As a New Orleans native — born and raised there — I’ve been reading the coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s second anniversary today.
Next week we’ll be taking our third trip to New Orleans since Katrina — and it doesn’t sound like we’ll see many signs of progress in the Crescent City. Most of the anniversary news coverage focuses on the botched job of recovery by the federal government, the state and city governments; the still inadequate levees, the wasted millions spent on temporary trailers, the widespread bribery and corruption — from contracts to politicians, the dearth of city services and health services, the ever-escalating crime.
Most of the personal stories have focused on the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, where the vast majority of the displaced population were working-class African-Americans. Some articles have featured St. Bernard Parish, whose residents were primarily working-class whites, and where miles of houses now stand empty after 15-foot flooding.
Other features focus on the uniqueness of New Orleans — its music, its traditions, its architecture — and how Katrina has disrupted or destroyed large segments of that culture and those places.
But what most articles don’t capture is that Katrina and its aftermath have disrupted just about every New Orleans family. Louisiana — and New Orleans — is unique in residents’ reliance on their families, and their extended families, living in close proximity. According to the 2000 Census, 79 percent of the state’s population were born in Louisiana. That figure is extraordinarily high compared to other states. Maryland, for example, has slightly less than half of its population born there, while for Virginia, that figure is a bit more than half — 51.9 percent.
In New Orleans, too, with the exception of the French Quarter and the University areas, most people who were born there stayed there. To many, New Orleans wasn’t only the best place in the world, it was the only place. If they went to college, most stuck close to home or in the state. And when they got married or moved away from home, they bought or rented a house close to Mama’s. The extended family was vast — it extended to cousins of cousins. And those relationships were intertwined in the neighborhoods. A next-door neighbor might be married to your father’s first-cousin — they would be part of the family too. Every family had its comic and tragic characters as vivid and outrageous as those in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. (I was sure Toole had met my Aunt Rita.)
Katrina wrenched apart those close ties of families and neighborhoods — whether in the Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview, Uptown, Broadmoor, Downtown, Gentilly. Some sections are more physically intact than others, that’s true, but post-Katrina dispersal occurred not just for housing, but for jobs, for children’s education, for better services.
Those ties created both an enormous strength — and a fatal weakness — for New Orleans and its citizens. That provincialism in the sense of localism meant that needed changes usually didn’t happen because there was no comparison to other places that were moving ahead. New industries and new jobs weren’t coming in — for many reasons. So there were fewer newcomers to bring new vitality to the area. Those close ties also contributed to corruption — somebody in the family always knew somebody who could help you get something done — as a favor or at a price.
I’m still hopeful for the resurgence of New Orleans as a viable though smaller city. But when I think about my hometown, I don’t focus on the French Quarter or even the jazz and the blues, or the architecture. Those elements I’m sure will be preserved. It’s the families and the neighborhoods that never ever will be the same.