Hurricane Katrina survivor responds to insensitive Chicago Tribune editorial

In 2008-2009, David Kaplinsky was my student in the Chicago Public Schools after his family fled New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina and relocated here ten years ago.  This is his view of the the Chicago Tribune's editorial written by Kristen McQueary where she finds herself "wishing a storm for Chicago" a "swirl of fury" to "reboot" our city.  

I was a victim of Hurricane Katrina. And while my family and I had evacuated ahead of the storm and were fortunately not among those being rescued from their rooftops, my life was still unalterably changed when (after glimpsing a brief video clip from CNN and making some calls) my family realized that the levee that ran along our street had been breached, and that my childhood house was flooded under eight feet of water. I was 14, had just started high school, and had no clue what was going to happen. We had barely any belongings, no home to return to, no idea what to do—we were helpless and terrified.

When Kristen McQueary of the Chicago Tribune started her latest editorial with the line, “Envy isn't a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” she probably should have stopped writing there.

Kristen McQueary, let someone who suffered firsthand tell you that the experiences of New Orleanians trapped in their homes, on their roofs, in their attics, in the Superdome, outside the convention center, in assisted living facilities, in hospitals, on the streets, and in motels, hotels, and homes of friends and family across the country were—by no stretch of the imagination—enviable.

McQueary attempted to make the giant leap between the subject she wanted to write about—i.e. perceived fiscal irresponsibility in Chicago—and the subject she hopelessly tried to connect it to—her idea of the rebirth of New Orleans on the ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Now there’s no doubt that New Orleans has made great strides and implemented remarkable reforms in the aftermath of Katrina. As McQueary rightly points out, the city is in many ways back to normalcy (or whatever the New Orleans equivalent of “normalcy” is) and has emerged from catastrophe a stronger place.

But there is no balance to her idealized perception of a utopian New Orleans where corruption, overspending, and waste (to her mind, in the form of “unnecessary” city employees) have been thoroughly uprooted. She forgets the fact that in the past ten years New Orleans has seen a mayor federally indicted and jailed for giving his sons’ company prejudicial treatment in city contracts, many thousands of poor New Orleanians still unable or unwilling to return to a city that doesn’t want them, and a New Orleans East that remains utterly blighted and left behind in the overall recovery of the city—and those issues are only the tip of the iceberg.

But I might have been able to forgive her for her misguided and Ayn-Rand-esque idealizing of my hometown, if she had not simultaneously idealized and glossed-over the depth of suffering and pain that so many New Orleanians went through—including myself.

So when I see a professional writer from the premier newspaper of the city in which I currently reside—who decidedly did not experience this catastrophe herself—writing about “wishing for a storm in Chicago… A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops,” I get a little angry.

Better yet, I get infuriated.

But before I judge her, I have to look at McQueary’s own response to the criticisms hurled her way. She replied recently to a tweet that voiced the collective reaction of people of good conscience to her piece, saying: “If you read the piece, it's about finances and government. I would never diminish the tragedy of thousands of lives lost.” Putting aside that she begins the answer in a borderline passive-aggressive manner—attacking her critic by assuming they didn’t even read her piece—McQueary makes clear through this tweet the very crux of what is wrong with this editorial: you can’t talk about a tragedy and only focus on the subsequent recovery.

New Orleanians and those across the Gulf Coast (especially Mississippi, which never gets enough press for the utter destruction it faced) lost their family members, friends, their homes, many if not all of their worldly belongings, and were forced in to exile for months—if not years. Many have still not returned. My parents only recently returned after 8 years away.

You can’t gloss over the suffering of New Orleanians in Katrina so that you can make a point about the kind of revolution you think is needed in Chicago politics. Your attempt to idealize and dramatize, for your own purposes, these unimaginable trials denigrates the experiences of all who suffered—as well as those tragically lost.

Do you truly believe that the loss of life, property, and community on a massive scale is really what will create the transformation you want to see in Chicago?

Tragically, all of those elements are already much too much part of the daily experience in this city— I believe you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would like to see more bloodshed, property destruction, and gentrification in Chicago.

And what you fail to see is that New Orleans succeeded despite these deep wounds and trials—not because of them.

Clearly, it would be an understatement to say this article has done a disservice to those who experienced Katrina and its aftermath. But ultimately, I think what McQueary sought to do in her piece stemmed from something seemingly innocent. She wanted to write (or rant) about Chicago’s political corruption, plain and simple. But for whatever reason she (or her editor) felt she needed to capitalize on the media-buzz surrounding the ten-year anniversary of Katrina and make a connection between the two disparate subjects.

McQueary, at the end of her editorial, claims she can “relate metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.”

But she can’t relate—metaphorically or in reality—and she shouldn’t try.

That is, not unless she is willing to thoughtfully consider both the deep tragedies and modest triumphs in the aftermath of Katrina in the real world— and not just in the idealized, editorial fantasy world that serves the needs of this week’s column.

David Kaplinsky is now an actor, singer, and filmmaker.  His is currently appearing in Pride Films and Plays production of The Boy from Oz at Stage 773 through the end of this month.  To learn more about him, visit his Web page.

As of this morning, the editorial link to McQueary's view no longer appears on the Tribune Editorial Board's Twitter feed.  However, you can read the editorial here.

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