A historic marker for Hurricane Katrina on the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans Credit: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

The literalati of Chicago just had a bad day. An op-ed by the Tribune’s Kristen McQueary that called for something similar to Katrina to happen here understandably engorged people in New Orleans who didn’t like their tragedy becoming someone else’s metaphor, and, less understandably, readers here who believed she meant exactly what she said. 

Beware of what you wish for. McQueary wished for “a storm in Chicago—an unpredictable, haughty, devastating swirl of fury. A dramatic levee break. Geysers bursting through manhole covers. A sleeping city, forced onto the rooftops.” Why? Because it took “chaos . . . tragedy . . . heartbreak” to make New Orleans “hit the reset button,” and there’s no reason to believe anything less will persuade Chicago. 

If McQueary had said, “We don’t want anything like that here, so let’s all make common cause and get our fine city back on the right track,” no one would have made a peep (except her editor, who would have put her on the next bus to Topeka). But she let her disgust and irony peek through. A terrible mistake.
This wasn’t a “modest proposal” on McQueary’s part. It wasn’t satire. It was the kind of extreme truth a despairing writer sometimes tells, hoping to God circumstances will prove her wrong. If someone showed you a despairing op-ed written in 1938 that argued what America needed right then was another world war, because nothing less would force Washington to spend itself out of the Depression, would your reaction be how shallow and tasteless!

Or something more like cruel but true! Hindsight is notorious for its clarity.

Here are two of the many anguished reactions to McQueary I read on the website of New Orleans’s Times-Picayune: “. . . blasphemous evil. Disgrace” (that from actor Wendell Pierce of Treme) and “As someone who experienced Katrina first-hand, the ignorance in this column is trivializing, grotesque and upsetting,” OK, fine. They’re entitled to their feelings. But from Facebook friends and the friends of friends, I read, “I am struck dumb,” and “pretty much where the Tribune and its corporate overlords are at, hoping poor and dark people (and unions) will just get swept away like the hand of white Jesus swatting a fly,” and “half-baked and so factually inaccurate in regards to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, it’s laughable,” and “stunning . . . failure of editorial oversight,” and “black people have not been insulted in decades like her editorial did,” and “even I am shocked at the level of depravity here.”

This is extreme. It’s nonsense. As it happens, I’d just had a long conversation with Gary Rivlin, who spent eight months in New Orleans after Katrina and kept an eye on the city for the next nine years and just published Katrina: After the Flood. Rivlin told me that the white New Orleans power structure, though tempted, did not respond to Katrina as a golden opportunity to do some racial cleansing. New Orleans is still New Orleans, said Rivlin, and in some important ways it’s “better than it’s ever been.” 

As I am under Rivlin’s spell, the general reaction to McQueary’s piece strikes me as overwrought and willfully off her point. A crisis, as our mayor famously said, is a terrible thing to waste, and it’s terrible because sometimes anything less than a crisis—and not just a fiscal crisis but a palpable flesh-and-blood crisis with fire and flood outside the kitchen window and bodies piling up in the morgue—doesn’t get us off our keisters. The moral equivalent of war, it’s been observed, runs a distant second to a couch. McQueary made two unnecessary concessions to the criticism. She allowed a little rewriting online: “That’s why I find myself praying for a real storm” became “That’s why I find myself praying for a storm. OK, a figurative storm, something that will prompt a rebirth in Chicago.” That “real” in “real storm” was the one word an editor should have questioned and taken out. And McQueary posted a follow-up essay online in which she acknowledged that “I offended the entire city of New Orleans and beyond,” and assured her readers that “I wrote what I did not out of lack of empathy, or racism, but out of long-standing frustration with Chicago’s poorly managed finances.”

The headline to this second piece was “McQueary: Hurricane Katrina and what was in my heart.” Writers who ask readers to consider what was in their hearts diminish themselves. McQueary didn’t need to reveal what her heart meant to say. It was clear enough the first time she said it.