New Orleans marks 10 years after Katrina with music, remembrance

30 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Hurricane Katrina and the tyranny of magical thinking.

NEW ORLEANS — Mississippi and Louisiana marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Saturday by ringing church bells, laying wreaths and celebrating the resiliency of a region still recovering from a disaster that killed more than 1,800 people and caused $151 billion in damage. Addressing dignitaries at New Orleans’ memorial to the unclaimed and unidentified dead, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke of the dark days after the monstrous storm and how the city’s residents leaned on each other for support.

Community members gathered in the Lower Ninth Ward, the area hardest hit by the storm, which has not been fully restored in the decade following Katrina. Eloise Allen, 80, wept softly into a tissue and leaned against her rusting Oldsmobile as bells chimed at Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church just across a two-lane street from a sun-drenched beach at Bay St. In the lead-up to the anniversary, urban planners, politicians and community leaders spoke at panels to discuss the storm, its aftermath and how it will impact the future of the city. Governor Jindal, a Republican presidential hopeful, had written a letter to Obama ahead of the event asking him to not mention climate change in his remarks. He said more than 954,000 volunteers came from around the country to Mississippi in the first five years after the storm, and many were motivated by faith.

A third president, Bill Clinton, was scheduled to speak later on Saturday at an event called the Power of Community, meant to commemorate the city’s resilience. Katrina’s force caused a massive storm surge that scoured the Mississippi coast, pushed boats far inland and wiped houses off the map, leaving only concrete front steps to nowhere. In spite of the dozens of events planned for the weekend, local newspaper the Times-Picayune said that just after 11am, the most read story on its website was: “Things to do in New Orleans Saturday that have nothing to do with Katrina.” Former governor Haley Barbour, who was in office when Katrina struck, spoke at a prayer service in Gulfport.

In a series of events in the week leading up to the actual anniversary, the city has held lectures, given tours of the levee improvements and released a resiliency plan. I was a freshman at Tulane University — mere weeks removed from an orderly, natural disaster-free life in my home city of Boston — too dumb and naïve to know I should have been terrified. After several speeches, a parade snaked through the neighborhood while music played from boom boxes and people sold water from ice chests under the hot sun. Sure enough, just like countless storms before it, Georges veered to the east at the zero hour, saving the worst of its wrath for those foolish enough to live in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

In addition to the former president the event will feature performances by the city’s “Rebirth Brass Band,” award-winning journalist Soledad O’Brien and Chief Monk Boudreaux and the Wild Magnolias. Both lamented federal and state inaction to prevent what was known to be one of the likeliest and potentially deadliest disasters to hit the United States — an earthquake in San Francisco or a terrorist attack in New York being the others. It was easier (and cheaper) to believe that New Orleans was divinely touched than it was to fix its aging levees or its eroding wetland storm buffers. Ten years after Katrina, it’s imperative to remember most of the devastation New Orleans endured was no “natural” disaster: It was a preventable tragedy. I remember the first night I spent in the French Quarter like it was yesterday: underage, walking down Bourbon Street with a particularly boozy hurricane cocktail in hand, every saccharine sip endowing me with a taste of freedom I had never known.

After hours of wandering in and out of bars, my friends and I, music ringing in our ears, eventually stopped to watch a group of 8-year-old African American boys with bottle caps stuck to the bottoms of their shoes, tap-dancing for change (a common sight in those days, less so now). Like its shoddy levees, New Orleans’ social inequality was born of conscious neglect, and generations of primarily African American youth were sacrificed to the poisonous notion that their charming desperation was as an invaluable ingredient as jazz to the city’s cultural stew.

Hollywood has arrived in force, with massive production budgets in tow, and a new generation of young outsiders has stormed the remaining stock of shotgun houses that Katrina failed to destroy. That said, after 10 years of honest soul-searching, it’s hard not to suspect a new layer of magical varnish is beginning to gloss over New Orleans’ enduring frailties. Its new armaments are stronger than they were in the run-up to Katrina, but they are built to withstand only a 1-in-100-year storm (Katrina was a 1 in 150).

Without massive coastal restoration, that level of protection likely will erode even further as Louisiana’s coastal wetlands dissolve into the Gulf of Mexico. Violent crime is up, and despite earnest attempts at reform, the city’s crushing poverty has been pushed further to the margins by a wave of gentrification.

Is America willing to spend the $50 billion it will take to restore south Louisiana’s wetlands and further arm New Orleans’ flood-protection infrastructure? Protecting against the magical thinking that left the city naked and exposed to a deadly hurricane strike and allowed generations of its citizens to stagnate in poverty — that’s the real monumental task ahead.

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