As a boy, Louis Armstrong worked for the Karnofsky family. The Karnofskys’ tailor shop on South Rampart Street in New Orleans became a second home to him, and the family helped him buy his first cornet. On Sunday night, the Karnofsky building, long neglected by the city and a succession of private owners who promised to restore it, finally collapsed under the force of Hurricane Ida’s winds.
I live in New Orleans, but I saw the news on my phone, as I scrolled from the safety of a rented apartment in Birmingham, Ala. My family and I arrived on Friday. We are among the Louisianans who could afford to evacuate. We got here by driving I-59 to I-20, which is to say, we relied on the comparatively well-funded public infrastructure of interstate highways to get out of harm’s way.
Our less wealthy neighbors rely on streetcars and buses to get around, modes of public transportation that burn less gas and therefore contribute less to the rising seas and stronger storms that imperil us all. But there is limited regional bus or train service around New Orleans, and they largely were left to experience Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest to make landfall in Louisiana’s history, firsthand.
The reports I got from those who stayed, by necessity or obligation, were mixed. My wife’s cousin, a surgeon at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said that for the first time in recent memory, the emergency room was quiet. A doctor friend in Thibodaux, 60 miles southwest of the city, texted to say that a floor of his hospital had lost power and staff were having to manually pump air into the lungs of intubated Covid patients as they moved them to a floor with a working generator. When he got a break, he texted again to say, “I mean this is traumatizing.”
The big story, for New Orleans, is that the levees held. This was a huge relief, a vindication of the work the Army corps did to build what it calls a “risk reduction system” for the city and its suburbs after Hurricane Katrina. Still, the system is less ambitious than the one Louisianans lobbied for after Katrina, and the protection it offers grows weaker every day, as the wetlands that buffer the city from the Gulf of Mexico get wetter.
It could not save the Karnofsky building from the wind, it did not prevent the failure of the New Orleans’s sewer system and it did not stop the region’s electrical transmission towers from toppling, leaving the hundreds of thousands of people who remain in the region without power for the foreseeable future. But it kept the Gulf of Mexico out of the city, which was its job.
The situation in Thibodaux, LaPlace and other towns east of the city, is much worse. In this region along the Mississippi River — variously called the petrochemical corridor or Cancer Alley — people live with the constant threat of flooding, toxic emissions and other costs of our technological achievement.
LaPlace, where a storm surge in Lake Pontchartrain during Hurricane Isaac flooded 7,000 homes in 2012, has long lobbied for flood protection; Congress approved $760 million for a project in 2018. But it isn’t slated for completion until 2024, and the levees that residents knew would protect them weren’t anywhere near finished. As I write, there are people there standing in water up to their chests, waiting for rescue.
Houma, a city of more than 30,000 people near the coast, endured 150-mile-per-hour winds for hours. So too did many smaller communities, places like Isle de Jean Charles, Cocodrie, Chauvin and Golden Meadow, where Native people and other Louisianans make a life fishing and, often, working for the same oil and gas companies whose pipelines and emissions imperil their homes. Many houses along the coast are built on pilings, 10 feet or more in the air, because floods are so frequent. It is difficult to imagine what might be left.
Hurricane Ida’s lesson, therefore, is not that Louisiana’s storm protections are good enough. Its lesson is that investments in infrastructure save lives.
Nobody in Louisiana needed another hurricane to teach us this. Because of repeated hurricanes and coastal erosion, the population of Cameron Parish, on the state’s western border, is nearly half what it was in 2000; depending on how you look at it, this is either despite or because of an enormous new liquid natural gas facility in the parish.
Many residents of Lake Charles, just north of Cameron, remain in dire straits since last summer’s Hurricane Laura. Relatively little attention or recovery aid followed that Category 4 hurricane. The Trump administration bears much of the blame for not getting people the resources they need, but it did not help that it is growing ever harder for journalists and citizens to keep up with the floods, storms, wildfires and other dystopian manifestations of our changed climate. That’s why I worry the attention paid to Louisiana after Hurricane Ida will be short lived, too.
New Orleanians understood why the Biden White House gave Louisiana a D+ on the national “infrastructure report card” it released in April. With increasingly regularity, for example, clouds have been dumping water into our bowl-shaped city faster than our drainage pumps can take it out. Earlier this summer, President Biden came to tour a linchpin of the city’s water system, called the Carrollton Water Plant, which supplies drinking water to much of New Orleans. “Infrastructure is all about making life livable for ordinary people,” he said outside the plant, stumping for the infrastructure bill that has since passed the Senate and awaits action in the House of Representatives.
A few days after the president’s visit, a problem in the electrical grid — unrelated to the gas shortage that was then vexing much of the South — caused a loss of power at the Carrollton Plant, prompting the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board to issue a “precautionary boil water advisory” for a large section of the city.
This too is a familiar problem here. Mostly you hope you hear about the warning before you have made your coffee or brushed your teeth. If you don’t, you can console yourself knowing that the precautions usually turn out to be unnecessary — even if it is hard to shake the fact that not long ago, two people died nearby after drinking water that contained Naegleria fowleri, which is known colloquially as “the brain-eating amoeba.”
And even before Hurricane Ida blew through, the city’s hospitals were filled to capacity.
Yet through it all, New Orleanians continue to prove themselves capable of making beautiful moments. From an unfamiliar apartment in Birmingham, I think of Joe Krown playing a piano mounted in the back of a pickup truck or Kermit Ruffins advertising “shots for shots”: a free drink at his Mother-in-Law Lounge to people from the neighborhood who got their Covid vaccine.
I think, too, of the brass band staying limber by practicing on the front porch around the corner every week, with my neighbors dancing on the lawn, six feet apart. On a drizzling afternoon this winter, I walked over with my daughter, who was 4 then, just as the band was packing up. She cried because we had missed the music. The trumpeter saw her tears, called for all the instruments to come out of their cases, and the band played her request: “What a Wonderful World.”
The truth is that it’s hard to live in Louisiana. The truth is also that it’s hard to live many places these days, and Louisiana has the benefit of being comparatively easy to love. In fact, it seems everybody loves New Orleans enough to want to come for a long weekend, because seemingly every block now has an Airbnb — or two or three — driving up housing costs, especially in neighborhoods on higher ground.
Evidently fewer people love New Orleans enough to insist, once they get back home, that their congressional representatives vote for the climate, infrastructure or social welfare legislation that might give this city a few extra decades, or expand the number of people who can make a viable life here, or anywhere else in the United States.
Instead, we’re told to be resilient, which usually means that we should attempt to find individual solutions to our structural problems.
Standing in front of the Carrollton Water Plant last May, Mr. Biden joked to reporters, “I’m taking up a collection.” If Louisiana’s vulnerability were unique, maybe charity would be enough.
But if you live near a coast yourself, I counsel solidarity today. Or, for that matter, if you drink water from the public supply, take medicine produced by federally funded research and development, entrust your children to a public school or your parents to a nursing home, or simply enjoy the occasional convenience of a bridge that does not fall, you might take an interest in that infrastructure bill.
At $1 trillion, it offers a modest down payment on our collective needs — shoring up the roads and bridges like those that my family and I will use to return home whenever the power comes back on and schools reopen. Take an interest though, too, in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package Congress is also considering, which gets a little closer to the scale of the problems before us.
Structural problems need structural solutions. Don’t give charity to Louisiana because it’s unique. Demand that Congress take meaningful action, because Louisiana is not unique, and you may be next.
Andy Horowitz (@andydhorowitz), a history professor at Tulane University, is the author of “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015.”
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