Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Castles of New Orleans

Over at Reason, Matt Welch has done great work following up on many of the rumors that spilled out of New Orleans.

Now, in the New York Times Magazine, Michael Lewis recounts his visit to check on the old family home just days after Katrina.

note: if the link asks you to log on, use blogger for both ID and password

Misinformation was rampant:
I also knew, or thought I knew, that right up to Thursday night, there had been just two houses in Uptown New Orleans with people inside them. In one, a couple of old coots had barricaded themselves behind plywood signs that said things like "Looters Will Be Shot" and "Enter and Die." The other, a fortlike house equipped with a massive power generator, was owned by Jim Huger - who happened to grow up in the house next door to my parents. (When I heard that he had the only air-conditioning in town and I called to ask if I could borrow a bed, he said, "I'm that little kid you used to beat on with a Wiffle Ball bat, and I gotta save your ass now?") In Jim Huger's house, until the night before, several other young men had holed up, collecting weapons and stories. Most of these stories entered the house by way of a reserve officer in the New Orleans Police Department, a friend of Jim's, who had gone out in full uniform each day and come back with news directly from other cops. From Tuesday until Thursday, the stories had grown increasingly terrifying. On Thursday, a police sergeant told him: "If I were you, I'd get the hell out of here. Tonight they gonna waste white guys, and they don't care which ones." This reserve cop had looked around and seen an amazing sight, full-time New Orleans police officers, en masse, fleeing New Orleans. "All these cops were going to Baton Rouge to sleep because they thought it wasn't safe to sleep in New Orleans," he told me. He had heard that by the time it was dark "there wouldn't be a single cop in the city."

And then some took extraordinary measures:
I wandered down and met my first former Israeli commandos, along with their Uptown New Orleans employers, who had come to liberate their homes.
They had just landed Russian assault helicopters in Audubon Park. Not one, but two groups of Uptown New Orleanians had rented these old Soviet choppers, along with four-to-six-man Israeli commando units (platoons? squads?), and swooped down onto the soccer field beside the Audubon Zoo. Down, down, down they had come, then jumped out to, as they put it, "secure the perimeter." Guns aimed, eyes darting, no point on the compass uncovered. As a young man in this new militia later told me: "Hell, yes, I was scared. We didn't know what to expect. We thought Zulu nation might be coming out of the woods." But the only resistance they met was a zookeeper, who came out with his hands up.
All of this happened just moments before. Right here, in my hometown. All four men were still a little hopped up. The commandos went inside to "clear the house." A nice little yellow house just one block from my childhood home. Not a human being - apart from Ms. Perrier and me - for a mile in each direction. And yet they raised their guns, opened the door, entered and rattled around. A few minutes later they emerged, looking grim.
"You got some mold on the upstairs ceiling," one commando said gravely.

And some people just expect the worst:
My great-grandfather J. Blanc Monroe is dead and gone, but he didn't take with him the climate of suspicion between rich and poor that he apparently helped foster. On St. Claude Avenue, just below the French Quarter, there was a scene of indigents, old people and gay men employed in the arts fleeing what they took to be bombs being dropped on them by Army helicopters. What were being dropped were, in fact, ready-to-eat meals and water in plastic jugs. But falling from the sky, these missiles looked unfriendly, and when the jugs hit concrete, they exploded and threw up shrapnel. The people in the area had heard from the police that George W. Bush intended to visit the city that day, and they could not imagine he meant them any good - but this attack, as they took it, came as a shock. "Run! Run!" screamed a man among the hordes trying to outrun the chopper. "It's the president!"

But maybe there is hope:
The late great novelist Walker Percy, a lifelong New Orleanian, was attracted to the psychological state of the ex-suicide. The ex-suicide is the man who has tried to kill himself and failed. Before his suicide attempt, he had nothing to live for. Now, expecting to be dead and discovering himself alive, something inside him awakens: so long as he's alive, he might as well give living a shot. The whole of New Orleans is in this psychological state. 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.


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