New Orleans—Nearly three months since Hurricane Katrina battered this glorious city, it has become the capitol of the Catch-22. The multiplicity of chicken-and-egg scenarios here could feed every FEMA employee in town.
Business owners who wish to re-open or expand to pre-Katrina levels face a daunting labor shortage. New Orleanians, finding jobs scarce, remain in exile. Shorthanded employers are reluctant to resume operations, so they stay shut, compounding joblessness.
Workers desperately need housing. Katrina harmed some 74 percent of local residences, 50,000 of which may be bulldozed. This ranges from modest wind damage, to mold-encrusted walls in structurally adequate homes, to the Lower Ninth Ward’s breathtaking obliteration. Countless houses there floated off their foundations before settling atop cars or street corners, sometimes blocks away. Restoring and creating residences, in turn, would be easier if carpenters and roofers themselves had accommodations.
Tourism might fare better if hotels, restaurants, and nightspots were more abundant. They, of course, might open more quickly if visitors proliferated—which would be likelier if hotel rooms were plentiful.
Civic boosters here need to spread good news to attract conventioneers and venture capitalists, but emphasize bad news to keep aid coming. Fortunately (or not) preaching this contrary gospel is a snap.
Though many places are closed, it is easy to enjoy the Big Easy. Spectacular music again streams out of Donna’s, Maison Bourbon, the Maple Leaf, and other venues. Meuxbar’s tilapia in parchment is splendid, as are Yo Mama’s cheddar burgers and Herbsaint’s Black Angus meatloaf. Bourbon Street’s saloons remain temples of modesty and self-restraint. One block south, Royal Street’s antiques and objets d’ art glisten while the Carousel Bar lazily revolves within the Hotel Monteleone. Most local landmarks are surprisingly intact, and 716 of the 720 live oaks along stately St. Charles Avenue are as avuncular as ever.
Such encouraging words, however, trivialize the vast needs that prevail here. Many returnees are in dire straits, as are tens of thousands of exiles. These Americans still require assistance. Their plight should keep the armies of compassion mobilized and, for better or worse, public relief flowing.
This frustrating circularity applies to flood control. Reinforcing the 300 miles of earthen levees and concrete floodwalls that shield New Orleans from surrounding waters is central to its recovery. “People aren’t willing to re-invest in New Orleans and in this area unless they know that their investments are protected by the levees,” says Steve Pettus, of Canal Street’s acclaimed Palace Cafe. He envisions a late-December reopening after he has repaired roof damage and replaced some $250,000 worth of what has become high-end Sonoma County and Loire Valley vinegar.
Enhancing barriers from Category 3- to Category 5-level would allow maximum cyclonic prophylaxis. Naturally, it’s not that simple. A three-way tug of war links the competing needs to protect communities up and down the Mississippi River from spring floods by building levees, keeping the Big Muddy moving to facilitate shipping, and diverting it to allow its silt to replenish the Atchafalaya Basin and marshlands above and below New Orleans. Letting the river take its natural course each spring would flood homes and businesses in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish but rebuild the area’s fragile coastal defenses, though this could hinder economically vital port operations. Hemming the Mississippi between levees, however, speeds St. Bernard’s and Plaquemines’ disappearance and hastens the day when New Orleans finds itself below sea level with Gulf waves crashing regularly against its ever-steeper ramparts.
The Big Easy is now the Big Paradox. As this entire region reels, its chief city attempts resurrection within a swirl of self-contradiction.
Will New Orleans come roaring back, or become a much-reduced metropolis in both physical size and inhabitants? It already has shrunk from 462,269 residents in 2004 to some 70,000 today—an astonishing 85 percent depopulation.
“I don’t want to live in Colonial Williamsburg on the Mississippi,” says attorney Randy Boudreaux, whose family arrived here in the 1770s. “Charleston, South Carolina plus universities is not for me. I want to live in a real city.”
What happens next? A toppled traffic signal that lies flat on a sidewalk beside Orleans Avenue offers a Delphic answer. Down but not out, its lights simultaneously glow—both red and green.