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The Diaspora


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Diaspora... it's a wonderful word, don't you think? So melancholy, so full of tragedy, and potential. Diaspora... like seeds carried away on a chill Autumn wind, scattered across the countryside, their fates unknown.

The diaspora of the poor of New Orleans (and the Central Gulf region in general) will be the largest intra-national migration of peoples the US has seen since the Dust Bowl Drought hit the Central plains in the '30's. I have heard estimates of 400,000 to more than 800,000 souls will likely never return to the greater NO area, as at this point they have nothing to return to. The citizens of NO are the "Okies" of the 21st century. They will be cast upon this country like seeds upon the wind, hoping by chance to land upon fertile, sympathetic ground.

There'll be a lot of rhetoric about these people must be welcomed, absorbed, cared for. And at first, the nation will gladly pitch in. But, America has a short attention span, and as time wears on, the refugees of Hurricane Katrina will metastisize from needy citizens to inconvenient burden.

This mass migration will unsettle the already precarious job market, inflating the ranks of the unskilled unemployed in most major urban areas.

It will also further aggravate the relationship between the african-American and latino working-class communities in many Western and South-western states.

Hurricane Katrina will change the face of America, fom San Diego to Kennebunkport... Her effects are going to be felt for many years still to come.



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Thanks for bringing up this topic. I have been thinking about it too.


I think it is likely that your scenario will play out. Here is my take on what is likely to happen... taken it with a grain of salt. It is only a scenario.


1) The upper ranges of the NO population will quickly and successfully adjust. There was a story on NPR the other day about CitiBank having already bought up an entire new subdivision in Baton Rouge for its employees who will have to relocate. I would expect that the businesses that need to continue a significant presence in NO will relocate to higher ground, closer to BR, and get on with it in pretty short order. Probably some of these folks are settling into their new homes and relocated workplaces as we speak. Most of these will never go back to NO itself, as the flood risk is too great to repeat. Others with means will buy elsewhere in LA, or build, or in the case of some, relocate to relatives and friends elsewhere. These people of course have been traumatized, but they will get on with it largely on their own steam.


2) The working and lower middle classes -- people with substantial jobs, a home and a car (on payments of course) but no other resources, and little saved, in other words the typical majority population of the US -- will be largely dependent on their employers getting back online and back into business, and on FEMA loans, etc. This group will also not want to rebuild in the low-lying areas, but will not want to move far. They will be the largest voting bloc, and despite the attention to the poorest right now, they are the intended recipients of most of the FEMA and other monies long term. Their fate depends on getting the job base back and functioning, and they will judge the politicians and the system by mid-range results, as the immediate situation stabilizes. The politicians will all be working overtime for them. Most of them will also land on their feet, with appropriate help. But this is where the opportunity for most of the graft in the system will be as well -- industries looking for tax breaks, rebuilding "loans" that are never repaid, money diverted into creative channels, many of them with the name "development" attached.


3) The functional poor -- those who can make it on a subsistence basis with a basic job and extensive public services, especially public housing, education, transportation and health. This could be a potent election bloc if they would come out and vote. Maybe in the next election they will. These will be the people who will provide the heart-warming stories for the press. Some of them in fact will find in this the break they need and enter the working class. But most will do what they do now -- wait for help. NO local politics is geared to these folks on election day, and if NO is to be rebuilt soon, they are a key constituency and will get enormous amounts of symbolic help (while the press is looking) but as always, when the public gaze is averted, sink into the bureaucratic swamp and not be seen again. BUT -- if NO is not to be rebuilt, they will be the truly lost, and this will be the tragic segment of this horror. They will not be especially welcome elsewhere, as every community has its own functional poor already, and is always stretched tight to meet their needs. Opportunities for graft here will also abound, often with the word "community" as a label.


4) The non-functional poor weren't doing well before and that will just get worse. Many will drift away as their networks of support and addiction are cut. There will be bizarre and dangerous episodes and a great deal of rage from them and handwringing about them. The social service networks will all have to be rebuilt, and if they are dispersed, everywhere they relocate will be additionally burdened as their needs are added to the underserved needs of these populations already in our cities.


