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Lead Why Not New Orleans?

Expatriate Roger Wilson returns home and, like former Mayor Marc Morial, asks why we aren't getting more.

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It seems that we as a nation, for whatever reason, are satisfied to learn in hindsight from our disasters rather than do what it takes to actually prevent one. And while there are few precedents to explain the confusion and despair still being suffered by the people of New Orleans (and surrounding parishes), there are, owing to this strange fact, available lessons to be learned from cities that have managed to recover from a cataclysmic tragedy such as Hurricane Katrina. What this offers to the people of New Orleans is the hope that the ring of darkness still encircling this city need not be an everlasting one, and that it may sooner rather than later brighten and disappear.

One way to understand how that might happen is to study and draw from the lessons of 9/11. Within the discussions and actions that followed that seminal event lie the cause and rationale to rebuild build New Orleans as it was, not how some perceive it should be -- and, though it rarely gets mentioned, to honor with equal dedication the more than 1,000 souls who perished in the early days of September 2005.

As if some mystical force had chosen to drive this point home, observe as you pass the countless houses and buildings that were destroyed by Katrina's floodwaters the date most commonly spray-painted by FEMA inspectors, in a variety of fluorescent colors, on the front of them: 9/11, marking the date when inspections kicked into full gear. Such is the curious and repetitive nature of history, I suppose. As former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial pointed out to a crowd of displaced locals in eastern New Orleans on Jan. 7, it is towards history that we should look for the solace and determination it will take to rebuild this entire area, as well as for the reasons we must do so.

Beneath a phalanx of camera lights being powered by generators some five months after the fact, Morial spoke in eloquent terms about the previous fates of places such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York City, and how each had been "reborn, rebuilt and revitalized" following events (earthquake, fire and kamikaze terrorists, respectively) that threatened their very existence. In each case, ashes somehow gave way to opportunity. Perhaps because in each case these cities and their traumatized populace were given the time, the money and the chance to rebuild; without compromise, without exclusion, and without explaining their need to do so. Sitting there listening to Morial, one question kept bouncing across my mind, "Why not New Orleans?"

To me, this question is the question in our city's most uncertain hour. Its utterance has been made necessary by the fact that many Americans, and far too many officials in high office, have unabashedly, almost cockily, debated the merits of making this city whole again. And by that, I mean putting it back exactly as it was before being consumed by the world's first man-made tsunami. The optimist in me would like to think such a thoughtless and casual attitude towards the future of nearly a half-million Americans, never mind the memory of a thousand more who died only God knows how horribly, owes more to an ignorance of New Orleans' place in American history than to some undeserved animosity towards its beleaguered people.

Yet this suggestion of a "smaller New Orleans," what some have called a "better" New Orleans, has for these last five months maintained a remarkable legitimacy around the globe, making my optimism seem about as sound as the walls along the 17th Street Canal. Inside the corridors of our own national government, rather than being excoriated for the blasphemous dialogue it truly represents, this talk of "not wasting money on New Orleans" has assumed the personage of a genuine political discourse. A point wholly laughable in the face of what we spend monthly in Iraq, and one in which our state's national representatives are asked to grovel for assistance, while the government and private sector are allowed to demure. What makes this even more difficult to accept is the culpability this same government bears in the very unfolding of New Orleans' present crisis. You know you're in trouble when the assessment of your worth lies at the very feet of those in great part responsible for its annihilation.

"How," I want to ask our current president, can it be deemed unjust and un-American to abandon the democratization of Iraq, while at the same time you "cut and run" on an American democracy? "Why" is the rehabilitation of a foreign nation, no matter what it costs ($600 billion and counting), more economically viable than the rehabilitation of America's most important port, the cradle of its already compromised need for oil and gas? I would bring up the point of New Orleans being a unique cultural Mecca, and the birthplace of American's sole indigenous creation -- jazz -- but something tells me the guy would have escaped on his mountain bike by then.

What this diffusion of New Orleans' importance to the nation has done, whether by design or not, is bring to the forefront various blueprints for the city's reinvention that in appearance and quality seem much like what the makers of diet soda chose to heap upon the once "real thing" -- a product not as dark and sweet, but not as bad for you either. "New Orleans Lite" if you will.

As someone who lived in New York City both during and after Sept. 11, I can assure you there was never a moment's doubt as to "if" or "how" that city would be rebuilt. The only question was how quickly it would get done. Nor was there a word mentioned about minimizing the space available to that world of criminals, derelicts and professional hucksters, some of the latter posting six- and seven-figure salaries, who regularly floated across the trade tower's neighborhood. It was all to be remade in honor of what had been in place before that tragic day, a different design but the same spirit, reinstating both the good with the bad, and doing so without any hint of reluctance or reproach.

So again, "Why not New Orleans?"

