New New Orleans

Issue section: 

Review of 'After The Storm', editor David Dante Troutt, The New Press £13.99

"How could a loving god allow this to happen to so many people?"

In his foreword to After the Storm, Derrick Bell suggests that this question was posed by many bewildered people in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina last year. Heart-wrenching though the question is, it fails to address two fundamental realities.

Firstly, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the huge increase in environmental catastrophes is not simply the result of natural geological factors. Man-made global warming is a real and frightening fact of 21st century life. Secondly, as Bell indicates, this kind of question deflects attention away from the pitiful response of politicians and officials to the disaster.

In the midst of the crisis George Bush's folksy endorsement of Federal Emergency Management Agency boss Michael "Brownie you're doing a heck of a job" Brown was, at best, breathtakingly complacent. Once again the president's sheer incompetence in the face of a major catastrophe was brutally exposed.

The writers in this book go further and suggest that something far more fundamental was exposed by those fateful events. Katrina literally tore away the glitzy facade and exposed the grim reality of deprivation, racial and class divisions behind the jazzy image of New Orleans.

These essays expand upon the more challenging sentiment expressed by rap star Kanye West who declared that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." It is clear that he was articulating a view that is widely held by African Americans.

Alongside the federal government, the book subjects local politicians to critical examination and exposes the fallacy of simply relying upon "black faces in high places".

The book's editor, David Dante Troutt, argues that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin simply failed to provide the political leadership that was required, and that he has colluded in a regeneration plan that quite literally whitewashes the city. In neighbouring Baton Rouge, meanwhile, mayor-president Melvin "Kip" Holden was quick to announce that he wanted to "make sure that some of those thugs and looters that are shooting officers in New Orleans don't come here and do the same thing".

In truth, though some horrendous acts did undoubtedly occur, media stories about thefts and rapes - most notoriously in the Superdome stadium where evacuees were accommodated - were wildly exaggerated.

In a fascinating piece entitled "Loot or Find: Fact or Frame", Cheryl I Harris and Devon W Carbado expose the role of the media in perpetuating the stereotype of the black criminal. They begin by placing two photographs of people wading through the flood water that appeared on the same website side by side.

The captions that accompanied these images gave them a vastly different meaning, however. Apparently the black man in the first photo was "looting", while the white couple in the other were bravely struggling against the odds to survive.

By sheer coincidence, I am writing these words on my return from a Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust Memorial Lecture on the subject of diversity and regeneration. I was rather surprised to hear leading, and very eminent architects arguing that we must march and campaign to gain control of our built environment. The essays in After the Storm suggest that this is precisely what we must do if we are to both save the planet and create the great towns and cities that we can proudly bequeath to future generations.