Politics & Policy

The Big Paradox

A swirl of self-contradiction in New Orleans.

Nearly three months since Hurricane Katrina battered this glorious city, it has become the capitol of the Catch-22. The multiplicity of chicken-and-egg scenarios here could feed every FEMA employee in town.

Business owners who wish to re-open or expand to pre-Katrina levels face a daunting labor shortage. New Orleanians, finding jobs scarce, remain in exile. Shorthanded employers are reluctant to resume operations, so they stay shut, compounding joblessness.

Workers desperately need housing. Katrina harmed some 74 percent of local residences, 50,000 of which may be bulldozed, the Wall Street Journal reports. This ranges from modest wind damage, to mold-encrusted walls in structurally adequate homes, to the Lower Ninth Ward’s jaw-dropping obliteration. Countless houses there floated off their foundations before settling atop cars or street corners, sometimes blocks away. Restoring and creating residences, in turn, would be easier if carpenters and roofers themselves had accommodations.

Tourism might fare better if hotels, restaurants, and nightspots were more abundant. They, of course, might open more quickly if visitors proliferated–which would be likelier if lodging were plentiful.

Civic boosters here need to spread good news to attract conventioneers and venture capitalists, but emphasize bad news to keep aid coming. Fortunately (or not) preaching this contrary gospel is a snap.

Though many places are closed, it is easy to enjoy the Big Easy. Spectacular music again streams out of Donna’s, Maison Bourbon, the Maple Leaf, and other venues. Meuxbar’s tilapia in parchment is splendid, as are Yo Mama’s cheddar burgers, and Herbsaint’s Black Angus meatloaf. Bourbon Street’s saloons remain temples of modesty and self-restraint. One block south, Royal Street’s antiques and objets d’ art glisten while the Carousel Bar lazily revolves within the Hotel Monteleone. Most local landmarks are surprisingly intact, and 716 of the 720 live oaks along stately St. Charles Avenue are as avuncular as ever.

Such encouraging words, however, trivialize the vast needs that prevail here. Many returnees are in dire straits, as are tens of thousands of exiles. These Americans still require assistance. Their plight should keep the armies of compassion mobilized and, for better or worse, public relief flowing.

The city’s curfew also has New Orleans at loggerheads with itself. Local cops and military police in camouflaged Humvees send partiers home at 2:00 A.M. in the normally 24/7 French Quarter. One cop predicts that this will continue “for months.” As he explains, “Parts of this town are totally dark. Thieves can break in and rob houses, and we can’t even see them. If the Quarter stays open all night, that gives them an explanation they can offer for why they’re out, and where they are going.”

Restoring power could take quite a while.

“The word I got is that they’ll have lights on in New Orleans East in February,” the officer says. “In some parts of the Ninth Ward, they’ll never have lights again.”

This seems less a matter of political will than of electrical engineering.

“They turned on the lights in some neighborhoods,” this policeman says. “People had water damage in their sockets, and when the electricity hits them, you get fires.” This is a huge problem, as some parts of town still lack water pressure. Firefighters would struggle to extinguish such blazes, and might have to rely on buckets of river water dropped from the NOFD’s three helicopters: Voodoo I, Voodoo II, and Voodoo III.

So, in short, lifting the nighttime curfew would attract tourists who enjoy the French Quarter’s around-the-clock fun. But doing so while most of the city is dark could boost crime–news of which would scare away the very same visitors who are expected to lead New Orleans’s renaissance.

This frustrating circularity applies to flood control. Reinforcing the 300 miles of earthen levees and concrete floodwalls that shield New Orleans from surrounding waters is central to its recovery. “People aren’t willing to re-invest in New Orleans and in this area unless they know that their investments are protected by the levees,” says Steve Pettus, managing partner of Canal Street’s acclaimed Palace Café. He envisions a late-December reopening after he has repaired roof damage and replaced some $250,000 worth of what has become high-end Sonoma County and Loire Valley vinegar. “The United States has benefited from New Orleans…When it costs money to rebuild these levees, it’s not just an investment in New Orleans; it’s an investment in America.”

Enhancing barriers from Category 3- to Category 5-level would allow maximum cyclonic prophylaxis. Naturally, it’s not that simple. A three-way tug of war links the competing needs to protect communities up and down the Mississippi River from spring floods by building levees, keeping the Big Muddy moving to facilitate shipping, and diverting it to allow its silt to replenish the Atchafalaya Basin and marshlands above and below New Orleans. Letting the river take its natural course each spring would flood homes and businesses in St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes but rebuild the area’s fragile coastal defenses, though this could hinder economically vital port operations. Hemming the Mississippi between levees, however, speeds St. Bernard’s and Plaquemines’s disappearance and hastens the day when New Orleans finds itself below sea level with Gulf waves crashing regularly against its ever-steeper ramparts.

The Big Easy is now the Big Paradox. As this entire region reels, its chief city attempts resurrection within a swirl of self-contradiction.

Will New Orleans come roaring back, or become a much-reduced metropolis in both physical size and inhabitants? It already has shrunk from 462,269 residents in 2004 to some 70,000 today–an astonishing 85 percent depopulation.

“I don’t want to live in Colonial Williamsburg on the Mississippi,” says attorney Randy Boudreaux, whose family arrived here in the 1770s. “Charleston, South Carolina plus universities is not for me. I want to live in a real city.”

What happens next? A toppled traffic signal that lies flat on a sidewalk beside Orleans Avenue offers a Delphic answer. Down but not out, its lights simultaneously glow–both red and green.

Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Arlington, Va.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.

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