During Hurricane Katrina, the floodwall and levee on the 17th Street Canal collapsed without being overtopped. It was one of about 50 breaches in the flood protection system that was supposed to repel "the most severe storm" that could be expected in the area. (Army Corps of Engineers photo) Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Like the rest of the country, New Orleans is suspended in a state of anxious anticipation. This tourism-dependent city is tiptoeing into reopening, with neither a vaccine nor widespread testing. It’s a dilemma facing every municipality, but in a city whose identity, culture and economy are fueled by human interactions, the issue seems particularly fraught here.

Two weeks ago, Vanity Fair posted “Hard Times in the Big Easy,” Jed Horne’s dive into the impact of COVID-19 on New Orleans’ fragile cultural economy. A former city editor at the Times Picayune and an opinion editor at The Lens, Horne is author of “Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City,” one of the definitive books about the storm and its chaotic aftermath. Today he paints an ominous picture of a locked-down and muted Crescent City. If Katrina attacked our physical infrastructure and our people, he seems to imply, then COVID-19 is after our artistic soul.

Recently I talked to Horne about the similarities and differences between the two events, the pandemic’s threat to our unique culture, and the uncertain road ahead.

  • MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
  • JH: Jed Horne

MCP: I had a curious experience reading Breach of Faith. I bought it a while ago, but never got around to reading it. For some reason I picked it up the day the lockdown started, and it was like reading Edgar Allen Poe’s scariest ghost story. I had to put it down at page 130, thinking: There might be a better time to read the rest of this book!

JH: I’m not often likened to Edgar Allen Poe, but I appreciate that you were moved by the book.

MCP: The similarities between the federal government’s ineptitude 15 years ago and its dismal early response to the coronavirus was frightening. Compare the two events.

JH: There are many points of comparison, as well as stark contrasts. Ironically, in 2005, George W. Bush, then president of the United States, actually got the fear of God as regards pandemics. He had just read The Great Influenza, a book about the pandemic of 1918–19 by the New Orleans writer John M. Barry. Bush set up a pandemic task force and funded it to the tune of $8 billion or so. Obama built upon that infrastructure. Trump systematically dismantled it.  

MCP: Didn’t the Obama administration use the pandemic response team to fight Ebola?

JH: Yes, the federal response to Ebola drew on task force insights, above all to give science the lead role and try to keep politics out of it — pretty much the opposite of Trump’s approach. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s governor at the time, argued for a ban on visitors from countries with Ebola, but was pretty much ignored in Washington. Epidemiologists pointed out that such a policy would have been as pointless then as Trump’s travel restrictions proved to be in keeping COVID-19 out of the U.S.  

But whatever the merits of his thinking about pandemics, Bush flunked the Hurricane Katrina test pretty badly. His response was tardy. He blame-gamed Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco for mistakes of his own doing. One of his more transparent ploys was to insinuate that she had been slow to seek a disaster declaration and request federal aid. Those claims were easily proved to be false. Blanco had been ahead of both Mississippi and the feds in declaring disaster and specifying the state’s dire needs. Bush’s revenge — presumed to be the work of his “brain” Karl Rove — was to sabotage the Road Home, Blanco’s plan for funneling federal dollars to Louisianans whose homes had been destroyed. Blanco saw she had been outmaneuvered and abandoned her campaign for a second term, essentially ceding the field to Jindal.  

MCP: The Bush people really cut her off at the knees.

JH: Blanco had irked a Republican White House by being the only Democratic governor presiding in the Deep South. Fifteen years later, with a different Democrat in the governor’s mansion, we had a sinking feeling that Trump was gaming us in the same way. New Orleans in March had the fastest rising infection rate in the U.S., and yet the White House had omitted Louisiana from the initial list of state’s deserving emergency federal assistance. The mistake was eventually rectified, maybe because Trump faces re-election, whereas Bush in 2005 had already secured his second term.  

