It would be uplifting to write of how the brave people of New Orleans will return and rebuild their storied city. But to anticipate what the city must go through now, after damming up its broken levees and pumping the floodwaters back into Lake Pontchartrain, is heartbreaking.
No American city has ever gone through what New Orleans must go through: the complete (if temporary) flight of its most affluent and capable citizens, followed by social breakdown among those left behind, after which must come the total reconstruction of economic and physical infrastructure by a devastated populace.
And the locals and outsiders who try to help New Orleans in the weeks and months to come will do so with no local institutional infrastructure to back them up. New Orleans has no real competent government or civil infrastructure â€“ and no organized citizens' groups to prod public officials in the right direction.
The truth is that even on a normal day, New Orleans is a sad city.
Sure, tourists think New Orleans is fun: You can drink and hop from strip club to strip club all night on Bourbon Street and gamble all your money away at Harrah's.
But the city's decline over the past three decades has left it impoverished and lacking the resources to build its economy from within. New Orleans can't take care of itself even when it is not 80 percent underwater; what is it going to do now, as waters cripple it and thousands of looters systematically destroy what Katrina left unscathed?
A city blessed with robust, professional police and fire forces, with capable government leaders, an informed citizenry and a relatively resilient economy can overcome catastrophe, but it doesn't emerge stronger: look at New York after 9-11. The richest big city in the country in more ways than one mustered every ounce of energy to clean up after 9-11 and to rebuild its economy and its downtown â€“ but even so, competing special interests overcame citizens' and officials' best intentions. Ground Zero remains a hole, and New York finds itself diminished.
In New Orleans, the recovery will be much harder. The city's government has long suffered from incompetence and corruption.
Just weeks before Katrina, federal officials indicted associates of the former mayor, Marc Morial, for alleged kickbacks and contract fraud. Mr. Morial did nothing to attract diversified private investment to his impoverished city during the greatest economic boom of the modern era.
The current mayor, Ray Nagin, can't help but be an improvement. A former cable executive, Mr. Nagin ran for office pledging to spur economic growth in New Orleans. He deserves our support now, but in his three years in office, he has made no perceptible progress in diversifying New Orleans' economy.
New Orleans teems with crime, and the NOPD can't keep order on a good day. Former commissioner Richard Pennington brought New Orleans' crime rate down from its peak during the mid-1990s. But since his departure, crime rates have soared, to 10 times the national average. The NOPD might have hundreds of decent officers, but it has a well-deserved institutional image as corrupt, brutal and incompetent.
How will New Orleans' economy recover from Katrina? Apart from some pass-through oil infrastructure, the city's economy is utterly dependent on tourism. After the city's mainstay oil industry decamped to Texas nearly a generation ago, New Orleans didn't do the difficult work of cutting crime, educating illiterate citizens and attracting new industries to the city.
New Orleans became a convention and tourism economy, selling itself to visitors to survive, and over time it has only increased its economic dependence on outsiders.
Sure, the feds must provide cash and resources for relief and recovery. But it's up to New Orleans, not the feds, to dig deep within itself to rebuild its economic and social infrastructure before the tourists ever will flock back to pump cash into the city's economy.
It will take a miracle. New Orleans has experienced a steady brain drain and fiscal drain for decades, as affluent corporations and individuals have fled, leaving behind a large population of people dependent on the government. Socially, New Orleans is one of America's last helpless cities â€“ just at the moment when it must do all it can to help itself survive.