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Why I Came Back

I’ve never articulated, publicly, why I came back to New Orleans. But I’ll try.

I own property here. I have a job here. In some ways, coming back was the path of least resistance. Also, New Orleans is a unique city that I’ve come to love.

All of which is true enough. But property can be sold, and I could find another job elsewhere. There are other cities, other places I could connect with and even love.

The truth is I came back for another reason. I came back because of curiosity. I came back because I’m interested. The rebuilding of New Orleans will surely be one of the most significant stories in the nation’s history, certainly the most significant of my lifetime. I used to think the terrorist attacks of September 11th would be the defining event of this age. Maybe they were. But Katrina looms large, and decades from now I believe we will still be looking back at the disaster in awe and dread. Hopefully we’ll look back at the recovery in a more positive light.

Anyway, I couldn’t imagine sitting on the sidelines. I couldn’t imagine watching the reconstruction from afar. Perhaps if some great opportunity had presented itself elsewhere — but it didn’t. And so I felt I had to come back. And right now there is no place I’d rather be.

To my friends who are not returning to New Orleans, or who are here but are planning to leave: I understand. It’s a tough decision. I wish you the best, wherever your destiny takes you.

Published inKatrinaNew Orleans


  1. Glad to find another as yet undiscovered (by me) NOLA blog. That was my piece in yesterday’s Pic, and I’m curious to hear the stories of why other people (displaced or expats, and I’m not the only one in that particular parade) are coming home.

  2. ned ned

    I can relate, and I’m a little envious of where you are not right now. Not the inconvenience and bother of rebuilding, but the adventure and sense of opportunity of it all.

  3. PoopMachine PoopMachine

    I know this won’t sit well with those in N.O., but your myopia has a way of distorting things. The rebuilding of NO will be a significant story, but it many ways Katrina merely exposed the fragility that already existed. Everyone knew it would happen: it was just a matter of when. Therefore, I do not think it will be the defining event of this age. Contributing to that is the fact that NO is a backwater. It is culturally significant and all that, but much of that culture remains limited to NO. Sure, it influences things outside, but those inside NO rarely actually make it out. And when they do, they have limited appeal.

    This is probably a debate better done over several pints.

    I think the biggest thing working against NO is the economics of the situation. There were simply too many people on the dole to be considered a “productive” town, in economics terms. When I lived there, I often heard people call NO “third world.” It is apt. Katrina simply thrust NO into the national consciousness. And it has already largely faded from the natl. consciousness, I’m afraid to say.

    And the scientist who came on 60 Minutes a couple months ago and explained how Katrina did 75 years worth of damage, most of it permanent, to the wetlands and barrier islands that help protect NO, didn’t do NO any favors in my mind. The way he made it sound, rebuilding NO is a fool’s errand. It’s Atlantis Timetable has been significantly shortened. I think that in our lifetime, or that of our kids, NO could easily disappear.

    I expect everyone to disagree. Of course.

    But if you live there, haven’t these points run through the back of your head at some point over the past five months? Pride/ego/determination may have pushed these arguments back into your subconscious and covered them up with the endless tasks that lay before you, lest negative thinking get in the way.

    But can you see how at least some of the 298.5 million Americans who do not call NO home might lack confidence in rebuilding what we see as a doomed city?

    I am sorry. I really am.

  4. Dear Mr. PoopMachine: (Can I call you Poopie?)

    A major earthquake in California may also be “just a matter of when” but nevertheless, if San Francisco came tumbling down tomorrow, it would still be a major event. The devastation of New Orleans is the biggest disaster in the history of this country by many measures. Whether or not it was inevitable really plays no role in diminishing its significance.

    The problems and challenges and doomsday scenarios you mention have not been pushed back into my subconscious. Believe me when I say they are very much on my conscious mind, every day. I think they are on the minds of everyone here.

    However, my analysis is that, despite all these problems, New Orleans has a chance. I’m not sure how slim that chance is. The coast can be restored. A better flood control system can be constructed. New Orleans is only truly doomed if we as a nation decide to doom it through neglect.

    I’d argue that economics is actually one of the best things we have going for us. There is capital here, and economic value and investment. There is productivity. Not as much as other cities, granted, but still too much to simply be abandoned.

    You’re right about this being better over pints, so I’ll leave it at this for now.

  5. PoopMachine PoopMachine

    Thanks, B.

    Your San Fran example is sort of a straw man, since there are nearly 8 million people there, compared to >500K in N.O. (city proper, not metro area). One out of every 25 Americans lives in SF. One out of every 600 lived in NO.

    That notwithstanding, I think if we had a few pints, I’d concede you’re right about a lot of this. I was just explaining my gut reaction, which is a pragmatic look at how many millions of Americans view the situation.

    I think restoring the wetlands (swamps?) and rebuilding the environment would be great. But without those specific efforts, rebuilding the houses and building themselves may be pointless.

