MikeByrd.net | local knowledge without a net.

A Tale of Two Cities

Posted in Disasters, Nashville, Tennessee, Voluntarism by Mike Byrd on May 10, 2010

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.


15 Responses

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  1. mainstreetjournal said, on May 10, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    A better comparison for the 2010 Nashflood is Iowa’s catastrophic flooding in 2008. Similar scale and depth of destruction. Identical lack of coverage by the major media until days later. AND… they, too, were arguing they weren’t covered because of their “we don’t need no Federal help” attitude and “no looting” backdrop. The similarities are striking.

  2. nm said, on May 11, 2010 at 1:28 am

    This. Yes.

    And this: Sometimes actual events simply fail to fit the stories we tell ourselves is a fantastic complement to Betsy Phillips’s point about needing a narrative hook to bring in national attention.

    I have only one quibble. This is really a tale of four cities. You are right on target with the implicit comparison of Nashville and New Orleans. But don’t ignore the explicit claim that people are nicer to each other here than in Los Angeles and New York City. This shows a fundamental ignorance of how people interact in those places. NYC is notable not only for people holding doors for each other; but you haven’t seen anything in casual neighborliness and helpfulness to strangers until you’ve seen how automatically passers-b help mothers with strollers up and down the steps to the subway there. But it, too, fits a narrative: the narrative that real human values can’t be found on the coasts.

    • DG said, on May 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

      Spare me the “coastal elite” subtext.

      I lived in NYC on (and after) 9/11/2001, and saw remarkable community spirit, including people walking back into Lower Manhattan to assist with digging through rubble. In the blackout a couple years after that (and a blackout in NYC is a scary thing), people checked on their elderly neighbors to ensure they weren’t dying from heatstroke. I’m a Nashville native who returned home after a decade. While the infamous brusqueness of New Yorkers took some getting used to, I actually found that people did hold doors open, gave directions to strangers, etc.

      I can’t speak to LA, but your attempt to find a foil in NYC falls short of my experience.

      • nm said, on May 13, 2010 at 6:06 pm

        That’s the point I was trying to make. I take it that you didn’t click through the link in the post here, to the story Mike is commenting on. That story not only makes implicit comparisons of Nashville to New Orleans. It also talks about how people in NYC and LA can’t understand Nashville because “it’s true that we aren’t entirely like some of you. We hold the door open for old ladies…. This isn’t New York and it isn’t L.A. That’s how we like it.”

        I was telling Mike that he didn’t go far enough in criticizing the whole “Nashville is so wonderful, unlike other places” meme. Because the criticism of New Orleans is subtext in the post he links to (and in many others), but the criticism of NYC isn’t subtext, it’s text. But it isn’t my criticism, and it isn’t Mike’s. I’m a former New Yorker myself, and I know how much New Yorkers help each other out. Which is what I said, so spare me the “spare me”s.

  3. nashvilleben said, on May 11, 2010 at 1:48 am

    Perhaps, in this case, we state not what we are, but what we hope to be. We hope to be a city of no looting, of no crime, of only volunteerism and pure hearts. Sometimes when you spread the word that this is who you are, you become a little more this way. Because you start putting your words into action and it’s contagious within the community.

    But i do agree, we should not criticize another city for our benefit. I don’t think all of us are doing that though. Many of us were there after Katrina helping out. We’ve learned from them that we all must help each other.

  4. benintn said, on May 10, 2010 at 10:37 pm


  5. Rex Hammock said, on May 10, 2010 at 11:41 pm

    I really don’t get this. What’s the point?

    A sentence buried in a Jim Reams blog post provides the evidence of some mass-delusion? And that delusion has led people in Nashville to burst with pride over the community’s response to the needs of their neighbors? And then, a fragment of that sentence is evidence that not only is the citizenry of Nashville deluded, they are also using this occasion as a launch pad to put-down New Orleans?

    I won’t waste time in recounting the many ways in which Middle Tennesseans reached out to New Orleans and southern Mississippi after Katrina. But today, I was called by a business owner in New Orleans who wanted to let me know she was thinking of me and to ask if there was something she could do to help us out. She wanted to do so because five years ago, the employees of my small business in Nashville “adopted” the employees of her small business for six months. We provided a wide range of support to help them stay in business — because we wanted to do something, anything to reach out to the people of New Orleans.

    In the year after Katrina, I was in southern Mississippi and NO with volunteer groups, so I know there is no way what we’ve experienced can come close to comparing to the apocalyptic hell they went through.

    But even still, I don’t understand what your point is.

    How can you be so wound-up in a dark point-of-view that you could immediately connect the dots between the natural desire of any people who are in the wake of a crisis to display pride in their community.

