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(DV) Leupp: Between Life and Death -- New Orleans and the System That Destroyed It







Between Life and Death
New Orleans and the System that Destroyed It
by Gary Leupp
September 3, 2005

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Some cities die. The legendary Sodom and Gomorrah. The Roman party-town of Pompeii. The mysterious Inca capital of Machu Picchu. Some survive catastrophe and revive. Old Tokyo, leveled by an earthquake in 1923, was almost immediately reincarnated as the Tokyo we visit today. The Low City was destroyed by U.S. incendiary raids on March 9-10, 1945 but rebuilt on the same model. Chicago survived the fire of 1871 and San Francisco the 1906 earthquake. Perhaps New Orleans too will rise from the dead. Or maybe the responsible authorities will decide that reconstruction just isn’t worth it.

How sad that would be. Founded by French colonists in 1718, La Nouvelle-Orléans straddled a well-established Native American trading route on a patch of land relatively secure from Mississippi River flooding. It became the capital of New France’s Louisiana district, passing to Spain in 1763. Great conflagrations in 1788 and 1795 destroyed much of the French architecture; the historic buildings in the French Quarter are in fact mostly Spanish. Briefly reacquired by France during the Napoleonic Wars, the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. It survived the British attack in 1812, and the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, which killed 10,000 (about one-tenth of the population). Taken without a battle by Yankee forces during the Civil War, it escaped the devastation visited upon many other southern cities. In 1884 the expanding metropolis proudly hosted the World’s Fair. Its unique culture, blending Native American, African American, French Cajun and Creole influences, has impacted the world through music (especially jazz, which was born in the Crescent City), spicy cuisine and the joie de vivre of the Mardi Gras festival drawing millions of tourists each year. What a loss would be this city.

If all that seems merely a historian’s sentimentality, consider the city’s economic functions. The Port of New Orleans is (was) the center of the world’s busiest port complex and the only deepwater port served by six class one railroads. Imported steel, natural rubber, plywood and coffee reach the whole nation via these rail links and the Mississippi. One-quarter of the nation’s trade passes through the city. 6,000 vessels carry cargo through the city into the Mississippi every year. New Orleans’ oil refineries produce one-tenth the nation’s gasoline. It would seem an indispensable city.

But searching the blogs I find some unsentimental opinion in favor of letting it sink. “No, let’s not rebuild New Orleans,” writes “db” on Jeff Jarvis’ Buzz Machine. “Hurricanes are only part of the problem. The city sits on rever [sic] delta sediments, which means the street level surface is constantly sinking due to soil compaction. New sediments, rather than being allowed to replenish the land (and the important coastal buffer) are instead flushed out to sea by channelizing the river. As new silt clogs the mouth of the Mississippi, the levees are extended yet farther into the Gulf, which has the effect of flushing sediment yet farther into the sea. Meanwhile, the ancient delta deposits, robbed of fresh sediements [sic], are eroding. So not only is the land sinking, but the coast is eroding ever closer. In a few decades, New Orleans will be an isolated bowl/isthmus/ditch set several miles offshore in the Gulf, with sea waves crashing directly against a levee which must be built ever higher as the land sinks ever deeper. Once a century the bowl will be flooded by another Katrina and all will be lost again. It’s insane to flush more money into this bowl of futility. Let’s cut our losses and relocate the population, rather than perpetuate the French Folly with limitless tax and disaster subsidies.”

Others, noting the taxpayer expense involved, are more blunt. “Let’s spend a trillion dollars to rebuild a city on the Gulf Coast BELOW sea level,” suggests one sarcastically. “As Forrest Gump’s mama used to say, ‘Stupid is, as stupid does.’” Another, responding to the argument that, “Preserving the past is the responsibility of the current generation,” he scathingly declares, “No wonder the south is so backward… it’s one thing to be a keeper of history, and a completely other thing to be so disgustingly sentimental, it eclipses your ability to be reasonable. When people are calling to rebuild before they’ve even done the math, that’s just stupidity.”

