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Katrina 5 Years After: Loving New Orleans from afar

I’ve written so often that New Orleans is like a lost love I can’t bear to see again that it’s become a cliche, party of one. I haven’t been back since 2002, you see, and this year once again I couldn’t do it.

But that’s not really true. I visit my exes all the time (and not just because the Internet has made drive-bys a lot easier; you can do them on Facebook instead of having to have a car and be in the same town). I have to see for myself that they’re OK.If they aren’t, I just can’t handle it.

I had made tentative plans to go to New Orleans this year, though, and then the Deepwater Horizon well blew and oil saturated my beloved Gulf and I thought about a New Orleans with another haze of depression, tragedy, pain hovering over it, the threat of hurricane season not just possibly breaching levees that still, five years on, are not up to snuff, but pouring crude oil all over the city, coating still-devastated areas in toxic sludge far worse than the swampy cocktail that soaked into the city in August and September, 2005.

I couldn’t do it. Like that cliche love, who’s got new bruises, new wounds, has been beaten up again, I can’t bear to see it.

But then I feel bad because it’s selfishness on my part, after all. New Orleans has handled it. Without much help from the outside, Brad Pitt and HBO notwithstanding, the city’s slowly coming back. The police department is starting to investigate itself after the indiscriminate murders in the storm’s wake, and the music scene just won’t quit.

That’s what I hear, anyway, from friends who come to New York, from phone calls and articles and yes, Facebook updates. Because I couldn’t go back. Can’t. I wonder sometimes if I’m afraid of what I’ll see or afraid I’ll want to stay.

New York is my home now. Brooklyn. Sometimes I walk down a side street here and trip over a broken, jarring sidewalk and it’s like being back there. The houses look similar, sometimes.

I’m more healthy and whole now and I look back at the time when I loved the beautiful brokenness of that city and I want to cry. But I don’t cry now like I used to then. It’s hard to. The tears get stuck in my throat. Is this growing up? I don’t know if I like this part of it. Or maybe it’s just that in the last five years, the last eight years really, I’ve had so much to cry about. Or maybe I can feel New Orleans shrugging at me and saying “Don’t cry for me, what good will your tears do?”

New Orleans is stronger than me; it doesn’t need me. It’s full of people who didn’t leave or who came right back, buoyed by the love of people across the country who would return if they could, who go back as often as they can.  That’s what community means, really. Rebecca Solnit wrote this week, in The Nation:

A disaster unfolds a little like a revolution. No one is in charge, and anything is possible. The efforts of elites, often portrayed as rescue or protection, are often geared more toward preserving the status quo or seizing power. Sometimes they win; sometimes they don’t. Katrina brought many kinds of destruction and a little rebirth, including the spread of green construction projects, new community organizations and perhaps soon, thanks to the work of Thompson and others, some long overdue justice for police crimes. It’s too soon to tell what it will all mean in a hundred years, but it’s high time to start telling the real story of what happened in those terrible first days and weeks.

We who love New Orleans tell the story over and over and the story we tell is of people taking care of one another, of authorities and officials who failed the people and profiteers and mercenaries sweeping in to enforce some vision of Order, usually a whiter, wealthier, more tourist-friendly one. After all, Barbara Bush’s infamous words, that the storm was working out quite well for the city’s poor, were actually true for the disaster capitalists as well.

It’s been five years since the levees broke, and at the moment huge swaths of Pakistan are underwater and our reaction is slow, small, frightening in its very calm.  Why does this disaster simply pass us by? We know firsthand what it looks like when a city drowns; why did we rush to Haiti’s aid and not Pakistan’s?  The deaths on September 11 launched a global war on terror, one that includes drone strikes in Pakistan even as the flood waters destroy homes, but the deaths in August and September of 2005 didn’t launch a global war on floods, on climate change, on much of anything.

Maybe even more so than the poor black people of New Orleans (or Haiti), the people of Pakistan have been so effectively demonized that we don’t care if they drown (we’ve certainly seen the shards of Islamophobia reanimated like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s broom with the Cordoba House controversy).

But disaster fatigue can be a real thing, and after this summer’s grinding, draining news every day of more oil filling the Gulf, perhaps most Americans feel as I do, that they just can’t take any more. What good will our tears do, anyway, without a commitment to real change, a change that requires more than just quick donations? We have to relearn, most of us, what New Orleans already knows–that it’s community that can rebuild, that saves people, and that in the world we have now more than ever, where we can talk to people across the world with a few keystrokes, that community can stretch across oceans and include people who look nothing like us.