Sure, the feds must provide cash and resources for relief and recovery—but it’s up to New Orleans, not the feds, to dig deep within itself to rebuild its economic and social infrastructure before the tourists ever will flock back to pump cash into the city’s economy. It will take a miracle. New Orleans has experienced a steady brain drain and fiscal drain for decades, as affluent corporations and individuals have fled, leaving behind a large population of people dependent on the government. Socially, New Orleans is one of America’s last helpless cities—just at the moment when it must do all it can to help itself survive.
Gelinas's central point is that the disaster of Katrina is merely causing the city's deeper sociological problems to manifest:
No American city has ever gone through what New Orleans must go through: the complete (if temporary) flight of its most affluent and capable citizens, followed by social breakdown among those left behind, after which must come the total reconstruction of economic and physical infrastructure by a devastated populace. . . .
Thousands of opportunistic vultures have looted stores all over the city, and shot in the head one police officer who tried to stop them. The New Orleans Times-Picayune has posted photos on its website of other police officers joining in the widespread theft from unattended stores. Looters have picked clean Wal-Mart’s gun department downtown. This anarchy is regrettably not all that surprising. Disaster does not make a weak peacetime civil and social infrastructure strong. Unfortunately, New Orleans must now ask for deserved billions in recovery money even as Americans see images of a city that loots itself on its worst day. . . .
How will New Orleans’ economy recover from Katrina? Apart from some pass-through oil infrastructure, the city’s economy is utterly dependent on tourism. After the city’s mainstay oil industry decamped to Texas nearly a generation ago, New Orleans didn’t do the difficult work of cutting crime, educating illiterate citizens, and attracting new industries to the city. New Orleans became merely a convention and tourism economy, selling itself to visitors to survive, and over time it has only increased its economic dependence on outsiders. The fateful error of that strategy will become clearer in the next few months.
Gelinas also argues that New Orleans is a sad city. I'd have to agree.
Permit a personal anecdote: In the fall of 1996, having just finished college, I spent several months driving around the country playing pick-up basketball. (It's a long story and no, you don't want the details.) I played on playgrounds in every one of the lower 48 states. I played in some of the "worst" neighborhoods in America--from Coney Island to Cabrini Green to South Central Los Angeles and, on the whole, my experiences were incredibly positive.
Most of the time I was a distinct minority: a middle-class, college-educated white kid playing in neighborhoods that were frequently poor and nearly all-black. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I would honestly say that the friendliest, most hospitable people I met during those months were almost always in the "worst" neighborhoods.
There were only a thimbleful of exceptions, one of which was New Orleans. I spent a day or two playing at parks in the south end of town and the racial hostility and sense of lawlessness was palpable. Driving through the streets I got ugly looks from nearly everyone I passed. It was one of the only times during my trip that I felt not entirely safe. At one point, a nice fellow from the neighborhood with whom I had been playing, was packing it in for the night; he suggested that I go to another park about a half-mile away since it was next to a police station and he thought I'd be safer there. From my limited experience I couldn't tell you what all of the components were to the hostility I saw, but a partial list would surely include racial segregation and social inequality on a scale that should embarrass any American.
I bring this up not to claim any deep insight into what is happening in New Orleans, but merely to underscore Gelinas's point about the terrible difficulty in rebuilding not just the city's infrastructure but its society. If you've only been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras or on an expense account, you have not seen the real city. The real city, as Gelinas points out, suffers from such decay, mismanagement, and inequity that it will be a wonder if it can right itself.