On New Orleans and the American Library Association...
"On Wednesday, June 28th we got back from the American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans. This was the Crescent City’s first big convention since the catastrophe of Katrina and the event was memorable on a number of points.
The citizens, and I am speaking about ordinary citizens on the street, were deeply grateful that the librarians had stuck with New Orleans for the convention. This was a tough decision that had to be made before it was clear that the city would be fully capable of hosting a large convention. As early as September 14, 2005, barely two weeks after the storm, ALA President Michael Gorman sent a letter to the membership vowing to do everything possible to fulfill ALA’s commitment to hold the convention in the city. Several people stopped me on the street to thank me, an anonymous librarian, for supporting New Orleans by coming, notwithstanding the problems. Over 16,000 exhibitors and librarians registered for the conference and many I spoke with told me about receiving similar heartfelt expressions of thanks from ordinary people.
The conference went exceptionally smoothly and I did not hear about any problems. I was helping with a new ALA award for interior design excellence, and our event was spectacularly presented by the Renaissance Arts Hotel. Everything was absolutely first class.
Perhaps the warm reception we received from the citizens was all the more remarkable in view of the staggering destruction the city endures even today. I wish that all 16,000 of my fellow conference attendees could have visited the Lower Ninth Ward, as I did, to witness first-hand the extent of the devastation and the apparent absence of any organized effort to clean things up. Imagine a city several miles square where every single house is ruined by flood waters that reached to the second story. Here and there a person was drilling or sweeping up. All along the streets there were immense piles of rubble: splintered boards, appliances, furniture, and personal effects, lying where they had been pushed months ago in the first stages of the clean up. Unfortunately, that is where the hand of the government rested: nothing else seems to have been done.
My tour was conducted by my nephew Ben, who owns a bar in the Garden District, which, along with the storied French Quarter, was not affected by the flood waters, even though many buildings, including my nephew’s house, were damaged by Katrina’s wind. Ben reflects the attitude and fortitude of the relatively few business owners who have remained in New Orleans and who are trying to stage a come-back. Even though the roof was pulled off of Ben’s own house, and everything in it was destroyed, he mentions his own misfortune as an afterthought, and considers himself very lucky in comparison to the thousands whose houses are uninhabitable, and who lack the means to make them so. As we drove through the Ninth Ward Ben pointed to the macabre code spray painted on houses by the National Guard, indicating the presence of one or more cadavers in the building. Many houses have holes in the roofs where inhabitants hacked their way out to be rescued. Ben told me of an acquaintance who lived in the Ninth Ward, who exited his house via a hole in the roof, and then spent five days on the roof waiting for help.
I left Louisiana thinking: this is the United States of America. Here we are, about to celebrate our national day of independence from tyranny, declared 230 years ago. This is a country that tens of thousands risk their lives to get into every year, to escape from desperate circumstances in the Third World, so, obviously we are doing something right. Yet, I can say that I saw the Third World in New Orleans this week. Third World seems an appropriate qualification to apply to the level of misery and hopelessness that I saw there. Cynically, I wonder if the catastrophe had occurred in Jupiter Beach, Florida, or Hilton Head, or Palm Beach, would the organized response of government be the same? More sobering, if this catastrophe had befallen a city in the Netherlands, or France, or Italy, would the response of government be the same? This trip was moving and meaningful to me, as it has left me with troubling questions of this order."
P. J. Tramdack
June 30, 2006