Almost 15 years separate the regional disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the global disaster of COVID-19. While Katrina shone a spotlight on New Orleans that caused locals as well as distant onlookers to re-assess their understanding of the place, COVID-19 underlines the ways in which New Orleans falls off the map of national consciousness in crises that affect the country, and world, as a whole.
By the top of last week, New Orleans had the second-highest rate of cases per capita in the country, after Seattle, though the numbers continue to fluctuate nationwide. Its economic vulnerability ranks third among the 100 largest metro areas in the United States, after Las Vegas and Orlando. Yet, for whatever reason, it doesn’t rank anywhere near those numbers in national news coverage of the crisis.
In a National Public Radio interview on March 24, Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana said, “If you go in the South, the disease doesn’t like hot weather… It may not become as rampant.” Interviewer Noel King pushed back, saying there’s no evidence that the virus “doesn’t like hot weather.” But even she didn’t point out that it’s already clearly “rampant” in New Orleans.
New Orleanians react in different ways to this routine marginalization in the broader national context. The more provincial New Orleanians lash out at local government and culture, with well-worn rhetoric about how the “backward” city lacks unquestioned American virtues like individual initiative, work ethic, and allegedly more efficient and less corrupt government. These are the reasons, in the Americanist New Orleans imagination, that New Orleans doesn’t get the national attention gracing Atlanta, Austin, etc.
Thus a citizen complained in a March 20 letter to the Times-Picayune that Mayor LaToya Cantrell should have closed bars and restaurants a couple of days earlier than she did, claiming “Other states had already closed public venues except for grocery stores and pharmacies.” The writer worries that people in other places will be infected because of New Orleans’ negligence.
The first question is which other “states” had shut down bars and restaurants before March 14. The answer: none. A couple of days later, the state did move to shutter bars and restaurants — though, typically, the NBC Today Show’s lengthy survey of states that have made such a move simply neglects to list Louisiana. It also needs to be noted that the mayor and other city leaders had strongly advised people to avoid crowds, and even shut down several major events scheduled for that weekend, including St. Patrick’s Day parades and Super Sunday.
In fact, New Orleans and Louisiana have been particularly proactive in addressing the crisis, especially in contrast to the bumbling ineptitude and lies Americans have grown accustomed to in the White House. Louisiana was the first state to delay party primary elections, a move not taken at all by Illinois, Arizona, and Florida.
The responsible management of the crisis at the state level has a lot to do with the governor in charge today, but previous administrations and legislatures have rigged the economy in ways that will hurt many of our neighbors. We have the stingiest unemployment insurance in the country, for example, which is more evidence that New Orleans’ geographical location in this particular state is more often a detriment than a benefit.
One might think that the people who endured Hurricane Katrina and managed to get up and going again might offer special lessons to other parts of the country. For example, universities around the country are now trying to figure how to convert to all-online course delivery, and that process is getting lots of press. But the University of New Orleans did that almost 15 years ago, when it continued the fall 2005 semester despite the destruction visited on its campus and the vast dispersal of its students and faculty.
There are more than a few parallels between 2005 and 2020 for us, but also some notable differences. One commonality is the certainty that we’re mostly on our own, with limited or very belated help from a Republican-run federal government. George W. Bush had handed FEMA over to an incompetent crony, and Donald J. Trump disbanded the federal pandemic response team, apparently because it was created by a guy named Barack Obama.
The national political message is loud and clear: A federal government run by people who hate government cannot help you. Retreat to your gated compound and count your guns and ammo. Oh yeah, and pray. If you can’t or won’t do that, or think that additional measures are called for, vote for responsible government for a change in November.
What we can do here in New Orleans is a lot like what we’ve done in the past when faced with federal negligence and national cultural marginalization: turn inward, find ways to support each other, and heed locally elected government.
As Ian McNulty noted in an eloquent statement last week, measures for coping with COVID-19 are particularly difficult for New Orleans’ economy as well as lifestyle. The WWOZ Livewire can now longer proclaim, “Go out and see some LIVE local music!” McNulty reminds that, in the past, we have “embraced hospitality as the front line of recovery.” News of the latest restaurant re-openings was indeed the front line of hope in the post-Katrina years, and the bars that remained open during some or all of the immediate aftermath are now legendary. The handful of folks that gathered in the streets of the Quarter to celebrate Southern Decadence on September 4, 2005 were excoriated by the usual New Orleans-haters but were a beacon of love and resilience to the rest of us.
Now that we can’t support our neighbors by tipping them where they work, we have to get creative. The Krewe of Red Beans figured out a way. They’ve begun delivering food from local restaurants to our front-line health care workers, crowdsourcing the cash to pay for it. We can also go to our favorite musicians’ websites and download their music or order CDs.
My own 14 year-old daughter has also gotten in the spirit of artistic support by putting her crafting instincts toward the task of creating colorful face masks, though they are of course not medically vetted and approved for high-risk contact. Since she began her project on March 16, the home mask industry has exploded nationwide — I guess she wasn’t the only one with that bright idea.
Measures like these are more like emotional support, of course, than the kind of industrial and financial support that can combat the medical crisis or float hospitality workers through the total cessation in cash flow that they’re experiencing. That’s why, in addition to signs of personal support, we need to continue to advocate for the kind of government that recognizes how many Americans rely on gigs. Obviously that means universal health care, as well as a safety net that does not rely on getting fired from a job in order to get unemployment benefits. Local writer Lydia Y. Nichols has engaged in precisely the right kind of philosophical reflection on using this frightening moment to rethink the way our economy and society are designed.
The other question is how to love New Orleans in a way that can help us emotionally at a time when we can’t enjoy restaurants, coffeehouses, bars, live music, and public gatherings, all of which fill our sense of identity as much as our weekly schedules.
Hey, we still got grocery stores. My local supermarket is surprisingly well-stocked and doesn’t have long lines. Maybe now is the time to further develop the culinary skills that we all feel, deep down inside, that we’re supposed to possess as New Orleanians. Take the time, too, to remind our supermarket staffs of how much we value their willingness to put themselves at greater risk than the rest of us by showing up for work each day.
While it’s true that the culture of public dining and public celebration are high points of local pride, another feature of local culture that’s been celebrated for centuries is simply love of beauty, the idea that aesthetic appreciation is as central to a well-lived life as social status, career success, capital accumulation, or even community life. If you’ve got one, enjoy your porch, balcony, back patio, or garden. The city is still beautiful. That’s the upside of living in a museum. We can still stroll its streets — maintaining distance from others, which isn’t as difficult with the decline in tourists. The weather is lovely, too.
So, get out and enjoy some live local scenery, and stay healthy for the day when we can meet up together again in our favorite restaurants, clubs, streets, and festival grounds.
C.W. Cannon is a native New Orleanian and the author of four novels, including “French Quarter Beautification Project” and “Sleepytime Down South.”
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