Has It Been A Year Already?

It was a second line and a jazz funeral to mourn the Katrina-dead and celebrate the rebirth of this city. For two hours this afternoon, colleagues and I braved the hot sun and humidity to see … our well-dressed salesman of a mayor, Ray Nagin, his wife and Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré wave at us while a brass band and dancers slid past us on Poydras St.??! “Forget this, next they’ll start throwing beads,” I said while contemplating returning to work. That’s when the fire trucks inched towards us, and the Fire Marshall and his men and women somberly walked behind them, no waving, no music, no fanfare. Hot tears filled my eyes as I put away my camera and thanked them from the bottom of my heart and lungs. The EMS and NOFD were the most hardworking people during the flood, have worked tirelessly since then in a rebounding city threatened by drought and arson, and only recently got a paltry 10% raise.

The Louisiana Military and National Guard vehicles poured forth and the crowd erupted in applause. We are a thankful city, y’all, even with full awareness that such a presence here on the 29th of last year, and not five days later, would have saved many of the thousand dead.

My Katrina evacuation photos weren’t released until yesterday, the first time I was able to relive the gut-wrenching anxiety. Sifting through my pictures, I wondered how many came back that evacuated with us. Was it the last time a number of them saw New Orleans? What a way to close a life chapter. On the other hand, it isn’t simple even for those who remained and returned, especially for the middle-class and business owners whose livelihoods were either damaged by wind and flood or, a year later, may fail due to increasing insurance costs and a dwindling consumer base. With less than half of pre-Katrina New Orleans residents back home, over 70,000 of them living in 240-square foot FEMA trailers, and the rising cost of living, penny-pinching is the norm.

In the high and dry French Quarter, the tourist section is littered with t-shirt and novelty shops owned by families of South Asian descent. When friends show up in town for the first time and want to buy the obligatory Bourbon St. and Mardi Gras t-shirts, I walk them to Decatur St. and to a large store owned by a lovely Sindhi couple and their Oxbridge-educated daughter. On a recent visit, the lack of business was so appalling that I insisted on paying full price, ignoring the loud objections of Aunty and Uncle to the contrary. “Arre, bacchi, how can we take this much from you? It’s not right.” [A note to non-desis: haggling is in our blood and must be conducted, usually at the behest of the store-owner] It is now my personal responsibility to pay full price to Paul (Prakash), Jim (Jahangir), Simon, Kendra, Don and every single small business owner whose store I frequent in New Orleans. “Buy New Orleanian” is the new motto around these parts. But, how long will our activism alone keep these endeavours afloat?

Our ill Hindu points me to an article in today’s Beeb that addresses just this dilemma: South Asians Recall Katrina Disaster

Indian and Pakistani traders in New Orleans’s popular French Quarter describe official recovery efforts as too little, too late. “Rebuilding is slow, business is less than half of what it used to be before Katrina,” says Murli Daswari, a souvenir shop trader from Puna, India. “At this pace, I don’t think I’ll survive much longer in business.” Strolling in the city’s popular flea Market, I come across Mohammad Ishtiaq, another dejected shop owner. He came to New Orleans from Karachi ten years ago. “This is supposed to be a bustling tourist town. Just look around you. The streets are empty and there are no customers,” he points out.

While some hard-core New Orleanians argue that the storm was good for taking out t-shirt and souvenir shops that “cheapen the Old World elegance of the Quarter,” one cannot ignore the fact that, next to bars, they are the biggest customer magnets in an economy that runs mainly on tourism. Additionally, Asian-owned businesses have historically had the lowest turnover in the Quarter. In other words, they have made New Orleans their home, send their kids to school here and stay put – they are the locals. It’s not surprising that many were amazed when an Indian restaurant closed shop and moved Uptown to cater to a more residential clientele.

As I cheered the public servants on parade today, I remembered how much they need our love and advocacy. New Orleans is reliant on history and the support of those who know it well. Without backing from their government and citizenry, our police and fire officials have no reason to keep going. Similarly, government and customer sustenance of local businesses is essential to the continuity of economy and community.

