Hurrican Katrina killed more than 1,833 people during the storm and in the subsequent flooding, displaced nearly half a million more, caused billions in damage, and left traumatic effects that linger on New Orleans and portions of the Gulf Coast to this day, 10 years later. Do we need to say this next thing? “Don’t write a hot take on how you metaphorically wish a Katrina-esque storm would hit your own city?” Oh, we do?
Chicago Tribune columnist Kristen McQueary is getting roundly yelled at for an opinion piece she published Thursday, which begins, memorably, “Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.”
McQueary argues that Katrina hit “the reset button” on New Orleans and inspired a “rebirth” of the city:
Residents overthrew a corrupt government. A new mayor slashed the city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts. New Orleans’ City Hall got leaner and more efficient. Dilapidated buildings were torn down. Public housing got rebuilt. Governments were consolidated.
An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system.
“Detonating labor contracts” and firing teachers sounds great, McQueary adds (the teachers unions in New Orleans were weakened because thousands of teachers were fired, because they had fewer students to teach and no schools to teach them in). Let’s get some of that in Chicago, she suggests, because the city is deep in debt:
So if you think somehow new leadership is going to right the ship, you might want to get your head checked. There is no sense of urgency about the city’s or the schools’ perpetual abyss. Not under Emanuel. Not with a new City Council. Not with a new board at CPS.
That’s why I find myself praying for a storm. OK, a figurative storm, something that will prompt a rebirth in Chicago. I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.
Except here, no one responds to the SOS messages painted boldly in the sky. Instead, they double down on their own man-made disaster.
She can “metaphorically” relate to those people on rooftops, some of whom were rescued and some of whom died waiting for help.
The column also presents an... absolutely remarkable interpretation of the events following Katrina. For a more reality-based view, we might point to the hundreds of thousands of people who were left unemployed, the thousands more who had to leave New Orleans to take refuge in other cities and have been unable to return, either due to poverty or trauma, the elderly and disabled residents who to this day live without electricity or running water in their homes, the poor neighborhoods that still have a fraction of their pre-storm population, not to mention a series of cascading environmental disasters up and down the coast. Roughly 63 percent of the city’s black residents would tell you today that it’s not a good place to raise children anymore.
The response has been swift:
McQueary says she was speaking purely about the effects on “finance and government” such a cleansing rain might have, metaphorically. The editor of the Gambit, a New Orleans-based alt-weekly, has politely offered to explain in person where the metaphor failed.
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Rescue personnel search for victims by boat in New Orleans 8th Ward, August 30, 2005. Photo via AP Images