Touring Disaster

Does viewing the devastation in New Orleans help?

By Jordan Flaherty Jun 21, 2006

"I want as many people to come visit here as possible," one Lower Ninth Ward resident remarked, walking past the infamous breached levees and destroyed homes of his neighborhood. "The national media has forgotten us, the politicians in D.C. have forgotten us. I support anything to get the word out."

Among the people of New Orleans, the sentiment is common–that the country has moved on, and if people come here and see, maybe they’ll bring attention and consciousness.

Beginning days after the storm, New Orleans hosted a stream of celebrities and political players, from Sean Penn to a United Nations Human Rights envoy, to a long series of PR visits from President Bush. More recently, Women of the Storm, a nonpartisan group led mostly by wealthy white women from New Orleans, raised a lot of cash and publicity to fly to D.C. and convince congressional representatives to come view the devastation.

Driving through the Lower Ninth Ward, there are scattered groups on guided or unguided tours–from residents surveying their homes to tourist-filled buses and vans filled with church volunteers or scruffy activists on bikes. People come to see the levee break (now mostly fixed), to consider the houses (now mostly cleared) and to view the general devastation (still very much present).

What does all of this witnessing add up to? For those telling the story of New Orleans without the context of racism, corruption and neglect that caused this, it could just be another act of God. "Things have changed, big and small," says local filmmaker Royce Osborn. "Unless you were aware of what the city was like beforehand, you may not be able to convey that."

The global justice movement has added the disaster into the "revolutionary tourism" mix, completing a route that travels from the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine to occupied factories in Argentina and Zapatista communities in Chiapas, and ends in a campsite at a reclaimed school in the Ninth Ward run by the radical relief organization Common Ground.

"Activists gain a certain credibility by coming here," says Bridget Lehane, an organizer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a 30-year-old antiracist organization based in New Orleans. "They can go home and talk about what they’ve seen and done here, in this historic moment and place, and that gives them a status, but what are they leaving behind?"

Chris Crass, an antiracist organizer who’s come to New Orleans, says that now the challenge is to "put in political education as a vital part of all of this. Then to take that knowledge, that experience, back to people’s homes, to spread it around the U.S."