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Delta Blues: A Dirge for New Orleans?

Last updated on: September 02, 2005 16:00 IST

Mark Twain said long ago that there were only three interesting cities in the US: Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco. I have had the pleasure of living in or near Boston and San Francisco for years, but I have only been to New Orleans twice: once, many years ago, and the second time just a few months ago. Mark Twain was right: these three cities are definitely unique and different: no concrete canyons, these.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989, I was in London, and the images I saw on television convinced me that my beloved city was devastated beyond repair, although that really wasn't true; so it was with a sense of déjà vu that I watched the images of the destruction of New Orleans. I wonder if, like San Francisco, New Orleans will rise again phoenix-like, although the situation looks grim. It's a bit like the old Pretenders song, I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone.

Will New Orleans, which gets much of its income from tourism -- there were signs in Japanese, English, French and Spanish at the airport -- truly recover? Flash floods terrify tourists. The other big industry here is oil, thanks to offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as refinery complexes and pipelines, and that is why disruption here has brought gasoline prices at the pump up to $5 a gallon. The Gulf accounts for a quarter of US oil and gas production and there is a giant network of underwater pipelines as well as a large offshore port that accommodates very large tankers for imported oil.

I am skeptical of official estimates of death tolls: as many as 10,000 to 25,000 people may have died in New Orleans, as the huge underclass of mostly black people in the city did not have the wherewithal to evacuate by road, not having cars. More will die from disease in the heat and humidity of the fetid swamp, and from water-borne diseases. The immensity of the problem seems to have caught the authorities by surprise, and their response is no more impressive than what was done for Mumbai after its recent deluge.

Last year, I needed to go to Baton Rouge, and I spent a couple of days in the fabled French Quarter of New Orleans en route. I got a room in an atmospheric French-style inn at the edge of the Quarter for $56, but I noticed when I booked it on Expedia that two weeks later, when the season kicked in, the very same room would go for $216. This city obviously lived and died by tourism. And, although I didn't know it then, by the strength of the levees and dykes that held the River Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain at bay.

It feels odd to now read my scribbled notes from that trip. Almost everything I saw is now under water, and eerily, the television images remind me of the nuclear devastation wrought on Nagasaki: as though a capricious giant had tossed things around. Can they ever restore the city to what it was before this catastrophe? So this is pretty much a dirge for what I saw then. The famous Johnny's where I had a shrimp po'boy sandwich, the cafés and bars I went to on Bourbon Street, even the horse-headed hitching posts, everything is under water.

New Orleans I have always thought of as a seductive but contradictory city. What I remembered from my trip many years ago was that the city had fabulous Cajun and Creole food, the Preservation Hall jazz band, stunningly attractive mixed-race Creole women, drinking binges and the wild Mardi Gras (motto: laissez les bons temps rouler, let the good times roll). Yet it was perilously close to desperate poverty: just blocks away there lived many people who were pretty much like slum-dwellers in Indian cities.

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This time I got on the old streetcar, and not quite knowing where it went, decided to take it all the way to the end and back. It passed through affluent neighborhoods like the Garden District with its lovely mansions, Tulane University, the Audubon Park, all areas with large white populations, leafy upper-class areas with BMW X5s and Porsches parked all over.

But then you reached poorer and blacker sections of town, although these were still considerably less penurious than the dirt-poor shanties I saw later on the way out of town. At one point, a black teenager, who seemed to be disoriented and high on some drug, got on the streetcar and refused to pay; the conductor refused to move until he got off. It was a standoff until the burly rail security man he radioed arrived and forced the boy off.

I asked a gorgeous and curvaceous Creole woman I met -- her very skimpy outfit did not leave much to the imagination, as is customary among the natives partly due to the heat and humidity -- what the locals did for entertainment, and she said, "We eat and drink, mostly drink." She also said jobs were hard to come by, and many people emigrated to Houston or Atlanta; the big Harrah's casino that was recently built had brought a lot of jobs to the waterfront area.

There was something vaguely sinister about the city; the taxi driver who dropped me off at the hotel suggested that I shouldn't stray too far from the French Quarter. Walking around on North Rampart Street, I came across a voodoo practitioner's salon, and this bizarre mixture of African, Caribbean and Christian practices was apparently quite popular among the locals.

Later, I drove out of town along Route 10, and there were signs that marked it as the Hurricane Evacuation Route. I was impressed by the long, raised causeways en route that straddled the river and the swamps: there was one that was some twenty miles long, and sections of it have now collapsed like Lego toys. Route 10 is largely impassable as large chunks of it are no longer navigable.

I drove by the Henderson swamp, taking in the cypress forests that seemed to be the principal vegetation all around the bayou, and listened to country music, Zydeco and bluegrass music on the radio. The talk stations were all religious, with thundering born-again Christian preachers holding forth.

It is vaguely menacing, the swamp: in the early morning fog, you think of old B movies such as Swamp Thing. I went with some friends on a tour of the Atchafalaya swamp in a flat-bottomed boat captained by a garrulous Cajun (from Acadian, a person of French-Canadian descent), who had a fund of jokes about redneck fellow-Cajuns named Boudreaux or Moulineaux, clearly the Mississippi Delta equivalents of Sardarji jokes.

The surreal swamp and the cadences of the great river, along with the uprootedness of the Cajuns and the African slaves here produced both the outstanding jazz as well as the distinctive Delta Blues sound. When I think of the possible demise of New Orleans, I think of the majestic and funereal Shine On, You Crazy Diamond from the Blues-influenced Pink Floyd album Wish You Were Here.

There is also great irony: the oil from the Gulf of Mexico that has sustained New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana has been its downfall too. For it is quite likely that it is global warming that contributed to the fearsome wallop packed by Hurricane Katrina. It is increasingly critical for all of us to get less addicted to oil: and it is not as though there is no way out. Delhi has become noticeably less polluted after CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) vehicles started plying; in the US, you can buy a Honda GX that you can refill on CNG from the gas line to your home. And hybrid and fuel-cell cars are also available.

And what might happen if a similar hurricane hits India's east coast? Evacuating, and even more challengingly, caring for, a half million people, is clearly beyond the capabilities of any civic administration: the US National Guard -- perhaps depleted by postings to Iraq -- has failed signally in doing this in Louisiana. What plans does India have in place for such an eventuality?

Even more alarmingly, with the rise in ocean levels, much of Bangladesh could be inundated when a major cyclone hits. What would that do to the level of infiltration -- actually the right term would be 'invasion' -- of Bangladeshis into India? Are there any contingency plans to cope with this? That is a rhetorical question, as I am sure the answer is 'No'.

I do hope they will rebuild the levees and reclaim the Big Easy; it will always be a magical and mysterious place for me. I certainly remember the pan-blackened redfish and the gumbo and the crawfish and the jambalaya. And just as the Americans offered India help after the tsunami, I hope India will offer shipments of food and other emergency aid to New Orleans.

Comments welcome at my blog at http://rajeev2004.blogspot.com

 

Rajeev Srinivasan