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
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A

"Remembering Katrina," 2007Most of the schools in New Orleans are now privatized. Fans of charter schools have rushed to proclaim their success in turning around a failing school system. Research on Reforms, a watchdog organization that analyzes the reported progress of New Orleans public schools, takes a dim view of the claims of success: “Despite the ‘achievement gains’ reported during the past nine years by the ardent supporters of this ‘reform’ movement, the RSD-­NO still performs below the vast majority of the other districts at the 4th and 8th grades on LEAP [the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program].”

The New Orleans charter­-school system, made possible by Hurricane Katrina, is often cited as a model to be emulated by school systems around the nation. But rather than rush to follow us, the nation would be wise to first determine if we are going in the right direction.

When I moved back to New Orleans in 1991, after a ten­-year absence, I wanted to live in an old New Orleans neighborhood. A friend who lived in the French Quarter told me, “There are ten reasons not to live here, and seven of them revolve around parking.” So I moved to Faubourg Tremé, a neighborhood that looks like New Orleans, with its Creole cottages; feels like New Orleans, with its houses close to each other and close to the street; and sounds like New Orleans, with its street parades and neighbors talking loudly on their porches. My house is two blocks from the French Quarter, and before the Katrina influx, the only time I had trouble parking directly in front of my door was during Carnival season and on the occasional night when there was a particularly big event in the French Quarter. These days, I often have to park down the street or around the corner.

New Orleans has seen an explosion in the population of immigrants from Latin America, many of whom were recruited from as far away as Brazil to do cleanup work after the flood. These workers were necessary because the government that had flown New Orleanians off rooftops and out of the state didn’t have any interest in flying them back to clean up their own city. But it is not the immigrants from Honduras or Guatemala that are taking up the parking spaces. For Tremé residents in search of parking, and everyday New Orleanians in search of normalcy, the great adversary has been the swarms of hipsters that have descended on our city.

Rather than rush to follow us, the nation would be wise to first determine if we are going in the right direction

For millennials, volunteering in postdiluvian New Orleans was like a domestic Peace Corps. It was hot, faraway, and foreign. But it had cell phones, air conditioners, cable TV, and English­ speaking residents. YURPs — young urban rebuilding professionals — came in droves. Many stayed. And why not? The city has always held a certain bohemian attraction.

Contrary to popular myth, New Orleans has never been entirely insular. Many natives and most politicians would gladly bulldoze a historic neighborhood for the promise of a new Walmart or water park. Many New Orleans chefs and musicians continue to cook red beans and play “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but restaurants like Commander’s Palace have always looked beyond the Creole canon for culinary inspiration, and Ellis Marsalis’s first album was, among other things, a modernist tour of time signatures. We dutifully ripped out most of our streetcar tracks like all the other modern American cities, making way for the exhaust fumes of city buses. If you go to a Saints or Pelicans game, you’ll hear the same rock anthems that they play at every other sporting event in the country. We are not unaffected by the national culture.

But for the natives and immigrants who have found “their” New Orleans among the many cultures, places, and possibilities of the city, there is a fear that the new immigrants will change the city, will make it Brooklyn or San Francisco or one of the many urban American areas where gentrification has moved out all the working­-class (read “black”) residents. If it were not for the influence of our West African and Haitian ancestors, New Orleans culture would be a pale, bland approximation of its greatness.But many of these descendants are being forced out as rents increase and as the city continues its policy of bulldozing historic buildings rather than renovating them.

Land of Opportunity, a 2010 documentary by Luisa Dantas '03SOA about the rebuilding and gentrification of New Orleans, carries the tag line, “Happening to a city near you.” Sure enough, the 2009 New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival featured Some Place Like Home, a film about the gentrification of Downtown Brooklyn, which, due to our own influx of these same East Coast trend chasers, is suddenly a city nearer to us than ever.

If it were not for the influence of our West African and Haitian ancestors, New Orleans culture would be a pale, bland approximation of its greatness.

Post-­Katrina émigrés were not the first wave of Americans to my city. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Americans flocked here to make New Orleans the great economic engine that Napoleon had only dreamed about. They sought to systematically destroy Francophone New Orleans and the antebellum black middle class as steps toward making the city the hub for cotton, sugar, and other trade goods. Fast­-forward to 1857. The Mistick Krewe of Comus, the first of the city’s Carnival parade crews, is formed, thus giving birth to the city’s modern Mardi Gras celebration. But these founders were not native New Orleanians. They were Americans who had come to the Creole city. Ironically, these immigrants, rather than Americanizing New Orleans, were Creolized by it. There is hope for the city, in that there is hope that the power of our culture can turn these American hipsters into New Orleanians.

As for the Latino immigrants, there is promise there as well. When you read books about Creole cuisine, often the authors, dilettante historians at best, refer to the “Spanish” influence on our food. It took me a while to realize that Spain, in the 1700s and 1800s, included those Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. Much like the Haitians who provided our city with its last influx of Francophone culture after their revolution, I hope that the Hispanophone immigrants from the south — our South — can reinvigorate our connection to those other places from which our ancestors came.

What the nation wants more than anything from the tenth anniversary of the levee failures is closure. America would like to take a minute to reflect on the challenge of Katrina and the imperfect initial response. Then we’d like to sing a long congratulatory chorus, celebrating the triumph of American gumption over horrific circumstances. The politicians and businessmen boast that they have achieved this kind of closure. They are not entirely wrong. There has been a lot of verifiable progress in the past few years. New construction. New residents. New hope.

But I feel like a character in Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. I know what the nation wants to hear, what the nation needs to hear, but I find myself incapable of saying the words. For if the disaster of the levee failures was a disaster felt most acutely by our poorest residents, then an evaluation of our success or failure must, of necessity, evaluate the post­-Katrina condition of these very residents. But the poor were generally left out of our recovery schemes. The state’s Road Home program was designed to assist homeowners in their effort to rebuild and return to the city. It even helped owners of rental properties. Yet it made no provisions for the renters themselves.

If you drive the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, the poster child for the Katrina disaster, many blocks look as if it has been ten months, not ten years, since the catastrophe. As for all the people the government flew out of the city in the weeks after the flood, many have returned — some have not — but there’s no accurate count. The 2010 census didn’t even ask if you were a Katrina evacuee stranded away from home.

While the flood­-protection system is stronger now than ever, it’s still not capable of handling a Category 5 storm. Coastal erosion continues virtually unabated. According to Restore Louisiana Now, it could cost $100 billion to save our coast. The state’s entire budget for fiscal year 2014 was $24.7 billion.

I can’t offer closure. I can offer lessons.

I know. You’d rather have closure.

Lolis Eric Elie ’86JRN was a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees failed. A native of the city and a former story editor for HBO’s Tremé, Elie co-produced the documentary Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans. He is a contributing writer to the Oxford American.

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (57)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time