Hurricane Katrina Should Remind Us That New Orleans Is At The Heart of America

Anyone writing about New Orleans probably can’t ignore the fact that it is ten years now since Hurricane Katrina, and I have thought long and hard about what say about this fact.

As someone who doesn’t live in the city and who wasn’t there ten years ago, there are many things to say that it is not my place to say, and many stories to tell that are not mine to tell.

But as someone who loves New Orleans, I have been thinking about the city a lot over the past few weeks, and following the huge amount of anniversary coverage, and it seems to me that there is one thing, highly relevant to Katrina, that is still not emphasised enough: the centrality of New Orleans to the American nation.

The continued fascination with Katrina on the part of outsiders, while often well-intentioned, can be seen as part of a long tradition of external exoticising and “otherising” of the city. New Orleans is so often somewhat misunderstood, both inside and outside the US, and perceived with a sometimes morbid mixture of nostalgia and fantasy as an otherworldly location defined by festivity and indulgence.

The positive side of this is a thriving tourism industry, which has helped the city considerably since the storm. But there is a significant negative side too: longstanding neglect and alienation of New Orleans by the nation of which it is a part. The most notable example of this of course is the US Army Corps of Engineers’ failure to maintain the city’s levees, later referred to as “monumental negligence” by a federal judge.

New Orleans is undeniably a unique city that continues to require particular kinds of support to deal with Katrina’s legacy. However, that should not blind us to the fact that New Orleans – despite its rich and unusual culture; despite its geographical marginality and fragility; despite the fact that ten years ago it suffered a series of events that led some compare its landscape to wartorn Iraq or a post-apocalyptic dystopia – is at the heart of America.

I wish people – in the US; in Europe, where I live; and everywhere else – recognised New Orleans more often as an example of the very best of what America can offer the world. In almost every aspect of America’s vision of itself, New Orleans has lessons to teach, if sometimes through having had to learn them itself.

This has long been true of openness to immigration and trade, racial integration, regard for individualism, civic solidarity, and hospitality. To these can now be added environmental awareness and entrepreneurship.

Losing 75 square kilometres of its wetlands a year and having suffered a devastating oil spill in 2010, Louisiana is now one of the front lines of the green movement in the US. It also boasts a 64 per cent higher rate of business startups per resident than the US as a whole, according to a recent report.

Furthermore, New Orleans is arguably not just one of America’s best representatives, but also its template. The fusion of European and African elements, with a good number of other influences mixed in, that it pioneered could be said to be the basenote of much of what we recognise as quintessentially American today, whether you look to demographics, food, music or cultural attitudes.

Most importantly, this process of integration, as well as its ingredients, is a microcosm and forbear of the creation of the American nation as a whole.

And looking to the future, the solutions New Orleans finds to its social and environmental challenges may well be ones that the rest of America comes to emulate.

So as the anniversary of Katrina comes and goes, we should more often recognise this city, that ought to be more understood and beloved than it is, as one of the truest cornerstones of the American nation.

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