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U.S.: Hurricane Devastates New Orleans, Unique American City (Part 2)

  • Don Hill --> More than one week after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city’s future remains an open question. Some 60 percent of the city remains underwater, and it will take months to dry out -- and years to rebuild. In the second of a five-part series on the storm, RFE/RL takes a look at the unique history and culture of New Orleans, and what may have been lost in the hurricane’s wake. But as one native tells it, the birthplace of jazz will overcome its tragedy -- and live to sing another day.

Prague, 8 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Buried under the reeking muck, drowned alongside corpses of the poor and the luckless, lies America’s most original city -- the sounds of its famous music reduced to a gurgle.

New Orleans always has thumbed its nose at its threatening environment. A city below sea level, it built its levees to defy the waters of the Mississippi River and the river's delta, an estuary of the Gulf of Mexico.

Storms? The people laughed at them and crowded the bars on Bourbon Street, where the most popular drink for years was the red rum “Hurricane” at Pat O’Brien’s.

The city faced down murder, corruption, and decay -- just more of the black and Cajun and Creole and decadent experience that made New Orleans New Orleans.

RFE/RL news executive Joyce Davis was born and raised in New Orleans. Her hometown memories are bittersweet.

"Well, the city of New Orleans that I know -- of course, I was born there -- is a complicated city," she says. "It's a city that's rich in all of the things that we would know of as sensual pleasures -- great food, great music, creative music. It has beautiful architecture dating back to colonial periods, with French and Spanish influence, lovely wrought-iron balconies."

Davis says that the complexity includes dark shadows. "But there's another side also. And it's a side that had grown comfortable with its history, that was still living on its history rather than trying to in many cases move forward and become a part of the more progressive part of the United States," she says. "It was very easy to simply be in New Orleans, have a comfortable life, and not worry about the rest of the world.”

Louisiana was a French colony, then Spanish, in the 1700s and New Orleans was its shipping port. In 1800, Napoleon recovered ownership for France and three years later sold the huge territory to the young United States in a deal called still “the Louisiana Purchase.”

By mid-century, the city had 700,000 people -- French, Spanish, African, Caribbean. The mix gave New Orleans its Cajuns, descended from French settlers; and black slaves and their descendants, including Creoles, mixed-race Caribbean- and Afro-Europeans. And the blacks, in turn, gave New Orleans their pain-inspired spirituals, gospel music, and jazz.

"Jazz comes from the experience of black people in that city, the history of slavery that is still very much a part of that city today," Davis says. "I mean, you can walk by the places in "the Quarter" where slaves were put on the block. I remember walking with my grandmother down the streets of New Orleans and she says you can hear the screams of the slaves in the building.

"Those slaves developed a certain kind of music to express their suffering. This music was the gospel music, the spirituals. It started with spirituals and moved to gospel. Gospel was then transformed into what we know as blues that had a more secular message. And from the blues came jazz, a more sophisticated expression of black people and of their experiences. And that is basically the foundation of what is today New Orleans," Davis says.

The people of New Orleans are not laughing now at nature’s power. There are those who contend that the New Orleans of that last 200 years is gone, one of Katrina’s forever dead. Davis thinks not.

In 1990, as did many talented and educated blacks, she left New Orleans for less provincial pastures. She thought she would never go back to stay. Now, she says, she’s not so sure.

“The people, they're asking some very hard questions. How did we get in this position? How did we allow ourselves to be dependent? Shouldn't we have been in a position to take care of ourselves, to evacuate ourselves? And that will transform the city. It will bring the kind of dynamism to move New Orleans into the 21st century," Davis says.

Davis says there may be thousands like her, members of a diaspora multiplied by Katrina, modern “saints” who will be moved to go marching in, and to build a new and better New Orleans on the foundation of the old.

Audio Slideshow: Inside The Baton Rouge Shelter Real Audio, Windows Media

See also:

Despite Wealth, America Not Prepared For Disaster (Part 1)

Only The Stench Drives Survivors From New Orleans (Part 3)

Volunteers Provide Shelter To Homeless Victims (Part 4)

Damage From Katrina Poses Risks For Global Energy Market (Part 5)