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What impact might relocated evacuees have on their new communities?
By Jeff Ferrell
Professor of Sociology
As the slow process of recovery from the hurricanes continues, we would do well to remember that there are no purely ‘natural’ disasters. The weather will do what it will, but the number of dead or displaced, the amount of property destroyed, reflect human decisions and social policies more than natural forces.
Especially in the case of Katrina, we witnessed one tragedy sweeping over another – a wall of wind and water washing over an already existing accumulation of urban impoverishment and misguided policy decisions.
Given this sad confluence, the rebuilding of New Orleans and other areas devastated by the hurricanes requires more than repairing houses and buttressing levees. It demands that we imagine a new fabric of social relations, a sensibility of common good and common purpose that transcends self-interest and makes possible vibrant urban environments.
Reconstruction calls us to confront the consequences of governmental policy, to understand that arcane budget battles and political power plays have real consequences – life and death consequences – for real people.
Yet the hope of recovery is as much cultural as it is political and economic. For all its flaws, New Orleans has for years stood as a monument to multiculturalism, with its day-to-day melange of the Deep South, the Creole and the Caribbean. This living multiculturalism animates the city; you can hear it in the music and the patois of the people, see it in their faces, taste it in their food.
In rebuilding New Orleans, it’s essential to preserve the city’s old architecture and to revitalize the economy through meaningful and well-paying work. But it’s equally important to preserve and revitalize these complex cultural dynamics. For the city to live again, its culture must live also – emergent, embracing, flowing out into the streets and through the lives of those who live and visit there.
This same cultural dynamism offers some hope for the rest of us, too. America has long been a place of dislocation, relocation, and migration – sometimes by choice, sometimes not. Certainly American upheavals have produced sorrow and uncertainty – but they have also spawned remarkable cultural innovations.
The tragedy of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s drove Okies and others from their homes and west to California, where their cultural traditions blended with those of the West to shape boisterous new experiments in music and art.
Out of the profound dislocations following World War II came personal hardship and family disruption, but also new forms of American culture ranging from Hollywood film noir to the poetic longings of the Beats.
We can expect, and look forward to, a similar dynamic as many of those caught in the New Orleans diaspora settle into new locales. Fleeing New Orleans they may have brought few personal belongings, but they carried with them a host of cultural orientations, all of which will now interweave with other local traditions in ways yet to be imagined. Will Texas Western Swing be reinvented as New Orleans jazz players put down roots in Austin? Will chicory start to flavor the local coffee house?
Whatever the answer, this much seems certain: As we go about rebuilding New Orleans and other communities hit by the hurricanes, those communities will rebuild us as well.
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