Beyond grief, there’s room for rebirth
They say there are four stages of grief: denial, anger, depression and acceptance. The Gulf Coast has reached the final stage — acceptance — yet what residents and business face is unacceptable. When I visited the area in December, I could see what one person I talked with called “a new normal.” Much as with the aftermath of 9-11, people in the Gulf, particularly in the New Orleans area, will define their lives as “before Katrina” and “after Katrina.” There is nothing about New Orleans that is the same. What they knew was washed away, first by the water, and then by the paralyzed inefficiency of the post-Katrina recovery effort.
Where you are in the area dictates what you see. Bourbon Street is virtually deserted, and no amount of Mardi Gras-infused revelry this month will change that. Much of Orleans Parish is a ghost town, abandoned by everyone. Go to Jefferson Parish, where many locals fled after Katrina washed through Orleans Parish, and you’ll see virtual gridlock as businesses come to grips with employee shortages and overwhelmed infrastructure.
You see looks of solemn resignation in the faces of many — that this is all a bad dream that has no end. You know the situation is bad when the 24-hour Wal-Mart in Harahan, LA closes at 6 p.m.
Six months after Katrina’s arrival, things are not better in New Orleans — they are simply less awful. Any improvement, as we report in this month’s cover story, has come from the ingenuity of private businesses and the will of local individuals. While their government has failed them at every level, the business leaders have rallied their employees and their community to begin to rebuild and rebound.
It will be a long process. It will take many Mardi Gras seasons before we see New Orleans return. There are some positive signs. Even planning a Mardi Gras is a bold move. College students are returning to campus in a downtown area that counts on their presence. But the convention center remains shuttered, hotel business is slow to return and the citizens of many portions of Orleans Parish simply cannot come back to what they had.
Plant engineers already know that many of the solutions in New Orleans will be engineered, starting with a repaired levee. Beyond that, it will take courage and confidence to rebuild the region, and a large share of that rebuilding will be driven by manufacturers who see the region’s undeniable strengths — port access, a traditionally strong labor pool and an emphasis on the growing petrochemical industry. It will take imagination and attention to detail to rebuild New Orleans. Again, those are two traits plant engineers have in abundance.
There is undeniable wisdom in simply accepting New Orleans as it is today. That’s not good enough. Beyond that fourth stage of grief, there simply has to be room for rebirth. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast deserve that chance.