Why are we still so angry? Even sympathetic newcomers can’t quite figure out why we New Orleanians are not over it a decade later. But it’s not just anger we feel. It’s also a profound and abiding sense of loss.
I’m not talking about the things that were washed away. Like most others here, my wife, Marsha, and I lost a great deal: 2,500 books, countless mementos of our kids’ childhood, a treasured recipe for rice pudding given to us as a wedding present and, of course, a car, furniture, clothing – just about everything.
But we count ourselves lucky. No family members died. Homeless at first, sleeping in a day care center, where I wrote a series of eyewitness columns for The New York Times, we still had our jobs at least. We were able to gut and rebuild our home. We were able to stay in New Orleans. So it’s hard to explain it to newcomers, to outsiders, our anger and our sorrow.
To be fair to them, I have to admit it’s difficult to grasp the immensity of what happened here. The area flooded was seven times the size of Manhattan. If an equivalent catastrophe had struck New York in 2005, about 24,000 people would have died as they awaited help that did not come for a week. Nearly 7 million of its 8 million citizens would have spent the next year scattered elsewhere in the country. More than 2 million New Yorkers would never have returned. It’s almost inconceivable, isn’t it? But that’s what happened to us.
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But it didn’t just happen to us. Our disaster was man-made. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally admitted nearly a year later, its own negligence and incompetence were responsible for the flooding of the city. Despite that admission, the corps relied on the legal immunity Congress had provided it to evade all financial judgments.
That left us at the mercy of bottom-line insurance companies and the largesse of the federal government. Unfortunately, the government in 2005 was led by individuals who objected to the costs of rebuilding an entire city and who seemed intent on writing off New Orleans. Only days after the storm, the Republican speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert, summarized the prevailing attitude of his party: “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”
So perhaps it’s understandable why the anger of many New Orleanians continues to simmer. Yes, maybe we should have moved on by now. Everyone encourages us to put the levee breaches and their aftermath behind us. As we’re frequently reminded, it’s been 10 years, after all.
But when you still can’t get from one end of your neighborhood to the other – as in Lakeview, for example, where I live – because streets continue to collapse from the saltwater that flooded the area for weeks, eroding the earth beneath them and the infrastructure buried there, it didn’t just happen 10 years ago. It happened this morning. And like so much else here in what’s left of New Orleans, it keeps happening, day after day.
Having returned to a sweltering house five weeks after the levees collapsed, I dragged a ruined refrigerator gushing a fetid mix of floodwater and decomposed food from our kitchen to the front door while Marsha walked behind me dumping undiluted bleach from gallon jugs onto the floor to stanch the stench. So now every time we leave town for more than a day or two, we empty our refrigerator of everything perishable.
Before we had even entered our house that first day back, we were confronted by what looked like snow strewn across our lawn. Only as it crunched beneath our feet did we realize it was salt from the water that had slowly evaporated. Most of the garden we now cultivate is marsh plants, like irises, that can tolerate our salted earth. To grow vegetables, we have a raised bed.
Downstairs in our house, we still haven’t hung any paintings even though we promise each other every year that, as soon as hurricane season is over, we really are going to put up a few pictures.
There is also a new financial reality that refuses to go away. I’ve never let myself calculate how much money the collapse of the levees cost us. But when my homeowner’s insurance bill arrives each year, I’m reminded that insurance for my house tripled after the flood while my deductible increased from $500 to nearly $13,000.
Still visible today on the outside of my parents’ former home is a fading X spray-painted by soldiers who broke through the roof of their two-story house searching for the dead. A zero in one quadrant confirms that no bodies were found. In the top quadrant of the X is the date: 9/11. That X is painted beneath my sister’s old bedroom window – on the second floor of the house. Nearly two weeks after the levees collapsed, the water was still at least 10 feet deep there. The soldiers had come in a boat. Such markings still tattoo walls throughout the city.
And every day, just a few blocks from my home, I pass houses where New Orleanians drowned in their bedrooms or died of dehydration trapped in their attics.
Boosters like to point out that New Orleans is younger and wealthier than it used to be. But it’s a younger city, at least in part, because with home repairs beyond the means of those on fixed incomes and with drastically reduced medical care available to those suffering from chronic conditions, few of the elderly were able to return. And if it’s wealthier, that is much more a result of the poor being dispossessed than millionaires moving to town.
Some quietly add a third difference to “younger and wealthier”: whiter. New Orleans is home to 100,000 fewer African-American residents than before the flood. For those still here, poverty has worsened, with annual median household incomes 54 percent lower than those of white families – and 20 percent lower than black households nationally. Not surprisingly, black neighborhoods have been much slower than white ones to rebuild.
From the time of the city’s founding, African-Americans have played a defining role in shaping the culture of New Orleans, a culture cherished by locals and envied by the millions of visitors a year who flock to the Big Easy. With the percentage of black New Orleanians declining, the city is undergoing a fundamental change.
So for better and worse, we live in a new New Orleans. In the past, when locals worried that an influx of new arrivals would change the city, I always reminded them that people don’t change New Orleans – New Orleans changes people. But with the cultural memory of the elderly lost, with the post-flood demographics altering the delicate ecology of a community unlike any other in the United States, I wonder if my ready answer is still true.
An outpost at the mouth of the continent’s greatest river, New Orleans has survived fires and plagues and wars and hurricanes over the centuries. But in 2018, when those of us still here commemorate the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding, will we play the slow dirges of a funeral procession to bury something we loved or the raucous tunes we were taught by our grandparents, as we dance home from the cemetery, still alive?
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John Biguenet is the author, most recently, of “The Rising Water Trilogy: Plays” and the forthcoming nonfiction book “Silence.”