New Orleans is not a dead city, by any means, it’s just hurting. Nor is it architecture, Mardi Gras, streetcars or Cajun & Creole cuisines. The city is the people who live in those buildings, ride the transports, celebrate colorful holidays and cook and eat the food. It will be sad then to lose those people who make New Orleans who she is. We collectively recognize, as the BBC article states, that “the road to reconstruction will be long, hard and uphill. And even when the work is completed, New Orleans may never be the same again.” The citizens of New Orleans are the ones who define same.

29 thoughts on “Has It Been A Year Already?

  1. A very moving recollection of the devastation that took place a year ago. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch the coverage of the memorial (if any) on TV, but your heartfelt and poignant account of everything New Orleans captures that which network cameras would invariably fail to do. Good luck my sister.

  2. Maitri, I hope you don’t view this question as inflammatory, but I’m genuinely interested in your opinion of a certain perception that seems to have developed. For the past week on NPR, and after Bush’s visit today to New Orleans, I have been getting the impression that there is a lot made of the fact that New Orleans is taking longer to recover than other places that were hit in the Gulf Coast region (Biloxi, etc). Something about the tone annoyed me, but I was wondering what your opinion is on this.

    Am I being too vague? If so, I apologize.

    Also, I am so grateful that you made it through the evacuation safely- the blogosphere has benefited from your presence immensely. :)

  3. It’s really disheartening to see the response of the federal government. FEMA couldn’t have manufactured a worse name for itself with the citizenry of N’awlins if it had gone out and deliberately tried.

    It definitely takes some big stones to be Dubya and actually fly into that city. You’d think his own lukewarm response during the developing crisis and subsequent shitstorm would at least generate a protest or two. But maybe not; could be that it’s hard to protest when your house is still ankle-deep in toxic sludge and your kids’ schools haven’t opened yet. Too much else to do?

    I’d be curious to hear a bit about the mood of the guy on the street concerning Bush’s visit.

    And as an avid motorcyclist, I was really sad to hear that Confederate Motorcycles (creators of the Hellcat and Wraith) had to relocate to Birmingham, Alabama after the storm. I’m glad they’re still in business, but like any number of businesses in the Big Easy, they were a unique part of the landscape. There was something particularly romantic about these big loud (and exotic, and expensive) motorcycles being made in a warehouse near the water. It’s not so cool that they’re being made in…Birmingham.

    Bleah.

    And yes, yes, I know. Birmingham is a wonderful place, full of life and vitality, with a deeply fascinating culture of its own, home to the likes of Nell Carter. Did you know that Birmingham is also known as “The Pittsburgh of the South?” Thanks, Wikipedia!

  4. New Orleans is a different story altogether. It was an unnatural disaster (levee breaks) and a flood that destroyed a large portion of the city, while a natural disaster and winds swallowed towns like Biloxi and the rest of the MS-AL Gulf Coast. Even residents of those coastal towns admit that our city has it worse than theirs. The story here is that of a broken social contract (and the lack of any accountability); yonder, it is one of rebuilding when and how. Simply put, we have a much more complicated mess here than the other cities you mention.

    Also, from a cultural perspective, this is a very old area, with the Creole families of Gentilly now largely in Natchitoches, LA and the Isleno community of St. Bernard Parish scattered all over Louisiana and the nation. That, too, is largely ignored by the media and government.

  5. Maitri, thanks for sharing your memories and your emotions with us.

    And thanks for the beeb link! I think it’s important to nurture community in whatever manifestation you can find it, and if that manifestation is South Asian in flavor, then please, keep feeding it. The important thing is to stay engaged and look out for each other. It’s exactly at times like Katrina that those bonds will be tugged on and show their worth.

    As I cheered the public servants on parade today, I remembered how much they need our love and advocacy.

