Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I'm the train they call the city of New Orleans

Crossposted at the American Princess

Five years ago, in the shadow of 9/11, just one month after that horrible day, myself and nine others boarded a Southwest flight for New Orleans for a journalism conference. It was, without a doubt, the most terrified I've ever been of taking a flight. The airports were still very empty, and when we arrived in New Orleans (after the three stops SWA is famous for), I was stunned at how quiet it seemed. Louis Armstrong Airport was quiet, everyone looking away from each other, and for the first time in my life, I came face to face with a soldier brandishing an M-16 rifle. It was incredibly sobering, a reminder that nothing would be the same.

To try and lift the mood, we got a limousine to take us to our hotel, which was the Superdome Hyatt. I remember taking the elevator up and down many times , looking right at the Dome and wondering what it was like in there. After Katrina hit, and they showed the waters flooding around the Dome, I wondered what happened to that Hyatt, to that 26th floor set of rooms we stayed in. At the time, its majesty was just part of the awe I had for New Orleans. When we hit the French Quarter that night, we were able to relax for the first time. It was amazing how one beautiful old place in the middle of a poverty-stricken city had the ability to wash away the thoughts of the worst tragedy this nation has endured.

I probably have never had more fun anywhere else in my life. We partied, the conference being a mere afterthought (we attended, but our thoughts were usually on the night coming up, not the seminars we were in), we laughed, we loved, we drank, we danced, and we ate fabulous food. We bought music at Virgin Records. I had breakfast at Cafe Du Monde, where the coffee and beignets were absolutely fabulous. We walked the Garden District and the Quarter, eating po'boys at an alley restaurant (the things in the Quarter just don't exist elsewhere), going to a sponsor's party at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., visiting a voodoo shop, buying a giant cigar from the Cigar Factory (where all the stogies are named after famous cigar smokers), and dancing on Bourbon Street with early Halloween revelers.

I wonder what happened to those people I met. The guy at the Cigar Factory, who had a small blowtorch for a lighter, and knew the leaf like Churchill himself. Our waiters and waitresses from the restaurants, including the guy who gave us the discount on hurricanes. The people running the small shops. The homeless man we gave money to. The limo driver who let some of us stand through the sunroof. Those were the people I thought of after Katrina. The places I went followed right behind.

I will go back one day. I pray the city finds its way and can be bigger and better. It may indeed depend on the people, but government does bear some role in the reconstruction, namely, fixing the levees to be better than Cat3 and small business loans or tax breaks for companies who bring work to New Orleans. And it needs to get on the oil companies to stop dredging the marshes on the Gulf. The natural hurricane barriers have been cut in half during the past fifty years by oil drilling, and had they not destroyed so much of the marshes, this whole Katrina conversation may never have happened. Levees won't matter if the marshes disappear.

One thing I do want to touch on, though, is the perception that the Ninth Ward was one big welfare handout. Being poor does not mean you don't work. Being able to return to home means nothing if they are uninhabitable. Having a house means nothing if you can't get to work. Only 17 percent of NOLA bus service is working, and these are people who depended on that service, because they didn't have cars of their own. Not everyone can do it on their own.

I hear the catcalls already. Why should the government do anything? It's not their responsibility. Others have come back and done it on their own.

I have one answer to that: the government failed to protect the citizens of New Orleans, through the terrible work done on the levees and the inconsistent funding of them, to the slow, inadequate response after the storm. Since government failed its citizens, the least it can do is repair the infrastructure. Contrary to the opinion expressed elsewhere, I'm sure many would respond positively to a helping hand. I'm not arguing for blind handouts. What I'm arguing for is the government to go to displaced residents and say, "We're willing to help rebuild your home and the city's infrastructure. In return, will you come back and work at (insert job here) to help rebuild the economy?" If they say yes, great. If they said no, then I would cease to feel for them. I don't think it's too much to ask, though, to have the government lend a helping hand in return for that person's commitment to help rebuild the city and make a positive contribution.

I love New Orleans. I love its contribution to our history, and its zest for life. I want it to succeed. To do that, though, it takes everyone, including our government, working together to make it happen.