It can take a long time for a city to fully recover from a major disaster, a lot longer perhaps than the recovery time needed by individual inhabitants. Sixty years passed before Dresden Cathedral was rebuilt. It, along with the rest of the city, was devastated in a single Allied bombing raid during World War II.
Even when the reversal of a city’s fortunes occurs in peacetime, is brief in duration and the damage is economic in origin, the negative effects can last for generations. My home town of Melbourne was, for a short time, one of the fastest growing cities in the world before it succumbed to a sudden and deep depression in the 1890s, and it is yet to fully recover.
In late August and early September 2005, New Orleans appeared almost lost. Though the city was spared the direct impact of Hurricane Katrina, the breaches in the man-made levee system allowed a massive storm surge to flood and contaminate New Orleans and surrounding areas.
New Orleans became a watery ghost town. The flood covered 80 per cent of the city and caused well over 1,000 deaths from drowning and dehydration.
Four years on and the famous French Quarter and Garden District appear to have regained their period charm, although some of the poorer residential areas that were worst affected by the flood are still largely places of desolation. It is estimated by one housing construction company executive I met during a recent visit that such a rebuilding effort, which is propelled by private philanthropy, will take more than 20 years to complete.
Not all of a city’s scars are allowed to fade. The bomb-ravaged Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church cathedral in Berlin exists as a permanent war memorial. Traces of the damage sustained in London as a result of the Blitz have been deliberately preserved.
In New Orleans during the flood emergency, house-to-house search teams spray-painted a distinctive X with the quadrants containing a code to indicate the date of the search, affiliation of the search team, and how many corpses, if any, had been discovered. I saw one restored house in the Garden District that showed no sign of having been flood-affected except for this grim graffito, which had apparently been preserved on the front door as a memorial.
The outward signs in New Orleans post-Katrina, at least to a casual visitor, are more positive than negative. At the fourth anniversary of the flood, statistics indicate that the total population of New Orleans, which a year after the flood had fallen by 40 per cent, has almost been restored.
New Orleans is a city of world significance very much on a human scale. There is a kind of provincial pride there that has resisted, to an appreciable extent, the uniformity and blandness of the wider corporate America. Huge chains such as Wal-Mart, Starbucks and Borders are represented - the Borders store, to the amusement of some locals, is located in a former funeral parlour - but that way of doing business seems foreign in a town where everyone seems to know, or know of, everyone else.
Even for an outsider, it is hard not to take New Orleans personally. The streetcar drivers may be famously rude yet it is considered normal to greet strangers in the street.
As in Dublin, another city with a provincial feel whose inhabitants have made a disproportionate contribution to world culture, New Orleans doesn’t seem especially materialistic. Neither town is overly fastidious, which for me is part of the charm though a lack of efficient public services can, understandably, drive the residents to distraction.
The electricity poles all appeared to lean to some degree, as if there is no point in straightening them ahead of the impact of the next strong winds. One of the innumerable potholes in New Orleans was so big that someone put a refrigerator in it to alert motorists.