When you’re on an airplane, the last thing you want to smell is something burning. On the morning of Aug. 29, exactly six years after the passing of Hurricane Katrina, I was landing in New Orleans, coming home from a gig in Nevada. There was a thick, acrid smell of something burning in the cabin, sending a sense of alarm throughout. Finally, the pilot made an announcement: the marsh was burning, not the plane!
In case you missed it, New Orleans suffered a massive marsh fire around the end of August that covered the city in thick smoke and stench for several days. It reminded me of how much our city has been through. First Hurricane Katrina, then the BP oil spill, and now this.
But New Orleans remains lively and vibrant, despite the fact that some musicians who were forced from their homes six years ago haven’t returned, and the doors to many of the places where they used to entertain remain closed.
Thanks to shows like the HBO series “Treme,” events like the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and charitable efforts like the Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village, some semblance of progress is apparent. As of July 2009 (when census data was last available), at least 78 percent of the pre-Katrina population has come back. I would say that just as many local musicians have returned as well. But we have experienced some vast changes that have little to do with weather, and everything to do with political struggles.
It is now a whiter and wealthier city. Tourist areas are well-maintained, while communities like the lower ninth ward remain devastated.
As for preventing another disaster, most people think that the levees have been fixed. That really depends on your definition of “fixed.” According to my information, the Army Corps of Engineers was allocated $1 billion to fix the levees, and now the cost is up to $8 billion. Unfortunately, they have now reported that it is “not really finished.”
The problem is actually bigger. The hydraulic pumps have design flaws, which will take two or three years to repair. Meanwhile, these pumps are expected to fail in a hurricane situation, which would cause rainwater to rise above the safe level. At that point, the old defective floodwalls – which were never fixed – may also fail again.
On a more positive note, the Tipitina’s Music Artist Co-op has provided continuous practical and artistic support in significant ways to the local music community and beyond. The general consensus is that things are much better now, with gigs to be had, depending on how well you play and who you know. Many artists who tour frequently or have most of their gigs out of the city have not been as affected as those who depend on the local economy.
In a recent interview, Irma Thomas, the soul queen of New Orleans, acknowledged that Katrina has forever changed our city. I agree with her completely when she said, “We’ll never be the same, but we will go down fighting to keep the same atmosphere, the same energy that we have had for generations. If that is maintained, we’ll be all right.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For reprint requests, send an e-mail to editor Mikael Elsila at Allegro@Local802afm.org.