    My friend Scott has oneof my favorite business cards. It’s a folding card, and on the front cover there’s a heart surrounded by various group labels—elderly, immigrants, parents, children, the disabled, non-English speakers, people with pets, the poor, teachers, the ill, churchs, stuff like that, etc..—and in the heart it says, “Who do you love?”. Inside it’s a reminder—we all love people with special needs, and before a disaster those special needs need to be thought of. Community preparedness means recognizing and supporting the groups that hold together the communities–and helping them prepare ahead of time, b/c when push comes to shove, it’s the community groups who are going to take care of us and the people we love. He works with community groups, non-profits, municipalities and the like to make sure they’re prepared for the inevitable disasters. The institutions of New Orleans are lucky that they have such a loyal and eloquent champion in you.

  6. well written maitri. while i can’t begin to say i “know” new orleans (only been once, and that was confined to a business conference and largely the french quarter), i CAN say that NO had an infectious atmosphere/ambience/tone that was completely palpable. i fell in love within minutes of getting there. i’m glad to hear the city is getting back up on its feet, and the next time i’m there, i’ll make sure to pay full price!

  7. Simply put, we have a much more complicated mess here than the other cities you mention.

    Or we could say that New Orleans is orders of magnitude bigger and messier than smaller towns of Louisiana and Mississippi. On top of it, it became a toxic bathtub (after the levees broke) after Katrina, that damaged the foundations of the city so to speak.

    Maybe, I should visit N’Awlins soon and tip all the Bourborn street dancing girls real good. My heart goes out for that town. I absorbed Amrikanism from that place not from dozen other places I have lived.

    It will rise again.

  8. Simply put, we have a much more complicated mess here than the other cities you mention.

    Maitri, just a point of clarification- I hope you didn’t think that I was implying otherwise. It’s just that, all of a sudden, the media coverage (and Bush’s position to some extent as well) seems to be underplaying that New Orleans was much more badly damaged during Katrina. Since my hair tends to set afire whenever George W. speaks, I wanted to see if his remarks were incendiary to less biased folks.

  9. Also, New Orleans urban residents started off largely much poorer than some of the Gulf Coast “bed&breakfast” communities when the storm arrived; the cost and standard of living remains quite low in Louisiana, and people lived month-to-month, without extensive savings or assets. As Maitri points out, much of NO is “old,” with long-established, middle- and lower-class families, many of whom have been in full ownership of their modest homes for years, so they were able to live in them relatively cheaply. It’s not uncommon to find a senior living in a shotgun that was their childhood home.

    This is (well, was) the case with my father’s family, which has resided in the city since the 1880s. Several of his elderly relatives were living in small, old homes and they have lost everything; they are now staying with family in small towns outside the city, with no intention or means of rebuilding. In contrast, a wealthy friend of mine in the Claiborne Ave area–whose home flooded, ruining all the contents–well, she had pretty good insurance, and though she’s probably going to suffer a net loss, at least she is rebuilding and recovering, unlike numerous victims just a few blocks away from her. And the unexpected costs keep piling up: my father is also having to deal with the ruined family crypt in the St Louis cemetary, which also flooded–no insurance for that.

    For now, I am far away on the west coast, but happened to be in Baton Rouge when the storm arrived–a terrible time indeed. It’s great to have your updates, Maitri. Good luck with all your work.

  10. With less than half of pre-Katrina New Orleans residents back home, over 70,000 of them living in 240-square foot FEMA trailers, and the rising cost of living, penny-pinching is the norm.

    Staggering.

  11. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking the thread, but I don’t know where else I should ask this question. What has become of New Orleans’ music scene? My understanding is that many of the homegrown musicians left after Katrina hit, have they come back? Are there places for them to play? And what was JazzFest like this year, was there a decent turnout (both of performers and attendees)?

  12. I wonder whether African Americans were really ever a part of the social contract.

    The poor ones weren’t. Also, note that this is the first city in which I’ve observed severely rich African Americans, too, who were (and still are) the brokers of the social contract. The Flood was the first time that the entire city – whites, blacks, browns, Asian – experienced abandonment.

