I know I’ve been numb. I’ve been watching the TV coverage on CNN with fascination, yet with incredulity. There’s something in me that has been unable to accept the reality of what I see on TV and what I read on the net and in the papers, even though my mind knows that it is are true. I remember that after WWII there were groups of Jewish people going around trying to spread the truth of the horror of the Holocaust. If I recall correctly, one group went to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to present their evidence, and after looking at it he said, "I can’t believe it." When they started to protest he stopped them and said, "I don’t dispute the accuracy of anything you’ve shown me. I'm sure all of it is true. It’s just that I simply can’t believe it."
I’m afraid I know what he meant. Even as I have seen the destruction on TV, I have been unable to believe it. You mean I won’t be able to drive over to Domelisa’s, pick up a few shrimp po-boys, and bring them home for lunch? Cummon!!
With the second flooding of New Orleans due to Hurricane Rita, one that may well be worse than the first and may not spare my home, as the first flood did, it’s becoming impossible not to believe it.
Someone I dearly love is dead.
That someone is New Orleans, or Old New Orleans I guess we should call it. That expression always used to refer to the ante-bellum city, or perhaps the late 19th century vision of sublime and elegant decay combined with unrepentant debauchery, a vision which the city held onto for decades, as it was always popular with the tourists from 1880 on.
Now it means, before Katrina. God, that hurts. Whatever is rebuilt on that location, the New Orleans I knew and loved is gone, gone, gone forever. For it depended not just on the buildings which have suffered such damage and destruction, but on the people, and the neighborhood cultures, and the civic traditions. Such as passing down the music within the family from father to son to niece to nephew. Or the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of Ninth Ward working class blacks rehearsing their performances once a week for a year before Fat Tuesday, working on their New Suits all that time. The Ninth Ward has just been flooded for the second time; even if some homes and businesses were conceivably salvagable after the first flood, they can't possibly be salvagable now. Even the upper class white society participated in civic traditions in ways that never happened elsewhere, maintaining a form of noblesse oblige by footing the bill for many of the most expensive Mardi Gras krewes and parades, like Rex or Comus, which gave great free entertainment to millions whom they would never have admitted to membership in their clubs.
All these things are traditions, and traditions depend utterly on continuity, on the unbroken chain of the passage of knowledge and practice from elder to younger. Break that chain and the tradition dies.
The chain is broken. It cannot be otherwise. The people who are the keepers of all these traditions, from the richest to the poorest, are now scattered to the winds. I read a poll that said that 55 % of the people in the country report that Katrina refugees have arrived in their cities or communities. And that was before the arrival of the terrified millions that have fled Texas as Rita approaches. Many, many of these, from both Louisiana and Texas, will never return. They will be too scared to return, and who can blame them?
Something will be rebuilt where Old New Orleans was. It has to be, as the nation and the world need some sort of city to run the major port that must exist at the mouth of the Mississippi for the global economy to function. But whatever it is, it will not be the city that I came to find fascinating, whose history I studied, the city I moved to, and the city I came to love.
That city is dead, and I will mourn her all my life.