Trying hard to keep hope alive in New Orleans

January 14, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

NEW ORLEANS -- Hurricane Katrina left this nonpareil city with conflicting challenges: Change almost everything - how you think, where you live and your faith in government - but cling to history and tradition like a lifeline.

Long before the event known here as "the storm," New Orleans had all the problems of big cities. But the long-standing need to change was masked by such aspects of New Orleans life as good times in the French Quarter, Cajun food and the city's deep jazz and blues heritage.

Now the problems are pushing the mask aside. Crime, schools, the justice system, affordable housing - everything demands attention and cash. Both are in short supply after 16 months of pain and anxiety.

The many positive thinkers here call it opportunity.

And yet even with the demand for change, Katrina reaffirmed in the minds of New Orleanians a deep love of place.

Where else in this nation is there such a rich cultural history - a splendid, tangy "ethnic gumbo" of music and food, as Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella puts it?

Mr. Campanella's Katrina story illustrates the overall tension. When the storm threatened, he had the means to evacuate but felt he could not. He told himself he could stay because his house is on one of the natural, higher levees. It could withstand the pounding. And he thought he had to stay to protect his property from looters. In time, he realized these were not the real reasons.

"As a researcher and real lover of the city, I couldn't tear myself away. I had a deep-seated need to bear witness," he says. The intensity of that reaction has not subsided.

When rescue workers from various federal and state agencies came through to search for survivors, they left an ominous calligraphy on the houses they examined. Within something approximating a skull-and-crossbones, they painted a message: the date, the agency they represented, whether they had entered the building and the number of dead.

A book by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose is called 1 Dead In Attic. That message had appeared on a house in the St. Rock district.

When Mr. Campanella repainted his house, he left the iconic labeling in place. It was, perhaps, one man's declaration of survival - and perhaps a reminder of the need to change.

Wide expanses of New Orleans are still deserted. Block after block of homes, not unlike those you find in Columbia or Towson, are windowless ghosts of their former lakeside or canal-side suburb-like splendor.

To some extent, technology allowed the mindset of this below-sea-level populace to ignore geography and the force of water, constrained by hope.

While the scope of recovery is still being absorbed, New Orleans and Louisiana must think about other matters of rebirth. Last week, a contingent of 50 or so students from the University of Maryland Law School was in town to help with a few of the projects, chief among them reconstituting the city's public defender system. Some students worked to prepare a cluster of elderly-housing units for the return of their former residents, now scattered across 40 states.

But most of them dealt with the justice system.

Even before Katrina, someone who was arrested could spend many months in jail without seeing a lawyer. People were almost literally lost in the system.

Authorities were eager to find them, it seems, so they could collect court costs and fines used in Louisiana to finance the public defender system. No one suggests that people are convicted only to keep the cash flowing, but almost no one thinks the current system makes much sense.

The Maryland students were part of a national Katrina-Gideon project, named after the storm and the famous U.S. Supreme Court case establishing the constitutional right to counsel. The students were quick to observe that similar problems exist in Maryland. The toll is the same.

"How is your family supposed to help you if they don't know where you are? And you can't afford a lawyer. That's a dungeon. And it's not justice," said one of the students, Renee Sihvola. If there were iconic Katrina markings on the jails like the one on Mr. Campanella's house, they might say, borrowing from Dante: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

But there is hope in New Orleans. You feel it in the city's one-word icon: "Rebuild."

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column runs Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

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