New Orleans Needs Santa, Now!

In the first scene of John Patrick Shanley's remarkable play "Doubt," a priest delivering a sermon has this to say about the aftermath of a traumatic event: "Imagine the isolation."

"Imagine the isolation. You see the world as through a window. On the one side of the glass: happy, untroubled people. On the other side: you. Something has happened, you have to carry it, and it's incommunicable. For those so afflicted, only God knows their pain. Their secret. The secret of their alienating sorrow. And when such a person, as they must, howl to the sky, to God: 'Help me!' What if no answer comes?"

That, more than almost anything else I've heard in the past three-and-a-half months, summarizes the way we feel in this part of the world in the wake of Katrina, a ghastly storm whose malign, pervasive influence will be felt for years to come in ways we haven't begun to imagine. When I've been in other cities this fall, watching people going about their daily lives, I've felt like an outsider, an emissary from hell because so much has happened to my part of the world and no one I see has a clue about what's on my mind.

And who cares? Everyone here worries about the answer to this question. When President Bush spoke in Jackson Square, he promised that this part of the world would see the biggest reconstruction program ever. Well, we're waiting for evidence of this massive commitment, and we can't help but feel that the concern about this ravaged region died along with the generator-powered lights that had illuminated him, Andrew Jackson's statue and St. Louis Cathedral, where the hands were stopped at 6:35, when the power died as Katrina swept through. (That detail continues to fascinate me, probably because it reminds me of watches recovered from Hiroshima and Nagasaki that stopped when the bomb hit the ground.)

I'm hoping that we all will be proved wrong, but I'm not holding my breath, especially when national leaders question the wisdom of rebuilding New Orleans—no one ever said anything like that after the earthquakes that rocked San Francisco and Los Angeles, even though each sits atop the San Andreas Fault—and much of the money that should be coming this way is being poured into Iraq.

Because the destruction was so massive, we need nothing less than a strong national initiative—a domestic Marshall Plan, if you will—and I just don't see evidence that this is going to happen, or that anyone is going to emerge with enough charisma to get this done.

Paul Krugman wrote eloquently about our plight last week in The New York Times, and a front-page editorial in The Times-Picayune a few Sundays ago urged readers to lobby representatives and senators, even providing phone numbers and e-mail addresses. Jim Amoss, our editor, made a similar argument in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

If you feel like writing, calling or otherwise lobbying lawmakers and other decision-makers, please feel free. As I've traveled around in the past few months, I've gotten tired of being the object of pity when I mention my hometown, but I must admit that we need all the help we can get.

If this assistance doesn't come through, our city—a place many outsiders profess to love—is going to become a ruined shell. The French Quarter and most of Uptown, where we live, will be more or less recognizable and inhabitable, but much of the rest will be a dead zone because people who have fled to all corners of the country will have no reason to come back and help the city rebuild.

Sorry about the blast of cynicism during what is supposed to be a blessed, blissful time of year, but it's hard to be merry when one lives in a city where vast regions are still dark and streets are still lined with piles of Sheetrock, furniture, trashed cars and ruined refrigerators bound shut with duct tape. Many of us have developed scratchy throats from being in dust-filled areas; the condition is called "Katrina cough."

There have been some improvements here and there. For instance, on the micro level, I'm happy to report that two crews are looking this weekend at our Eleonore Street home so they can submit bids on replacing the roof, which has a hole over the dining room.

The farmers market, many of whose vendors were ruined by the storm, has returned, with one market a week instead of four. This morning, its annual Festivus celebration (inspired by "Seinfeld," complete with aluminum tree and the airing of grievances) attracted a mob. (Incidentally, there was an extra pole for Katrina grievances.)

Because there hasn't been much medical research to write about, I'm doing more reporting on higher education these days, and I'm finding good news: Impressive numbers of students plan to return to local colleges and universities for the spring semester. (Unfortunately, I've also been writing about massive layoffs at these institutions, which have had to cope with millions of dollars in damages.)

More good news: Restaurants are reopening, and my wife and I, along with hordes of other foodies, have enjoyed patronizing favorite haunts again, not only to enjoy favorite dishes but also to greet friends on the staff and among fellow diners. I can't help thinking that it's a reverse version of the last scene in "The Cherry Orchard," in which Madame Ranevskaya runs around her beloved home, trying to absorb everything before being evicted. In New Orleans, we're moving back in, and we're eating and greeting as we try to re- establish contact with as much of our old lives as possible.

It's joyful, and very New Orleans. One pediatrician friend wonders when people will start shaking hands again because the universal social greeting here has become a great big hug.