September 2, 2008

Our Man In New Orleans: Do You Think They're Going To Feel Confident?

A photographer I was with who hasn’t covered this kind of thing asked: "What happens if this breaks right now?"  I said: "Then we die."

According to Alan Chin from New Orleans (in my best transcription), these were the four stories to Gustav:

The first was that New Orleans was spared, which is a very good thing.

The second is that the evacuation worked, which shows they’ve made progress.  They evacuated twenty-five thousand, including all the hospitals and nursing homes.  "…There are only ten thousand people left in this city, and they’re probably almost all cops or journalists."

Third is that, it is so eerily reminiscent of Katrina here now.  Again, the city is empty, a ghost town.  Again, there is the curfew, the martial law.  Think about it, a major American city that’s been shut down for a week.  Although they got off easy, something like this does a lot of damage to the long term psychology of this place.

Fourth, for all the talk of them improving the system since Katrina, they could have done a lot more.  This was a minor tropical storm, not even a Category 3.  It was probably a Category 2 or 3 90 miles from here.  In New Orleans, the winds were only about 80 mph, 90 at most.  Looking outside last night where we were staying, I saw a couple garbage cans overturned, and that was it.  What if this was a real Category 3?

Just look at that levee wall. [The shots in the slideshow show the Industrial Canal, separating the upper from lower Ninth Ward.]  Look at it getting pounded.  This is an eight foot storm surge and the water is coming over the wall.  What if it was 14 feet?  It wouldn’t have taken much more for that to come apart like cardboard.

And what about the the harbor, and those three barges that broke loose and bumped into each other?  They didn’t break through the levee wall like last time, but what were were they doing moored there where they could have become cannonballs?

And then, how do you think the people of New Orleans feel looking at these pics of this hurricane that was downgraded?  Do you think they’re going to feel confident?  The news is usually about reporting what went wrong.  And nothing went wrong.  But it’s a sign.  I think, long term, it opens up a lot of doubts about what the plans are, with no more wetlands, no more barriers in the swamp.

Finally, I also want to say, I think I was already a compassionate photographer, but working here the last three years, I have really come to love this place.  I’ve grown to understand it, it has gotten under my skin, and I am absolutely happy that these pictures are these pictures, and not what I sent three years ago.   I’m so happy and relieved that I didn’t have that much to do today.

(Images © Alan Chin.  New Orleans. 2008.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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