A TIMES OP-ED KATRINA piece
A city of saints and Sancho Panza
By James Lee Burke, JAMES LEE BURKE is the author of "Crusader's Cross" and 24 other novels.
Tennessee williams and William Faulkner loved it because it tolerated every kind of eccentricity. So did Lillian Hellman, who grew up on Prytania Street, and Walker Percy, who lived across Lake Pontchartrain, and William Burroughs, who lived under the Huey Long Bridge in a house that Jack Kerouac wrote about in "On the Road."
New Orleans isn't a city. It's a Petrarchan sonnet. There's no other place on the planet like it. I think it was sawed loose from South America and blown by trade winds across the Caribbean until it affixed itself to the southern rim of the United States.
Its first denizens were convicts and whores, followed by slaves, mystics, pirates and environmental idealists such as James Audubon and chivalric soldiers such as John Bell Hood. The architecture of the Garden District and the Vieux Carre had no peer in the Western world. Every antithetical element in the New and Old Worlds somehow found a home in New Orleans. For a writer, the city was a gift from God. Jackson Square was a re-creation of the medieval era in the best sense. Between the facade of St. Louis Cathedral and the Cafe du Monde across Decatur, string and brass bands played for coins flipped into a hat, bizarre people rode unicycles without apparent destination, jugglers tossed wooden balls, and sidewalk artists under a canopy of live oaks and palm fronds sketched portraits for tourists.
In the early morning, the air smelled of night-blooming flowers, ponded water in the courtyards, spearmint growing in the lee of a shady wall, the salt breeze blowing out of the south. The balconies above the iron colonnades groaned with the weight of potted plants and dripped with bougainvillea that turned blood red by December. For pocket change you could catch the streetcar at Canal and St. Charles and ride uptown to the Carrollton District through the most beautiful neighborhood in America.
But loving New Orleans, like loving the state where my family has lived since 1836, is like falling in love with the great whore of Babylon. It's not coincidence that the American incarnation of the mafia, or Black Hand, had its inception in New Orleans and announced its presence in 1891 by murdering the police commissioner. Keeping the tradition alive, U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long gave the state of Louisiana to Frank Costello and the Mob. The slot and racehorse machines came from Chicago; the credit line that bought them came from my family's hometown, New Iberia. In my lifetime, one of the most despised politicians in the state was an attorney general who tried to shut down the cathouses and gambling joints in the southern parishes. In Louisiana we love the idealism of Don Quixote, but we have always made room for his libertine, hedonistic sidekick, Sancho Panza.
But New Orleans is a tragedy, and not simply because of a hurricane. In the early 1980s, crack cocaine hit the city like a hydrogen bomb. Simultaneously, the Reagan administration cut federal aid to New Orleans by half. The consequence was disaster. The murder rate soared, matching Washington's. White flight into Jefferson Parish was on a level with the Exodus from Egypt. New Orleans cops not only committed robberies and investigated their own crimes, they actually committed murders — in one instance the execution by a female officer of the witnesses to her crime.
David Duke managed to put a black face on criminality and was almost elected governor of the state.
Within New Orleans' city limits, the population is 70% black. These are mainly hard-working, blue-collar people who have endured every form of adversity over many generations. But another element is there too, one that is heavily armed and morally insane. These are people who will rob the victim, then arbitrarily kill him out of sheer meanness.
A combination of environmental aberrations had made the city a longtime target for a natural catastrophe. The levee system shotguns the silt from the Mississippi deep into the Gulf, preventing it from flowing westward so it can rebuild the coastline. Oil companies have cut 10,000 miles of canals through freshwater marsh, killing the root systems that hold the wetlands intact. Each year a landmass the size of Manhattan Island is eroded away by the tidal influences of the Gulf. As a consequence, New Orleans sits not unlike a saucer floating in a flooded sink.
All the meteorologists predicted Katrina would hit New Orleans head-on, at category 5 wind speeds of 175 mph. No knowledgeable person had any doubt about the consequences. New Orleans would have been nothing but a smudge in the storm's aftermath, the levees reduced to serpentine traces in the silt. Instead, the storm shifted toward the northeast, and dropped in velocity by 35 mph, reducing itself to a category 4 storm by landfall.
Two days after the city was flooded, the president stated, on television, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." The disingenuousness of the statement, or its disconnection from reality, is, to my mind, beyond comprehension.
I was on a seismograph drill barge during Hurricane Audrey in 1957 and, as a news reporter, I covered Hurricane Hilda when it hit Louisiana in 1964. But nothing I ever experienced compares with the suffering of the people in Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and southern Mississippi during recent weeks. That the elderly and the infirm could drown in retirement homes and hospitals in the U.S. has forced us into an introspection that I hope will lead people from dismay to anger.
For the rest of my life, however, I want to remember not only the faces of Katrina's victims but the images of the Coast Guard rescuers hanging from cables under helicopters; firefighters and cops who threaded boats through the darkness while being shot at; the medical personnel who used hand ventilators to keep their patients alive for six days; the soldiers and ministers and ordinary people who gave up all thought of themselves in service to their fellow human beings. In their anonymity, they glow with the aura of Byzantine saints.
New Orleans is an emblematic city. Its story is an ongoing one. Its culture will not change. But if we don't help New Orleans to rebuild, we'll not only lose a national treasure, we'll lose a big part of ourselves.