October 11 2005
What Really Happened After Hurricane Katrina
I've been known to be a biting critic of best-selling author Michael Lewis, whose writing can often be flaccid, silly, and merely yuppistically correct when it ought to be insightful. But when Lewis is on his game, there's hardly anyone better.
In this New York Times Magazine article, Lewis, a New Orleans native, descrbes his return to his home town during the height of the Katrina flood and what he found there (hat tip: Virginia Postrel). Namely, what he found was that large parts of the city were not underwater, including many older black neighborhoods (the flood, Lewis points out, was not racially discriminatory but architecturally discriminatory), that there was very little looting, that all those Superdome tales of rape and murder were urban legends, and that the residents of New Orleans who chose to stay in the city could do a darned good job of taking care of themselves. They came a-cropper only when various incompetent government authorities, from the feckless Mayor Ray Nagin to the still more feckless FEMA, swooped in to take over their lives, rendering them highly unpleasant:
"New Orleans now had a new word for what happens to people unlucky enough to fall into the hands of the authorities purporting to save them: domed. As in 'I just got domed,' or 'If the police knock on your door, don't answer, "cause you might get domed.' To be domed is to be herded into a domed sports building - the Superdome, the Astrodome, the Maravich basketball arena at Louisiana State University - for your own safety."
Furthermore, Lewis concludes that the Katrina flood might have been the best thing that has happened recently to New Orleans, an economically and socially crumbling city that had been staying alive--just barely--mostly on tourist dollars:
"The waters did their worst but still left the old city intact. They did to the public schools and the public-housing projects what the government should have done long ago. They called forth tens of billions of dollars in aid, and the attention of energetic people, to a city long starved of capital and energy. For the first time in my life, outsiders are pouring into the city to do something other than drink. For the first time in my life, the city is alive with possibilities. For the first time in my life, it doesn't matter one bit who is born to be a king. Whatever else New Orleans is right now, it isn't stagnant. As I left, I thought about what an oddly characteristic thing it would be if it was a flood that saved New Orleans."
Thsi is a must-read, if for the shimmering writing alone. And it's a nice riposte to all those Mainstream Media journos who were so busy congratulating themselves for working themselves into a moral lather of Bush-bashing over Katrina that they failed to get the story.