Where the blame for Katrina really lay was with the Army Corps of Engineers. Under the sleepy eye of the patronage-ridden local levee boards, the Corps had built the jury-rigged flood defense that failed so catastrophically. Public disgust led to a restructuring of the levee boards after Katrina. Members are now required to have at least some degree of professional competence. Meanwhile, the Corps has rebuilt the levee system more intelligently. The big difference: they put flood gates at the mouths of the city’s drainage canals rather than relying on the flood walls that toppled even before the rising water had reached them.  

In other ways, the two disasters are very different. Katrina had the effect of scattering us across the country. For all that people tried to trash New Orleans for not having been sufficiently alert, it was the largest evacuation in American history. Come the pandemic, we’ve sheltered in place. The architecture, the neighborhoods, are not physically imperiled, like they were with Katrina. In 2005, it was our culture — music, food, all that good stuff — that pulled the city back together. But now our culture itself is imperiled by the collapse of tourism, the revenue stream that keeps our hotels and clubs and convention centers afloat and, along with them, the artists and musicians and chefs who make the city great.

MCP: That’s one of the main points of the piece: What makes New Orleans unique — its culture — is under even greater threat than it was after Katrina.

JH: I think that’s true. The New Orleans economy is completely vulnerable, because so much of it is optional, nonessential. There’s no economic imperative that forces you to fly from New York City or Paris or London and come to New Orleans to hear wonderful music and eat terrific food. And that begs a tougher question. In an age of carbon pollution and climate change, should we be encouraging that old economy, that carbon footprint, that use of airplanes, to jet people over here for a round of stiff drinks, tickled tastebuds, and a night of wonderful music?  

MCP: 2020 marks the 15th anniversary of Katrina. If the pandemic hadn’t struck, it’s safe to assume there might have been a positive spin on what the city had “accomplished” in 15 years. COVID-19 has flipped that and suddenly New Orleans is faced with an uncertain future, especially given the bleak prospects for the tourist economy.  

JH: The business people I talked to have their fingers crossed, of course. They hope there won’t be a second wave to the pandemic. But if there is, it seems likely that a lot of the fragile businesses that are the heart and soul of New Orleans’ appeal — the bars, the restaurants, the music clubs — will die off.  

New Orleans’ greatness lies in its independent restaurants, its local foods, our homegrown music. I talked with Ti Martin, who co-owns Commander’s Palace, one of the city’s premier eateries. I didn’t put this in the story, because we focused on the music. But I asked her what Katrina had cost her and she said, quickly, obviously a well-rehearsed response, “Thirteen months and $6.5 million.” She reopened just around the time of the Saints’ triumphant return to the Superdome in 2006. Commander’s isn’t going away; it’s scheduled to reopen in August. But a lot of restaurants aren’t nearly that resilient, financially.  

MCP: And still she’s reopening with no real sense of what business is going to look like. She can’t run the restaurant profitably at 25% capacity, but she might have to.

JH: She realizes that and is willing to incur losses, knowing full well that she can’t actually make money at this point. But like most of the restaurants, she’s tried to do what she can for her staff. At one point she was using available kitchen staff to prepare meals for waiters to take home: “Here it is, folks, by the door.” I guess this was considered a business investment, in the name of retaining staff, come the day that she could actually reopen.  

On a more optimistic note, Michael Hecht, the head of a nonprofit business incubator called GNO Inc., sees at least a remote possibility that if things are back to normal next fall, the city’s all-important convention business may actually enjoy a boomlet, due to pent-up demand resulting from postponed gatherings earlier in the year.  

MCP: I think that’s possible, if it happens in a timely fashion. If it doesn’t, if New Orleans is swept by a second wave, it feels like all bets are off.

JH: Hecht would agree with you: If we don’t have our act together by October or November, we’ve got a real problem. Businesses will simply cease to exist.

MCP: As your book made clear, it was never a sure thing that New Orleans would come back. But one of the signs that made people believe it might was the return of the culture, the restaurants, the musicians. There was no work back here, but they came back anyway and that gave the signal to the rest of the world that the city might survive.

