I recently traveled to New Orleans, my first visit to the Crescent City in more than thirty years. Although I was there to give a talk, the occasion provided an opportunity to assess (however belatedly) the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina nearly five years ago. With that in mind, my host generously offered to give me a guided tour through some of the city’s worst-hit precincts.
Recovery remains a work in progress, with much accomplished and much more remaining to be done. In affluent neighborhoods like the Garden District or at Tulane University where I spoke, evidence of the hurricane’s passing is conspicuous by its absence. In poorer neighborhoods, the scars are omnipresent and raw.
Yet even in places like the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward, heartening signs of renewal are everywhere visible—businesses and schools reopened, homes being rebuilt or built anew from scratch. Federal money is making a difference not only in fixing residential neighborhoods, but in funding major improvements to hospitals and schools. Private initiatives by churches or charitable organizations are also contributing. Although I’m not a particular fan of the actor Brad Pitt, his Make It Right project has erected more than two dozen new homes that are striking in appearance, while also being environmentally hip. More such houses are to come. Make It Right is making a difference.
That said, there are still countless buildings that stand abandoned, their roofs caved in, windows covered with plywood, entire structures gradually being enveloped by the local flora. Concrete slabs, stripped bare and surrounded by weeds, litter the landscape. They exist in the thousands. Some number will no doubt eventually serve as foundations for new residences; one guesses that more than a few will simply remain as they are, offering mute testimony to what was once a flourishing community—a sort of twenty-first century American version of Pompeii.
To an outsider, the overall mood is one of sturdy, matter-of-fact, un-heroic heroism. The truth is that however much the plight of those caught in Katrina’s path elicited concern and sympathy back in 2005, most of us have long since moved on. The people of New Orleans are on their own. Whether the Big Easy finally emerges from this epic disaster better or worse, bigger or smaller, richer or poorer, its culture intact or fatally compromised will be for those who live there to decide.
On a day-to-day basis, living in New Orleans—especially in the blighted quarters—translates into learning how to cope or make do. Coping is a predicate for survival.
Not that this is somehow unique to post-Katrina New Orleans. Coping may be the chief response, individual or collective, to the difficulties inherent in the human condition.
One of the reasons that most of us have more or less forgotten Katrina is that the world has experienced a non-stop succession of other natural disasters since. Recent months alone have seen massively destructive earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and China. In Iceland, a volcano erupts, wreaking havoc across much of Europe. Famines ravage populations. The prospect of some new epidemic scares the hell out of us. Floods, droughts, forest fires, tsunamis, melting ice caps: it’s one damn thing after another.
And even if your community has been spared such disasters, it’s unlikely that your family has escaped unscathed. Unexpected death, crippling sickness, the loss of a job, the rupture of intimate relationships: when these things befall us, we cope.
Governments (or in the case of personal loss, friends) do their best to help out, of course. Yet at the end of the day those directly affected have to figure things out. We have no alternative. So we make the best of things. We put our lives back together. That accomplished, we wait for the next bit of misfortune to come along, as it inevitably does. Then we cope with that one too.
Forget about world peace, spreading freedom and democracy around the world, and finding true love and happiness. If as nations and individuals we can cope with the hand that fate deals us, we’re doing all that can be expected.