Looking at some of the global coverage of New Orleans’ recovery reminds me of the story of the men who had never seen an elephant. Each was blindfolded, given a chance to touch the beast and then asked what they thought an elephant might look like. One felt the trunk and said an elephant was like a snake. Another touched the tusk and said it resembled a cow. A third felt the hide and concluded it must be like a rhinoceros. The image of our city as it is being reported to the world depends on who is touching what.
Katrina and the recovery have made New Orleans a fascinating subject for the world’s editors. We are like Atlanta after Appomattox or Berlin after VE day. Knocked to our knees by the devastation, the world watches to see if we can stand without stumbling. Unfortunately, in the eye of many editors, stumbling makes a far more compelling story than standing upright.
Truth is, the city today can be whatever anyone wants it to be: There’s an already failing public school system now ruptured by flooded buildings and a displaced student body; but there’s also the creativity and excitement of new charter schools.
There has been uninspiring political leadership; but there have been impressive and energetic leaders arising from the neighborhoods. There has been a disturbing increase in crime; but now there’s an aggressive federal task force using its potent resources. There has been concern about the weakened levees yet new and stronger levees are being built and the levee board system has been overhauled to provide closer monitoring. Many houses remain damaged, boarded and without repairs; many other houses are being fixed and rebuilt, most often in better condition than they were before.
We do not mean to suggest that the good counterbalances the bad on every count. Overall New Orleans is still a struggling city. We just want to advise the visiting media that the city’s condition is not an easy read. There will never be a day when we can say that the city is fully recovered yet elements of the recovery are being achieved every day. Do not overanalyze us. Do not come here with preconceived conclusions. New Orleans would do well to one day become the economic powerhouses that Atlanta and Berlin have become after the aforementioned events. For now we’re challenged just to improve the charming city that we were. Touch our trunk and feel our ears and our backbone. Get the full picture. Most of all, listen to our heartbeat.