JH: Exactly. But bear in mind that the Katrina disaster was centered in New Orleans. We could break out our weepiest violins and play “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans.” We could ask for national and international support for our beleaguered musicians, our beautiful architecture. And we got it. There were huge concerts in New York. There were huge concerts in L.A. to raise money.  

Now there are 50 states that are trying to prop up their local cultures, their local governments. And another thing that kind of mitigates against Hecht’s optimism — and it’s something he fully acknowledges — is that a lot of what we’ve been forced to do during the lockdown, with everything migrating to the web, is a potential body blow to conventions themselves. You don’t need to bring 50,000 cardiologists to New Orleans if you can find a way to connect them via the web. And the web is working mighty hard to do just that. Zoom is still a crude tool, but, sure enough, it will get better. Soon we’ll have other ways to interface virtually. This is also true with music. The clubs are indisputably the most wonderful way to hear and experience music. But musicians are resigning themselves to streaming. Some people are even enjoying it.

MCP: It’s a bad business model for the musicians, because the video tip jar just isn’t as lucrative as a paying club date or even a virtual tip jar.

JH: Maybe Facebook will kick in revenue, like a royalty, something that they’ve always been very reluctant to do. That might make it manageable, survivable, for the local musicians, who don’t have reputations big enough to generate a lot of money with virtual concerts.  

MCP: One of the things that you do in the Katrina book is assess the performances of our elected and unelected officials. How would you rate the COVID-19 performances of Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Gov. John Bel Edwards?

JH: What I’ve seen is impressive. Cantrell cut her teeth politically as a fire-breathing community activist. And I think she’s made the tough decisions. She has not caved in to pressure from restaurants and hotels and the convention halls. She has hung tough, believing, as many of us do, that if you don’t hang tough now, you’re just going to hurt your people — and your businesses — later on if the infection rate soars again. Cantrell was a few days ahead of the federal government with the lockdown, and she enforced it. She busted people for violating rules on distancing and crowd size. And I think the message was received. And as the state moved to Phase 2 and started reopening in early June, she held off an extra week. No one knows exactly how that will play out, but I give her high marks.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has, of course, a perspective necessarily wider than Cantrell’s. It extends over the whole state, including conservative rural areas with not a lot of infection. I think his ceaseless press conferences from Baton Rouge have established him as a completely credible figure in all this. He yields to science and shuns political opportunism — even in the face of upstate yahoos itching, like their president, to defy CDC warnings and open everything at once.  

Here’s a footnote to the whole Katrina saga: Some months afterwards, I asked Terry Ebbert, the retired Marine colonel who managed the city’s emergency response, what change of strategy might have made the biggest difference. How might we have mitigated the horrors we saw, the people trapped on rooftops, the refugees stranded at the convention center and the Superdome?  

His answer: The military should have moved hospital ships right up the Mississippi River and staged them at the convention center. They could have been in the city within 10 hours of the storm abating, instead of a week later.  

Fast forward 15 years: Ebbert is back in charge as Cantrell’s Director of Homeland Security, and one part of the city’s COVID-19 response has been to turn the Morial Convention Center into a thousand-bed hospital, within about a hundred yards of where Ebbert would have parked those hospital ships. So far the beds haven’t been needed, but there’s room to go to 2,000 beds if, God forbid, a second wave, or a simultaneous hurricane, requires it. Cantrell makes no bones about it. Katrina was a powerful learning experience that has left New Orleans better prepared for the next disaster than most other cities.

This interview was originally posted on Martin’s architecture and design site, CommonEdge.org, and reprinted with permission.

The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Opinion Editor Tom Wright at twright@thelensnola.org.

Martin Pedersen

Contributing writer Martin Pedersen is the chair of The Lens' board of directors. He is also executive director of Common Edge Collaborative, a nonprofit organization and online publication dedicated to...