A Slow and Quiet Calamity

I don’t know how long the power will be out in New Orleans. But I know more storms are coming.

A dark image of Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans without electricity
David Grunfeld / The Advocate / AP ; The Atlantic

About the author: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the narrative nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed.

Rare is the New Orleans tourist who doesn’t visit the French Quarter, the 13-block neighborhood sitting at the edge of the Mississippi River. Residents, too, are accustomed to its sounds and smells and images, which together have come to represent our hometown, one of the most special places in the world. I think of the city I come from every day—especially now.

At the top of a pair of stairways connecting the river and the French Quarter is a concrete landing known as Washington Artillery Park. Below stretches Decatur Street, one of the main thoroughfares of the Quarter. There you can feel the vibrations of local brass bands pulsing on the corners. You can hear the bewitching buzz of tubas, trombones, and trumpets commingling with the revelry of the crowds that begin to surround them as they play. On your right, the scent of golden beignets lathered in powdered sugar wafts under your nose from Café du Monde, beckoning you to come enjoy a plate. On your left is Jax Brewery, a more-than-century-old brewing and bottling house that has been converted into a series of small shops, and a place of teenage nostalgia for me, as it is also where I had my junior prom. Behind you, the breeze of the Mississippi River slides across your neck and the sounds of ferries swash across the muddy water. In front of you, in the center of Jackson Square, is an unobstructed view of the Saint Louis Cathedral, which, built in 1727, is the oldest cathedral in North America. Its three steeples jut up into the clouds and serve as the structure around which everything else in the French Quarter orbits. In the evenings, streetlamps surround the cathedral like small stars.

Those looking for a place to take photographs with a quintessentially New Orleans backdrop often head to this spot, as do lovers proposing marriage, artists creating music videos, and families gathering together in reunion. It’s a place where I have stood on dozens of occasions—in moments of celebration, and in moments of reflection. It is one of my favorite places in the city.

I was thinking of this view, and the feeling I get from standing there, when I saw a photograph taken by David Grunfeld of the The Times Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate after Hurricane Ida had made its way through New Orleans on Sunday evening. In the photo, the view of the cathedral is enveloped in an unforgiving darkness. The haunting contours of trees in front of the cathedral stretch across the bottom half of the photo like large, amorphous shadows frozen in place. The silhouette of Andrew Jackson sitting atop his rearing horse can barely be made out. The cathedral itself is visible only because of its white facade, which has been muted by the absence of light. Clouds from the outer rings of the hurricane still hang over the city, blocking any stars one might otherwise see in a landscape so devoid of light. An American flag looks as if it is hanging by a thread at the top of a flagpole, floating in the air to show that the wind is still present in the city. There is no light anywhere.

New Orleans is my home. It’s where I was born and raised, and it is a part of me in ways I continue to discover every day. I was 17 years old when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, when the levees were breached, and when the storm became the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. I watched from my aunt and uncle’s couch in Houston—where we had evacuated-—as the flooded city became an international symbol of government failure, systemic racism, and the perils of an accelerating climate crisis. I watched people on rooftops plead for help from someone, anyone. I watched as the storm submerged my own home beneath 10 feet of water. I watched as any hope of returning to the life I had before was swept away.

This year, my family in New Orleans evacuated to the same house in Houston where we had all holed up 16 years ago. It is an eerie feeling, to experience déjà vu from a distance. I texted, called, and FaceTimed my family from my home in Maryland as we watched and waited in the hours leading up to the storm’s landfall, fearful that Hurricane Ida, one of the strongest storms recorded in American history, might result in the sort of catastrophe we had experienced in August 2005. But this time, the levees did not fail, and the $15 billion federal investment in rebuilding the earthen walls that protect my city kept our worst fears from coming to bear. But that does not mean all is fine. While the city is not flooded with water, it is now flooded with questions.

Electricity remains out across the majority of New Orleans, and many days and weeks may pass before people are able to return to their home. Entergy, the regional utility company, has said that it is working as fast as it can to restore power, and there are signs that electricity is being restored slowly in small pockets of the city. But for many, power will likely be out for some time yet.

I don’t know how long the power will be out, and I don’t know how long people will be scattered in cities throughout the country waiting for word that they can go back home. What I know is that there will be more major storms like this in the future; climate change has assured us of that. And I feel more concerned than ever about the ability of our infrastructure to withstand what the next decades of this crisis will bring. This week was a reminder of how quickly all the light can disappear.

Ida has not created the same spectacle of disaster that Katrina did, but I still worry about the slow and quiet calamity of thousands having no electricity for weeks. No air-conditioning. No refrigeration. No means by which to cook. The death toll of this storm appears to be appreciably lower than that of Katrina, but death in and of itself is not the only measure of a crisis. I find myself holding relief and fear in the same breath. It could have been so much worse, I tell myself, while knowing that enormous uncertainty still lies ahead for so many.