FEATURE

After the Deluge

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has attracted a flood of people, money, and attention. But is the Big Easy really better off? One writer reflects on the future of his city.

by Lolis Eric Elie Published Spring 2015
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"Contemplation: Yesterday, Today," 2005 / Artwork by Willie Birch / Courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery

The streets were quiet then. Few people. No dogs.

More random wandering chickens than ever, though.

There was a curfew, but there weren’t enough cops around to enforce it.

Still, there was that vague feeling that you could be pulled over while following your headlights through the stench of receded floodwaters and dead things, en route to a nighttime gathering of the “huddled masses,” as one friend called the guests at her post­-K potluck suppers.

We happy few.

We believed then and ever in New Orleans as a special place. We who had houses and jobs and means felt we had to hold the ground until the rest of our people could make it back home to join the fray.

There were lots of meetings then.

There were official white-­collar meetings of experts and politicians and financiers. We watched those mostly from the cheap seats. Then there were the meetings we held among ourselves, plotting strategy to combat the Disneyfication and diminishment of our city, which is what we were certain the experts and politicians and financiers were plotting to thrust upon us.

In the winter of 2006, Loyola University held a series of forums on post­-Katrina New Orleans. I sat on a panel with John Biguenet ’03CC, the poet and playwright. “The great enemy of New Orleans culture is American culture,” he said. In other words, our brass bands, Creole architecture, and neighborhood restaurants are at war with pop music, mirrored-­glass condos, and Happy Meals.

"Going Home," 2006

Oh, what a rallying cry that statement was for us who felt so abused and abandoned by the greater nation. New Orleans was different from America! Better than America! If the United States can boast of its God­-ordained exceptionalism, then certainly my proud city­-state can do likewise. “Buy us back, Chirac!” proclaimed the Krewe du Vieux in that first Mardi Gras season after the federal levees failed. The national media didn’t necessarily buy into the superiority part, but they expended much ink and airtime explaining how different we were from America proper: how much poorer, how much blacker, how much — how shall I put this? More quaint? Less sophisticated? Less modern?

I’ve quoted Biguenet’s statement often. But even as I write this, my old understanding of what happened to us on August 29, 2005, is giving way to a new view, a view less exceptional. We New Orleanians have our own ways and rituals, but, alas, our situation was and is American — all too American.

The failure of the federal levees during Hurricane Katrina was the worst disaster to hit my city since the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld segregation under the doctrine of “separate but equal.” But to relegate the flood­-related events and their aftermath to the corner of the national memory reserved for those rare, outlying exceptions is to do a great disservice to the country. For as has flooded New Orleans, so has flooded the nation.


Growing up, we never evacuated during storms.

"After the Storm," 2007I wrote that in my Times­-Picayune column in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Cindy, roughly two months before Katrina hit. After reading those remarks, Sidney Fauria, a coastal­-oceanographer friend, showed me what had changed. Driving through St. Bernard Parish, an area that borders both the city of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, I saw the coastal erosion. Wetlands and cypress swamps had given way to dying tree stumps and open ocean. Hurricanes gain strength over water and lose strength over land. The ocean’s encroachment is a major factor in the increasing strength of hurricanes in recent years and the increasing vulnerability of coastal and even inland populations. Since 1932, Louisiana has lost an area of land roughly the size of Delaware. The land that remains continues to erode.

And then there are the petroleum and pipeline companies. In 2013, one of the levee boards charged with overseeing flood protection in much of coastal Louisiana sued ninety­-seven of them, charging that they had failed to repair the damage done by the canals they had dredged for their oil pipelines. Those canals allow salt water to creep in and destroy the vegetation that holds the land together. A federal judge threw out the lawsuit earlier this year. It is being appealed, but whatever the outcome, it’s clear that Louisiana is vanishing into the Gulf of Mexico. Add to that rising sea levels, which result from global warming and the melting of the glaciers. These factors leave Louisiana particularly at risk, but we are not alone.

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