Saturday, November 05, 2005

A cultural and spiritual erasure

Unnatural Disaster: Katrina and Governance:
At the moment, the neighborhoods flooded by the levee breaches resemble descriptions of cities after volcanic explosions. A gray or brown film appears to cover everything. The grass and trees are brown, creating the impression of a lifeless city animated only by memory. It is a sepia photograph you can walk through under a blue sky. Nearby, the mounds of debris are three stories high and rising.

The extensive flooding has caused something much more terrible than physical destruction. What has happened is a cultural and spiritual erasure. People have lost their photographs, wedding dresses, family heirlooms, furniture, books and clothes. The flood acted like an insane Grinch who stole every last vestige of Christmas: the “toys, tags, ribbons, boxes or bags.” Except this Grinch took the beds in which people slept, the food they ate and sometimes their life. Their neighborhoods are silent. [...]

Ten weeks after Katrina approached the Gulf Coast, things are not looking very well for the city of New Orleans. I have reasonable hopes for Tulane and the other academic institutions in the city. But the city as a whole, especially compared to the city as it used to be, faces a grim future. There is a massive housing shortage and an acute labor shortage. The repopulation of the city is going more slowly than expected. It is estimated that only 75,000 people currently live in the city. That is roughly the population of Lawrence, KS (where I grew up), usually described as a “small college town.” Another 75,000 commute in to work or fix their homes. A working population of 150,000 implies that 330,000 people have left. The likelihood of their return is unknown, although a poll of Houston evacuees done by the Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health found that 44 percent wanted to relocate. If anything close to this percentage is true of all evacuees, then many New Orleans neighborhoods will never again come to life.
Tulane University law school professor Stephen Griffin, writing at "Balkinization." You can see many of his other essays there via this Google link; all are about policy and governance issues raised by the Katrina disaster.


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