Thursday, September 01, 2005

Michael: The Death of New Orleans

I'm not a spiritual person, but tonight I am going to say a prayer for the soul of New Orleans. A great American city is dying, and may never return to its former self. Beyond the tragedy that has befallen each individual, a tragedy has befallen the community that was New Orleans. That community languishes on its death bed as I write.

One certainly cannot tell the scope and seriousness of the disaster that has befallen Louisiana and the other Gulf Coast areas hardest hit by Katrina from anything Bush has said. His callow platitudes, constant referents to local solutions and private charity, boviating lists of trivialities, and reluctance to fully commit the Federal government to complete recovery efforts stink of the indifference born of the absence of any personal experience of suffering or tragedy. Or maybe he's just utterly insensitive to the suffering of others.

The incomprehensible scale of the tragedy may somewhat excuse Bush's ignorance of the horrible hardships that people displaced by the flooding now face. Americans have never experienced this sort of utter destitution on our own soil. Our citizens are now the victims of the tsunami for whom we poured our compassion. The sort of tragedy that regularly visits Bangladesh has come calling. It is difficult to absorb the full ramifications of such an event.

Consider that it will be months before people can begin to re-inhabit the city. Even when the floodwaters have been pumped out or receded, the city will be largely uninhabitable. New Orleans is swiftly becoming the largest toxic waste dump in the world. A senior analyst at the EPA said of the toxic gumbo now filling New Orleans, "there is not enough money in the gross national product of the United States to dispose of the amount of hazardous material in the area." Lax enforcement of the already lax regulation of the chemical industry of the region has turned loose the Superfund site to dwarf all Superfund sites. Much of New Orleans may be unfit for human habitation for a generation or more.

New Orleans' economic base is dying, if not already dead. The people who lived there face the prospect of months, possibly years, before they can return. In the mean time, their livelihoods have been wiped out along with their businesses and their places of work. They will be forced to relocate in order to make a living. Experience with this sort of total flood loss indicates that most will not move back to rebuild when the insurance money comes - if it ever does.

Surely there will always be a New Orleans, but it will never be as it was again. Bush's flip assurance that people will rebuild even if it takes years is simply wrong. Many won't rebuild. Without significant and extraordinary aid to those made refugees in their own land, most haven't the means.

The robust and funky Euro-Carribean port city of sin that we once loved from afar will be ghostly echo of its former self. The inter-generational threads of continuity that are the soul of a community will be attenuated, if not broken. People will leave in droves, many never to return. The community of New Orleans will be a memory, not a living thing. America is going to have to come to terms with the unwelcome experience of the sudden death of an entire civic community.

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