The American Library Association Conference was the first to be held in New Orleans since Katrina. Everywhere we went people thanked us for being there, for spending our money at their hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and shops, for riding in their cabs and dancing in their clubs. For the first few days that was the most frequent sign of what Katrina had wrought: intense gratitude that 18 thousand librarians (and hangers on such as, you know, writers and other publishing types) were in town.
The French quarter is on higher ground and largely looks like nothing happened. Gorgeous wrought iron lace work terraces (looking not unlike Sydney ones) line the narrow streets, and the restaurants and cafes and bars all seem to be open even if they are festooned with Help Wanted signs. It was easy to stroll around in the delicious heat and imagine taking a writing holiday there, spending four or six weeks writing every day in one of those gorgeous terraces, going out every night to gorge on the fabulous creole cooking, and get to know the place the place better; it was hard to keep in mind that this was the city that had been completely devastated last year.
I didn’t recognise the first sign of devestation I’d seen: when we flew in we were treated to a lovely view of the city, dotted with lots of bright blue, which I later learned was FEMA-supplied canvas.
The driver who picked us up and took us to our hotel was living in a FEMA trailer parked in front of his slowly being rebuilt house. The driver who picked us up on our way back home took us on an impromptu tour of a tiny part of the devestated parts of town. He told us 80% of the city is still waiting to be repaired (over the five days I heard estimates running from 60% to 85%). All the houses had clearly visible high water marks almost three metres above the ground and on each house someone had leaned out from a boat to make an X and mark how many dead people and animals were found inside. There were no cars parked outside, no people walking along the foot paths. It was a ghost town.
The same driver told us that the official death toll for the Convention Centre was 1. He had a firemen friend who’d seen a room inside the Centre piled high with what he reckoned was at least 150 bodies.
After 9/11 the newspapers round the world (or at least in Australia and the US of A) carried the death toll in their pages which was updated every day for weeks and weeks after the attack. I saw no equivalent after Katrina.
Why is there so little coverage of the fact that around 1,000 people are still unaccounted for? Or of the long, slow recovery? The local New Orleans paper, The Times Picayune, has stories every single day. The New York Times has had one in the last month or so. It was about the huge increase in the suicide rate in New Orleans. [Update: this is not true the Times has run lots of articles.]
Reading about New Orleans from New York City I honestly though I’d be visiting a city well on its way to recovery. A city being rebuilt. That’s not what I found there. [Update: this just shows that I’m a careless reader of the Times.]
If you can visit, do. If you can’t how about donating a book here which will help some of the devestated libraries in the area.
P.S. Yes, Cecil, I will be posting an account of the actual conference, too. Short version: twas a blast and Margo Lanagan is awesome beyond words.
Update: Monica Edinger points out in the comments that a simple search of the New York Times archive would’ve shown me that I was being not only unfair to the Times but completely wrong. That’s what I get for writing what felt true without checking. Always check your facts, folks!