The spirit of New Orleans survives.

Analysis of breaking news events.
Sept. 9 2005 7:09 PM

The Spirit of New Orleans

What hasn't washed away.

A remoteness both geographical and psychic isolates New Orleans and accounts partly for its exotic strangeness. It is unusual, and that is its mark of distinction. In that atmosphere of isolation, a lot of things have time to develop. A lot of personality, a lot of talent. Some desperation. The climate is enervating. There is a certain amount of suffering involved. Most people know that it is a city of sharp divisions. There is a downtrodden population that was stricken long before the hurricane. That is a scandal that has always been around the South, after all, having originated there. It is a feature of New Orleans as defining as its climate.

People ask me about the city and its culture. What I have just described is its culture. There is a small strata of society possessed of privilege and dynamism. There is that vast downtrodden population. In some respects, the latter historically propped up the former. The heart and soul of New Orleans was always the black people. There is an elegance on that side of the coin equal to anything on the other.

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Being swept away by a cataclysm has left total chaos. Everyone's life is changed by the shock, even from a distance. We can't yet discern the magnitude of the impact for all. So far, it appears that the core historic architecture of New Orleans is standing. The owners in these neighborhoods are dispersed to various other cities of the South, with an overwhelming majority in Baton Rouge and Houston, where many local businesses have set up offices. They must remain there for an as-yet indeterminate amount of months. They didn't go to the Superdome. They did not have to endure that total loss of everything you could possess except your spirit. But being swept away by a cataclysm is a unique experience they all share. They all had to leave, sooner or later, and for some it was later rather than sooner.

My people in New Orleans had hurricane fatigue (as the New York Times so accurately called it). They were burned last time by going along with the evacuation order and had vowed never to do it again: two days in gridlocked traffic with family members and pets crammed into one car and then crammed into one motel room in Mississippi somewhere—and then nothing happened. Or what usually happens happened: The air turns green, the leaves swirl around in the wind, then everything becomes very still, the golf course looks like a ballroom, there is a sensation of nameless excitement, and then at the last minute the hurricane diverts and goes somewhere else, usually to Biloxi.

But this was not like that. My father and stepmother battened down the hatches and at first they were all right. My father, being a bit of a mad genius type, had a huge generator on a strategically built platform mathematically rigged to surmount rising flood tides according to various water levels. They had power. They survived the storm itself without flooding in their neighborhood. A friend, also an elderly gent, walked over with his dog to stay with them as his anxious children somehow directed him to do from afar. They had dinner. They had air conditioning in three rooms. My father smoked cigars. My stepmother displayed her nerves of steel and my father retained his stoicism. But then the levees broke and the water kept rising. A ghostly voice appeared on the radio telling everyone to evacuate, yet we could only think: How?

After two days of anxiety from afar—and nerves of steel within—cooler minds than mine helped galvanize them and plan their escape on the one operable route out of town. My dynamic stepsisters contacted an ex-Green Beret down the street who organized a small convoy and other details. He cleared downed trees in the way and established the route out. He was meant to accompany them, but at the last minute, after getting them ready, stayed behind to help others. They made their way down Tchoupitoulas to the bridge over the river that was then still open, but is now closed, and made their way to Houston.

By the time they left there was no other traffic on the road. When they got to Houston they could finally crack. I was filled with ecstatic relief for six hours at their safe removal. Then I crashed.

My father focused on getting cigars and going back to work, and that was reassuring. If you're ever swept away by a cataclysm, bring your cigars; that helps. We are fixing to celebrate his 80th birthday. I have always admired devotion to the city like his. Another thing about New Orleans is that people tend to stay there through many generations. That also fosters a distinct personality. This is not the first crisis people there have been through. These are stalwart souls. Some may now relocate—we really don't know yet. I did that long ago. In which case you're like any exile: You still have a memory and a dream, a knowledge and understanding, and that can still be a huge part of your life.

Black and white alike, there are a lot of people in New Orleans who have never flown in a plane before, or even left town. It is curious, but even among the sophisticated you will find in New Orleans the type of person who has been out of town once in his life, for two weeks. And yet this type of person can be more worldly than the Ancient Mariner. And then there's the type who has been everywhere and who seeks to travel far, but has never had another home, and could not imagine one.

Sometimes it is more daring to stay home. In the case of New Orleans, where conditions are adverse and isolated, I always considered it more daring to stay than to go. I'd say you have to be fairly madcap. But most are waiting only to return. And I hardly need add that your basic New Orleans person is fairly madcap. To relocate is not an option that most who have options would consider. The attachment is too deep. They are staunch and stoic people, despite their famed gaiety. A spirit can travel—it has traveled with me—and that is something you can take with you. But there will still be a place. They would not give it up.

Nancy Lemann is the author of Lives of the Saints, The Ritz of the Bayou, and Sportsman's Paradise.