- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

NEW ORLEANS

Everyone in New Orleans still has a Katrina story, and, like the old sailor in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” everyone is still eager to tell it. Unlike the mariner, obsessed with his tale of a frigid land “of mist and snow” where “ice, mast high, came floating by,” the obsession here is with tropical wind and wave.

Nearly all the Katrina stories are sad, many are tragic, but this being “the City That Care Forgot” - there’s irony for you - a lot of them are unlikely, inexplicable and sometimes absurd. One Orleanian, who lost her home in Lakeview after it sat in 13 feet of Lake Pontchartrain seawater for more than a month and had to be razed, is still bemused by the story of what happened to her car, a big Mercury she bought only a week before she fled to Baton Rouge on the eve of Katrina’s landfall. “When I returned after a month in Baton Rouge the house was ruined, my new car a soggy wreck, and there on the roof of the car sat an oak pew. It had floated through the neighborhood from a synagogue down the street. If a pew floating into your front yard won’t send you back to church, what would?”

The hurricane season of ‘08 is just over, and this year the storms - Gustav and Ike - were more inconvenience than calamity. Gustav compelled a mandatory evacuation, sending hundreds of thousands of Orleanians west to Texas and north to Memphis and Little Rock and points between. But this time a competent governor in Baton Rouge and a chastened mayor in City Hall did all the right things, and both Bobby Jindal and C. Ray Nagin get high marks from the skeptics, who abound.

Casual conversations with Orleanians, black and white and many of them old friends who have lived here forever, suggest a quickening of the natural native optimism, which was battered and lay dormant in the three years since Katrina blew in out of the Gulf of Mexico and changed life here forever.

The Big Easy since is a tale not of two cities, but of several. Many of the tourists are back: The lines stretch into Royal Street waiting to get into Brennan’s for its signature sumptuous champagne breakfast. The luxury hotels, like the venerable Monteleone and the elegant new Windsor Court, are buzzing as before, and by one estimate there are more restaurants in New Orleans now than before Katrina marinated 85 percent of the city in saltwater for a month. New jazz clubs have proliferated as many of the musicians have returned from cultural exile upcountry. Chefs are the princes of the city, and there seems to be a new cafe on every corner in the Central Business District, and in the neighborhoods as well.

But the recession is hitting New Orleans all the harder for the slow recovery. Jobs are scarce and so is decent housing, though $1,400 monthly rent vouchers have helped. Reconstruction (a word Southerners are still loath to use) has drawn thousands of Hispanic workers to the city, reinforcing the city’s early Spanish heritage. But with the Hispanic surge came a new wave of crime, with the Hispanics being favorite targets of the thugs and cutthroats who have drifted back to town. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans thought it was rid of many of the lethal hooligans and brutal assassins, and for a time it was. But now they’re back to feed on the thrifty and the resolute. Contractors working on the rebuilding are particular targets because they often carry large sums of cash. On the mean streets they’re called “walking ATMs.” Withdrawals are usually easy.

Crime is aggravated by how Katrina scrambled neighborhoods, particularly in the Lower Ninth Ward, and returning drug dealers now fight over turf that was once more or less settled territory. By one national estimate New Orleans is the most lawless city in America, more lawless than Detroit, Oakland, Calif., or even Camden, N.J. Despite infusions of federal relief money, the criminal justice system is still a mess; the district attorneys spread their files and work sheets on card tables set up in temporary quarters. But the levees held through Gustav and Ike, and life could be worse. Not so long ago, it was.

* * *

*In my column earlier this week, I erred in writing that Louisiana had recently sent a Klansman to Congress. Not so. The Klansman was sent to the state Legislature. Louisiana has sent colorful men to Washington, but not, so far as we know, a Klansman. Not recently, anyway.

• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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