Many Buzz Machine writers argue for a much smaller, even more touristy Big Easy centering around the relatively undamaged French Quarter and accommodating the waters as a sort of American Venice. They oppose reconstructing the pre-flood New Orleans and advocate resettling most of the population elsewhere. Others argue that there has to be a big port city at the present (below sea-level) location. But reading through many pages of discussion, and following the news, I can’t escape the sense that the city as we’ve known it is indeed irreparable. It has been swallowed, not because it had to be, or because God is punishing the casino and brothel operators, the drag queens and voodoo practitioners. It’s been destroyed because the levees didn’t hold, because they hadn’t been upgraded, because the Bush administration, over local protests, cut the funds in order to deploy them instead for the “War on Terror.” This despite the plain fact that Atlantic hurricanes have increased in frequency and ferocity in recent decades, as a result, many scientists contend, of global warming. Contempt for science and preoccupation with empire killed New Orleans. Respect for science and rational engineering should guide its resurrection, on whatever scale.

* * * * *

We don’t yet know how many people have been killed, but I’m inclined to think vague references to “thousands” underestimate the toll. The Galveston flood of 1900 killed up to 12,000. As of Friday afternoon, according to CNN, there were at least 50,000 city residents on rooftops or in shelters awaiting evacuation. That’s about half of those who didn’t flee by the time the storm hit. Senator David Vitter of Louisiana says the death toll in his state could exceed 10,000. As the figures climb, grief at the passing of a great city might become rage against the regime on whose watch it was killed. On Japan’s NHK I saw footage of refugees (all of them, as best I could tell, African American) pounding their fists in the air and shouting “Help! Help!” at the news cameras. It was not a plaintive cry but an angry demand.

Governor Kathleen Blanco perhaps understands the potential for rebellion. Referring to hundreds of battle-hardened National Guard troops deployed in what’s left of New Orleans, she warns looters, “They have M-16s and they’re locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will.” On Wednesday night Mayor Ray Nagin “ordered the city’s 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission and focus on stopping the looting” (MSNBC). Since Nagin has stated, “We’re not even dealing with dead bodies [but] just pushing them on the side,” the officials have made their priorities quite clear:

1.     Prevent looting.

2.     Search and rescue (save lives).

3.     Deal with the dead bodies.

There’s something stinkier here than the reported conditions in the Superdome sanctuary or the stew of sewage, petrochemicals, dead human and animal corpses swirling atop what used to be a city. It’s the soul of capitalism, swollen with profit-lust like the liver of a goose overfed to produce fois gras. Even as la Ville in its present incarnation expires, its Wal-Marts dying with it, its cops must turn from the task of evacuating the stranded to protecting the property of the well-insured. Such a moral quandary for the power elite. What do you save? A couple black kids on a roof, without food and water, at risk of cholera, or the jewelry counter in a local outlet of the world’s largest retailer? What better reinforces the levees of the sinking system -- displays of compassion, or displays of shoot-to-kill power?

There must be contradictions in the minds of the cops, some of whom have been captured on tape engaging in looting themselves. What would I do, in a comparable crisis, having lost all, separated by broken windows from things of value that might keep me alive, or in their sale recoup some of my loss in the uncertain future? I read an interview in the Boston Herald Thursday with a New Orleans lawyer who freely confessed that he’d looted food because he needed it. Very rational behavior, I’d say.

But that’s not how Mississippi governor Haley Barbour sees it: “The truth is, a terrible tragedy like this brings out the best in most people, brings out the worst in some people. We’re trying to deal with looters as ruthlessly as we can get our hands on them” (NBC’s Today show, September 1, 2005). Barbour -- Bush advisor, Sunday school teacher, “pro-life” activist, War on Drugs enthusiast (who boasts that drug arrests are up 73% during his term) -- represents the comfortable as he dispatches his police to protect property in Biloxi. So does Blanco, who’s “just furious” about the lawlessness in New Orleans. “We’ll do what it takes to bring law and order to our region,” she told CNN. And if the region’s slip-sliding away, by God, we’ll defend property against the people until we’re all under water.

