Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Katrina the Killer

To compensate for my flippant reference to the hurricane a couple of days ago.

My heart goes out to all the victims of the storm, but the news from New Orleans is giving me particular feelings of melancholy. The wind and rain subsided, the sun peeked out, the harm seemed manageable--then instead of ebbing, the waters kept rising. Everything about New Orleans is unique, including the geometry, and the geometry dealt a cruel blow. I'm afraid that irreplaceable city is lost; for certain, it'll never be whole again in my lifetime.

I spent a pretty fair amount of time in New Orleans as a young man. I went to Mardi Gras, I went to Jazz Fest, I ate wonderful food and drank strong drink and listened to Dixieland jazz and gawked at Bourbon Street strippers. Also, I had the car I was riding in broken into, on two separate occasions, and had some other scary or unsettling experiences there. I'm not complaining; I have some decent stories to tell, and my memories are mostly good and altogether real. It was a great thing to explore the city alone, not knowing many people or having much money, not having resources to ensure my comfort and convenience.

Even though I spent the majority of my time in the French Quarter and Garden District, I knew of the disparity between the tourist areas and the neighborhoods where most people lived. I knew how corrupt city politics were, how bad many of the streets were, how impossible it seemed for basic things to get done in New Orleans. So I'm not shocked at the "demographics of disaster" that the news reports are making clear. New Orleans has Old World charm, along with Third World inefficiency and passivity.

Katrina is worse than 9/11, Daily Kos posted. Perhaps it is. Even if the mayor of New Orleans is mistaken in his fears that thousands are dead there. I'd had the thought earlier today (what a terrible day) that the death of about 1,000 Shi'a pilgrims in Baghdad was worse than 9/11--both events were the result of terrorism, and proportional to the population of the country, today's loss of life in Iraq is worse. But what does it mean to compare that act of terrorism (9/11) with this natural disaster?

9/11 was more shocking--a more unprecedented kind of event, and utterly out of the blue. It was more insulting, a malicious attack by a fairly small group of people. They say "everything changed" that day. Certainly, a huge reservoir of American outrage, anger, and wounded pride was created. And the attacks were so (forgive the word) spectacular; visually unforgettable; destruction raining down from a clear blue sky, on live national TV, leaving such a dramatic gap in America's most familiar skyline.

Katrina may be less sharp a pain, but may be more debilitating. Al Qaeda struck at obvious symbols of our strength: financial and military. Katrina hit us in --I don't know, the analogy is breaking down; part of me says "gonads" and part of me says "soul." We lost the home of Louis Armstrong and Blanche DuBois. 9/11 destroyed a great monument that jutted up into the sky. Katrina destroyed countless low-lying features: row houses, causeways, levees, fishing piers. Whole Gulf Coast communities are simply gone.

Economically, losing a couple of well-known office buildings may wind up hurting much, much less than losing refineries and offshore oil rigs. As much fuss as there's been over how to rebuild Ground Zero, it may be more wrenching to rethink land use policy in large areas where the map has been erased. Middle-class folks are well aware of inconvenience at all our airports, but that may pale in comparison to total calamity at one major seaport.

Has "everything changed" due to Katrina? Due to the suffering of a lot of mostly poor folks in the Deep South? Though all of us will probably suffer at the gas pump, and who knows what all the ripple effects will be.

Ah, shit, I can't write anymore. Katrina was big. And bad.

No comments: