Walter Isaacson on diversity, the tug of home, and recovering from Katrina

In late August in 2005, New Orleans was devastated by a hurricane. Her name, Katrina. With winds as high as 174 miles per hour, the storm triggered a series of malfunctions that wrecked the city, claiming nearly 2,000 souls, and leaving others stranded for what seemed like an eternity. Leaving scores without food, power, and many without hope. The city was effectively under water and many believed it to be lost. 15 years later, the city has pulled herself out of the gulf by her bootstraps and is going strong, some say better than ever. This recovery is thanks in no small part to the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

The LRA was appointed by the government and was in charge of receiving and allocating funds coming in from the federal government and other sources and put them to the best use.

I spoke to Walter Isaacson, writer, journalist, President of the Aspen institute. In October 2005, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco appointed him vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. I spoke with Walter about his hand in the recovery effort and his overall views on the city itself. When I asked him to speak on his involvement with the LRA he said that their goal was to “ rebuild the city, but not just the way it was like before the storm but the way it should have been before the storm.”

Walter has always been passionate about the city of New Orleans, before studying at Harvard University and Oxford, he was born and raised in New Orleans. He has lived in many places all around the world, including different countries. I was curious what brought him back to New Orleans after Katrina, I asked him and he responded that the “fractured” state that our country is currently in makes him “uncomfortable”, he believes that “because our society needs to regain the sense of community that people have when they reconnect with their homes” he needed to return to the city in order to reconnect with those roots.

Walter has spent a great deal of his life doing positive services for the community of New Orleans. Traveling to and living in as many different places as he has can certainly influence someone to permanently live in a different place than where they grew up. When I asked him what it was about the city that drew him back, without skipping a beat he said:

“I love the diversity of New Orleans. For over 300 years, there have been different groups flowing through New Orleans. Starting with Bienville…you watch as each new group comes in the French, the Italians, the Spanish, the German, the Jews…they all come here, they all add to the music, they all add to the food.” The city is constantly changing, new waves of people come in and influence the culture little by little, it’s a melting pot. A little dash of creole, a pinch of french, a drop of Vietnamese, and a little bit of American diversity mixed together makes a city full of possibilities and potential.

Walter told me about his own personal experience with the storm, and what he had lost. 2-3 weeks after the storm, he and a few others, flew around the city in a helicopter, he told me “I mean, I remember crying in that helicopter seeing my family home… I thought ‘okay, New Orleans may never come back’”.  

When he was on the LRA board, they had to devise a plan to bring people back to the city who had abandoned homes that had been destroyed by the storm. They hatched the plan that on MLK day, about 4 or 5 months after the storm, they would host a big party and decided that the best way to get people home was say, “hey we’re throwing a party that’s called the welcome home party”. That in their opinion would jumpstart the thought process of “I’m gonna come home, I’m gonna fix my house, I’m gonna be living here”. Which was a crucial step in the rebirth of the city. Isaacson referred to this feeling as “the tug of home”.

I asked Walter what a key factor in the city coming back was, and he told me that the deep love of the city by the citizens, and a deep desire to return home from the displaced natives was what made the recovery possible. “I do think that sometimes a tragedy is as unifying thing”,  he added, “going through a tragedy like that made us all remember that we’re all in this together…we’re all in the same boat, literally and figuratively…so the disputes you may have with different ethnic groups, or whatever, pail compared to the fact that the levies could break and we all would be in the same boat…”. These words stuck with me, even after our conversation. He also added the fact that even 14 years after that fateful storm, people still carry that feeling of “all being in the same boat” with them at all times.

Another factor that he said helped were the people at Teach for America. Walter told me about the conversation that they had with the Teach for America members saying, “…we had all the Teach for America school teachers who had been displaced, and it was “you can stay here and help  rebuild the school system or you can get jobs elsewhere and we’ll help you find jobs elsewhere” and out of the 250 or so core members, all 250 said “I want to stay in New Orleans”. He also talked about a speech made by Wynton Marsalis where he talked about how, even when times are tough, you can always feel that tug of home. It keeps us all centered.

Speaking with Walter Isaacson was an extremely interesting experience. His vast knowledge and insight of the city has helped me understand more deeply the sheer cultural beauty of New Orleans.

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