New Orleans group highlights lessons of Katrina
New Orleans group highlights lessons of Katrina
August 15, 2009
The Aspen Times
ASPEN â€” There's an interesting statistic about New Orleans that gets lost in the image of bars, street parades and Popeye's fried chicken outlets. Before Katrina hit four years ago this month, New Orleans had a nativity rate of 80 percent, the highest of any city in the United States. To translate: 80 percent of New Orleans residents were born in the city.
To translate further: People in New Orleans feel a deep attachment to the place.
â€œThe good thing about that is, we have this fierce connection to our neighborhoods, the people who live there, the culture,â€ said Kristin Palmer, the director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, and one of a group of New Orleans community leaders in Aspen for Wednesday's talk at the Aspen Institute. The talk, â€œHousing, Education and Health in New Orleans Today,â€ was presented by the umbrella group, Friends of New Orleans. (The event was moderated by Institute President and New Orleans native Walter Isaacson.)
Palmer, a native of the city, said that strong connection exacerbated the trauma following the storm. As residents fled the city, those left behind were stripped of the informal but deeply embedded social structure they relied on.
â€œIt's not an individualistic community. It's a communal city, a city of relationships,â€ she said.
Harry Shearer doesn't know New Orleans as a native. But the actor, musician and writer, known as bassist Derek Smalls from â€œThis Is Spinal Tapâ€ and as the voices of C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers from â€œThe Simpsons,â€ understands the profound attachment to the city. Since first visiting in 1988, he found himself returning again and again, and in the mid-'90s bought a home in the French Quarter.
â€œI kept finding excuses to go,â€ said Shearer, who is notably well-versed in the city's music, politics and history, and who appeared at Wednesday's talk. â€œWhen I brought my newlywed wife, I said, â€˜I hope you like it here. It's a non-negotiable part of the deal.'
â€œSomething serious happened when I went from staying in a hotel to having my own place. As much as I loved New Orleans before, it changed my relationship in deep, deep ways.â€
(Shearer expresses apologies for disparaging the city in the outstanding â€œA Streetcar Named Margeâ€ episode of â€œThe Simpsons,â€ which featured the song lyrics, â€œIf you want to go to hell you should make that trip/ To the Sodom and Gomorrah on the Mississsip.â€
â€œThey've gotten a bunch of geographical locations wrong. They did a terrible job with Australia,â€ said Shearer of â€œThe Simpsonsâ€ writers. â€œAnd that wasn't me, that was my character. I do regret it.â€)
Palmer points out that the abiding feelings for New Orleans have a negative side, which became clear in the wake of Katrina. â€œThe bad part is, you hear often in New Orleans, â€˜We don't do that here'â€ â€” meaning that residents didn't instantly have the flexibility of mind to handle the life-altering incident.
But Palmer, Shearer and Karen Gadbois â€” another panelist and New Orleans resident who specializes in the city's housing issues â€” agree that New Orleans is learning to do things it hadn't necessarily done before. The city is attracting young entrepreneurs and artists who see opportunity in the devastation wrought by Katrina.
â€œEvery institution in the city is being reconfigured. That requires a long-term financial and emotional investment,â€ said Gadbois, who studied the responses to earthquakes in Charleston, S.C., (1886) and Kobe, Japan, (1995). â€œIt was not instantaneous, or three years in the making. They had the benefit of greater leadership skills; we have the benefit of an outpouring of citizen activism and support that is filling the leadership vacuum.â€
The three say they aren't pleased with the rebuilding effort yet, even from within the city itself. They refer to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin as â€œReneging.â€ Shearer pointed out that New Orleans is still an â€œinsecure environment,â€ a reference to what he sees as the slow and shoddy reconstruction of the levees that were breached in the hurricane. Not one dollar of the $787 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 â€” better known as the Stimulus Package â€” is directed to the levees or wetlands of southern Louisiana. But they recognize that rebuilding the infrastructure to the point it was at pre-Katrina is a 10- to 15-year project.
And there are signs that the city has turned a corner. The Neville Brothers, the iconic New Orleans funk group, made their first hometown appearance since Katrina at the 2008 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which Shearer says was a big symbolic boost. Shearer adds there are now 150 more restaurants â€” not fast-food spots â€” than there were before August 2005.
The New Orleans contingent pointed out that, even for those who don't share their affection for the city, there is plenty of reason to pay attention to the city's reconstruction. For one thing, it is the federal government â€” the U.S. Corps of Engineers â€” that is mainly responsible for managing the nation's water and environmental resources. And there are experiments being conducted in New Orleans that might hold lessons for the rest of the country. The education system, for example, has undergone a shake-up that has increased enrollment in charter schools from 1,500 to more than 35,000, and lifted student test scores dramatically. (Tony Recasner, the chairman of New Schools New Orleans, was another member of Wednesday's panel.)
â€œWe really are the laboratory on so many issues,â€ Palmer said. â€œWe can give people our combined experience of what we've been through.â€
â€œPeople in Aspen and Seattle and Boston have skin in this game,â€ Shearer added. â€œThey may want to pay attention that they get it right this time.â€