Tuesday, August 30, 2005


I remember visiting New Orleans about 10 years ago with Greg. There was a big meeting of the Geological Society of America there and thousands and thousands of geologist would converge on the city to give talks. He had an airplane ticket and a hotel room and I was at loose ends, so I decided to go with him and check it out. I wasn’t at all sure what I would think of the city.

I had been studying environmental history and had recently read John McPhee’s The Control of Nature. From the point of view of environmental history, New Orleans should not exist. It is located on the Mississippi Delta, a rapidly changing environment. The Mississippi River has been trying to change its course for some time and the Army Corps of Engineers, like King Canute, has been trying to hold it back from doing this. New Orleans is below sea level, and maintained only by levees and giant turbines. It is not a natural phenomena, but a technological marvel, maintained by enormous government subsidies, barely hanging in there in environmental terms. What a waste.

And I thought not just about the environmental history of this area, but also what I had heard about the culture of the city. It seemed to be famous for many things that I was not especially fond of: unhealthy food (notably deep fried seafood), heavy drinking, wild partying, corruption, racism, and prostitution to name a few. I wasn’t sure how much of an attraction the history and music would hold for me in the face of these other traits. But why not find out? I searched the web for listings of vegetarian restaurants in New Orleans and away we went.

Greg was busy most of the day, so I was on my own, and, despite my skepticism (and despite the vegetarian restaurants that were heavy on the mayonnaise) I had a fantastic time. It was easy to dismiss New Orleans from afar, but seeing it firsthand was amazing. It existed and existed in a big way. I loved the vibrant culture and energy I found there, the diversity, the depth of history. It was beautiful, poetic, unique, unorganized, and third world. I found a real living, breathing, thriving place, a cultural treasure. Despite its very real flaws, I saw it was a force that was not going to go away anytime soon. You really had to see it to believe it. By the end of my brief visit, I had concluded that, despite the fact that it shouldn’t exist, the world would be a sadder place without New Orleans. It was worth preserving.

I have thought about this conclusion a lot these past two days. These two facts, that on the one hand New Orleans should not exist, and that on the other it is a vibrant national treasure, have been brought into stark relief by hurricane Katrina. It is unthinkable that people and their houses are underwater, that the city is not functioning, and that New Orleans was not even the hardest hit area. The fear, the distress, the inhumane conditions are hard to imagine. But yes, it was predictable. New Orleans, that beautiful jewel, was a sitting duck, a disaster waiting to happen. It is true that New Orleans should not exist, but I for one am glad that it does. I have confidence and hope that its unique energy and culture will endure for some time to come, but I am sorry for the suffering.

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