The Crescent City blues

HOWELL RAINES is the author of a memoir, "The One That Got Away," to be published by Scribners in May 2006.

UNLIKE THOUSANDS of American families, my kin and I received at least one precious splash of good news from New Orleans. My daughter-in-law, Eva Hughes Raines, her 3-year-old daughter, Sasha, and the family pets fled town a full day ahead of the evacuation order. Her husband, my son Jeffrey, and his mates in the funk band Galactic were performing in Seattle, watching from afar as Katrina inundated their homes in the USA’s most distinctive city. Soon the little family will arrive here in the Pocono Mountains where we will wait, for weeks or months, to see if their antique neighborhood of distinctive “shotgun houses” can be made habitable again.

In the personal realm, there is no relief like the relief arising from the safety of loved ones. In the civic realm, there is no communal grief quite like the sorrow of watching as a beloved city is hammered by an unstoppable malice. Everybody now knows about the inundation of the famous “bowl” formed by the city’s levees. What may need a little reviewing is why New Orleans has been for generations a golden bowl of memories, both sacred and profane.

In Colonial times, it was the one American city where Afro-Caribbean and Creole culture enjoyed at least a measure of tolerance under a succession of masters -- Spanish, French, English and American. In 1815, it was the site of the United States’ most complete victory over the redcoats. Even the handful of Americans who died at the Battle of New Orleans did so in Mardi Gras style, dancing in front of the barricades.


For millions of Americans who grew up in strait-laced towns, the Big Easy has always been the place to dance -- the one Southern place where the Bible Belt came unbuckled. A hundred years ago, the Storyville section was America’s best place for the world’s oldest profession and the birthplace of America’s best contribution to world music, jazz. Like other young people in the preacher-haunted South, I bought my first legal drink in the French Quarter. We went for the booze, and in that world of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, some of us glimpsed the glory and costs of pursuing art or individualism.

This was the place where Thomas Williams of St. Louis became “Tennessee” and where that much-ridiculed postal clerk from Oxford, Miss., made himself into William Faulkner, novelist. This was the place where you could come to find or lose yourself. In the back room of the Maple Leaf Bar on upper Magazine Street, my classmate Everette Maddox, a poet so precocious he was published in the New Yorker before he left the University of Alabama, succeeded after two decades of steady effort in drinking himself to death.

Oh, wondrous city of music that floats from the horn and poems drowned in drink! Oh, cheesy clip-clop metropolis of phony coach-and-fours hauling drunken Dodge salesmen, of gaunt-eyed transvestite hookers, of Baptist girls suddenly inspired to show their breasts on Chartres Street in return for a string of beads flung from the balcony of the Soniat House -- will we lose even these dubious glories of the only American city that’s never been psychoanalyzed?

I hope not. I am 62. If New Orleans is to be pumped out, its soffits re-replastered, its live oaks replanted before I’m gone, I’ll be happily surprised. For now, we wait and ponder this question: If it’s gone or permanently altered, what memorial would be fitting? Surely it would not be some monument of stone, but perhaps a political memorial to the city of Huey P. Long and his fictional iteration Willie Stark, or a spiritual remembrance of the City That Care Forgot.

Certainly the sacrifices of New Orleans need a kind of national reckoning, one that would enable the people to see the president who forgot to care for what he is. Every great disaster -- the Blitz, 9/11, the tsunami -- has a political dimension. The dilatory performance of George Bush during the past week has been outrageous. Almost as unbelievable as Katrina itself is the fact that the leader of the free world has been outshone by the elected leaders of a region renowned for governmental ineptitude.

Louisiana’s anguished governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, climbed into a helicopter at the first possible moment to survey what may become the worst weather-related disaster in American history. Even Gov. Haley R. Barbour of Mississippi, a tiresome blowhard as chairman of the Republican National Committee, has shown a throat-catching public sorrow and sleepless diligence that put Bush to shame.


This president who flew away Monday to fundraisers in the West while the hurricane blew away entire towns in coastal Mississippi is very much his father’s son. George H.W. Bush couldn’t quite connect to the victims of Hurricane Andrew, nor did he mind being photographed tooling his golf cart around Kennebunkport while American troops died in the first Iraq war. After preemptively declaring a state of emergency, the younger Bush seemed equally determined to show his successors how to vacation through an apocalypse.

On Tuesday, he urged people to stay where they were, even if their evacuation residence might be the leaking-roof, clogged-toilet Superdome. On Wednesday, as he met by intercom with his emergency team and decided to return to Washington, as Pentagon and Homeland Security promised relief by the weekend, intensive-care patients were dying at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. They had languished for two full days because the overworked Coast Guard helicopter crews available in New Orleans did not have time to reach them.

The populism of Huey Long was financially corrupt, but when it came to the welfare of people, it was caring. The churchgoing cultural populism of George Bush has given the United States an administration that worries about the House of Saud and the welfare of oil companies while the poor drown in their attics and their sons and daughters die in foreign deserts.