If you squint hard enough at this nasty number from last week, in which the Chicago Tribune’s Kristen McQueary wrote glowingly of the great civic good Hurricane Katrina visited upon the city of New Orleans a decade ago and of her fervent desire for Chicago to meet a similar fate, you can almost interpret the outline of a relatable, or at least not-completely-horrible sentiment. Something about the fear of corruption and inertia too deeply rooted in the organism of a city to be eradicated, save by the destruction of the city itself. If you close your eyes altogether, you can imagine this sentiment, warped and encumbered by all the familiar pressures and incentives of the internet publishing business, sliding from the ass-end of a heedless editorial process in the form of a world-historically ghoulish well, actually take.
McQueary herself, in her mealy next-day non-apology, stressed that she had “used the hurricane as a metaphor” and been “horrified and sickened at how that column was read,” because, in her heart, she’s just frustrated at “Chicago’s poorly managed finances.” You see? When she posed forced unpaid furloughs and the breaking of a teachers’ union as not just fair but enviable returns for the destruction of whole communities and the death and displacement of thousands upon thousands of poor black people, it was because she just cares so goddamn much. So much that she forgot to safeguard her “metaphor and hyperbole” against your weak reading comprehension.
This dovetails with McQueary’s half-assed admission, down toward the bottom of the original column, that she only wishes for “a figurative storm, something that will prompt a rebirth in Chicago” (emphasis added), rather than an actual natural disaster. Truly, these are the best kinds of infrastructure-wrecking cataclysms: the figurative kind. The kind whose victims you don’t even have to blithely dismiss, because they don’t even exist. Of course, expressing a hope for a merely figurative storm gives the lie to the entire premise of the argument—that the actual Hurricane Katrina, as it actually happened, has been an enviable boon to the city of New Orleans—but, hey, at least this gets her off the hook for having wished death upon Chicago’s poors. Figurative storms are no big deal.
Unfortunately, the disaster that hit New Orleans in 2005—the storm, the levee breaches, the failed evacuations and botched response, all the myriad horrors visited upon the city’s most disadvantaged people—was neither figurative nor metaphorical. Can the recovery possibly have rendered this a good turn of events for New Orleans? McQueary’s pretty unambiguous on that count. From the original column:
Residents overthrew a corrupt government. A new mayor slashed the city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts. New Orleans’ City Hall got leaner and more efficient. Dilapidated buildings were torn down. Public housing got rebuilt. Governments were consolidated.
An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system.
Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.
And from the follow-up:
When New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently visited the Tribune Editorial Board, he talked about the unimaginable struggle his city faced after Hurricane Katrina.
In the years after the storm, residents were divided. Some wanted everything rebuilt the way it was. Others wanted to move forward in a new direction. And that’s ultimately what happened for large parts of the city. New Orleans, of course, hasn’t solved all of its problems. But as Mayor Landrieu reminded us, by the time he took office in 2010, there was a mandate not to put New Orleans back like it had been, but to build a city that works.
School reform vastly expanded in New Orleans after the hurricane. Dozens of schools were added to the Recovery School District. Whether you approve of charter schools or not, it was a revolutionary change in education, and it would not have happened without Hurricane Katrina.
“Sure, the city’s population has only rebounded to around 80 percent of its former size a full decade later, whole sections of it are still depopulated war zones, and the number of people displaced into homelessness or hopeless poverty in new cities across the country is literally uncountable because of the ineptitude with which they were evacuated from the city in the first place, but it’s great for New Orleans, because the workers who remain have had their labor protections stripped away from them.” I hope I can say, without seeming to endorse the monstrous premise that pretty much any plausible aftermath could render devastation, loss, and civic failure on the scale of Hurricane Katrina into something worth envying, that the opportunity to be rebuilt as a neoliberal petri dish with gutted civic institutions in which the flowing demand of parents scrambling to avoid the worst schools replaces public educational standards strikes me as a pretty poor return for a disaster whose victims—the dead, injured, and permanently displaced—outnumber those of the September 11th attacks. Probably Kristen McQueary would not think to say 9/11 was a lucky break for New York if it opened the door to breaking New York’s policeman’s union. Just a guess.
Pictured: By Kristen McQueary’s reckoning, a bargain.
Besides, even if you accept the very dubious notion that the post-Katrina privatized school system and broken public-sector unions are good for New Orleans—rather than, say, the dystopian Objectivist aftermath of what amounted to a government-facilitated purge of its poor—these conditions rather by definition do nothing to benefit the vast diaspora of New Orleans residents permanently displaced from their former home by the failure of infrastructure and agencies nominally meant to protect them. To say nothing of the 1,500 or so real, whole people who died in the disaster—who sweltered to death, or drowned in their own inundated homes, or were killed by their own doctors in a hospital turned charnel house.
Oh, but, you see, McQueary wasn’t talking about them.
Ah, well, okay then. When you leave aside all the people of New Orleans who are now dead or living in dilapidated particle-board FEMA hovels scattered across the western United States, sure, Hurricane Katrina was great for New Orleans! This is a smart and not-useless mode of analysis for world events: Disregard (but, like, out of respect, so as not to diminish the tragedy of) the people in most desperate need of an outcome that benefits them, and then ask yourself, Did this event benefit the people who benefited from it.
This strain of thought is consistent, in a perverse and sociopathic sense that ought to bring a chill to any poor or vulnerable Chicagoans considering McQueary’s “metaphoric” prescription for their town. After all, the parties making policies for New Orleans and benefiting from its civic institutions didn’t give a fuck about the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents before Hurricane Katrina, and have proceeded in its aftermath without a shred of concern for what those people need from the recovery effort, so why not examine the storm’s overall impact on the city as though they never existed? After all, they’d probably be the ones losing the Darwinian struggle to place their kids in the highest-performing charter schools anyway.
Pictured: The Chicago Tribune’s plan for school reform.
And this is before you even get to the question of Chicago itself. Again, without endorsing the hideous notion that any place less evil than, like, Mordor could be bad enough to make a “rebirth” as a hyper-privatized neoliberal wet dream a worthy return for the purging of thousands of its poorest residents ... Chicago, for all its myriad problems, emphatically does not fit the bill. I feel confident that the poor Chicagoans whose (figurative!) lives Kristen McQueary is offering up (figuratively!) to the (figurative!) floodwaters would tend to agree that unbalanced budgets and bond issues are acceptable and endurable hardships in exchange for the privilege of not (figuratively!) drowning to death in their own living rooms.
Probably the poor people of New Orleans thought so, too. Unfortunately, they are not available for comment, having been swept away by what Kristen McQueary would have you believe is their hometown’s great good fortune.
All photos via Getty