Tone Test

As Louisiana tries to get back to business, you have to wonder if New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin wishes he could take back a few ...
by | September 15, 2005

As Louisiana tries to get back to business, you have to wonder if New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin wishes he could take back a few of the more dire predictions he's made in the past couple of weeks.

Bourbon_st On the one hand, he's had to strike a foreboding enough tone to scare people in harm's way into evacuating. On the other hand, he doesn't want to scare businesses, tourists and residents away from his city forever. But the Chamber of Commerce probably can't run enough ads, or print up enough glossy brochures, to overcome the searing images of flooding and human suffering we've all seen.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Nagin told residents: "You need to listen very carefully. For the next two or three months, in this area, there will not be any commerce, at all. No electricity, no restaurants. This is the real deal. It's not living conditions."

Now, Nagin is saying that the French Quarter and Central Business District may re-open as early as this Monday. This good news indicates that the city and the local utilities have done a heroic job of restoring water, power and communications services in areas that stayed dry.

I'm not saying that Katrina isn't a horrible catastrophe. And I'm not trying to second-guess Ray Nagin. To be sure, the mayor was calling the grimness as he saw it at the time--that goes for his estimate of 10,000 dead, too. Given the daily dose of horror Nagin has witnessed, it would be hard not to be a bit fatalistic.

But it's all too easy, even in the face of the worst catastrophes, to paint too grim a picture. It was the same in New York after 9/11.

I lived in Manhattan then, about 2 miles north of the World Trade Center. Even as the rubble burned for months, the odd thing about living in New York then was how normal daily life went on--if you weren't personally touched by the disaster, of course. Yet, media images continued to focus on the several square blocks that had been destroyed. After awhile, I was told, some foreigners had come to believe that all of New York had been decimated.

New Orleans is a different case, obviously. Much more of the city will be off-limits for a much longer time. But it will be interesting to see how Nagin's tone turns in the coming weeks. The future of his city may depend on it.