    Here’s a thought/question: MS, AL and FL are red states and have pull in federal government with senior senators, Jeb Bush, etc. LA doesn’t hold that sway what with Breaux retired from Senate and Mary Landrieu, a young(er) fencesitter … err, I mean … Moderate Democrat. It is a well-known secret that Republicans campaigned for the ostensible Democrat, Nagin, during the last mayoral primary and final election, because they want to back Piyush (Bobby) Jindal for governor, thereby edging Kathleen Blanco and Democrats out of major LA politics. Far be it from me to suggest so, but if Louisiana finally becomes a red state, rather than a hot pink one, perhaps we’ll have more pull at the level of upper government.

    However, someone that puts a hole in this theory is David Vitter, our junior senator. He backed the state’s anti-abortion law (in case Roe v. Wade is overturned) and is a staunch supporter of the “Marriage Protection Amendment,” but has yet to get any REAL support for Louisiana and New Orleans. Also, what if the Bushies/Repubs lose the next presidential? Where does that put the southern red states?

    The bottom line: States’ rights were given another blow during Katrina and the flood. By centralizing more Republican power in Baton Rouge, which doesn’t give a hoot about New Orleans as long as its mayor gets a Republican governor elected, it only helps the federal-level red cause.

  13. Additionally, Asian-owned businesses have historically had the lowest turnover in the Quarter. In other words, they have made New Orleans their home, send their kids to school here and stay put – they are the locals.

    the stories involving immigrants in new orleans seem so rich. there’s been a lot of public discussion about latinos but not so much about asian americans. thanks for sharing this — look forward to hearing more.

  14. I wonder whether African Americans were really ever a part of the social contract.

    The poor ones weren’t.

    I figured as much. I think the poor whites are more likely to believe in the social contract because a lot of them still believe that their kids can live the American dream. I remember seeing a London School of Economics study at http://www.gnxp.com where some numbers were crunched and the report said that the social mobility in the US is not like what it used to be. So maybe the poor blacks are more realistic while the poor whites are displaying what our old friend would characterize as ‘irrational exuberance’.

    I thought it was really interesting that some black cops also participated in the looting. To me that more than anything else exemplified the failure of the American system to incorporate even the middle class blacks into the fabric of the America society.

  15. As one of nature’s cruel ironies, last night – the night of August 29th, that is – Tropical Storm Ernesto made landfall in Miami. Thankfully it was not a hurricane, though the distinction is only academic. The six million residents of South Florida managed to dodge the bullet. This time.

  16. Far be it from me to suggest so, but if Louisiana finally becomes a red state Maitri,

    Before Blanco, Mike Foster was a Republican Governor. In presidential elections, since 1964, Louisiana goes back and forth – blue / red. Even for US Senators, people like John Breaux were known for influence across the party lines. The origin of Blue Dog Democrats lies in Lafayette, Louisiana.

    In Humphrey’s Southern strategy, Louisiana was their first victory.

    What Louisiana and deep Southern States need today is another Huey P. Long or even bigger player like Lyndon Johnson

  17. Kush, I assume when you say you mean LA needs a new Huey Long, you mean in the “Louisiana needs a new populist reformer Democrat” way, and not in the “Louisiana needs a corrupt dictatorial tyrant” way. :-)

  18. Louisiana needs a new populist reformer Democrat”

    Salil,

    Yes, I meant sombody with clout on national level and thinking big. No doubt, Huey P. Long had dictatorial tendencies.

    Maybe, Lyndon Johnson is a better example of king maker/ king.

    But in today’s US politics, are they king makers left anymore. Maybe, Bill Clinton among African Americans.

  19. What do you mean by that?

    I am sorry, I meant Barry Goldwater.

    My bad.

    Often, deep south politics originates from Louisiana as Texas is not considered deep south – is a separate entity.

  20. Maybe I’m a bit cold but am I the only one who wishes Nagin and the other whiners from New Orleans would just shut up? I don’t hear Mississippi whining. Why can’t people just quietly rebuild and get on with their lives? They’ve gotten ridiculous sums of money to rebuild that city, which by the way wasn’t exactly a jewel to begin with. Sure it’s a great place to have fun, and the food was excellent, but so are any number of cities in this country.

    Here’s the real question, will all those people who were “failed by government” go on to vote for pols who insist on MORE government??