* * * * *

Later, Friday afternoon. Big oil slick on the Mississippi. Explosion in a chemical plant on the riverbank. Bush in Biloxi, comforting people. 30-40% of New Orleans police have reportedly quit their jobs; it’s too dangerous to try to control so many unruly, armed people. And now here come the troops, bringing relief to the 20,000 refugees at New Orleans’ Convention Center. CNN’s reporter interviews Lieutenant General Russel Honore with extraordinary deference, praising him personally, thanking him profusely. I go online to MSNBC, and read that some at the center are crying out, “Thank you, Jesus!” But the network notes other reactions.

“Hell no, I’m not glad to see them. They should have been here days ago. I ain’t glad to see ’em, I’ll be glad when 100 buses show up,” said Michael Levy, whose words were echoed by those around him yelling, “Hell, yeah! Hell, yeah!” “We’ve been sleeping on the ... ground like rats,” Levy said. “I say burn this whole ... city down.” (MSNBC, September 3, 2005)

* * * * *

Saturday. features a link to an article in the Army Times: “Troops Begin Combat Operations in New Orleans.

“This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told Army Times Friday as hundreds of armed troops under his charge prepared to launch a massive citywide security mission from a staging area outside the Louisiana Superdome. “We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”

Jones said the military first needs to establish security throughout the city. Military and police officials have said there are several large areas of the city are in a full state of anarchy.

That’s not sounding like a rescue operation. “Little Somalia”? Well, I suppose that 1993 intervention was also supposed to be a humanitarian one, but the U.S. military presence did anger a lot of well-armed black people.  The article states that “numerous soldiers” say they have been fired upon by armed civilians in New Orleans, and that the assault ship Bataan “kept its helicopters at sea Thursday night after several military helicopters reported being shot at from the ground.”

“I never thought that at a National Guardsman I would be shot at by other Americans,” said Spc. Philip Baccus of the 527th Engineer Battalion. “And I never thought I’d have to carry a rifle when on a hurricane relief mission. This is a disgrace.”

Meanwhile Spc. Cliff Ferguson of the 527th Engineer Battalion says that violent reactions of New Orleans residents to the Guard are “making a lot of us think about not reenlisting.” Ferguson said. “You have to think about whether it is worth risking your neck for someone who will turn around and shoot at you. We didn’t come here to fight a war. We came here to help.”

Just like in Somalia. Just like in Iraq. “Why are they shooting at us?” the decent soldier has to wonder. “Our mission is just to restore order and help these people.” The problem is, a lot of people associate the U.S. military with wealth and power, invasions, cruelty, arrogance, indifference to human life. They don’t think oppressors can be saviors, so like the Michael Levy quoted above, they’re not cheering the arrival of the cavalry. While the federal government failed to take action to help the flooded city, people waiting for the buses and for some justice in this world took matters into their own hands, producing what the Army Times calls “a full state of anarchy.” They, rather than the floodwaters and the human misery they’ve created, are the target of this “combat operation.”

Levy’s call to burn the city down recalls the “Burn, baby, burn” slogan of the Watts riots in 1965. Oppressed people rose up and in unfocused rage wound up incinerating their own neighborhood. This was the action of people who had nothing to lose, and who really hated the system under which they lived. The system that alienated them continues to breed resistance 40 years later. Of course, the city’s not the problem, and you can’t burn down what’s already under water. The system itself is the problem---a system looking as vulnerable as the City that Care Forgot. “Hell yeah,” say its victims, in an incendiary mood. In a looting mood, savoring the system’s collapse.

 “I’m gonna get my share of what’s mine.” Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder they Come” keeps running around in my head as I watch images of looting, or read in my morning paper about how it’s become routine for the Superdome refugees to foray out in the mornings to help themselves to food and beverages in the surrounding shops. Why not?  And when the troops come in and say, “No, those things don’t belong to you,” why say, “Yes sir, thanks for finally showing up to restore order”? 

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Famine, Pestilence, Death and War. In what’s left of New Orleans, there is hunger and thirst, the threat of cholera, thousands of deaths. And now the combat, completing the apocalyptic scenario. As they used to say in the antediluvian city, Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion, at Tufts University and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at:   

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