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New Orleans matters

We pulled out of New Orleans at 10 a.m. on the morning of Monday, Aug. 15, 2005.

Melissa and I had enjoyed a wonderful honeymoon in that city 16 years earlier, and we were determined to show our two sons a good time.

The previous day had started with beignets at Cafe Du Monde followed by the 10:30 a.m. mass at St. Louis Cathedral with the archbishop presiding. Breakfast at Brennan’s followed and lasted long into the afternoon.

It was a glorious day.

As we departed the Crescent City the next morning, there was no way we could have known that New Orleans would be changed forever exactly two weeks later.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005.

Along with millions of my fellow Americans, I was transfixed by the live television coverage in the days that followed the storm  — the levee breaks, the floods, the helicopter rescues, the looting, the fires, the horrible scenes at the Superdome and the convention center.

It seemed as if we were watching the death of one of the world’s most unique cities in real time.

As the city descended into chaos, George Friedman of Stratfor, who publishes a daily global intelligence briefing, wrote a piece explaining why it was essential that New Orleans survive.

Here’s part of what he wrote on Sept. 1, 2005: “The American political system was founded in Philadelphia, but the American nation was built on the vast farmlands that stretch from the Alleghenies to the Rockies. That farmland produced the wealth that funded American industrialization: It permitted the formation of a class of small landholders who, amazingly, could produce more than they could consume. They could sell their excess crops in the east and in Europe and save that money, which eventually became the founding capital of American industry.

“But it was not the extraordinary land nor the farmers and ranchers who alone set the process in motion. Rather, it was geography — the extraordinary system of rivers that flowed through the Midwest and allowed them to ship their surplus to the rest of the world. All of the rivers flowed into one — the Mississippi — and the Mississippi flowed to the ports in and around one city: New Orleans. It was in New Orleans that the barges from upstream were unloaded and their cargoes stored, sold and reloaded on ocean-going vessels. Until last Sunday, New Orleans was, in many ways, the pivot of the American economy.

“For that reason, the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 was a key moment in American history. Even though the battle occurred after the War of 1812 was over, had the British taken New Orleans, we suspect they wouldn’t have given it back. Without New Orleans, the entire Louisiana Purchase would have been valueless to the United States. Or, to state it more precisely, the British would control the region because, at the end of the day, the value of the purchase was the land and the rivers — which all converged on the Mississippi and the ultimate port of New Orleans. The hero of the battle was Andrew Jackson, and when he became president, his obsession with Texas had much to do with keeping the Mexicans away from New Orleans.”

As thousands of Arkansans descend on New Orleans to prepare for next week’s Sugar Bowl, it’s history worth remembering.

Friedman recounted that during the Cold War, people would often ask this question: If the Soviets could destroy one American city with a nuclear device, which one would it be? Washington? New York?

“For me, the answer was simple,” he wrote. “New Orleans. If the Mississippi River was shut to traffic, then the foundations of the economy would be shattered. The industrial minerals needed in the factories wouldn’t come in, and the agricultural wealth wouldn’t flow out. Alternative routes really weren’t available. … A simple way to think about the New Orleans port complex is that it is where the bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in. The commodity chain of the global food industry starts here, as does that of American industrialism. If these facilities are gone, more than the price of goods shifts: The very physical structure of the global economy would have to be reshaped.”

In those grim days after the storm, there were certain people who openly questioned whether rebuilding New Orleans would be a wise investment. The House speaker at the time was among them.

Here’s what Friedman concluded: “New Orleans is not optional for the United States’ commercial infrastructure. It is a terrible place for a city to be located, but exactly the place where a city must exist. With that as a given, a city will return there because the alternatives are too devastating. The harvest is coming, and that means that the port will have to be opened soon. As in Iraq, premiums will be paid to people prepared to endure the hardships of working in New Orleans. But in the end, the city will return because it has to.

“Geopolitics is the stuff of permanent geographical realities and the way they interact with political life. Geopolitics created New Orleans. Geopolitics caused American presidents to obsess over its safety. And geopolitics will force the city’s resurrection, even if it is in the worst imaginable place.”

More than five years later, with New Orleans having recovered far better than most had predicted, I go back to these words: “The city will return because it has to.”

We need New Orleans not only for the strategic and cultural reasons that Friedman outlined so well. We also need her because she’s such a vital part of our culture.

Novelist Tom Piazza fled his adopted hometown as Katrina bore down and found himself near the Arkansas border at Malden in the Missouri Bootheel. In the five weeks after the storm, Piazza sequestered himself in a space provided at Malden’s Stokes-Mayberry Gin to write what would become the book “Why New Orleans Matters.”

Piazza, one of our country’s most talented writers, concluded: “Some public figures even asked whether it ‘made sense’ to rebuild New Orleans. Would you let your own mother die because it didn’t make financial sense to spend the money to treat her or because you were too busy to spend the time to heal her sick spirit? Among people who are able to think only in terms of dollars and cents, for whom everything is reckoned in terms of winner and loser, profit or more profit, of course it doesn’t ‘make sense’ to rebuild, or to rebuild properly. A lot of things don’t make sense in those terms, including every one of the virtues espoused by a Jesus who has helped them win votes but whom they would not invite to their house for dinner if they met him tomorrow, unless maybe he could be useful for fundraising.

“Dollars and cents are important. And most of the large-scale good done in the world is done by people who have both money and vision. There are people of immense compassion and good will and love and insight and vision all across the socioeconomic spectrum — black and white, poor and rich. The question is not racial solidarity or class solidarity but a distinction between people who have a soul left and people who have mortgaged their souls for a shortsighted self-gratification. … Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, a one-time New Orleans denizen, remarked during the era of school desegregation that if we were descending to the level at which little girls were being spit on by mobs on their way to school just for the color of their skin, then maybe we didn’t deserve to survive as a civilization. Strong words, but they echo in my mind now with the strength of a giant bell tolling. Greed, brutality, shortsightedness, racism, thuggishness are an abiding part of human affairs; they will never be eradicated. But we as a country, as a culture, can decide what we think of them and what we want to do or not do about them.”

Piazza ended the book with the hope that one year we will “pass one another on Mardi Gras day with the sound of a parade in the distance, or a gang of Indians coming down the street, and we can stop and share a drink and a laugh under the oak tree and give thanks once again for this beautiful day, this life, this beautiful city, New Orleans.”

The city survived, an answer to the prayers those of us who love her sent forth during those late summer days of 2005.

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