Groups 3 and 4 in NO are almost entirely black, and group 2 is at least half black, because of the large and relatively successful middle and working class black community in NO. So the racial politics of this dynamic are unavoidable.


The sad truth is that class matters. The prosperous and the working classes will largely escape and continue on, with the elderly and infirm and others at their margins most impacted. The non-functional poor will require care and relocation, and this will be resisted wherever they are sent, even sometimes by themselves -- they are dysfunctional and sometimes delusional, after all.


Let me add something else. People speak and act as if somehow groups 3 and 4 should not exist, that they can somehow pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get on with it if they just want to. But that is just not going to happen. These people are permanent parts of modern American society. The well off and the working classes can pretty well deal with whatever comes, when they get appropriate help, and they will. And some of the 3rd group can move into the second, and some of the fourth into the third, but most people are what they are. And many will, unfortunately, move downward on this scale as they fail to cope. Not to get too religious about it, but if there is a judgment coming, it will be about how we as a society help create a life space for those who cannot create one on their own, whatever shape that takes. This is not an easy thing. Centuries of human ecology have been wiped off the map in NO by this storm, centuries of charity and kindness and hard work for those who simply cannot cope, from churches and nonprofits and individuals and the government, fine tuned to the particular people in that place. That is all gone. It will take a huge amount of work to recreate it in NO even if it is rebuilt, and enormous readjustment in the places where these folks end up. But as a society we simply have to do it, or we are incomplete.

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One additional thought, more than possibly surreal, but hey, It Could Happen!


NO will probably be rebuilt, rehabilitated, renovated, after the levees are fixed and the water is pumped out and the grosser public health issues are dealt with. But I will be willing to bet that it will not be built to accomodate the majority of the poor black people who lived there before. Where they lived before will be condemned as unlivable, bulldozed and removed. Sanitized out of existence. And just somehow whatever is built there, if anything, won't be for them.


NO will not be a business center, or a living economy at all -- it will be NewOrleansLand, with flash-frozen reheated beignets served in the morning by blonde "belles" from New Jersey and gumbo for lunch and jambalaya for dinner cooked in a central stainless steel kitchen and served by smiling "Cajuns" who learned their accent in a two-day course on how to "be" NO. And jazz -- sanitized and available after the show on cd -- served up by smiling "musicians" who just seem to be black and whose names you won't learn because, well, we all work together here, just like Walt taught us. Antoine's and Galatoire's will be there, but you will look in vain for that most real of NO signs -- the ring of black perspiration inside the collar of a waiter who has toiled all evening in a real restaurant designed before air conditioning. No danger, no uncontrolled wildness. And Mardi Gras produced by a Disneyfied "cast", counted and controlled down to the last sequin.


The resort aspect of NO is just too lucrative a property to let die. But the people who will put the money into it will want a Disney version of NO -- all clean and spiffy, no real beggars or drunks or druggies lurking in the alleys, thank you very much. No hookers, tranny or otherwise, and of course no real honest-to-god NO pimps. On each block a couple of colorful "characters", made up in central casting, who will leer unfrighteningly -- the "working gal" with the heart of gold, just right for the preadolescent set -- before they pose for fotos with the kiddies. The bling will be for sale in the gift shop on the way out.


And none of your smelly working poor, either. The black poor and lower working classes will be excluded, except for the percentage who are needed to be the seasonal backup work force. "Families" will love it.


And so will the local authorities. The tax revenues will roll in, and the jumped up peasantry, installed by unseen powers and parading as city fathers, will buy themselves bigger and bigger police and fire departments, and the big money will flow easy, easy, you don't want to know where, just like it does in Anaheim and Orlando and everywhere else the remanufactured nostalgia-as-reality machine is at work.

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NO will be rebuilt. It is too important as a port and for the oil refineries there for it to stay down for very long.

And what for me, who hasn't been there in a decade or more, is the heart of its culture, the French Quarter, by and large won't need to be ruibuilt as much as it was on high ground and didn't flood as much. So quite possibly we will be able to avoid loosing much of it's culture. Besides, without a sin city to go to to blow off steam, the Deep South will find .... well, that it is necessary to have a valve on the top of the preassure cooker.

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