and the other coming back in ways that may yet turn out to be unmanageable, you take your hope where you can get it. M