A Beautiful Wreck: New Orleans Nine Months Later

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
3 July 2006

By Dr. Sandy A. Johnson : Guest Editorial

pen5It is now late June, nine months and counting since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast of the United States. The storm laid waste to 90,000 square miles of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (an area about equivalent to the United Kingdoms, or North and South Korea combined, or an area only slightly smaller than the state of Oregon). At last count, more than 1,600 Katrina-related deaths were reported with 1,296 people killed in Louisiana. Three hundred thousand homes were destroyed or made uninhabitable, and hundreds of square miles of infrastructure were lost (Dept. of Homeland Security, 2006). All that remains of small Gulf Coast towns are ribcages of pilings and blackened, dying trees.

french_quarterThe great City of New Orleans is but a shadow of its former self. Of the city’s pre-storm population, less than half have returned. Those who are here live a schizophrenic existence of pride in their survival, hope of rebuilding, and sorrow at the utter devastation which surrounds them. The exiled await answers and some certainty before deciding when, or if, to return. There are a few densely occupied and relatively undamaged areas of the city. Among these areas are the historic French Quarter and Garden District. A short walk or drive away from these places, however, reveals a ghost town of empty buildings and broken cars still covered with dust from the mud and sludge which the storm washed over 80% of the city. Many lives and livelihoods are in limbo. The future is as precarious as the geography, with both city and state dependant upon the largess of the federal government to assist in reconstruction and fortification of a failed levee system and eroding wetlands. Since returning to my home, I have visited the destroyed, the reborn, and the haunts that never went away, and revisited to witness the progress, or lack thereof. With the 2006 hurricane season upon us, the future of the city hangs on a levee’s edge.

It was somewhere between Jackson Avenue and Melpomene Avenue, riverside of St. Charles in the Lower Garden District that I found a house which has become my signpost for New Orleans ëbefore’ and ëafter’ Katrina ñ or ëpre-K’ and ëpost-K’ in the vernacular. It is a rambling and ramshackled three-storied beauty. Like the city it is in, this house has a history. In the pre-K era, the peeling paint and benign neglect added character. Tourists devoured it. The charm, the culture, the history. The locals took pride in this history, in the unique architecture and flavor of New Orleans . But locals also understood that beneath the quaintly crumbling exterior lay real problems of poverty, neglect and mistrust. This is the house of our hopes and our fears, of our past and our present as we struggle with questions, uncertainties, representation, leadership and policy surrounding the reconstruction of our city.

The wooden exterior of this house is an alligator-skin pattern of flaking white paint and mildewed wood. When you look at it, you are not quite sure when the decrepitude began. Was it left in ruin before the storm, or is it so badly off now because of the storm? Was it abandoned and neglected, fallen into hard times in a hothouse of humidity and carelessness? Or was it beaten down by a disaster?

Had there not been a Katrina would anyone besides the next-door neighbor care about this house? Would I look at this beautiful wreck and be outraged that nine months after the storm it is still a wreck? Would you read about this wreck, many miles away from its shadow, and care? Care why it is where it is? Care about the people who may or may not have contributed to its decay? Decried the use of your tax dollars to repair it? Or decried the use of your tax dollars in Iraq instead of fixing this wreck?

And then how shall we fix it? Shall we demolish it and start from scratch? Rely on engineering and science to make this wreck into the bionic building? Better, stronger and safer than ever it was? Will we demolish it and let the swamp have it back? Admit our folly and false reliance upon our own cleverness to contain and control nature with levees?

Will we subdivide this house it in the interest of diversity? Or will we see if the owner has insurance and then allow her to stay? But what if the original occupant wants to come back, and has no insurance? Do we let him? But what if he was renting, or worse, was renting and has a criminal record? Should we not allow him to come back to his home? Should we make a space for him, or just for those who own? Those who are not “that element” whoever “that element” actually is?

Should we only let those with gainful employment into this wreck? Or should it be families? But if it is families, what do we do about schools? Or healthcare? How do we make sure there is economic opportunity? How do we make sure they are safe? If we chose not to build the bionic building, is a return to how things were before the storm good enough? Do we build a future at the cost of our past? Or hold to the past and jeopardize our future?

And how should we decide what to do with this wreck? Should we ask the experts? But what if they are ënot from around here’? Do we want outsiders telling us what to do with our wreck? And aren’t the experts the ones who got us into trouble in the first place? Maybe we should just ask the locals ñ oh wait, not everyone is back here yet to decide. Shall we then just listen to those who have been able to return? Should their voice count more than those who are not yet back? How long should one be away before she loses the right to have a voice in rebuilding? Should we even care about those who have abandoned the city?

Yes. Here, between Jackson and Melpomene, riverside of St. Charles in the Lower Garden District stands this house. Over one room the roof is collapsing. Other parts of the crown are bald ñ the slate blown away or fallen off. Porch steps sag, and the portico is anything but inviting. Was it this way before the storm? Maybe. Should it be left this way, abandoned to its own past?

wreck3Before answering, look closer. A lace curtain is drawn across a second-floor window. Behind the curtain, frames are piled against a wall. There is a wicker chair. A mirror. Cardboard boxes and a stray hat. These belie the forsaken façade of the house. This wreck may have stood abandoned for years, or may still be home and haven. The glimpse through the window suggests memories and life. The house itself is redolent with the decay of experience. Like the city, whether the house is living or dying is not certain. Time, elections and elected officials, policy and practice will ultimately determine its fate. But for now, it is there. The beautiful wreck stands.

Department of Homeland Security. 2006. The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned. Report submitted February 23, 2006. Available on-line http://www.whitehouse.gov/reports/katrina-lessons-learned.pdf. Accessed May 12, 2006.

–Sandy A. Johnson, sandy_a_johnson@hotmail.com

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