A Tale of Two Cities
In the wake of America’s inattention to last week’s catastrophic flooding, increasing numbers of outspoken Nashvillians–half with pride, half with complex about others–insist that what sets us apart from those others is that “we help ourselves” and that “we have no looting.” A garden variety example is this local blogger’s assessment:
So, now that something happens that deserves national attention, you’re leaving us alone. We’re OK with that. Because we’re helping ourselves. That’s how we roll here. The volunteer effort here has been amazing …. Nobody is bitching at FEMA. Nobody is looting. Nobody is getting raped at a shelter. We’re helping each other. We’re cleaning up and we will move on.
Implicit in this preoccupied reaction is a response to the old nemesis, New Orleans. It’s a slam against another American community by placing ours on a higher moral plane. Don’t get me wrong. I concede that the Big Easy has its corruption problems and it is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the country. Whenever I visit New Orleans I’m much more on guard than I am in Music City. Wayward is also something that Americans and tourists in general reward New Orleans for being. We incentivize misbehavior in some places over others. But that’s a subject for another time.
What is most striking in the Nashville narrative is that at its base it is a disingenuous re-write of history. It is a judgment call based on a fabricated all-things-were-equal scale.
First, let’s put something to bed. The claim that there is no looting in Nashville is wrong. Police have reported incidents of looting. One TV news station indicated that during clean-up discerning who is looting and who is legitimately cleaning up is difficult. Based on that uncertainty alone, it is no more than wishful thinking to claim that there is no looting in Nashville.
The slam here is unmistakably addressed at images of flooded New Orleans in 2005 when at worst criminal opportunism reigned and at best poor people who had no way to evacuate broke in to stores and stole food to survive.
The rub, the difference here between these two cities is precisely evacuation. Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency and a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans two days before Katrina’s landfall and the failure of the levees. Consequently, 1 million people fled from the Big Easy in those 2 days. There was no evacuation in Nashville in advance of our 1,000 year storm event. Nobody knew what to do. Metro government was hamstrung because, unlike New Orleans and its recent history of hurricanes, we only had 2 or 3 other years in the last century to compare this event to. And hurricanes are not just big rain events. They are approaching monsters to coastal cities and the risk is certain.
For the sake of argument, let’s make things equal. Let’s assume we faced the same monster and that we evacuated 1 million people in advance of it last weekend. Could we realistically argue that no looting would happen simply because of who we are? Despite the comparative self-congratulation Music City seems bent on while inordinately preoccupied with national validation, the realist in me says that vacant homes and unwatched businesses would have been looted during a mass Nashville evacuation. The only question in my mind would be whether it was on the same scale as that in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Dispensing with the myth of the unbearable absence of looting also brings down the idea that we’re much better at taking care of ourselves than New Orleans was. After all, we are not evacuated. We are here to take care of ourselves. And my suspicion of undue arrogance leads me to believe that had 1 million New Orleanians stuck around the Big Easy, they would probably be more competitive in showing a volunteer spirit. The people of New Orleans, outside of the lower classes who had no choice, would not be waiting on FEMA, which kept failing them so miserably, so spectacularly in spite of federal promises about rebuilding New Orleans to the contrary. Many would have been able to serve their community as enthusiastically as Nashvillians are serving theirs.
Behind the Nashville hand-wringing is a tale of two cities, one moral and self-sufficient, the other unforgivable and incapable. What makes it a tale is the poetic license taken building castles in the air while history-as-it-happened played out on a less legendary scale. Sometimes actual events simply fail to fit the stories we tell ourselves.