When Kim and I honeymooned in New Orleans back in October, 1996, she found a limo driver whose reservation hadn't shown up and he gave us a ride in to the Quarter. We were utterly exhausted, making the trip more surreal than it otherwise would have been. But both of us, familiar with "bad neighborhoods" in other parts of the United States, were taken aback by the mixture of lawlessness and menace that seemed to permeate large portions of the city. Throughout our stay, we regularly ventured into areas we were told to avoid -- pretty much anything outside the Quarter, the Garden District, Tulane, and Canal Street -- yet did so exercising even more caution than our years living in high-crime parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and the Washington D.C. area had taught us to expend. Even the short walk to the old cemeteries -- surely destroyed for good by now -- outside the Quarter was an adventure. Indeed, our impression of New Orleans was so colored by its extreme class divisions and generally run-down appearance that our subsequent trip to Kansas City was a relief because the latter at least seemed like an American city of the 1990s, replete with chain stores and the first glimmerings of the dot com boom. As tragic as the devastation from Hurricane Katrina is on its own terms, the bigger tragedy is that both the city and the state of Louisiana were woefully underprepared for an event that was bound to come sooner or later. The pumps should have been better. The levees should have been stronger. And the vast number of poor people living in the path of the storm should have been given something more than an order to leave that they were not in a position to carry out. The plight of New Orleans is captured for me in one resident's comments on the calamity:
Sean Jeffries of New Orleans had already been evacuated from one French Quarter hotel when he was ordered out of a second hotel Tuesday because of rising water.
The 37-year-old banker — who admitted to looting some food from a nearby supermarket — said the hotel guests were told they were being taken to a convention center, but from there, they didn't know.
"We're in the middle of a national tragedy," he said as he popped purloined grapes in his mouth. "But I know this city. We will be back. It may take awhile. But we will be back."
I suppose it's heartening that the wire story makes it clear that it wasn't just poor black people doing the looting. Nevertheless, when bankers are "popping purloined grapes" into their mouths and popping pointless clichés out of them, it's hard to be optimistic about the city's future.