    Metamucilly yours,

  6. Katrina was certainly the only occasion in the history of this country that has ever caused the total evacuation of a city, and exposed a vulnerability in our national security that many in this country would rather not have noticed. There are many of these vulnerabilities. St. Louis sits on a “when, not if” fault, yet no one cries that it shouldn’t exist or expand because one day, there will be an earthquake. Tampa and St. Petersburg are flanked by bays and face some of the same risks of flooding in the event of a direct hit by a major storm that New Orleans faces. Houston? I agree with Editor B that what has happened in NOLA in the wake of Katrina is the defining event of our time and I fully understand how he felt compelled to be there. I tried to convince my son to transfer to UGA instead of returning to Loyola. He wanted to be in New Orleans because of Katrina even more than he had before the storm. I am grateful that Editor B is there, writing and taking pictures.

  7. Nania Nania

    Correction to Poop Machine’s post: the population of the Bay Area is 7 million. The population of San Franisco is around 800,000.

  8. David David


    Straw or not, the kernel of your argument is: When environmental risks come to bear on a region the only people who should care about the region’s restoration should be those directly affected, ie, self-interest as public policy.

    New Orleans is a third-world backwater? I know there are many, many people from bougie, homogenized suburbs who may regard it as such, and I’m always glad to see them go. And I’m always glad to meet people like B and Xy with enough taste and soul to appreciate something original and precioius when they encounter it.

    When we talk about cities that have contributed to this nation’s history, only a very few have played a more significant role than New Orleans.

  9. pj pj

    It’s hard to explain why we won’t be joining you for the fight.

    The hardest part is that I have never been a quitter. It pains me to think I am giving up on New Orleans at a time when I could really make an impact towards a positive future for the city and for Xavier, which to me is totally intertwined with my feelings about NO.

    I guess it is a matter of protecting my family, not just from the storms of the future but also the gritty life within the city. The last year we were living in a neighborhood where drug dealings were an everyday part of life. This also means that criminals with guns were on our streets everyday. After months of working with the police to get rid of them, I was finally starting to feel good about it, but the fact is, we had decided to move before the storm.

    Of course not on the timeline that we did leave, and we were planning to you know, sell the house and pack our belongings before we had to resettle someplace else. We really were thinking about moving across the lake or something where the schools were a little bit better, taxes were a little bit lower, etc.

    In the end, it’s just not in me to battle for the future soul of New Orleans. I respect you for wanting to do that, it’s just not my fight. I have to think about my family and the future of us all. I am pessimistic about the corruption inherent in the local government, and the service economy’s ability to create a meaningful future for the underprivileged.

    And if the same thing happened next year, I could not handle it. There’s been too many tears for me and I have to cut the cord.

  10. More to ya B. I think it takes people who were born and raised there along with people like you who are on a mission to help rebuild that will make New Orleans strong again.

    I’m actually amazed how few natural disasters the US has, really. We see 300 million people die elsewhere and it doesn’t really make a difference on our lives here in America, because we just don’t understand the immensity of it all.

  11. PJ, I probably would have done the same as you. It would be hard for me to tackle that head on, along with progressing in my own personal life. However, if NO was my hometown, I would be down there now. So the investment for me is family and my roots and places like NO and Chicago (where I live now) don’t have a connection deep enough for me to invest that much. Maybe it takes time living somewhere for a long time, but that’s how I feel now.

  12. Jana Jana

    I think what you’ve done is very admirable, and will probably prove to be a great adventure. Just watch out for the mold!

    I’m serious. New Orleans is a place I could never live now, and would have to be very careful about visiting. I have an extremely rare allergy/ immune system response called a toxic response to mold. Just ordinary mold, not the toxic black kind that was in the news a few years ago.

    My body responds to it as if it’s breathing a solvent like paint thinner or wood stain. It produces the same symptoms as chemical exposure. This is true even if the mold is growing inside the walls, not visible. It’s a direct result of water damage, of mold growing on drywall or other organic building materials. It’s also true if the water damage is old and the mold is dead.

    Whenever I read about people moving back to flood damaged homes, I worry about them, because I know a few will end up with my condition and won’t have a clue what it is. Trust me, you can’t live with this. Antihistimines and shots won’t treat it. The only treatment is to get rid of all water and mold damaged materials, or to move to a mold free environment. Air purifiers, no matter how expensive and well engineered, will not take care of the problem either. Don’t get fooled by any advertisement!

    The worst thing is that it happens through cumulative exposure. I didn’t always have it. I only developed it 2 years ago.

    I became sick literally overnight in an apt I’d lived in for 9 years. 2 years previously, the pipes had leaked into the walls. The leak had been repaired, but I had still been exposed all that time to mold spores, and one day my body had just had enough.

    So if you know anyone who has strange symptoms in their homes, like they are being poisoned by the air, but there doesn’t seem to be any logical source of exposure, this may be the problem. (I was convinced my new neighbors were cooking drugs, or the artist next door was pouring paint thinner down the drain. Neither of which was happening.) Half my family (and my landlord) thought I was crazy because I was sick from something that “wasn’t there.”

    It took an allergist 8 months to diagnose my condition, although a microbiologist here at IU, who specializes in the effects of mold on humans, took literally 5 mintures after hearing my symptoms.

    Anyway, good luck, and be careful. Really, it will pay you to get rid of as much water and mold damaged walls and flooring as you can. You do NOT want my problem.


  13. […] and hardships along the way, I’m glad we came back after the storm. I’m glad we made that decision. Proud, even. This show may just illustrate why I feel that way, to a national […]

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