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The Forgotten City


In the neighborhoods severely hit by floodwaters, what I did not see was any visible government aid for reconstruction. Yes, inarguably, much debris has been removed. But had I not known when Katrina had hit, I would have thought it was the week before. Minus the water, many neighborhoods look virtually exactly as they did in September. Six months from now, they may still look the same.

I saw no armed forces, no National Guard, no large earthmovers, no bands of workers of any sort. I saw only a few homeowners and neighbors, still wearing masks and pulling flooded items out of their moldy homes that bore a waterline some 5 feet to 12 feet above the foundation. I saw some residents living in FEMA trailers on their lots. But mostly, I saw neighborhoods with no residents at all. Walking the streets, I heard mostly silence: no hammers, chainsaws, buzz saws, or earth-diggers. Where is the progress? Where is the full force of the American will and know-how? Where is the full faith and credit of the federal, state and local government agencies? The citizens are angry, ready to vote a lot of local, state and national officials out of office.

The city will exist, virtually no matter what. Its locale and port are invaluable to every U.S. citizen. When the city and its port are not functioning, the financial cost of countless consumer products rises across America. And if the coastal wetlands are not properly managed, the future cost of gas and oil for Americans could exceed anything experienced to date.

The question is in what format will New Orleans exist? I am not an engineer or an expert, but I have studied and spoken to some who are in order to form my own opinions. Decisions must be made: This stasis must end.

First, the city will exist within a smaller footprint. No politician wants to choose and then inform neighborhoods (of all races) that their homes will not be rebuilt so that their lots will become future runoffs for the drainage of excess water, but the reality of the situation is clear. The financially strapped city will not be able to afford to provide utilities, police, hospitals, fire protection and more to neighborhoods of just a few scattered residents.

In order to achieve this consolidation, the federal government must buy these homes as soon as possible at a fair price from the current owners, who are now struggling to live — often out of state — while continuing to pay a mortgage on a doomed house.

Second, the decades-long erosion of the coastal wetlands of south Louisiana must be reversed. Environmentalists have long known that the human-engineered path of the Mississippi River was depriving the southernmost parts of the state of badly needed river silt that would have otherwise naturally replenished coastal erosion from hurricanes and oil and gas development. Now the city has paid the ultimate price. Acres of coastal wetlands are disappearing at an incredible rate, depriving New Orleans of the natural barrier that had long protected it. At the same time, the shrinking polar ice caps are raising the water levels in the Gulf of Mexico. The notion that New Orleans could someday resemble Venice is not outlandish.

In order to reverse this, Louisiana must take expensive steps to redirect river silt back into the coastal wetlands. Yet this solution is far less expensive than erecting never-ending man-made barriers around the city. Funding this initiative does not have to be a mere handout. One of the reasons that Louisiana has been such a poor state is that it receives only a fraction of the revenue from the oil and gas it provides the country — less than other states receive. A stroke of the pen could bring Louisiana the funding to protect its wetlands and assist in New Orleans' restoration.

Holding Mardi Gras this year was a stroke of genius. Knowing that the media would again be focusing on New Orleans as the six-month anniversary of Katrina arrived, a delegation of some 30 U.S. senators and congressmen then made their own trek to the city in the days immediately following Mardi Gras, lest they be accused of forgetting about the Crescent City.

I am convinced this visit would never have happened had Mardi Gras not pushed New Orleans back onto the national radar. Early indications are that most members of the visiting delegation were as shocked as I am that so little has been done to rehabilitate the damaged portions of the city.

So what is one to do?

First, contact your congressional representatives. Inform them that you want Congress to allocate more of Louisiana's oil and gas revenues to Louisiana.

Second, inform them that you realize that the future of New Orleans affects your future, the cost of your goods and of your fuel, and that you support the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Third, identify a charity you might support regarding Katrina relief efforts.

Fourth, make plans to visit New Orleans! The French Quarter and many other areas abound with music, food and enchanting scenes. The aquarium, D-Day Museum and so much more are open. The symphony has performances remaining this season. The Garden District is beautiful, and the riverfront remains a magnet of activity. The city and its businesses need your tourist dollars.

As I listened to the stories of my many friends who had evacuated New Orleans and then returned, I was struck by how welcoming their neighbors across the United States had been in receiving them. And then I realized: Not only can Americans be so gracious, many of them also recall how welcoming New Orleanians have always been to them when visiting. The City That Care Forgot is well-remembered by many. Please ask that our elected officials do the same. S

Antonio Garcia is director of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

© 2006 Antonio Garcia.


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