New Orleans - Finis Shellnut is wealthy and he isn't hiding it, even in the difficult times following the Katrina disaster. The 53-year-old real estate magnate sits in front of one of his buildings in the French Quarter, enjoying a chilled bottle of French champagne.
The man is a walking glitz machine, from the diamonds on his Rolex to his gold-framed glasses to the silver cross dangling on his chest under his half-open shirt. Shellnut is doing well these days, extremely well. He senses a lot of post-Katrina business coming his way. "Our party's about to get going again," he says. He sits next to a flyer depicting his face and advertising his phone number. "The storm destroyed a great deal," he says, adding, with a smile, "and there's plenty of space to build houses and sell them for a lot of money."
Shellnut wasn't particularly hard-hit by the storm and the flooding in New Orleans. "My real estate is in the city's better neighborhoods," he says, clearly pleased with himself, "a tree fell down here and there, but otherwise everything's just fine." Driving through the city with Shellnut is like going house-hunting with a real estate agent. "I could get that house for two million, but the one with the park would cost you a little more than that."
We drive down St. Charles Street, past stately mansions. Dark German-made limousines stand in driveways here and there. The rich are slowly returning from their safe havens somewhere in Florida or wherever they have their second or third homes. Well-heeled homeowners dispense orders to gardeners and look on as workers clean up their balconies. "Having money makes things go just a little faster," says Shellnut.
The storm as a not-so-undesirable cleanup machine
Despite all the chaos and destruction, the storm and the floods came with a silver lining for people like Shellnut. "Most importantly, the hurricane drove poor people and criminals out of the city," he says, "and we hope they don't come back."
Shellnut has even conjured up ancient Gallic legend to support his theory of Katrina's supposedly sanitizing effects. He says that the name "Katrina" once symbolized a kind of cleansing process that only leaves behind the purest elements of a society. Thousands of years later, says Shellnut, the eponymous hurricane has lived up to its name, purging the city of New Orleans and literally sweeping out its most undesirable elements. "The party's finally over for these people," he says, "and now they're going to have to find someplace else to live in the US."
The real estate tycoon's notions are characteristic of a problem New Orleans is about to face. When you look at a map of the city, one thing becomes abundantly obvious: the areas that suffered the greatest amount of flooding and destruction were the city's poorest, and predominantly African-American, neighborhoods. No one will be returning to those neighborhoods any time soon. Indeed, the devastation is so bad in many areas, especially in eastern New Orleans, that they are now slated for demolition. Reconstruction will take years, not months. If Mayor Ray Nagin's ambitious plan to bring back 200,000 residents within two weeks is successful, a city that was once a majority African-American city will have turned into a mostly white city.
No more room for "scum"
The city's African-American mayor, Ray Nagin, may have seemed to be the last person to be adding grist to the mills of hard-line conservatives like Shellnut. This week, Nagin announced, calmly but in no uncertain terms, his plan to have city officials carefully monitor who to let back in and who to keep out. The police, he said, will not allow what he called "scum" to return to the city. "Now that the storm is over," Nagin said, "we have a city without drugs and violence, and we intend to keep it that way." He announced a "bitter wake-up call" for the city's criminal elements, saying that they wouldn't recognize the city when they returned. Suddenly these hard-line conservatives find themselves liking their newly heavy-handed mayor.
Liberal observers see the issue from a different perspective, now that life is returning to the city. Jim Amoss, editor of the local paper, the Times-Picayune, knows the people who dream of a new New Orleans. "Some here want a different kind of city, and it's an issue that will undoubtedly turn into a question of race," he says. His reporters predict a major public debate over the city's demographics, a debate that's already been triggered by a survey published by the Washington Post. According to the survey, more than half of all evacuees surveyed in emergency shelters do not intend to return to the city. Most of them are African-American and poor.
Mardi Gras without black marching bands?
It's hard to imagine how this sort of demographic shift will affect the famous spirit of New Orleans everyone seems to be conjuring up these days. Mardi Gras without African-American marching bands from the city's poorest neighborhoods? The raucous French Quarter without some of its better jazz and blues bands? A predominantly white city in America's Deep South? Sound like an unrealistic vision of the future? Perhaps, but it's a vision that already dominates talk about rebuilding New Orleans, at least when it isn't about the need to address the more pressing issues of current damage. Despite the fact that they have both highlighted what they call the city's "unique character," US President George W. Bush and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco have barely even touched upon the issue. Even when Bush announced the specifics of new programs for the poor, he did little to address the delicate question of race.
Demographic changes could also produce a major political shift in a city previously dominated by the Democrats. Although the Democrats haven't exactly done much for the city's large poverty-stricken population, they have always managed to lay claim to its votes. The storm could very well present a golden opportunity for the Republicans in this city. As the wealthy return and the poor stay away, they could easily assume power in a once heavily Democratic New Orleans -- a tremendous coup for the Republican Party. But so far, politicians have been hesitant to join in the increasingly heated public debate over New Orleans' future. Everyone involved, Democrats and Republicans alike, is still too much in a state of shock over the images of desperation, plundering and lawlessness that went on in New Orleans after Katrina. A new discussion about race would be unproductive at this point.
A stronger New Orleans? Or a different city altogether?
Whether the scenario of a completely different city becomes reality will depend mainly on politics. Mayor Nagin's biggest challenge now will be to turn the promises he managed to wring out of Washington, with the support of an angry press, into reality. If he uses the billions that Bush says he plans to place at his disposal to truly rebuild the city's destroyed neighborhoods, to improve its school system and to help level the playing field between African-Americans and whites, New Orleans could actually stand a chance at getting a new lease on life. But it will be an uphill battle. A lot of promises are made in the wake of disaster, but it will ultimately be up to all of America to decide whether this kind of new beginning is worth it to the country as a whole.
For hardliner Shellnut, everything is going along swimmingly. He is delighted by the results of the surveys that say many evacuees won't be coming back. Shellnut would rather see federal aid money go toward helping people start new lives elsewhere in the country than invested in the city's poor. "We've spent enough time dealing with these people, and now we're finally getting a break," he says.
While many of New Orleans' more affluent residents may prefer to think these kinds of thoughts in private, the city could face another disaster after Katrina and the flood. Just like after 9/11, the new mantra in New Orleans could be that nothing is the same as it once was. Everything is up for grabs, even Mayor Nagin's career. After all, the man is a Democrat.