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“I’m scared to return. Too much death. Too many spirits.” This is what a friend said to me the week before I left for New Orleans. I had never been to the Crescent City. He had traveled there many times - a “home away from home” - before August 2005 changed the course of the city forever. Now he fears it.
I felt the fear before my plane even landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport. As we began our descent, dark jagged shadows jutted across the verdant swampland. It was all too cinematic. I found out later that what I thought were dramatic shadows was wetland defoliation; the banal reality proving to be far more frightening than the supernatural.
My second NOLA moment was leaving the airport, catching a glimpse of a man riding down the center strip of the highway in 100-degree heat, on a bicycle, with headphones, no helmet and his hands off the handlebars. At the time, I thought it was just local flavor, like seeing a cardinal in St. Louis. But later, after learning about the spike in the suicide rate over the last two years, I began to wonder if it was something else.
I was in the Big Easy as an invited speaker at a conference of NOLA bloggers called Rising Tide II. In most cities, bloggers practice a peculiar virtual cannibalism, tearing each other apart for sport. But at Rising Tide, among people young and old, black and white, I saw my first glimpse of what can be termed blogger solidarity. It stemmed, as one told me, from “the necessity of coming together after Katrina.” They referred to each other in conversation by their blog names, more colorful than the mobsters in the film Goodfellas. There was Danger Blonde, MD Filter, my unflappable guide, Liprap, and Mom’n'em. (Mom’n'em is a man. The handle comes from a matriarchal New Orleans phrase. Instead of asking, “How’s the family?” You say, “How’s Mom’n'em?”)
The bloggers represent the best of something beginning to bubble that you won’t see on the nightly news, as the two-year anniversary of Katrina arrives today. Amid the horror, amid the neighborhoods that the federal government seems content to see die, there are actual people sticking it out. And they do it with gusto. As Valentine Pierce, a poet and journalist at the conference, said, “Bush’s promises don’t hold water. The only thing that holds water is the city.”
They were also the perfect people for me to speak with to learn the ground-truth about post-Katrina New Orleans. They’re not paid to write about the myriad of issues they confront - from mental health to public housing to the loan swindles to the state of art. They do it because they want everyone - those staying away, the transplants from the North, the ones who get their information from the mainstream media - who sees New Orleans as merely a symbol to know the facts: the good, the bad and the ugly.
And the ugly side is that the majority black city is still being left to wither slowly on the vine. There is a reason President Bush did not say the word New Orleans in the last State of the Union. This is Moynihan’s “benign neglect” writ large. Butit has had a bizarre boomerang effect. Because the future of city is at stake, the neglect that guides federal policy is something that both whites and blacks have to confront.
Also, since New Orleans was far less segregated to my eyes than Washington, D.C., where I live, it puts the suffering of the black majority into people’s faces where it can’t be ignored. If Katrina wrecked and removed 40 percent of the city, it has, among a minority, also brought people together.
It is remarkable that a city can be both torn asunder and also find a measure of salvation in the same name: Katrina. To the people I spoke with, Katrina is a noun, an adjective and even a verb. But one thing it isn’t is simply a hurricane. When locals talk about Katrina, they are very conscious of the fact that the hurricane itself barely dented this proud city. Katrina means the breaking of the levees. Katrina means loss of their homes. It’s the politicians so fatally slow with aid. It’s the spike in violent crime. It’s the ever-rising suicide rate. It’s the aged who have died of desperation.
Katrina is something ephemeral, a sadness seeped into the humidity. It gets in your clothes, your eyes, your hair. It’s everywhere, even if you aren’t staring at a house with a black X, with a number underneath, denoting a death at the hands of levees. It made me feel as if the city’s almost satirically gothic above-ground cemeteries were monuments to August 2005, even though the graves have stood for generations. The only thing I can compare the experience to would be visiting Kent State University, another site with spirits that can’t find peace.
But as spiritual as post-Katrina New Orleans feels, the ravages of the city are something that residents know were man-made. The people of New Orleans are the last ones to need a lecture about how horribly unnatural this disaster was. It wasn’t an act of God. It was the product of a whole set of priorities that put their city last. Bumper stickers are everywhere that read, “Make Levees Not War.” People have signs in their front yards telling the Army Corps of Engineers to take their eminent domain and back off their houses.
Make no mistake, there is anger and a sense of desperation among the city’s poor. Sometimes it’s inward, as the mental health and suicide studies show. Often it is outward, as the violent crime demonstrates. That feeling of being abandoned by this country and this criminal administration, of being left to die on a roof, remains. And yet, they still, so very inconveniently, continue to live, love and, most importantly, struggle and agitate. Everyone in this country should travel to New Orleans and be among a people supposed to perish, who act like they just didn’t get the memo.