by Ken Feltman
New Orleans will recover. What about Bush?
‘I wish you’d stop taking it for granted that I’m in something I want to get out of.’ An exasperated Stella says that to her sister Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. Everything we need to know about whether New Orleans will rebuild is in those few words.
‘I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.’ A disengaged President Bush said that to ABC’s Diane Sawyer on September 1. Everything we need to know about the disintegration of the Bush presidency is in those few words.
Reason may call for vacating the sinkhole that was New Orleans. Engineers, urban planners and politicians may have reasonable plans to relocate to higher ground. But reason will not prevail. Reasons will. For many, those reasons have everything to do with everything about New Orleans that makes no sense – except to those who live by their senses. Long after the more practical but less sensitive have given up, those who live by feeling their way through life will make their way back to the banks of the Mississippi above Jackson Square. They will take in everything. They will feel it. They will taste it. Most will smile. Many will cry. They will be home.
Their home is the part of New Orleans that came through the hurricane relatively unscathed: The New Orleans that tourists love – the shops, restaurants and bars of the French Quarter and the Garden District. These areas suffered but were not decimated. The other New Orleans – the New Orleans that the United States and the world have long depended on – will not come back so easily, if at all.
Should we be concerned if this now waterlogged part of New Orleans does not recover? Let’s look.
Through all of our national history, we have depended upon New Orleans. Before the U.S. entered World War II, Nazi U-boats prowled the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the shipping lanes. Military and industrial planners debated which was the most strategically important city in the United States. Many picked New Orleans over New York or Washington. New Orleans was the great port and a shipbuilding center. The Nazis were right. New Orleans was vital to the coming war effort.
Location as disadvantage
New Orleans is located in an awful place for a city. But for most of its long history, New Orleans has been exactly where it needed to be: where the ocean-going ships could exchange cargo with the river barges. Is that still important? If so, can the people needed to fill the critical jobs be enticed back? Let’s look first at the people, then at the jobs.
Louisianans stay put. They are the least mobile Americans. Four out of five Louisianans were born in Louisiana. Extended families are the rule. Probably, over 150,000 residents of the flooded-out neighborhoods of New Orleans have melted away to the homes of their relatives in other communities in Louisiana. These extended families are the support system that works best, especially when you are poor.
But sooner or later, even the closest of families will feel the strain of crowding and the displaced will want to go home. If they try to go home, it will be to a different place. Their old neighborhoods will be gone. These are people who have stayed not just in their state but, generation to generation, in the same neighborhood. These are people who say that someone has ‘gone away’ when they move just a few blocks to an adjoining neighborhood. Surely, many residents of the city will relocate and never return. But for many others, this is the only place they understand, the only place to be. Now, it will never be the same. Will they come back? Can they come back? Politicians will have some say in their decision. On that front, the outlook is bleak.
Experienced but appearing disengaged
Yes, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana looked overwhelmed and incompetent in the hours after the levees were breached. But was President Bush watching the news reports or being briefed by his staff? Over many decades, hundreds of experts have predicted variations of what happened. Just this summer experts from Louisiana State University briefed local, state and federal officials. They predicted almost exactly what happened. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a penetrating series in 2002 detailing the dilapidated state of the levees.
In any situation, somebody doesn’t get the word. But the president? No political family in America has had more recent experience with catastrophic storms than the Bush family. Bushes have prepared for hurricanes while living in Houston, Washington, D.C., and in Florida. President George H. W. Bush lost many priceless mementoes of his political career when ‘The Perfect Storm’ in the North Atlantic brought 35 feet waves crashing over his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, in October, 1991.
Then, in August, 1992, Hurricane Andrew smashed into Florida, devastating Homestead, Florida City and parts of Miami. Andrew roared northwest across the Gulf of Mexico and struck Louisiana. At the time, Andrew was the most expensive disaster in U.S. history: One measure of its power was the fact that Andrew created 30 years’ worth of debris. Despite his recent personal loss at Kennebunkport, President Bush was unable to empathize with Andrew’s victims. His seeming lack of compassion was a factor in his loss to Governor Bill Clinton just weeks later. As Florida governor, Jeb Bush has presided over the rescue and cleanup after several hurricanes, usually getting high marks. But the current President Bush lacks his brother’s touch. Warned repeatedly in the three days before Katrina hit, he did not understand the leadership role that he would need to fill.
The President should have known what we have known for over 200 years: New Orleans was vulnerable and we have made it more vulnerable. We have watched as local and national politicians have failed to upgrade the city’s defenses. We have dithered as the Army Corps of Engineers has destroyed the wetlands that protected New Orleans as they funneled the Mississippi into an unnatural channel. We have relied on luck and levees that have deteriorated and are barely adequate to withstand a category three hurricane, much less the strong category four that roared through. We have lived with the knowledge that it was not a matter of whether, but when, the Big One would hit. And now it has.
Where was President Bush in the critical first hours? Does anyone believe that President Clinton would have been silent? President Reagan? In the end, far fewer may have died than originally feared. The federal rescue effort may have been faster and better than in previous hurricanes. State and local authorities may have caused most of the problems. But we all saw helpless people and we did not see Bush leading. The momentum of the Bush Presidency has been slowed to a stop by the flooding of New Orleans.
With 9-11, Bush had time to get his footing. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was there, in charge. He was the bridge over troubled waters. Bush had Giuliani to fill in until he was prepared. He found his footing when he grabbed a bullhorn at the World Trade Center site. Giuliani knew enough to pass the torch to the commander-in-chief. This time, there was no Rudy. President Bush didn’t get it.
