Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, devastating an area seven times the size of Manhattan, flooding 80 percent of the city, ruining buildings, forcing a million people to flee, and stranding millions more in misery. Many of us remember this as a great failure of George W. Bush’s administration and of his appointee to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” Brown. Jason Berry, in City of a Million Dreams, a sweeping history of his native city, thinks it was something else: “the worst civil engineering disaster in American history.” (Brown does not get a single reference in the index.) The levees that were supposed to protect a city largely constructed at or below sea level were badly designed and poorly maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. The coastal forests and wetlands, which could once have absorbed a storm surge, had been built over. Local authorities were incompetent, especially the mayor, Ray Nagin (who later went to prison for tax evasion, fraud, and bribery).
Some of those who fled the city considered not going back, and Mayor Nagin seemed to encourage that, “touting a ‘market-driven recovery,’ which many people took as a dog whistle for keeping the poor from returning,” Berry writes. New Orleans was 67 percent black before Katrina. It is still 60 percent black. Black organizers encouraged people to return, reminding them especially of cultural institutions they had created. Wynton Marsalis, of the great New Orleans musician family, led an effort to restore the “talent pool,” largely focused on the city’s deep heritage of jazz music.
Berry fled at first, but then came back. He already knew that New Orleans has a trick of not dying when it ought to. The city is a cheeky insult to the natural order, a mix of incongruous elements that somehow reinforce one another while trying to tear one another down. It has been the target of hurricanes and floods throughout its history—Hurricane Betsy killed eighty-one people in 1965. Fires long rivaled floods in deadliness—the fire of 1788 destroyed 856 buildings and 80 percent of all homes; that of 1794 destroyed 212 buildings in three hours. Yellow fever, carried by the city’s huge population of mosquitoes, leveled human populations. Changes in imperial masters (first French, then Spanish, then French again) altered the choreography of power without breaking a certain continuity. Slave revolts were often threatened and sometimes occurred. Pirates were both a menace to and carriers of trade. Yet from its birth in 1718, the city kept improbably springing back.
It is appropriate that this kaleidoscopic city had a kind of shapeshifter as its founder. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville,…
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