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New Orleans Lost and Found: A Tradition of Rebirth

Rebuilding New Orleans


Joan Bruder and Bettie Pendley

Long-time archaeology volunteers Joan Bruder and Bettie Pendley working at Dawdy's Hotel Rising Sun site in New Orleans' French Quarter.

Shannon Lee Dawdy
What does it mean to miss New Orleans? Archaeologist and part-time resident of New Orleans Shannon Lee Dawdy documents the cycle of destruction and rebirth of the Crescent City, and proves that the real New Orleans isn’t missing at all, and that with a mixture of hope, conviction, and a hell of a lot of help, the city can and will be reborn.

It is hard to fathom the present state of New Orleans. Perhaps that is why people have begun to ask me about its past and a few, about its future. I am a part-time New Orleans resident and a researcher whose work focuses on the archaeology and history of the city. As search and rescue, humanitarian relief, and evacuation efforts continue at their achingly slow pace, it is difficult to think outside the present moment or beyond immediate human suffering, but their questions have forced me to: "how bad is the damage to the historic buildings?", "are the archives decimated?", "what about museums and collections of artifacts?", etc.

But I can't really answer these questions yet. Ten days after the storm, with servers and phones still out, I can't communicate with most of my colleagues from New Orleans to ask how their families and homes are, much less how various sites and collections have fared.

While waiting anxiously to hear from many friends, I have been reflecting on how history cycles round, and how it sometimes jerks forward with unprecedented force. One of the lessons of 9/11 was to realize how much people rely on history to make sense of events and put them in perspective, but also how inadequate that can be when one is living through a disaster that breaks records and defies comparison.

Although Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert has backed off from his initial suggestion to "abandon" New Orleans, he has been quickly followed by several pundits who assert that rebuilding the city would be imprudent (see, for example, "After the Flood," The New Republic 9/1/05, "Tempting Fate," Chicago Tribune 9/1/05, "Rebuilding Looks Foolish," The Providence Journal, 9/4/05). Several other media postings assert that New Orleans' has probably lost much of its cultural and historic heritage, or that saving its historical resources is impractical given the enormity of reconstruction and the need to build "smarter" (see, for example, "Newer Orleans," Chicago Tribune 9/4/05). Many of the opinions being bandied about show a profound ignorance of local geography, geology, architecture, or history.

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