New Orleans – editorials & articles

December 13, 2005

It’s been quite a while since Hurricane Katrina hit and New Orleans is still very much in shambles. I lived there from the late seventies until 1986, when I left to work at Peter Marino Architects in New York. It was a tragedy that could have been avoided. Many people are still in limbo because they are afraid to return if the levee system is not repaired to withstand another serious hurricane. Therefore, I feel I should do everything I can to help. Thankfully, The New York Times editorial last Sunday (linked below) covered this sad story as well as the article by James Lee Burke that appeared in the LA Times (copied and pasted below).



A city of saints and Sancho Panza
By James Lee Burke, JAMES LEE BURKE is the author of “Crusader’s Cross”
and 24 other novels.

Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner loved it because it tolerated
every kind of eccentricity. So did Lillian Hellman, who grew up on
Prytania Street, and Walker Percy, who lived across Lake Pontchartrain,
and William Burroughs, who lived under the Huey Long Bridge in a house
that Jack Kerouac wrote about in “On the Road.”

New Orleans isn’t a city. It’s a Petrarchan sonnet. There’s no other
place on the planet like it. I think it was sawed loose from South
America and blown by trade winds across the Caribbean until it affixed
itself to the southern rim of the United States.

Its first denizens were convicts and whores, followed by slaves,
mystics, pirates and environmental idealists such as James Audubon and
chivalric soldiers such as John Bell Hood. The architecture of the
Garden District and the Vieux Carre had no peer in the Western world.
Every antithetical element in the New and Old Worlds somehow found a
home in New Orleans. For a writer, the city was a gift from God. Jackson
Square was a re-creation of the medieval era in the best sense. Between
the facade of St. Louis Cathedral and the Cafe du Monde across Decatur,
string and brass bands played for coins flipped into a hat, bizarre
people rode unicycles without apparent destination, jugglers tossed
wooden balls, and sidewalk artists under a canopy of live oaks and palm
fronds sketched portraits for tourists.

In the early morning, the air smelled of night-blooming flowers, ponded
water in the courtyards, spearmint growing in the lee of a shady wall,
the salt breeze blowing out of the south. The balconies above the iron
colonnades groaned with the weight of potted plants and dripped with
bougainvillea that turned blood red by December. For pocket change you
could catch the streetcar at Canal and St. Charles and ride uptown to
the Carrollton District through the most beautiful neighborhood in

But loving New Orleans, like loving the state where my family has lived
since 1836, is like falling in love with the great whore of Babylon.
It’s not coincidence that the American incarnation of the mafia, or
Black Hand, had its inception in New Orleans and announced its presence
in 1891 by murdering the police commissioner. Keeping the tradition
alive, U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long gave the state of Louisiana to Frank
Costello and the Mob. The slot and racehorse machines came from Chicago;
the credit line that bought them came from my family’s hometown, New
Iberia. In my lifetime, one of the most despised politicians in the
state was an attorney general who tried to shut down the cathouses and
gambling joints in the southern parishes. In Louisiana we love the
idealism of Don Quixote, but we have always made room for his libertine,
hedonistic sidekick, Sancho Panza.

But New Orleans is a tragedy, and not simply because of a hurricane. In
the early 1980s, crack cocaine hit the city like a hydrogen bomb.
Simultaneously, the Reagan administration cut federal aid to New Orleans
by half. The consequence was disaster. The murder rate soared, matching
Washington’s. White flight into Jefferson Parish was on a level with the
Exodus from Egypt. New Orleans cops not only committed robberies and
investigated their own crimes, they actually committed murders in one
instance the execution by a female officer of the witnesses to her

David Duke managed to put a black face on criminality and was almost
elected governor of the state.

Within New Orleans’ city limits, the population is 70% black. These are
mainly hard-working, blue-collar people who have endured every form of
adversity over many generations. But another element is there too, one
that is heavily armed and morally insane. These are people who will rob
the victim, then arbitrarily kill him out of sheer meanness.

A combination of environmental aberrations had made the city a longtime
target for a natural catastrophe. The levee system shotguns the silt
from the Mississippi deep into the Gulf, preventing it from flowing
westward so it can rebuild the coastline. Oil companies have cut 10,000
miles of canals through freshwater marsh, killing the root systems that
hold the wetlands intact. Each year a landmass the size of Manhattan
Island is eroded away by the tidal influences of the Gulf. As a
consequence, New Orleans sits not unlike a saucer floating in a flooded

All the meteorologists predicted Katrina would hit New Orleans head-on,
at category 5 wind speeds of 175 mph. No knowledgeable person had any
doubt about the consequences. New Orleans would have been nothing but a
smudge in the storm’s aftermath, the levees reduced to serpentine traces
in the silt. Instead, the storm shifted toward the northeast, and
dropped in velocity by 35 mph, reducing itself to a category 4 storm by

Two days after the city was flooded, the president stated, on
television, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the
levees.” The disingenuousness of the statement, or its disconnection
from reality, is, to my mind, beyond comprehension.

I was on a seismograph drill barge during Hurricane Audrey in 1957 and,
as a news reporter, I covered Hurricane Hilda when it hit Louisiana in
1964. But nothing I ever experienced compares with the suffering of the
people in Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and southern
Mississippi during recent weeks. That the elderly and the infirm could
drown in retirement homes and hospitals in the U.S. has forced us into
an introspection that I hope will lead people from dismay to anger.

For the rest of my life, however, I want to remember not only the faces
of Katrina’s victims but the images of the Coast Guard rescuers hanging
from cables under helicopters; firefighters and cops who threaded boats
through the darkness while being shot at; the medical personnel who used
hand ventilators to keep their patients alive for six days; the soldiers
and ministers and ordinary people who gave up all thought of themselves
in service to their fellow human beings. In their anonymity, they glow
with the aura of Byzantine saints.

New Orleans is an emblematic city. Its story is an ongoing one. Its
culture will not change. But if we don’t help New Orleans to rebuild,
we’ll not only lose a national treasure, we’ll lose a big part of

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