new Things I Ate in Cambodia: we persist in our persisting

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

we persist in our persisting

Looks like we dodged the bullet.

Gustav passed over New Orleans as a relatively innocent Category One. The whole sale destruction/horror/fear and loathing Nagin breathily proclaimed on TV did not come to pass. The power is out and some trees blew down, but few people were injured and few people died. Certainly no diabetic grandmothers were airlifted off the top of their sunken homes. Certainly no one was trapped in terrified, stinking isolation in the Superdome. We made it.

Furthermore, by all appearances, the evacuation went pretty well. Those with no other options were bussed out of the city. The elderly and disabled got to leave early and appear to have been taken care of. People got the message to leave, and most importantly (unlike in pre-Katrina days), they actually heeded it. The levees may not be fully repaired and New Orleans may still be a big pit o' dysfunction, but at least things aren't as bad as they used to be.

So now we get to listen to The Backlash.

The City Evacuated Too Soon

Yes, the weather service predictions for Gustav were way off. Yes, perhaps they should have been more accurate (though really, that's as good as we can do when it comes to predicting the weather.) But if you ask me, getting everyone out of Dodge as early as Louisiana did was a good thing indeed. If Gustav had come ashore as the Cat 4 storm it had potential to be, we'd all be congratulating each other on how many more people were extracted from danger then were in Katrina. Hindsight is always 20-20, but that doesn't mean reacting decisively in the face of a very real danger is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, this means the next hurricane threat - this was the first big one since Katrina - will probably be greeted with much more suspicion then Gustav. This could be a bad thing.

New Orleans Is A Doomed City And We Should Give Up And Repatriate Everyone

I'm always astonished at how common this view is. The popular logic goes that New Orleans was built in an unsustainible location, and that tax dollars spent on keeping it above the waves is in essence throwing it into a big and daquiri-soaked pit. Residents of New Orleans who insist otherwise are sentimental wackos who probaby deserve to drown anyway (and they'll sink to the bottom being Full Of Sin.) New Orleans is a doomed metropolis and everyone should just up and move to a suburban development somewhere nice and natural disaster free like...Nebraska...whoops...Washington California? Hmm...

On a purely logical level, abandoning a major port, oil refining and drilling center, and tourism powerhouse like New Orleans would be a bit of a problem for our already struggling US economy. Furthermore, repatriating a mess of odd and distinctive people to various places around the country would cost money, time, and irritation for everyone - let's not even mention the large numbers of people who would happily defend their New Orleans homes to the bitter end. (you would be astonished at the numbers of people packing truly impressive heat lurking in the Big Easy.) Even moving the city to higher ground would require billions of dollars, tons of effort, and extremely unlikely resident cooperation.

But let's be sentimental, just for a indulgent second. New Orleans is one of America's oldest and most unique cities, a vanguard drinking a cocktail and flipping off the rest of America's more buttoned-down and staid communities. It has a good time and is not in the slightest self-concious in the process, a quality desperately lacking in other great American metropolises: unlike in New York City or Los Angeles, partying and having fun in New Orleans does not require a personal trainer or adherence to a strict hipster code of conduct; it simply requires *having a good time.* New Orleans has California's permissive attitude towards weirdness all sorts without its tiresome political correctness: it mocks all and accepts all.

Culturally, New Orleans is the origin of jazz, spawning-ground of blues, home land of Mardi Gras and French Creole culture, African-American and Catholic and Jewish traditions melding together into a curious, lumpy mixture that functions and does not function, powered off its own cussed will to survive. It is America's European city; it is America's third world city - full of the energy and danger and appeal that all crazy places have (and most American cities lack.) But it's also a small town wrapped in a big town's shell: people are shamelessly friendly, luxuriously hospitable, interested in you and where you came from, ready to welcome your happy ass in with open arms as long as you're open to them. (Drink a daquiri! Eat some gumbo! Spend some money! That goddamn Lower Ninth Ward ain't gonna rebuild itself!) New Orleans is a dangerous, messy, minor-disaster of a city, but it is uniquely American and it deserves to survive for as long as it possibly can.

After all: Venice is sinking and San Francisco is due for another horrendous earthquake - no one talks about abandoning *them.* The city is in a bad location, but it is there, and so it shall remain - we simply need to plan a little better for the future. A storm may indeed come and completely wipe New Orleans off the face of the earth, and that's a risk we have to accept. But we sure as hell don't need to pre-empt it.

So that's my current thoughts on Gustav. Maybe I'll have more to say when I come slinking back in on Saturday. As is, I'm enjoying hanging out in Houston with my school books, a gentleman of a French poodle, and soft-coated wheaten terrier who likes to lick my feet. I am blessed of the universe.

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