The Big Uneasy

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I just got back from a trip to New Orleans on business, and it was a real eye-opener. This was not the first time I’ve been there since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, but it was the first time I had ventured away from downtown and seen what Katrina hath wrought. Though I’ve heard many tales from friends and colleagues who live in New Orleans and were displaced by the storm, this was the first time I really saw the lasting damage that it had done to the populace.

Riding a public bus out to the Jazz and Cultural Heritage Festival, I saw building after building boarded up, uninhabitable even if someone wanted to open a business in them. Houses lay in ruins. Open lots were full of weed-choked debris. Though the touristy part of the city, downtown and the French Quarter, look relatively unscathed, the rest of the city and surrounding areas are, for lack of a better word, seriously scathed.

Barely a sentence seems to be uttered by Orleanians without mention of Hurricane Katrina. It might be tiresome if the hurricane’s terrible legacy weren’t so evident. Katrina changed everything there. Amazingly, the citizens and their leaders have done some amazing things in the almost seven years since. Entire neighborhoods have been rebuilt. A new school system (or, as educators down there prefer to refer to it now, a system of schools) was created from scratch essentially, and in the next two years every single school will be in a new and thoroughly reconstructed building. Yet something like 3 out of 10 residents have yet to return, and the homeless—always front and center in the past—seem to outnumber the tourists in some parts of the city. Nothing comes easy these days in the Big Easy.

The ghost-like nature of the boarded-up businesses and homes reminded me a lot of what I saw last year in Belize. The parallels are startling. Both are incredibly beautiful places full of lovely, warm-hearted people. Both are suffering from crushing poverty. Both have economies that are entirely too dependent on tourism, with little prospect for developing alternative sources of income. Both are populated with the husks of former houses and businesses. Think of it—Katrina turned New Orleans into a third-world country.

I came away from my few days in New Orleans moved by its plight, choked up by its pain, saddened by its losses, but encouraged by its resiliency. The people of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes need our prayers and energy as much as our business and resources, and we need for them to return to vibrancy, health, and prosperity in order to restore our universal shared energy and peace.

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