Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Death of an American City

An American city is dead.

Over half a million people have left New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. Millions of houses were under water for days. The levees broke and the lake poured its water into the bowl, finding its proper level. The city became an underwater Atlantis.

Streets were covered. Power was out. No drinkable water. The sewer system became the lake, and the lake became the sewer system. Bodies floated between the debris. Cars intermingled with floating stuff churned up by the storm, or dislodged from buildings, or lifted up from lawns and sidewalks.

High-rise buildings rose from the dirty pools that lapped at their bottom floors. Seen from the air, most of the city looked like a collect of floating peaked roofs.

We have not experienced the total destruction of such a large city on this continent in this generation. Some have called it a diaspora, which may be giving the city’s population a cultural and ethnic face that it does not quite meet. But at worst, it is a geographic and human dispersion that we have never seen in this country.

New Orleans will remain dead, even when the water recedes. The power companies will restore the electricity, clean water will run through the pipes, the streets will reappear, houses will rise from the depths again. Physically, it will look like a city again.

But until people return, New Orleans will not return to life. Only people can make a city breathe. And we must expect that some percentage of the people will not come back.

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