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New Orleans Still Being Rebuilt Two Years After Katrina

August 20, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TRANSCRIPT

CHRIS ROSE, NewsHour Essayist: It’s August 2007, and where does the time go when you’re having — well, are we having fun yet? Hard to believe it’s been two years since everything changed for folks living on the Gulf Coast. Though the numbers are hard to pinpoint, it’s clear that 100,000, 200,000, maybe more, have resettled elsewhere, for good.

It wasn’t long ago that our mayor was claiming that not only would New Orleans rise to its pre-Katrina population of 475,000, but that it would eventually climb to 600,000. Our mayor, he drinks the Kool-Aid.

The rest of us are stuck in a reality-based world. Then again, “reality” conjures physical and mental landscapes that make sense, and that is definitely not the case here in the new New Orleans, where locals have dispensed altogether with the term “return to normalcy” in favor of something closer to, “What is normal?”

It’s two years into this thing, and we’re still a community in delicate balance — architecturally, financially and emotionally fluttering, wildly, crazily, sometimes painfully. I’ve never known anywhere else where it was so difficult just to stay sane.

Sure, the core of our tourism and convention economies are intact and functioning — that’s what’s keeping us alive — but the bigger sprawl that constitutes the city and its suburbs is still in many places a surrealistic dreamscape, a clash of desolation and renewal, hope and despair, comedy and tragedy.

What was that line from the movie “JFK,” which owes its provenance to Winston Churchill? “It’s a mystery, wrapped in a riddle, inside an enigma.” That’s New Orleans these days, or maybe that’s even an oversimplification. I don’t know.

I know this: There is no grass in the marshes and wetlands, but it’s 10-feet tall in some neighborhoods, as those who have not returned let their properties go to nature. Everyone in the city just got their property reassessed, and it went over like — well, like a hurricane. Insurance rates, for those who can get insurance, are through the roof — that is, if you’ve got a roof.

The most common thing you hear from first-time visitors to the city is still, “I had no idea it looked like this.” And that’s the thing: If you haven’t seen it, you have no idea. Hell, we hardly have any idea, and we live in it every day. And living in an historic city as it struggles to right itself and redefine itself is by default a meaningful existence.

There’s nearly a tribal spirit of camaraderie and stick-to-it-ness among those who are still here, those who keep slogging on, the urban pioneers, thrill-seekers, risk-takers, artists, and those just plain lost in the thrall of what still remains America’s most interesting, dangerous, creative, tolerant and sexy city.

Where will it all lead? What will we become? Like I could possibly know. Anyone who tells you they know hasn’t lived here long enough or has lived here too long.

And that’s the thing about New Orleans: The longer you live here, the more unfit you become to live anywhere else. It’s just different in a million little ways, and there’s a whole bunch of us committed to keeping it just so.

I’m Chris Rose.