In anticipation of Ameriville, Emerson professor Magda Romanska talks to Jed Horne, an award-winning writer and journalist and the author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City, published by Random House. As an editor of New Orleans’ daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, Jed Horne has had a front-row seat on the unfolding drama of the city’s collapse into chaos and its continuing struggle to survive. The Times-Picayune was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes in 2006 for coverage of Hurricane Katrina that included work written or edited by Horne.
MR: In your book, Breach of Faith,you write about the history of New Orleans and the importance of the city as a national treasure. Culturally diverse and rich in tradition, New Orleans is one of the few U.S. cities that pride themselves on preserving and maintaining their history. It is hard to envision the complete destruction of one of the European cities of that caliber, such as Venice or Florence. How much of New Orleans was destroyed by Katrina?
JH: Little of what New Orleans is famous for – the French Quarter, the Garden District, Uptown, Marigny and Treme – was destroyed in the hurricane, though it looked for a time as if all of it was in jeopardy. These older parts of the city occupy higher ground (a few feet above sea level) and so they were largely spared when the federal flood defense collapsed and the city was inundated after the storm passed on. The greater danger was that New Orleans’ distinctive culture – a people’s culture of jazz and dance and great food (as opposed to an institutional fine arts culture sustained by society’s upper rungs) – would be lost if the working poor, driven out of the city during the evacuation, discovered that they lacked the wherewithal to return. Some recovery measures addressed that threat directly, such as Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians Village. But the good news – that the culture is intact and perhaps even richer than ever – is a testament more to the resilience of the community and an implacable love for New Orleans than to specific programs or investments. Not only were the city’s musicians and chefs and artists drawn back home, an influx of young folks from all across the country also responded to the opportunities, the obligations and the sheer romance of giving New Orleans a try. You see this in TV shows like David Simon’s “Treme” and in the fact that the city – incredibly – now has more restaurants than before the storm. A convulsive school reform effort has hinged in part on the availability of Teach for America candidates, a resource that may not be sustainable over the long haul but that has been galvanizing thus far. And, even those newcomers who don’t think of themselves as artists have provided an audience base for those who do. Both traditional art forms and more recent innovations have been the beneficiary. The city’s population, about 450,000 before the storm, is thought to have rebounded to about 350,000 after zeroing out in Katrina’s immediate aftermath. That’s still a big loss. No doubt some evacuees found new and better lives. But in addition to those who perished in the storm – about 1,000 – many who wanted to come back have not figured out how to do it. Their absence undercuts New Orleans’ otherwise remarkable revival.