Nor did House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). His insensitivity is inexplicable because he represents a mixed suburban-rural district west of Chicago that illustrates almost perfectly the extent of our national dependence on New Orleans. His district depends on the local rivers to get the farmers’ soybeans and corn to the Illinois River, then on to the Mississippi and finally to Louisiana for export. Ninety percent of exported corn and 60 percent of exported soybeans go through New Orleans. But last week Hastert said, ‘It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.’ Asked whether it made sense to rebuild a city that lies below sea level, is surrounded by water and is continually threatened by storms, Hastert said, ‘That doesn’t make sense to me.’ The Speaker may need an economics lesson and a history lesson as well as sensitivity training.
History and economics
We have needed New Orleans as long as we have been a nation. Few cities in world history that have not been a national capital or the leading commercial center of a country have been the focus of so much diplomacy, fighting and intrigue. Just over two centuries ago, early settlers on the rich farmland that is now in Hastert’s district contemplated secession from the new United States because of New Orleans. Shortly after independence, Spain closed the Mississippi River to commercial traffic from the new nation’s settlers (Spain had acquired control of the Mississippi in 1763). So dependent on the port of New Orleans were the farmers and traders along the tributary rivers spilling into the Mississippi that many discussed joining the Spanish Empire to regain their trade route. Farsighted American political leaders recognized that the loss of the watershed territory in the middle of the continent would stunt the new nation’s growth.
They negotiated a treaty with Spain (1795) to reopen New Orleans. Then, when France, which had founded New Orleans in 1718, regained control of Louisiana (1802), American diplomats negotiated with Napoleon’s ministers. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) gave control of the important port and a huge stretch of land to the fledging country. Finally, General Andrew Jackson’s forces defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and ended the chance that Britain might assert control over the middle of the continent. True, the battle took place after Britain and the United States had agreed to end the War of 1812, but who can believe that the British would have abandoned such a rich prize had they won at New Orleans? The British have a history of controlling whole regions through the control of one key geographic point: Gibraltar, Singapore, Suez and Hong Kong are examples.
The founding French recognized both the strategic importance and the precariousness of the area and built their city on the highest ground. The Spaniards constructed sturdy buildings to withstand the hurricanes. That area is now the French Quarter.
The least American city
Doesn’t Hastert understand that Chicago and New Orleans are connected by more than the vast Inland Waterway between two very different cities? Chicago is sometimes called the most American of our cities; New Orleans always has been the least American. The language of Chicago is masculine, blunt and tough. The patois of New Orleans is subtle, a mixture of its beginnings, its history and its steamy pace. But as different as they are, the two cities are linked like Siamese twins, their economies mutually supportive.
The ports in and near New Orleans are by far the busiest in the U.S. and are among the busiest in the world. The barges that carry grain to the Gulf return north with ore and chemicals for the industrial heartland centered in Chicago. This great waterway has its financial heart in Chicago. Traders at the Chicago Board of Trade and other Chicago exchanges buy and sell the commodities that travel the Mississippi and its tributaries. Many traders live in Hastert’s district and enjoy outsized incomes. They realize just how vulnerable they may be if the ports in Louisiana cannot function and have commissioned studies to identify alternatives. They have learned that no practical and affordable alternatives currently exist.
If you take Hastert’s suggestion and bulldoze much of New Orleans, who will work the ports? The answer: Probably fewer than 20 thousand people, just as before Hurricane Katrina. For decades, as the ports have adopted advanced technology, fewer and fewer workers have been needed. Thousands in and around New Orleans have sunk into poverty because the jobs have left but they have stayed. The good news for Hastert’s district is that the ports are generally in good repair and will be able to function and will not require that large numbers of workers return. Thousands of port workers were not flooded out and are at work.
Another 25 thousand will be needed in the hospitality industry. Many of them live in the dryer areas. More are returning to work every day. So the two industries that the rest of us want in New Orleans – the ports and the night life – are going to return. That does not mean, however, that Hastert’s callous comment is appropriate. The desperation of the displaced is real. We as a nation will be judged by what we do to help them.
Our history after catastrophes is mixed. San Francisco rebuilt after the earthquake. Chicago rebuilt after the fire. But Galveston did not recover from the hurricane of 1900 and Houston became the major port in Texas.
The incompetence of government, the violence of nature and the depravity of looters will not stop the sounds of jazz along Basin Street or the tourists from returning to Bourbon Street. The barges will float up and down the Mississippi. Those parts of New Orleans that the rest of us need or like will be back. Mardi Gras will find happy tourists reveling in the city’s slogan: Laissez les bons temps rouler!
But is New Orleans just a vital shipping and tourist center? Or is it that sticky, hot, quaint, unretouched place filled with history, potent beverages, great food, music and a polyglot and cheerful population? Yes, what about the cheerful people? We do not know whether most or only a few will want to return or whether they will be able to return.
Yet, we know a lot about whom they really are. They are from the extended families that have lived their lives in New Orleans for generations. Perhaps for most, Stella had it right: New Orleans is not something that they want to get out of.
Will the good times roll for them, ever again? If we as a nation have any sensitivity at all, we will help them settle in again. Perhaps President Bush will take the lead in making it happen. Then, the gumbo pots will steam with the best smells anywhere as the happy but poor people who made New Orleans the Big Easy come home. We already know a lot about them and what they need. We are about to learn a lot about ourselves.