It would be uplifting to write today of how the brave people of New Orleans will come together and help each other after Hurricane Katrina—and of course many are doing just that. Volunteers are navigating their boats around downed power lines and burbling gas mains to rescue fellow citizens still hanging onto rooftops in the water. Even as floodwaters still engulf the city, evacuees eagerly seek to return and rebuild their storied city—though they may not be able to do so for months.
But to anticipate what the city must go through now, after damming up its broken levees and pumping the floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain, is heartbreaking. No American city has ever gone through what New Orleans must go through: the complete (if temporary) flight of its most affluent and capable citizens, followed by social breakdown among those left behind, after which must come the total reconstruction of economic and physical infrastructure by a devastated populace.
And the locals and outsiders who try to help New Orleans in the weeks and months to come will do so with no local institutional infrastructure to back them up. New Orleans has no real competent government or civil infrastructure—and no aggressive media or organized citizens’ groups to prod public officials in the right direction during what will be, in the best-case scenario, a painstaking path to normalcy.
The truth is that even on a normal day, New Orleans is a sad city. Sure, tourists think New Orleans is fun: you can drink and hop from strip club to strip club all night on Bourbon Street, and gamble all your money away at Harrah’s. But the city’s decline over the past three decades has left it impoverished and lacking the resources to build its economy from within. New Orleans can’t take care of itself even when it is not 80 percent underwater; what is it going to do now, as waters continue to cripple it, and thousands of looters systematically destroy what Katrina left unscathed?
A city blessed with robust, professional police and fire forces, with capable government leaders, an informed citizenry, and a relatively resilient economy can overcome catastrophe, but it doesn’t emerge stronger: look at New York after 9/11. The richest big city in the country in more ways than one mustered every ounce of energy to clean up after 9/11 and to rebuild its economy and its downtown—but even so, competing special interests overcame citizens’ and officials’ best intentions. Ground Zero remains a hole, and New York, for all its resources, finds itself diminished, physically and economically, four years on.
In New Orleans, the recovery will be much, much harder. The city’s government has long suffered from incompetence and corruption. Just weeks before Katrina, federal officials indicted associates of the former mayor, Marc Morial, for alleged kickbacks and contract fraud. Morial did nothing to attract diversified private investment to his impoverished city during the greatest economic boom of the modern era.
The current mayor, Ray Nagin, can’t help but be an improvement. A former cable executive, Nagin ran for office pledging to spur economic growth in New Orleans. He deserves our support now, but in his three years in office, he has made no perceptible progress in diversifying New Orleans’ economy. On television this week, the mayor has shown no clear inclination to take charge and direct post-Katrina rescue and recovery efforts for his population, as Mayor Giuliani did in New York on and after 9/11.
Thousands of opportunistic vultures have looted stores all over the city, and shot in the head one police officer who tried to stop them. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has posted photos on its website of other police officers joining in the widespread theft from unattended stores. Looters have picked clean Wal-Mart’s gun department downtown. This anarchy is regrettably not all that surprising. Disaster does not make a weak peacetime civil and social infrastructure strong. Unfortunately, New Orleans must now ask for deserved billions in recovery money even as Americans see images of a city that loots itself on its worst day.
New Orleans teems with crime, and the NOPD can’t keep order on a good day. Former commissioner Richard Pennington brought New Orleans’ crime rate down from its peak during the mid-1990s. But since Pennington’s departure, crime rates have soared, to ten times the national average. The NOPD might have hundreds of decent officers, but it has a well-deserved institutional image as corrupt, brutal, and incompetent.
How will New Orleans’ economy recover from Katrina? Apart from some pass-through oil infrastructure, the city’s economy is utterly dependent on tourism. After the city’s mainstay oil industry decamped to Texas nearly a generation ago, New Orleans didn’t do the difficult work of cutting crime, educating illiterate citizens, and attracting new industries to the city. New Orleans became merely a convention and tourism economy, selling itself to visitors to survive, and over time it has only increased its economic dependence on outsiders. The fateful error of that strategy will become clearer in the next few months.
Sure, the feds must provide cash and resources for relief and recovery—but it’s up to New Orleans, not the feds, to dig deep within itself to rebuild its economic and social infrastructure before the tourists ever will flock back to pump cash into the city’s economy. It will take a miracle. New Orleans has experienced a steady brain drain and fiscal drain for decades, as affluent corporations and individuals have fled, leaving behind a large population of people dependent on the government. Socially, New Orleans is one of America’s last helpless cities—just at the moment when it must do all it can to help itself survive.
Mayor Nagin is no doubt in shock, like everyone else. In a perfect world, this would be no time to criticize his performance. But it’s now that the eyes of the country are on him, and it’s now that he must take charge, to counter the indelible images marauding looters have already stamped on a deluged city. Nagin must stop making comments like this: “We’re not even dealing with dead bodies. They're just pushing them on the side.” He must recover himself and vow publicly, over and over, to mourn the dead, to recover his city from the waters, and to rebuild as quickly as is humanly possible. He must not waver, or a priceless city will be borne by the waters into Newark, 1967.