August 31, 2005

The Drowning Death of a City: New Orleans

By now, I assume everyone knows that New Orleans is dying, drowning as the levees have been breached and the city turns into a tidal arm of the Gulf of Mexico. The images are all over the television and all over the newspapers. Even the NY Times has devoted four or five full pages of coverage to the devastation in Louisiana and Mississippi. People rescued, people dead, people trapped, people dying, babies being born, looters stealing everything not nailed down. Looks like a bad science fiction novel about the world ending. But, as bad as it may be, and I have so many friends living down there who I cannot get in touch with and who I worry about, I want to focus on a different issue.

Cities can be rebuilt. New Orleans can be drained of the water, the snakes sent packing back into the swamps, the alligators captured and either eaten (trust me on this, they're pretty yummy) or relocated, and the bricks stacked back up. Indeed, the Times was forecasting in the months ahead a huge economic boom for the area fueled by federal assistance and private insurance money payouts (assuming, of course, that the damage was caused by wind and not water -- a tough argument ahead for many).

But even as the city is rebuilt and life begins again, there are some things that cannot be replaced. What will be gone will be the cultural heritage and artifacts that served to connect us with our ancestors. What am I talking about? The museums have died, the cultural repositories of our collective past and memories, and with them, the city dies.

There are some wonderful museums in New Orleans: the D-Day Museum; the Civil War Museum (in a great Richardson building just off Lee Circle); the New Orleans Museum of Art; the City of New Orleans Museum; the State of Louisiana Museum in 8 historic buildings around Jackson Square; and the Mardi Gras Museum. The flood waters will not deal kindly with these places. The waters will erase our memories just as the diaries and letters home of the young Civil War soldiers will surely perish. The paintings. I can't even begin to think about the paintings. All of the ephemera will be just that, ephemeral and evanescent.

I include in this the great libraries at Tulane University and Loyola University, two of the many colleges in New Orleans. I assume that they are gone, along with their collections of rare books and prints.

And what about the parish churches and courthouses, with their centuries of records of births, deaths, wills, land transfers, famous disputes, and all the records that make up our collective heritage? Again, I assume they are gone.

You can rebuild a city.

You cannot remake a heritage. So, while I mourn, quietly, for the city and those who have lost everything to the hurricane, I ask you to join with me and mourn the loss to us all of that which connected us to our past. We are a young nation, still, and our past is always with us and thus even more precious.

Finally, and again, I have not seen anything on this, what happened to the poor animals at Audubon Zoo?

Last night, and this is what got me thinking about all of this, I ran into an old friend on the train, someone I have not seen in 15 years. It wasn't even a train that he normally ever takes. I wasn't sure I even recognized him, but then I saw the tie -- a Southern tie. The Yacht Club. The SYC. That clinched it for me. He told me that Southern, where I had passed many happy moments, had burned to the ground. You can see it here.

U P D A T E: Sept. 1, 2005

From the New Orleans Times Picayune:

Floodwater stops short of City Park museum

By Dante Ramos and Doug MacCash
Staff Writers

The New Orleans Museum of Art survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath without significant damage.

But when Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives arrived in the area Wednesday, NOMA employees holed up inside the museum were left in a quandary:

FEMA wanted those evacuees to move to a safer location, but there was no way to secure the artwork inside.
Six security and maintenance employees remained on duty during the hurricane and were joined by 30 evacuees, including the families of some employees.

Harold Lyons, a security console operator who stayed on at the museum, said FEMA representatives were the first outsiders to show up at the museum in days.

They immediately tried to persuade staffers to leave the building. That would have left no one to protect the museum’s contents, and no one inside the museum had the authority to give that order, Lyons said as he inspected the grounds.

Museum Director John Bullard was on vacation and assistant Director Jacquie Sullivan had taken a disabled brother to Gonzales.

“We can’t just leave and turn out the lights on the say-so of someone we don’t know,’’ Lyons said.

The phones inside the museum had failed. Lyons asked a reporter to pass a message to Sullivan as soon as possible.

Interviewed by telephone, Sullivan said she had been in close contact with emergency management officials all day Wednesday. State Police had promised to take her back to the museum at 7 a.m. Thursday, she said.

City Park was littered with fallen trees, but evacuees’ cars, clustered around the museum’s walls, were mostly unscathed. The museum itself was spared any wind damage, and floodwater had not reached the building.

Inside, the museum’s generators whirred away, providing air conditioning to preserve the priceless artworks.

Sullivan said museum workers had taken down some pieces in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden before the storm.

But a towering modernist sculpture by Kenneth Snelson was reduced to a twisted mess in the lagoon.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 31, 2005 09:45 AM | TrackBack

For all the devastation, and the horrific images, my tears finally flowed yesterday when I read a story of a 220 year-old landmark tree, whose branches reached underground and back to the sky again, thriving, that had been uprooted and lost. For some reason, the mental imagery of this against the backdrop of my recent visit there broke my heart in a million brittle pieces.

Posted by: Jennifer at August 31, 2005 10:54 AM

I know all of those things are important and monumental to history. However, I can deal with their loss in exchange for hearing that my friend Judy, and her family, are safe.

Posted by: Linda at August 31, 2005 11:41 AM


/no words

Posted by: Amber at August 31, 2005 11:45 AM

I read somewhere yesterday (maybe the Times-Picayune) that the zoo was all right, one of the higher points in the city. I hope this is still the case.

Posted by: nic at August 31, 2005 04:54 PM

Many animals in the Miami Zoo were killed or set free when Hurricane Andrew blew through in 1992. There is a big colony of parrots breeding and flying around South Florida now that escaped from the zoo.

This is sort of hopeful: Miami's zoo teems with new life 10 years after Hurricane Andrew

Posted by: Amy at August 31, 2005 05:29 PM

Another area of cultural loss: constitution hall & all the jazz greats.
very very sad.

Posted by: GrammarQueen at August 31, 2005 05:32 PM

RP -m Watched the footage. Sorry. Hope all of your friends are OK. One hopes that museums had the presence of mind to secure what they could as best they could before Katrina vented her fury.

Posted by: Mark at August 31, 2005 09:29 PM

I am glad that I had a chance two years ago to go to New Orleans and enjoy it.Unfortunatly I went with a bunch of losers who did not care for more then party,so other then BUrbon STreet I saw nothing.Yet,I know that there was some cool stuff which is most likely now gone forever!

Posted by: LW at September 1, 2005 02:23 PM
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