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America's underclass exposed

Pockets of poverty in the US are relatively small - but New Orleans shows history's repeated negligence.

(Page 2 of 2)



New Orleans, in fairness, can exist only because of this disaster amnesia, a willful forgetting that makes it possible to ignore the next catastrophe lurking around the corner. Just a few entries from a ledger of the city's forgotten calamities: fires twice razed New Orleans at the end of the colonial period: a massive flood nearly washed it away in 1849, ushering in an era of federally subsidized levee building; the great inundation of 1927 prompted New Orleans to blow out a levee downstream, flooding two rural parishes in order to relieve pressure on the urban floodwall. Hurricanes, too, have been frequent visitors, so common that claims about how unexpected this debacle has been now sound hollow.

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But, in terms of loss of life, disease was a much bigger historical force. Throughout most of the 19th century, epidemics that each killed at least 100 people - today this would constitute a public health emergency - struck the city approximately every three years. The biggest, yellow fever in 1853, killed nearly 10,000 people out of a population of 120,000.

The death toll was high for two reasons. First, because a month into the epidemic, with more than 100 people dying daily, city leaders still denied that an outbreak existed. The official silence was supposed to maintain calm and keep trade flowing, with the unintended consequence of worsening the epidemic, particularly among people with limited access to information and no way out of town. In 1853, nearly half the city's population fled. So here's reason two: Then as now, the poor were left behind to die. By August 1853, the city was deserted, the silence interrupted only by long funeral processions. Cemeteries overflowed, and when a flood arrived, coffins floated through the empty streets. Only with autumn's cool weather did the pace of death finally slow.

Perhaps the most shocking feature of this epidemic was that as quickly as yellow fever decimated New Orleans, it was forgotten - by design. This feat was possible because of who was killed: the poorest of the city's residents. Just six months later, New Orleans was engaged in one of its busiest commercial seasons ever, and few people worried over the city's future. It was as though the outbreak had never occurred.

Even today, you have to know where to look to find icons of the city's disaster history: gravestones in New Orleans' above-ground cemeteries, the macabre cities of the dead; anonymous stations housing pumps that usually keep the city dry; grass-covered levees that might be mistaken for hills. New Orleans has hidden its catastrophes, realizing that such tragedies are not part of a usable past that can be marketed in its new tourist economy.

Will this happen again? Will Katrina be forgotten? It seems unlikely now, so stricken are we by images from New Orleans. Once we begin counting the bodies from front-row seats it may become even more difficult to imagine New Orleans as anything but a wet graveyard.

Still, it already seems possible that our memories will dim, because the worst victims of Katrina are, again, part of the underclass - in sum, those people who won't be writing the city's history or tourist brochures any time soon. Even if the survivors can't or choose not to forget, those in power, in their zeal to return to business as usual, will struggle to ensure that the rest of us do.

Having said that, let us try to remember some things about Katrina. We shouldn't forget the people who were trapped and died inside the city just as the victims of the epidemic of 1853 have been forgotten.

We should remember, because if we can fight against something so ephemeral as terror, perhaps we can start another war on poverty or racism.

If we do, we will be better prepared next time there is an epidemic or killer storm. The damage might be limited then, the suffering contained. If collective forgetting has allowed New Orleans to rebuild in the past, collective memory will make it and other cities safer and better places to live in the future. And then, perhaps, we can hope that the images now haunting us might fade with time.

Ari Kelman teaches history at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of 'A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans.'

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