Could it be that the identification, sometimes fairly, of the city's (and the state's for that matter) corrupt nature was being co-opted into an argument against restoring New Orleans to its original essence; a truly eccentric, culturally kaleidoscopic, painfully backwards yet irreplaceable place? Were people out there, for whatever reason, taking advantage of this low-point in the city's history to impart upon those who are mostly unknowing and non-participating souls in the cycles of municipal graft some long overdue justice? Well, if cleanliness of character and reputation is to be the requisite for rebuilding American institutions in the wake of their destruction, then how come no one took pause when it came time to rebuild the Pentagon or the heart of Wall Street? Have any two spheres of influence perpetrated more dubious activities and results than those two? If we are to equate daily sin, or misguided intentions, with the need to protect and rebuild, God help Las Vegas should anything bad happen to it.

No, the answer is the Pentagon and World Trade Center had to be rebuilt, for countless reasons, brick by brick, block by hallowed city block, and so should New Orleans. What will need to accompany that effort is a rehabilitation of the city's psyche as well. For while it is easy to point to the watermarks left behind by the flooding, it is far more difficult to identify in sum the emotional wounds that are just as prevalent and in need of cleansing. With this in mind, it seems fairly obvious that the need to restore any American city to its original state in the wake of such physical and emotional devastation is not a matter of debate, but merely one of civic obligation. Holding the inhabitants of such a city hostage to the moral and financial posturing we are currently witnessing, when doing so accomplishes little more than to toy with the hearts and minds of those that have been toyed with enough, is in fact "unjust and un-American."

Maybe the real problem New Orleans is having in obtaining the kind of compassion New York received in the aftermath of 9/11 is that the deed which unfolded on that day was in itself so unexpected, so horrifying to behold, with the perpetrator's beliefs so visibly alien and easy to loathe. It's hard to stir up that kind of emotion for a tragedy that has been just lying in wait to happen, and the bad guys involved not in some fiery jihad, but a slow and methodical campaign of official malfeasance.

Sadly it seems, the majority of Americans don't care to know how or why New Orleans drowned. If they did, they could have easily learned by now. ("I mean, it was the hurricane, right? All that wind and rain and stuff?") But something tells me if they did find out, if they somehow absorbed in full detail the official incompetence and skullduggery which lies at the heart of this story, they could suddenly relate it to their own fragile existence, their own inherent need to be protected by those elected to protect, and they would start to get mad, they would begin as the gospel suggests, "to see the light."

They would understand en masse that it was not a hurricane that wasted New Orleans. It was the people next door. It was the state's long line of self-serving governors and representatives, certain levee boards and their crooked business schemes, and even higher up the political food chain -- Congress, the White House, and the Army Corp of Engineers. Maybe if people across America were made to understand that the corn they grow, the seafood they relish, the fabrics they manufacture, the gas they guzzle, the jazz and blues they have long enjoyed, never mind the economic wealth all that created and was subsequently passed down from one generation to the next, if people realized all that was intangibly aligned with this crazy place and the port of departure it represents, they might have a change of heart as to whether it is worth saving. If all that was made to happen, the people of America and their elected leaders could perhaps more easily accept their own role -- their own obligation -- to help rebuild New Orleans as quickly as possible, as safely as possible, no matter what it costs, no matter how they feel about the place or the people who run it. Millions regularly derided New York City and its abrupt, often-indefensible mannerisms prior to 9/11. But hardly anyone contemplated letting it die a slow and painful death in the days and months that followed the attacks. What people need to realize is that the very groups who botched the Katrina tragedy, and so brazenly continue to do so, will most likely do the same should something of equally dark proportions befall their own community. If that were to happen, my bet is they would start to yell and scream like the people down here because what Katrina represents is not the devastation of an American township, but rather a lethal assault on the American ideal.

The forces that enabled New Orleans to be destroyed are not particularly Southern in nature, either. Greed, avarice, denial and deceit are conditions that belong to all mankind, and their continued presence in our modern way of life have created a strange, prevailing sense that nothing matters anymore. As a result, things that do matter no longer receive the attention they deserve and the people of this great nation no longer experience the mutual respect they know is theirs to claim. This is what you call a self-fulfilling prophecy whose only purpose is to destroy a nation's sense of self, out of which nothing good ever comes to pass. But, deep down inside, I believe we each know that everything we do ultimately matters, and how we look out for our families and each other is what matters most. If citizens define the integrity of their city, it is only logical that a city defines the integrity of its citizens. Moreover, when the need arises to rebuild one at anytime, for any reason, we need not fear the call to do so, but instead we should relish the historical fact that almost any place can be made whole again, no matter what has transpired. Which once more raises the question -- why not New Orleans?

Roger Wilson was born in New Orleans and educated in Virginia. A stage and screen actor, he has also been a screenwriter for more than a decade. He recently moved back to New Orleans and is developing a feature film and documentary about the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.

Former Mayor Marc Morial spoke in eloquent terms - about the previous fates of places such as San Francisco, - Chicago, and New York City, and how each had been - "reborn, rebuilt and revitalized" following events that - threatened their very existence.
  • Former Mayor Marc Morial spoke in eloquent terms about the previous fates of places such as San Francisco, Chicago, and New York City, and how each had been "reborn, rebuilt and revitalized" following events that threatened their very existence.

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