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New Orleans revisited

New Orleans revisited

I first visited New Orleans back in the early 1990s and had a great time.

I'd just met my wife-to-be and we gambled on a trip to New York and New Orleans.

The gamble paid off. We found a wonderful vibrant city with lots of culture, fun and interesting people.

Having had such a great time back then, I was particularly touched by the plight of the city and its people when Hurricane Katrina wreaked its havoc in the summer of 2005 and have watched events develop since.

I therefore took the chance to see how the city had changed and attended the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.'s 2007 Conference and Exhibition with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

The first impressions were a pleasant surprise.

The cab journey from the airport to the W Hotel, that straddles the business and warehouse districts and French quarter, showed little evidence of a major catastrophic event.

If anything, the business and warehouse districts looked a lot smarter than in the early 1990s. The French quarter—particularly around Bourbon Street—seemed a little sleazier and smellier, but otherwise much the same.

I presumed that the post-hurricane cleanup and reconstruction effort had given the city a chance to improve its image, knock down some of the more tired buildings and generally clean the place up.

The pleasant—if somewhat uncomfortable—walk in the hot weather over to the convention centre confirmed my initial impressions. But something felt wrong and as I walked along the waterfront it began to dawn upon me what the problem was—it was too quiet, much too quiet.

This was confirmed that evening as I headed into the French quarter for a meal and a couple of drinks. Many of the bars and restaurants were closed and those that were open were half full and staffed by newcomers who did not know the difference between red and white wine.

This place had the feel of half-party and half-ghost town and that was before one even dared venture out to the edge of the French quarter where there was a wasteland of boarded up houses.

Later that evening, I had the chance to quiz someone who should know what was going on—a local insurance attorney. He started in a reasonably sane manner, explaining that the reason why up to 500,000 inhabitants of this city had simply disappeared was because a good deal of them did not have the proper documents to prove they owned the land on which their houses were built.

This is because in many cases, homes had been handed down from father to son for generations and that this had naturally caused a huge log jam in processing of insurance claims, many of which would never be settled.

When asked what had happened to these people, the attorney became a little more fired up, stating that they had been scattered all over the states, but that large concentrations of them had ended up in places like Houston and Dallas.

"Why don't the other states and the federal government bail these poor people out in their hour of need?" we innocently asked.

"Whey should they?" he retorted, clearly nonplussed at our old-world, uncommercial naïvete. "What do they owe these people? Many would argue that Katrina did New Orleans a favor by cleaning it out. The local government would take all the funds anyway," continued the attorney.

On the way home later that week, somewhat jaded I could not help but conclude that the system had failed the people of New Orleans.

Clearly it failed at the outset when the levees broke and both the state and federal government reacted too slowly and too chaotically.

Two years down the line, New Orleans city centre looks like any vibrant American city on the surface. However, large parts of the rest of the city are a screaming testament to the failure of both political and economic systems that can only be repeated when the next big catastrophe hits a major conurbation unless radical change in thinking occurs.

It may also be well worth the European Community taking a long, hard look at what happened in New Orleans and asking how it would react in a similar situation.

If Vienna, Austria, were subject to a catastrophic event, such as flooding for example, most Austrian citizens surely would not resent contributing a few more Euro cents to bail out the Viennese.

Most European nation states are, after all, unitary countries with long and deep political, social and economic ties.

But if the good folk of Lisbon, Portugal, were to suffer a gargantuan catastrophe, how would the British, Germans and French feel about an E.U.-wide bail out? Would they pay up so willingly?

That is not so clear and, given the nature and structure of the United States the latter is probably a better, and more worrying analogy for Europeans to consider.