As yet unestimated, but sure to be substantial, is the psychological effect of the spill on a region that so recently looked as if it had shaken off the near-death experience of Katrina. Today, Louisiana is one of the least economically stressed states in the country, with an unemployment rate nearly three percentage points lower than the national average. New Orleans has gained residents steadily, inching over 300,000 in 2008 and on track to settle at nearly 80 percent of the pre-Katrina count of 455,000. Housing starts are up and dozens of buildings in the central business district are being renovated. The city’s public schools are still troubled, but there are glimmers of hope in a system that has been reorganized from top to bottom, with thousands of children streaming into a new, comprehensive network of charter schools. Crime remains high but has plateaued, and a federal investigation of the New Orleans police department holds the promise of cleaning out corrupt holdovers in that deeply troubled force. In his mayoral run, Mitch Landrieu assembled a coalition that, for the first time in decades, reached across lines of race and class in this most segregated of cities. Federal prosecutor Jim Letten, a drum-playing local boy with a Joe Friday manner and luxuriant mustache, has racked up an impressive string of prosecutions, rooting out political corruption at all levels of state and local government. The national attention surrounding the Super Bowl put New Orleans and the region in a national spotlight that revealed a confident, revitalized city. Residents here began to feel like the bad days were finally behind them.
All of that forward momentum is at risk today. The day after it became apparent that top kill had failed, a pall fell over the city. At my church in the Riverbend section of the city, Mater Dolorosa—the Marsalis family, famous jazz musicians, used to play in the adjoining elementary school’s band—the pastor, a Louisiana native, gathered the parish’s children around him. You may be asking, he told the children and their parents, why God has allowed this to happen. God doesn’t cause evil; but he can bring good out of it, just like he brought good out of Katrina, and we must believe he will bring good out this oil spill. It was striking that the priest employed language more often associated with comforting the bereaved than with explaining an environmental and public policy crisis. But it made sense. In New Orleans and Louisiana, it feels as if there’s been a death in the family.
Justin Torres is a writer and attorney in New Orleans.