It is a hot August day and the air conditioner doesn't work. Only the neighbors provide relief, as I try to move into my studio apartment in uptown New Orleans, a hot, humid land that is as strange to me as the moon. I am struck by the kindness of the people, their extroversion and vulnerability, all at once.
Twenty years later, the New Orleans I knew — that we all have known — is gone. Buried beneath the sea, fouled by the waters its levees, canals and pumps held back over the centuries. Dead people and live ones remixed in the green, fetid water compounded by the same August heat, the bugs, the rats, the memories, the sorrow — all of the vulnerability that was the thing about New Orleans that we all held dear.
The reason that Hurricane Katrina's destruction resonates with us so deeply is that New Orleans has always been America's only monument to human frailty. Washington celebrates power. New York celebrates wealth. Chicago celebrates commerce. And so on. Only in New Orleans was the very basic nature of the human condition not only acknowledged, but elevated.
Only in this city could heroic — if strange — authors thrive. Only in this city could everyday people — residents who moved to the French Quarter for their own very personal reasons and everyday tourists from Milwaukee — come to lose their inhibitions without fear.
And that's why Katrina was much more than another hurricane on a Gulf Coast that has seen its share, early in this century and in the last, too. Places like Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach and Mobile and others all matter to the people who live there and the people who love those places, myself included; I worry about little Santa Rosa Beach every summer. But New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, just across the lake, have lived a unique life in the heart of Americans.
I will you give you a few personal examples. One of the prettiest women I ever knew was a wonderful girl from Mississippi, an aging ex-cheerleader whose brother was a star football player at Ole Miss who had relocated to the French Quarter — to become one of the most popular drag queens of the time. My friends from the city were intelligent and sharp and worldly beyond their years but always bedeviled by crazy families, crazy friends and just plain craziness.
A girlfriend who took me into the heart of New Orleans society showed me that it wasn't so much about the money as it was about the ability to rip the tablecloth off the dining room table after a four-course meal — just so we could dance on it. And my first newspaper editor was the kindest man I've ever worked for; his publisher was a dead-ringer for the lead character in "A Confederacy of Dunces."
In many ways, though, these stories don't do the idea justice: They underscore the city's tourist reputation but not its reality. And here is the reality I experienced: New Orleans taught me to be me. Not to emulate the drunken dunces in town for the Super Bowl or Mardi Gras, and not to be confined by the rules laid down before I arrived.
The city gave me my persona; it let me know that it was OK just to be me. I remember a spontaneous night sail from Lake Pontchartrain to Gulfport, the emptiness of the city in the wake of the failed World's Fair, before the casinos and the people came back. And I remember the times, more recently, when I showed my own daughters the narrow streets and crooked alleys so different from their own straight, suburban lives.
And that is what most of us who've ever been — ever lived those sweltering August days or just visited those rainy March nights — came away with. It is why the story of the city's destruction is much more than poignant; it is, indeed, tragic. For perfectly good and entirely neutral reasons, nature dealt a terrible blow to the city, just as nature — and man — have before. And some other New Orleans will eventually rise from the catastrophe, just as it has from the fires and the plagues and the floods that have gone before.
But it will not be the same New Orleans, at least not to us. The sea has taken with it more than life: It has taken our belief that the gods, for some reason, smile on our frailties.
Richard Parker is the associate publisher of The New Republic magazine in Washington and is the Times Mirror Visiting Professional in Journalism at the University of Texas. He began his career as a reporter in New Orleans and is a former national correspondent of Knight Ridder Newspapers. This article originally appeared on The New Republic online, www.tnr.com.