    I do agree with you on one point: “Sometimes actual events simply fail to fit the stories we tell ourselves.”

    But I’m afraid it’s your story that’s revealing the disconnect.

  6. Mike Byrd said, on May 11, 2010 at 12:18 am


    It sounds like you’ve already made up your mind that my point-of-view is “dark,” so I doubt that any considered response I could give would satisfy your calls for greater clarity.

    I will say I’m not criticizing anyone’s pride in community until that pride obfuscates the facts about other cities. I’m not speaking as an outsider with no experience of the events unfolding in the media. I am Nashville, too.

    • Rex Hammock said, on May 11, 2010 at 12:43 pm

      Mike, I know “you are Nashville” and that your point of view is not dark. And, now that it’s not 6 a.m. or whenever I wrote that, I’ll assume I’ve missed some context in your post. And, just to be clear, I agree that any explicit expressions by someone that Nashville’s response has anything to do with being better than New Orleans — or whatever — I’ll be happy to join in with your condemnation. Disaster relief is not a competitive sport.

  7. hamletta said, on May 11, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Thank you for pointing out the factual differences. I’ve been uncomfortable with the self-congratulation.

    The people who stayed/were stuck in New Orleans took care of each other, too. But they had a hell of a lot fewer resources to do it with.

  8. […] referenced to post-Katrina New Orleans. I don’t respond too favorably to that mindset. See how after the jump. […]

  9. Jim Reams said, on May 11, 2010 at 9:02 am

    That blog post was written in five minutes in a coffee shop early last week, when the waters were still high, as a rallying cry for my fellow Nashvillians to quit worrying about the national media and keep kicking ass at helping each other.

    I have been around a long time, and seen lots of looting and mayhem. I first saw it on TV in the 70s during the gas crisis. And it hasn’t quit. I lived in Florida and there was looting after every hurricane. There’s looting at times when teams win championships. There is mayhem when people get convicted and when people get acquitted. To say I am comparing this only to Katrina, and therefore declaring that Nashville is a superior city to New Orleans is laughable and borderline offensive. If I were comparing us to New Orleans, why would I write “We say y’all and all y’all and eat grits and biscuits”? Don’t they do that there, too?

    Also, your fact checking is brilliant. There was looting. Thanks for that. You get a gold star. Let me give you some more “facts” that are wrong in my post: There will be people bitching at FEMA and there will be people asking for a bail-out and not everyone here holds doors open for old ladies and not everyone here will help each other out.

    So the bottom line is, you took something I said, added your words “Implicit in this preoccupied reaction” and linked my post to some notion you have about our rampant civic inferiority complex. Aren’t you someone who wants bloggers to be taken as seriously as journalists? If someone at the Scene did that without contacting the author first, you’d jump all over them.

    You’ve carved out a self-righteous niche in the local blogosphere by telling everyone else they’re doing it wrong, whether it be politicians, local developers, reporters or the dogcatcher. I have to tell you, to link my words with this rambling diatribe about New Orleans is total bullshit. After the word Implicit, I have nothing to do with this.

    One last thing, don’t you feel a little silly attempting a holier-than-thou deconstruction of a blog post written by a man who goes by the name Nashville Knucklehead, who made his mark around these parts by writing about whiskey and boobs?

  10. […] his relatively-new-snazzy blog, Mike Byrd talks Us-and-Them (and Nashville-and-New-Orleans) and points out that, yes, Lamar, there was some […]

  11. Mike Byrd said, on May 11, 2010 at 10:33 am


    It is admirable that you were trying to lift people’s spirits, which is why I didn’t respond to it when it first came out. Now that recovery is in full bore, I took the opportunity to underscore a recurring meme that keeps popping up in the news & social media with both implicit & explicit links to NOLA. As I said above, yours is garden variety that expresses the sentiment in its general form. I didn’t claim to know the nuances of your past experiences (which you yourself didn’t bother to communicate at tumblr). Nor did I intend this post to single you out in providing the example. However, the symbol of New Orleans is still fresh in public discourse about local disasters and the swipes are being taken all around even if your rallying point had not intended them. At some point the popular meme outstrips individual intentions.

    A lot of folks carve out niches in the local blogosphere and express conscience and strongly held beliefs. I’m not unique in doing that. So, the shot you take a me in this community is weak. It’s also a distraction from the question of when hockey-match-style pep talks fail to fit serious local conditions and in fact enable us-vs-them innuendo. Admittedly, it would be easier if life were always like sports.

  12. Jim Reams said, on May 13, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Yeah, you’re right, there was no need to take a shot at what you do. That was kind of cheap. You do good work. But, to carry through the hockey analogy, blog wars are like hockey fights, drop the gloves, duke it out and get right back to playing.

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