Mourning for a Flooded Crescent City

Commentator Andrei Codrescu has called Louisiana home for more than 20 years. Now, as he watches this flood, he knows that he is only one of many, many people who are overcome by the tragedy of New Orleans.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Andrei Codrescu has called Louisiana home for more than 20 years. Now as he watches the flooding after Katrina, he knows that he is only one of many, many people who are overcome by the tragedy of New Orleans.

ANDREI CODRESCU:

It's heartbreaking watching my beautiful city sink, but I'm at a safe distance 90 miles away, and my heartbreak is nothing compared to the suffering of people still in the city. New Orleans will be rebuilt, but it will never again be the city I knew and loved. I often compared it to Venice because of its beauty and tenuousness, its love of music, art and carnival. The problem of engineering the survival of Venice has preoccupied the world for centuries, but very little thought has gone into saving New Orleans in the same way.

New Orleans was--and it may be yet--a thriving commercial city crucial to controlling the mouth of the Mississippi River, vital to American industry and access to the Gulf of Mexico. Ronda(ph) Bienville founded the city here in 1718, ignoring his engineer's warning about settling a patch of swampland between the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico and the massive lake to the north. The needs of the American republic continued to compound Bienville's original sin, requiring more and more engineering to correct nature at one of its grandest meeting points. The wetlands that once served to tame the savagery of the winds are gone, victims of big oil and global warming. The seas are hotter, People, and this is the result. Pay attention, Global Warming Deniers. This is the real thing.

The saving grace of New Orleans was its music, its food, its festivals and the poor. This was the most brutal slave market in America and the northernmost point of the Caribbean trade in guns, rum and human beings. The slaves and subsequent refugees, immigrants, pirates and quick-buck artists brought culture with them from Africa and the places they ran from. New Orleans' music traveled upriver and became America's music. We've been a generator of human and cultural energy for centuries. Nut all this bounty brought the city no careful engineering, no thought for its future, no worldwide cry for help for its inevitable demise. The Army Corps of Engineers saved the city heroically at least once during the floods of 1927, but it was then, as now, a response to crisis--no forethought, no concern for the future.

So here we are sinking into the water around us, drowning in our own waste, poverty, incompetence and the greed of those who came before us. This is the time for straight reporting, of heartbreaking stories, of heroic rescues and superhuman efforts by good-hearted individuals and the weary but always ready charities. It's not a time for anger. But I can't help wondering, what is going to survive of our culture? We already know who's going to pay for all this. The poor. They always do. The whole country's garbage flows down the Mississippi to them. Until now, they turned all that waste into song. They took the sins of America onto themselves, but this blues now is just too big.

SIEGEL: Andrei Codrescu teaches at Louisiana State University.

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