The New Orleans’ Musicians Who Saved the City Post-Katrina

Max Becherer/AP
Max Becherer/AP

The money may have come from Washington, but 10 years after Katrina, the city’s true rebirth came from within.

As the media descend for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is a robust city with a booming $800 million film industry, a burgeoning digital economy, rising real estate values and a solid growth curve. The population is approaching 90 percent of the 457,000 people who lived there when the place nearly drowned on international television starting August 29, 2005.

Washington saved New Orleans with a financial lifeline, at least $19.5 billion from FEMA alone, as the New Orleans Advocate reports. The money came slowly in the early years, the spigot quickening in the five years since Mitch Landrieu became mayor. The Rockefeller Foundation contributed $6.5 million for citywide planning. Congress also allocated $9 billion to assist under-insured residential owners in the Road Home program, a grant process that became a byzantine scandal.

Private investment followed the flow of federal dollars. The business district is becoming an upscale residential neighborhood. The city’s rebirth shows in building projects, streets that are cleaner than at any time in living memory, a robust scene of music clubs, restaurants, and art galleries.

New Orleans is the American city with the deepest African identity. The shadow-story of the rebirth is the resilience of musicians, artists, and tradition-bearers who came back, against the odds, when it was a shattered mud town in fall 2005. Culture is the life force here, a powerful current of memory and rituals that proved vital to the city’s resurrection.

The life force springs from a history of blacks, many of them poor, whose music and folkways had a shaping role in the town’s unique identity, even by melting pot standards. That culture came to the city’s rescue in its worst crisis, only to face political incompetence and sleazy scheming of a social Darwinist tilt. The city that was 67 percent African-American in 2005 is about 59 percent so today.

Two narrative lines—a cultural resurgence crucial to the city’s return, and the early role of inept, or cynical officials in response to the flood—have registered in several films and books that open a viewfinder on the post-Katrina narrative. The culture that returned to a broken city ended up, as cultures will do, spotlighting episodes of political betrayal.

In the last few years, the architecture and roots culture became a magnet for young people, reversing years of brain drain. Mayor Landrieu inherited a dysfunctional city and proved a catalyst in rebuilding infrastructure with funds from FEMA and other federal agencies, charting a new urban path.

Landrieu’s efforts followed an aching half-decade of blunders by Mayor Ray Nagin (now in a federal prison) and cynical ploys by state officials and lesser lights at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, who engineered a big new hospital in New Orleans. The $1.2 billion University Medical Center replaced Charity Hospital, a 14-story art deco tower built in the Depression on the muscle of Senator Huey Long. Charity is a rust-stained hulk awaiting redevelopment. Alex John Glustrom’s documentary Big Charity provides an outline of one of the great boondoggles of recent American politics, a scheme that wasted mountains of federal money, more on which directly.

Media coverage of Katrina altered American politics. After the initial disaster coverage, journalists seized on a story of man-made error—the levees buckled because of flawed design and maintenance by a federal agency, the Army Corps of Engineers. A hurricane expert at LSU who raised this issue forcefully and eloquently, Ivor van Heerden, co-authored a bestseller, The Storm, and was fired by LSU, fearful of jeopardized federal contracts.

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Source: The Daily Beast | Jason Berry