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Hurricane Season Brings Anxiety to New Orleans

June 2, 2006 at 4:35 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Our second take from New Orleans. It’s an insider’s view of the new hurricane season from guest essayist Chris Rose of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

CHRIS ROSE, New Orleans Times-Picayune: The hurricane season stands in front of New Orleans like a terrorist on the side of the road, burly pack tied to his chest, while we drive straight at him.

Forgive the melodrama, but you’d have to live here to fully understand.

The scary season opens

The National Hurricane Center recently tossed these predictions our way: There will be 16 named storms in the Gulf and the Atlantic this season, 10 full-fledged hurricanes, and perhaps six of those will be, quote, "intense."

Whatever label they attached to Katrina, in the final analysis, it was a Category 3 storm that made landfall in Mississippi. The idea that New Orleans' day of reckoning, our 100-year-storm has come and passed is a flighty notion, at best.

Living in New Orleans has always been brutal in summertime. Business and tourism slow to a crawl; conventions head for cooler northern cities; and the deadening heat and humidity create a thick, nearly viscous atmosphere through which to navigate.

"The Big Uneasy"

But now add the Katrina malaise that leaves us battered each morning before we've even had a cup of coffee.

Daily, headlines tell us that we're not ready, that the Band-Aids on our pumps, levees and flood gates are not yet in place. Call us "The Big Uneasy," a city with a collective case of existential dread.

The slow, sometimes imperceptible ravages of our community will begin again. Businesses that have been limping will fall. Families that are stressed to the breaking point will falter.

Alcohol and drug use are already off the charts here. News of local suicides pepper our daily water-cooler conversations.

Will people give up?

The powerful images of this disaster -- helicopters, high water, looters and fires -- are long behind us. Now comes the slow and agonizing psychological plundering of the populace, impossible to capture on film and largely unnoticed outside of this city.

If -- when -- that first call comes to evacuate the city for a hurricane this summer, how many spouses will turn to the other during that tense gridlock, 16-hour drive to Houston and say, "I don't want to live like this anymore"?

That's a reasonable line of thinking. And if it is shared widely enough, we're toast. Many whose homes survived the flood's ravages are getting out now, all these months later, leaving for sunnier economic or emotional landscapes.

Those who continue on

All the money in the world can't save a city without people committed to making it happen. Tens of thousands still haven't come back to reclaim their homes or their property, and it seems unlikely that they'll choose the dead of this summer to do so.

But those of us left will go about the business of living and celebrating our culture in the weeks and months ahead in relative isolation, as our high holy celebrations of Mardi Gras and JazzFest are behind us.

And while we have one eye on the band and on the dance floor, the other will be trained on the weather report on TV, waiting for the news we don't want to hear, and hoping that that crazy-looking guy on the road ahead is not a harbinger of our doom but just another lost soul who stayed too long for Carnival and is now trying to find his way back home.

I'm Chris Rose.