The lede on an AP story on the Yahoo news page:
NEW ORLEANS - Ragtag armies of the desperate and hungry begged for help, corpses rotted along flooded sidewalks and bands of armed thugs thwarted fitful rescue efforts as Americans watched the Big Easy dissolve before their eyes..
The story itself is short and concerned mainly with explosions of unknown origins that may very well have been accidental, fallout from the storm or the flooding or the evacuation of people whose job it was to keep watch on whatever it was that exploded and see it doesn't explode. But following that lede, the news of the fires sounds like a continuation of the chaos and violence and death, with even the implication that the explosions were the work of vandals or other armed thugs, and further evidence that the Big Easy is dissolving before our eyes.
(Note: AP has updated the story. It's no longer short and the lede's been changed. The city isn't dissolving. As of noon, though, AP is reporting that the fires have deepened the sense that the city is collapsing, which I guess isn't as dire as dissolving.)
There has been a lot of talk and speculation in the news and on many blogs about how New Orleans is done for. I am not there. I haven't talked to anyone who is there. What I know of what's going on in New Orleans is what most everybody else who is not there knows---parts of the story.
We are being handed pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle and trying to assemble them in our heads to form a complete picture. Of course lots of pieces are missing. Every piece has flat sides so we're each free to put any one piece up against any other. We're all putting together different puzzles and comparing the results so far.
But I have a lot of pieces that show that the core of the City is pretty much dry and intact. The water didn't get that high in the older parts of New Orleans because the people who built the city three hundred years ago put it on the highest ground they could find. Elsewhere the water levels are going down, the troops are on the way, money and relief will follow. Things are still awful. People are in terrible trouble. But none of my pieces show that the City itself has been wiped out.
Whole neighborhoods have been.
But the City's main reason for being hasn't disappeared. It's a port and an important port and talk of "moving" New Orleans is plain stupid unless people suggesting it are also suggesting moving the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River.
The City is still there. It's a wreck. But it will be rebuilt. Chicago was rebuilt. San Francisco, Galveston, Johnstown, and London were rebuilt. Lisbon was rebuilt.
All of them suffered as badly or worse than New Orleans and all of them survived, having had to overcome the added disadvantages of not having 21st Century technology to work with and engineering skills to draw on and not being able to rely for help on nation-wide and world-wide aid and recovery agencies.
I am not being unrealistically optimistic. I know it's going to take years and years for the City to recover. The next few months, with no electricity, clean water, or working sewers, with tens of thousands of people having no homes to return to and they and many more having no jobs either, will be much worse than the storm itself. I know that many residents' lives are ruined and they won't bounce back.
But I'm beginning to feel that I'm witnessing a journalistic cliche unfolding more than I am being told the actual story.
Journalists are trained in cliches and conventions as thoroughly as Hollywood filmmakers. It used to be a truism that every reporter had an unfinished novel in her desk drawer (later, on her hard drive). Nowdays she's as likely to have an unsold screenplay, and I think her prospects are better for it. Screenwriting is her true metier. The structure of a news story, especially a big story that unfolds over days or weeks, has much more in common with the structure of a screenplay than it does with any novel.
The two main points of similarity are:
1. It's always darkest before the dawn.
2. The cavalry always arrives in time.
In the American journalistic tradition, all stories have happy endings, even stories that seem to have ended tragically all around---that's why the idiotic word closure won't die the ignominious death it deserves.
If the cavalry didn't get there in time, we're assured that it will next time, when we're the ones who'll need them, and we're solaced with the final image of our own narrow escapes and rescues.
Stories that won't close, that won't end happily, if not with the cavalry arriving, then with "closure," drive the Media to despair, frustration, and, finally, boredom. This happened with the tsunami. It's happening in Iraq.
So I can't help feeling that the Media is already working its way toward the happy ending in New Orleans.
The disaster occurs, the plucky common folk react with stoicism and bravery at first and the handsome and courageous rescue workers do their best, but then the situation begins to change for the worse. The Indians appear on the hill. Sorry, gangs of armed thugs appear in the streets. Violence. Supplies run out. The plucky survivors are cut off. The city is dissolving!
New Orleans is doomed!
But look, over there!
The Cavalry is on the way!
Pretty soon order will be restored. The water will go down. The plucky survivors will be rescued. The news will be full of pictures of loved ones reuniting and big strong National Guardsmen handing stuffed animals to wide-eyed and adoring children. Presidents Bush the First and Clinton will announce how much money is on its way---an amazing amount, an unimaginable amount, an amount that restores your faith in the generosity and goodness and decency of your fellow Americans.
And then the current President will appear on the scene, looking grim but resolute in the company of soldiers, firefighters, and engineers all chosen for how well they resemble the hero Karl Rove wants voters to imagine George Bush to be.
Cut to shots of people moving back into their homes and business owners turning over the CLOSED signs in their shop windows and looking hopefully out at lines of decent folk come to buy their goods and wares and swap stories of how they survived Katrina.
And that'll be it. A year from now there'll be stories about how New Orleans has come back. Five years from now another one. Another in ten years---twenty five---fifty.
Probably somewhere along the line someone will write a book or make a documentary and we'll learn the real, whole story and be able to see how close the jigsaw puzzles we assembled resembled the real picture. We'll know just how close New Orleans came to being wiped off the map.
My guess is, about as close as Chicago in 1871.