" Katrina's Fury "

S. Frederick Starr
Washington, D.C.
September 9, 2005

Editor's Note: Fred Starr lives in Washington, D.C., but has longstanding, close and abiding contacts and love for New Orleans. In the days following the fury of Katrina, he was public in explaining his own loss, as well as those of his friends and neighbors, while offering some hope for the future. He e-mailed, "I have had close links with New Orleans since the 1950s, served as vice-president of Tulane and have an honorary doctorate from Loyola University of New Orleans, founded the local community foundation which now has over 100 million dollars, have been a member of the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble for 25 years, playing at Jazz Fest, etc., annually, have written four books on the city, and have long been closely involved with preservation efforts there."

Separately from his September 1 piece in the
New York Times, just after Katrina, and his September 8 interview with a Washington Post reporter, he sent the following comments to a group of friends. We chose to use it as our feature for this month's posting and to hold the material, which had originally been intended to be on our web site.

Three classmates, according to our records live in New Orleans — Charles Carriere, Lewis Freedman, and Richard Ziebarth. Our efforts to contact them by e-mail have thus far not been successful.

Here again are the links to Fred's article in the New York Times (Times link) and his interview in the Washington Post (Post link). Please be aware that if you are already registered at these sites, you will click straight through to the articles. If you have not previously registered at these sites, you will be momentarily detained to complete a brief free registration, and then you will be forwarded through to the articles.

Abandon New Orleans, or move it? This proposal, made by a former wrestling coach, Dennis Hastert, would be laughable if he were not Speaker of the House and if several tenured engineers had not seconded him.

True, New Orleans is below sea level, but so is most of the Netherlands. But it is the heart, in terms of tonnage, of North America's biggest port, a network of piers that extends clear to Baton Rouge. And it is a key hub of North America's gas and oil supply, not to mention a regional legal, banking, and services center. It also happens to have its fair share of elected representatives in Washington, which, thankfully, guarantees that Hastert's bizarre proposal will go nowhere. Did you ever wonder why so few engineers (and wrestling coaches) sit in Congress? Now you know.

Family trapped on top of their suburban, Aug. 30. (Ben Sklar / AP)
Photo courtesy of BoingBoing.Net.

What, then, should be done? Even without Katrina, New Orleans was in a sorry state. The economy lagged far behind the rest of the country. Its public schools were miserable, in spite of endless and costly applications of so-called "reforms." The most talented young men and women were leaving the city in droves for better jobs elsewhere. In their new homes they might regale their friends about the charms of their home town but they rarely, if ever, return. All this has been building for a generation or more. Problems that have taken such deep root will not be solved overnight. Nonetheless, at least five steps are obvious.

First, and by far the simplest: build up the levees so they can handle a Category Five hurricane and then maintain them properly. Having levees that can handle only a "Category Three" hurricanes, as is now the case, is like having medical insurance that covers colds but not cancer. Instead of pushing for this change, the Crescent City's present mayor, Ray Nagin, has spent three years explaining why federal funds should be spent instead on building high rises on or near the levees.

Second, give people the chance to rehabilitate and restore, rather than tear down and rebuild. New Orleans' culture lives in its neighborhoods. If the distinctive housing types and buildings saturated with the communities' memories are demolished, the culture will wither to nothing. The good news is that most New Orleanians want to return to their homes and fix them up. Insurance companies and the federal government should back them, rather than hand the job to demolition teams and developers. Habitat for Humanity and similar groups should focus on restoration, not replacement.

Third, use relief money to promote small and medium-sized businesses. These were always New Orleans' great strength. Small, locally-owned firms are what enabled thousands of Blacks, Irish and Sicilians to prosper and take their place in the economic mainstream. Unfortunately, in recent years they have declined along with the larger economy. As major local firms died or were sold, and as mega-stores and non-locally owned franchises proliferated, the space in which small and medium-sized firms could thrive shrank to nothing. A boost to local entrepreneurs of all backgrounds is essential if the local economy is ever to come into balance and become sustainable.

Fourth, cut back the tourist industry. For a generation this has been New Orleans' mainstay. As the city declined economically, its downtown was turned over to tourist hotels. True, they pay taxes, but send their profits elsewhere. Even more serious, tourism makes jobs for bed-makers but does almost nothing to raise the quality of human capital. It is parasitic, living off the city's architectural and cultural resources without replenishing them. It creates a city in which the best young talent leaves in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

Of course, there IS a place for tourism in New Orleans, as there is in San Francisco or New York. But if it is not balanced by a vibrant and modern economy it will turn the city into a Disneyland without the Disney touch, a place with a charming if decaying façade but with only desolation behind it.

Left: Google Earth satellite image of Lake Ponchartrain levee area. Right: the same area after the levee's breach (red circle). Photo courtesy of BoingBoing.Net. More complete explanations of these images is found at KathrynCramer.com

Finally, the levee disaster should mark a turning point in the city's political life. A succession of mayors have lulled the populace with harebrained schemes like the Casino, an endlessly expanding convention center, Coliseum-like sports complexes, and hollow initiatives in the high tech fields. Some of these have been naive fantasies and others cynical ploys. None has fulfilled the promises that accompanied its birth. Meanwhile, city government has been the scene of rampant cronyism and endless forms of corruption. If New Orleans were a third world country the US would long since have cut off aid. Instead, massive grants from Washington have left more of its citizens dependent on the federal payroll than is the case in any other major American city.

Good leadership is the key to New Orleans' future. Without it, the new levees may be build but they will not be maintained, emergency preparation will never move beyond plans on paper, the restoration of homes and neighborhoods will go nowhere, new businesses will not develop as a viable economic alternative to tourism, and education will not rise beyond its present disgracefully low level.

Leadership will not improve on its own. This will happen only when the local public demands it — when otherwise responsible citizens stop bragging that theirs is "The City That Care Forgot" and instead start working actively for the city they claim to love. Post-Katrina programs can help bring all this about, but only if New Orleanians themselves demand it, and if taxpayers nationally expect nothing less of the huge investment they are being asked to make.

(Fred's e-mail address is sfstarr@jhu.edu)