New Orleans Is Tired of Talking About Hurricane Katrina
The "remembrances" and "observations" and "celebrations" from that time and since are so intense that some residents are packing up and leaving town this weekend to get away from the media maelstrom and relentless sorrowful nostalgia.
Photo via Flickr user Charles Henry
It's August 29, and Hurricane Katrina has reached critical mass in New Orleans.
But when I tell you about a storm hitting south Louisiana right now, I am not talking about August 29, 2005, the day that wet, wide mess of a storm whipped across our coast and kicked our asses.
This is not a reenactment, a retrospective, nor a documentary. This is now. Right now, today, the howling, gale force winds are blowing hard down here and the flooding is catastrophic, again.
The flooding is of memories in this town, none of them good, some of them haunting people to the brink of collapse, like the levees. The hard winds of emotion are reducing some residents to fits of agony. The "remembrances" and "observations" and "celebrations" from that time and since are so intense that some residents have packed up and left town this weekend to get away from the media maelstrom and relentless sorrowful nostalgia that is now filed under the name: Katrina, Ten Years After.
OK, this is also a time of metaphors gone wild around here. Of total loss of perspective. Of holding on tight, to something or someone—anything or anyone. I am no less guilty of that than any other.
New Orleans is an all-Katrina, all-the-time carnival of excess right now. Every newspaper headline. Every talk show. Every art gallery, playhouse, even every nightclub because every band has a Katrina song. Some have entire albums.
All the famous people are here, from presidents to the pundits. The American fetishizing of anniversaries has hit this town like a Category 5. And although you can look around and see a city standing tall and tough, physically—with all our new hotels and hospitals and malls and even our new levees—the damage here now, at this most poignant date on the Gulf Coast calendar, is emotional, psychological, and just plain mental.
It's not to say that these are not better days in New Orleans—the Crescent City, the Big Easy that isn't so big and never was as easy as most folks think. Our economy is ripping. The recession of the past ten years was, for us, a windfall. We got so much federal, corporate, and charitable money that no one in the world has any idea exactly how much.
We have a lot to be thankful for. We have, for the most part, blossomed into that big, bright, beautiful, rebuilt, reborn, and re-imagined shining city on the hill. Except for the hill part. There are no hills here. But you get the point.
Numbers tell the story: In fiscal year 2014, the city collected over $46 million in revenue from hotel occupancy fees, and this year is on pace to be even higher. According to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOCVB), 9.52 million people laid their heads down to rest in our 39,000 hotel rooms last year—both of those the largest numbers on record.
And here's a fetcher for you: Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were 809 restaurants in the city of New Orleans. Now, there are 1,408. Of course, since I started writing this story, two or three more probably hit the market.
I mean, everyone knows we love to eat down here. But 600 more restaurants than before? With 10 percent fewer residents?
This country is hungry for some New Orleans right now, to be sure.
According to Katrina 10, a Rockefeller Foundation think tank and the city's primary source for economic statistics and analysis, New Orleans is among the most vibrant small business environments in the country now.
"Entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans is 56 percent above the national average, painting a rosy picture for the business climate," reads one recent analysis. "Fueled by an engaged community, strong financial incentives, and an unmatched culture, one of the fastest growing startup hubs has grown out of the recovery of New Orleans."
The publisher of Forbes magazine described the city's economic growth since Katrina as "one of the great turnarounds in American history."
So, like I said, these are better days. We should be walking on sunshine, right?
And many are. Lots of folks—maybe even most—are feeling just fine around here about what this city has become. It's cleaner, smarter, and prettier—if that were possible.
But it's also still a dangerous place to walk around at night in some neighborhoods. And beyond the veneer of national coverage, we have more broken streetlights than some cities our size have streetlights, total. Our streets—paved upon a wet, sinking foundation—are in a constant state of upheaval (literally, not metaphorically).
And the truth is, for all the tax dollars this country has poured into rebuilding our levee system—the previous incarnation of which collapsed the first time it was ever tested and killed 1,600 of us—we have no idea if the new one works. There is no way to know if it will work until millions of pounds of water get hurled into the rock again like last time.
We are living now, as we lived before all this, on blind faith.
So for all the good and bad, we flutter back and forth about what terminology is appropriate for this occasion that looms over us. Is it an anniversary? A remembrance? Mourning? Observation? Celebration? Eulogy? Commemoration? You tell me: What are you calling it?
Truth is, they're all appropriate. In a larger communal sense, this is a time to raise a toast to the triumph of the human spirit and a recognition of the resilience of the people of New Orleans. But there is a strong undercurrent bubbling up this weekend, flushed out by the endless stream of imagery and remembrance and observation and celebration and media lights shining down on us, which has some folks running for cover.
And not the metaphorical kind. Wounds have been re-opened here. Scabs ripped away. Memories a lot of people had managed to escape for ten years have come flooding back like, well... a flood. (I warned you!)
Like I said, it is the anniversary of metaphors, ten years since Katrina, the glorification of which we have managed to avoid for, well, ten years.
There are many here wishing hard and fast for this to go away, for the date to pass, for the attention to wane, for the conversations to switch to the weather, the Saints, the elections, anything but this.
Jesus, even Donald Trump would be a welcome distraction.
We here are stuck in an endless cycle of Katrina—a name many here still refuse to speak. And despite the profound, inescapable and triumphant leaps of recovery and rebirth we have experienced, there's no two ways about it: This is tough as shit to go through again, to relive on a local level the exposure of our national nightmare and disgrace.
To see how far we have come yet how far we still need to go. It's a national discussion being played out in a city of lore that looms large in the American imagination but is actually, truthfully, a pretty small town. Considering.
Nevertheless, New Orleans is shouldering once again the burden of our unfinished—and in some cases unstarted—national conversations. Race. Poverty. Income Inequality. Energy. Rising seas. Loss of the wetlands.
And that's fine. We love conversation down here. We love talking as much as we love eating. In fact, all we talk about when we're eating is what we're going to eat next.
But I stray. Everyone here has a story to tell. And over this weekend, unless you unplug, disconnect, and go off the grid, you just might hear every one of them. But we're OK. We're gonna make it. And we're gonna stay here and keep making our way through this wild ride, trying to find our way back home.
There is nowhere else for us to go—even though many in the media, clergy and Congress told us we should find another place ten years ago. But maybe they have learned, at long last, at this most painful and triumphant juncture, what we here have always known: The longer you live in New Orleans, the more unfit you become to live anywhere else.
That's the one true crazy thing about all this. Here, at the nation's first geographical front against disaster, subsidence, evaporation and extinction: We're still here, ya bastards.
Chris Rose is a New Orleans-based freelance writer, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of the New York Times bestseller 1 Dead in Attic.