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No Second Line for New Orleans

Worrying and praying for New Orleans feels like being at the sickbed of a relative struggling to stay in this world, but you know that the chances aren’t good, and you need to prepare yourself for the worst. So everything rushes around in your mind, a mishmash of the good and the bad, as you reminisce with tears in your eyes. New Orleans missed by the slimmest margins what would have been utter destruction at the hands of Katrina, but even with what seemed to be a reprieve, the city suffered a grievous body blow. The levees were breached, and whitecaps have been sighted on Canal Street, grim portents for a reeling city. But still we hope for New Orleans to hold on and find a second wind and put itself together for a long and painful convalescence. I’m a native of the Big Easy. But the city’s attraction for me isn’t that it’s the perfect place to get your drink on and party down with the frat boys. New Orleans explains me and my tribe of miscegenated Americans — we colored folk, even the occasional black folk with blond hair and blue eyes. When people ask my race, I often respond by saying, “I’m from New Orleans.” If pressed for what that means, I’ll say, “We marry our cousins.” Sure, I’m joking, but I’m serious about the idea that this place is more than just a city you happened to be born in. History is thick in New Orleans; everywhere you go you experience it, from the Congo Square to the French Quarter, where you can purchase, if you’re so inclined, authentic slave receipts from back in the day. Even weathered shotgun houses that are now probably submerged are romantic with history. New Orleans is a city that probably shouldn’t have come into existence, but it did, in spite of being located in an inhospitable malarial swamp; a city built by the blood and sweat of slaves that was once one of the richest cities in the world — because it was one of the centers of the world slave trade. And because of that, New Orleans became a city with a complicated color code, which made it possible for Creoles, those octoroons and quadroons, to prosper, and sometimes allowed them to slip through to the other side and become white — “Jean Toomer” white, “Jelly Roll Morton” white, “Anatole Broyard” white. Every now and then somebody will write some naive thing about race, where we are all becoming new: “My beautiful biracial children will break the mold, and race concerns will be sloughed off like dead skin.” Well, in New Orleans people have been having sex with the “other” for a very long time and producing a motley assortment of colored folk, but race still matters, though my mother says mixed people are the prettiest people. When I see photos of folks struggling to cross a flooded street and all of them are black, dark-skinned, with children in hand, I wonder. Were these people rugged individualists, or poor folks who didn’t have the means to get out of harm’s way? I can be persuaded that it’s only coincidence that in the overwhelming number of news photos, the hurricane refugees are overwhelmingly black, but I suspect that race and class have something to do with it. A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a producer about writing a script about a disaster movie set in New Orleans, but we both thought it would be creepy to spend that much time writing about the destruction of a city that means so much to us. And yet the potential destruction of New Orleans has been in the back of my imagination for years. Many times I’ve envisioned a Category Five hurricane blowing in as Lake Pontchartrain exploded the levees and overwhelmed the gigantic pumps surrounding and protecting the city. The city would flood and the water would have nowhere to go, creating a funky Atlantis. New Orleans would become the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States. I pictured the world forming a giant Second Line to bid farewell to a beloved city in high New Orleans jazz-funeral style. There’s comfort in knowing that Hurricane Katrina didn’t turn out to be a Category Five, but it’s still an unmitigated disaster. And depending on how things go in the coming days, we may have need for that Second Line. But my father, who was around before WPA built the seawalls, remembers how the water would just come in and flood everything. He also remembers eating noodles and prunes during the hurricane of 1928, and says that I’m full of it. His opinion is that New Orleans won’t need a Second Line or any other kind of funeral procession if it gets knocked down; we’d just have to rebuild it all over again. I guess that’s how we have to be, those of us who love New Orleans — we have to be as optimistic as my father. An e-mail circulating the Internet shows the frantic mood: “I just spoke to my sister-in-law. She is very scared, as are all the staff at the medical center. They can hear gunshots outside. They can see trucks of men driving up and down the street. She says it is like anarchy. They are afraid for their lives. They have stayed behind to care for their patients, but the emphasis on search and rescue does not place them high on the priority list. Their evacuation is proceeding slowly; they still have patients to evacuate first. Reports are that prisoners from the parish prison, which I saw on TV being guarded on an exit ramp near the flooded jail, overwhelmed the guards and are on the loose in the city. Things are MUCH worse than the news reports are conveying. Please keep everyone at Tulane Medical Center in your prayers.”

What can YOU do?

A disaster relief fund-raiser will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, September 11, at the St. Anselm Catholic Church (corner of Arlington and 70th Street). The event, featuring musicians, poets and artists, will accept donations for the American Red Cross.

This list has been provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in response to the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast. The groups and their phone numbers are set up solely for cash donations and volunteers: Donate Cash: American Red Cross 1-800-HELP NOW (435-7669) English, 1-800-257-7575 Spanish America's Second Harvest 1-800-344-8070 Donate Cash and Volunteer: Adventist Community Services 1-800-381-7171 Catholic Charities, USA 703 549-1390 Christian Disaster Response 941-956-5183 or 941-551-9554 Christian Reformed World Relief Committee 1-800-848-5818 Church World Service 1-800-297-1516 Convoy of Hope 417-823-8998 Corporation for National and Community Service Disaster Relief Fund 202-606-6718 Lutheran Disaster Response 800-638-3522 Mennonite Disaster Service 717-859-2210 Nazarene Disaster Response 888-256-5886 Presbyterian Disaster Assistance 800-872-3283 Salvation Army 1-800-SAL-ARMY (725-2769) Southern Baptist Convention -- Disaster Relief 1-800-462-8657, ext. 6440 United Methodist Committee on Relief 1-800-554-8583

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