Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The recurring anniversary of wilderness

by Jim Gabour

The date has come round again, and in search of a fresh feelgood headline, national statisticians are reporting vast numbers in the news, indicating hugely increased percentages of returned population for New Orleans. They do this from afar, reading computer readouts compiled by other distant creators of factoids.

Those of us who live here can tell you the reported numbers are for the most part untrue. This is verified in a front-page article in the New York Times ("Patchwork City: One Billion Dollars Later, A City Still at Risk", 17 August 2007; also here), which has a graph showing two-thirds of the city still 50%-90% below its pre-Katrina population.

That documentation is welcome, because the cunningly inflated statistics from previous sources provided false hope for not only locals but also for those living outside New Orleans, for people living in the Real World. For people, that is, who want us off their backs, their minds, their cumulative consciousness.

People who thought that if New Orleans's population was coming back, things must be OK.

But the former population of the Crescent City is not coming back, not in anywhere near the positive growth figures flaunted by White House spokespersons. Figures are manipulable, and population is fluid. That is apparent on even the most superficial examination of the George W Bush administration's assessments.

And things are not OK.

An insecure city

The west bank of the city, largely undamaged by Katrina, is indeed recovering remarkably well, and that area is the basis of many of the population-increase figures, though the majority of people who lived in New Orleans prior to the storm did not live there. They lived on the east bank, the portion more widely known to and visited by tourists.

Today the east bank is barely here. Sure, the French Quarter and much of the central business district and Garden District remain, but outside of a few brave enclaves of homes in isolated neighbourhoods, New Orleans is now basically the same sixteen-to-twenty-block-wide string of homes that followed the course of the Mississippi River in 1851.

Many, many fewer people. And yet that same east bank is the centre of the city's resurgence in crime.

The FBI released figures this past month which indicate that in 2006 New Orleans was the deadliest place in America, had more murders per 100,000 people than even the worst urban areas. Realise, that assessment was concocted with the statisticians inflating our population enough to say that we actually had multiples of 100,000 people living here.

In 2007, the homicide rate already runs well ahead of that in 2006. It seems likely that New Orleans this year will once again be named the "murder capital of America".

We do not relish this distinction.

The bloodbath continues in spite of the governor calling in a squadron of national-guard helicopters equipped with night-vision goggles and heat sensors to hover over the city, seeking out and tracking the Bad Guys. The army is still in our streets, their Humvees filled with automatic weapons. An almost completely-restored police department roams crime hotspots in donated cars. State police officers walk the tourist areas in groups of two or three. And now choppers hover over our homes in the darkness.

We are also armed with the ever-capacious mouth of our mayor, and with the seemingly limitless capacity for indecision, and bad decision, embodied by our local, state, and federal governments.

They seem to want us out of here, want us to go away. Since we threw out New Orleans's bloated system of seven separate assessors this past spring, the lame-duck bureaucrats have had their vengeance, with home assessments and taxation skyrocketing. Taxes on my own homestead-exempted house went from an average of $79 for the past twelve years to almost $4,000 for next year. Hurricane "insurance" is now an exponentially rising item on both water and electric bills. Homeowner's insurance, even in protected and undamaged areas, has doubled and trebled.

While the real people continue their exodus, there remains a never-ending line of politicians self-destructing, bloodying each other in their greed and arrogance, falling over each other in their eagerness to pick another dime from the corpse. In the weeks before the Katrina anniversary, yet another city-council member was led to jail for bribery and embezzlement.

And the other, armed, Bad Guys, undaunted, keep killing each other, and us, the foolhardy souls who continue living in the midst of gun-studded, bloody wilderness.

The edge of life

Wilderness. The Bayou Sauvage wilderness area, an anomaly since it is actually located within the city limits of a major metropolitan area, New Orleans, now fits a larger definition of that word. In 2007 it shares characteristics with the more traditionally urban mortar-and-stone structure of uptown and downtown New Orleans, as they spread from beyond the immediate environs of the river.

That is to say, Bayou Sauvage is barely functional as a living habitat for anyone or anything.

Prior to Katrina, Sauvage existed as a federal park, beautiful though fragile wetlands and swamps, barely above sea level, curled on the brackish southern periphery of Lake Pontchartrain. It swarmed with fish and gators, waterfowl, egrets, ibises and heron, and large predatory birds, including bald-headed eagles. It flowered in the spring and its short dunes held back the storms in the fall. Manatees had in past years made their way into its shallow protected waters.

My brothers and I boated and fished Bayou Sauvage on many occasions, taking joy in the completely untamed nature of the place. It was magnificent.


Until the Big One brought much of it to water level, poisoned the trees with salt and pollution, and destroyed nesting grounds and food sources. Though we continue to hope for its rebirth, and we try to coax life back into its perimeters.

Generous, big-hearted volunteers from across America are taking part in replanting, building up undergrowth to hold the dunes and earth in place. Most of the city's residents donated their 2006 Christmas trees to the wetlands efforts. The trees were bundled and sunk at the swamp's edge, so silt and sand buildup would again form over the years as a protective barrier to storm surge. But the key words here are "over the years".

For now and the immediate future, the Wilderness Area sadly, but more rightly, bears the name.

The roots are torn

Meanwhile, also within the city limits, 70% of the city's overall tree canopy was damaged or destroyed in the storm. City Park, second in size only to New York's Central Park, took much of the brunt, with many of the massive live oaks' and river oaks' root systems submerged in salty lake water for over two weeks.

The long corridor of oaks leading up to the New Orleans Museum of Art, a green canopy of dozens upon dozens of century-old trees, all died in the winds and immersion. Every tree is gone. The removal of the dead trunks and branches finally accomplished, workers began bringing in living replacements this summer. But oaks grow slowly, and they will not regain their past stature in my lifetime.

Elsewhere, the trees on St Charles Avenue became entangled in the streetcar lines and were brutalised by the flying steel poles and cables that powered the cars. When the army first entered the city, its mandate was to clear the streets. And so the soldiers did, though not gently. Hundreds of tons of limbs were removed and trucked to landfills. Even though the trunks of most of its tattered trees still stand, that landmark avenue is no longer the sculpturally-perfect shaded venue it was. The poles and electrical lines are being repaired at this very moment, but the trees themselves must do their own work, rebuild their own limbs and greenery.

Again, I will not live to see it restored to its former grandeur.

Even after two years of day-to-day living, it is quite hard to accept all this. The damage to both social and physical environments remains, even seems to expand.

I am grudgingly ageing, and while time is passing quickly, I have less than no faith in government and its machinations to help speed recovery here.

Consequently, today I am forced to realise that, in spite of good intentions and massive good faith on the part of so many loving and concerned individuals, I personally may never see New Orleans emerge again.

From the wilderness.

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This article is re-published by permission of Jim Gabour and openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines.

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