jason berry author

The Big Hardly Easy


IN THE OLD world, pre-Katrina, this exotic, offbeat , maddeningly governed crossroads of humanity had great charm. The Big Easy was a big destination for tourism, a cornerstone to the economy.

A third of the 463,000 people lived in poverty; the public school system was a shambles. Drug gangs made the nightly news a show on urban homicide; violence and decay were numbing. But the beauty of New Orleans, the riot of tropical greenery and the pink azaleas that exploded each spring, the rolling waves of music, the inviting restaurants, festivals and teeming cultural life made for ``a land of dreams," as Louis Armstrong sang in ``Sleepy Time Down South."

Even the poor, in areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, were held together by deep family ties and a culture of parading clubs that prized music and food.

Today marks the first anniversary of the new world. Videos of looters, people stranded on rooftops and others sloshing knee-deep past bloated bodies showed America its own Third World. This week, we're seeing fresh videos of the dead neighborhoods, houses with brown waterlines like domestic shells after a neutron bomb. As much as I love the city of my birth, I now loathe the moniker the Big Easy.
In New Orleans, rents have skyrocketed, making it doubly hard for those who work in the service industries. The infrastructure groans for lack of money. The criminal justice system is in tatters. Drug thugs keep killing over smaller turf.

But there are encouraging signs. Tulane and Xavier universities suffered huge losses yet strode back to rebuild and attract new students. The French Quarter is largely unchanged; restaurants and music clubs are humming. The convention business is slowly getting back on its feet. Billions of dollars in federal aid should arrive soon for underinsured home and business owners. For a while the city will resemble an old mining town, with sales taxes feeding starved city coffers.

But the city has no master plan. Mayor C. Ray Nagin now peers into the wreckage and tells neighborhoods to develop their own plan. He won re election in May because the black voting majority this time sympathized with him as an embattled African-American. He just has no clue how to run a city.
Roughly half of the population has returned. Although 80 percent of the city took water, many neighborhoods have rebounded. Our yard took 18 inches, but none got in the house. The crepe myrtles have blossomed red again, the grass grew back.

What will New Orleans become? A lot depends on global warming and how soon we get hit by another monstrous storm. The Army Corps of Engineers, which bears the blame for much of the flooding because of faulty levee design, is trying to improve the system. Another big factor in the disaster was the years of coastal erosion, due south, along the Gulf of Mexico. This year's heavy flooding in New England, New York, and Delaware hinted at the national scope of waterfront dangers. We need an Atlantic Coast defense equivalent to the Tennessee Valley Authority to protect all coastal communities from flooding, as the ice caps begin to melt and the seas rise.

As New Orleans residents hold services today to commemorate our dead, we look back on a longer history of floods, storms, and yellow fever epidemics. We stay because we love the city as too human, too dream-driven to leave.

Jason Berry's books include "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," "Vows of Silence," and a comic novel about Louisiana politics, "Last of the Red Hot Poppas," to be published this week.