Friday, July 21, 2006 | The Katrina hurricane tore into 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast and in less than 24 hours transformed a thriving region into a third-world distressed territory. To their credit, San Diegans voluntary organizations and individuals bypassed slowpoke governments and rose to the challenge and brought vitally needed assistance. In the intervening months, however, the nation slowly but inexorably turned its attention away to worry about other concerns. The fate of the Gulf region in general and New Orleans in particular has now migrated to the back burner, and seems all but forgotten. That is unfortunate because the growing inattention suggests that people have no idea of how central to this nation the gravely troubled Gulf Coast remains and how much the disasters of November 2005 continue to harm the entire nation, including San Diego.

It is hard to realize that from the Rocky to the Appalachian mountains and except for the Great Lakes and the Rio Grande, the mighty Mississippi drains 1,151,000 square miles of land, almost a third of the entire United States. At the strategic mouth of that second longest river (after the Missouri) lies the city of New Orleans. Thomas Jefferson understood the immense strategic importance of that city and took advantage of a unique opportunity to acquire it. He offered Napoleon Bonaparte $10 million for it. Napoleon, in plenty of trouble at the time, was planning to invade Great Britain. He needed all the time and resources for that adventure that thankfully never came to pass. On May 2, 1803, an agreement was signed between the United States and France (announced on July 4, 1803) to transfer title to not only New Orleans, but to the entire North American holding then called “Louisiana” as well, for $15 million (about $200 million in today’s money). Although the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase remained undefined until Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their historic expedition, they consisted of some 830,000 square miles of territory, or more than 22 percent of our nation as it exists today. Most people focus on what a great real estate bargain that turned out to be: It came to less than 3 cents per acre, about $7 in today’s value. But that was the least of it.

It is difficult to exaggerate the pivotal importance of New Orleans for where and for what it stands. Its culture and people make it uniquely American in ways not duplicated anywhere else. At the time of the Louisiana Purchase there were no passable roadways to anywhere and only the Mississippi River provided the main route of communication for trade and military use. New Orleans was founded as a French colony in 1718, but it soon became the home of Spanish, African, South American, Caribbean, and Native Americans. It is home to the Creole people, descendents of African, French and American Indians, as well as Cajuns, children of French Canadians. The original and inimitable music, food and languages of New Orleans are trademarks that bring visitors and tourists (they are not the same kind of people) from all over the world.

For too many tourists, the New Orleans they get to know is limited to the historic French Quarter, centered on Bourbon Street built on higher grounds, a circumstance that has protected it from severe flooding. But that is only the center of the stage that is the city of New Orleans. To understand and appreciate that remarkable city, one has to visit the much larger areas backstage that make the stage viable. It is populated by a wide range of relatively poor and really poor people of many ethnic backgrounds, but dominated by wonderful African-Americans who make the music, brew the drinks and cook the food that the visitor enjoys.

This is the New Orleans that is at risk of disappearing forever unless the whole nation rises up to bring the kind of succor to a city and to a region that mirrors the best that the United States has to offer itself and the world. To date, neither the federal government nor the states have yet understood what treasure the Gulf Coast and New Orleans are to the entire country. It is way past time to refocus on what we might very well lose and then be deeply remorseful for our disregard of a long-term tragedy in the making.

Elie Shneour is research director and president of Biosystems Research Institute. He is also involved in San Diego regional and in national issues involving science in domestic and foreign affairs. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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