How to shore up those levees -- and whether it's a good idea anyway to have a city below sea level -- are not the biggest questions New Orleans needs to answer. Before the city rebuilds the infrastructure, it needs to rethink rebuilding the community itself.
I'll never forget my first trip through the New Orleans airport. I was at baggage claim, and I looked up to see a poster advertising a local strip joint. That'd never fly in Birmingham, I thought. In fact, now that I think about it, I don't think I've seen fleshpot advertisements in any other airport, and I've been in some big ones: Houston, Atlanta, LAX.
And thus, the big difference between New Orleans and most other American cities. Sleaze, seediness and sin are in your face in the Big Easy. You almost can't get to the sublime food, music and culture without stepping over barf in the streets, without walking past photos of every sex act imaginable posted outside darkened clubs.
A friend who's from this area returned home last year after living some time in New Orleans with her husband and young daughter. She's a bohemian, liberal, nonconformist. I figured New Orleans would be the perfect fit for her, but she told me flatly: "New Orleans is no place to raise a child. The people there are lazy. My husband had the hardest time getting people to work for him."
Don't shoot the messenger -- I'm just relaying what she said.
Another friend, a guy from Phoenix, said you don't do business in New Orleans from about noon Thursday to sometime Monday afternoon. No one is sober enough.
The implosion of the Big Easy is at least partly because the city was already rotting from within. You cannot have a culture of drunkenness and shiftlessness, vice and corruption, murder and mayhem and be expected to hold it together when all hell breaks loose. All the gumbo and king cake in the world can't help you when the waters are rushing in.
Before New Orleans can be rebuilt physically, the people who return there are going to have to think about what sort of city they want spiritually and socially. They're going to have to think about what their city will spend its money on: restoring vintage architecture or advertising strip clubs. They're going to have to rethink Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. They should keep Cafe du Monde and Pat O'Brien's, but maybe it's time to relegate the sex shows and the street drinking to the outer limits of the city and make the French Quarter safer for women and children.
If New Orleans is to rise again and survive, she'll have to be a different city. She has too many charms not to be built on a more solid foundation of responsible community and governance.