New Orleans. Heaven or Hell?

Maxwell Macleod sends his last report on his month as a story teller in Mississippi State University. There’s not many global warming cynics in New Orleans any more.

Imagine a hundred people dying inside Ibrox Stadium after Govan had flooded with thirteen feet of water?

Absurd? It almost certainly happened here in New Orleans in 2005 and will almost certainly happen again, not only here but all over the world. And it may even happen in Govan.

August 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits this magical city and bursts their dams in twenty three different places. Eighty per cent of the city is flooded . Many of those who stay are the poor who don’t want to leave their uninsured homes.

There’s heroism and horror. Katrina was the worst civil engineering disaster to ever hit America.

It’s hard to get facts but we do know that many thousands took refuge in the football stadium. Initially there was calmness and then what Thomas Hobbes described as “Bella omnia contra omnes” – the war when everyone is against everyone else. It wasn’t pretty … Rape, drugs , kangaroo courts, at least one rapist executed by the mob. Squalor. Guns. Knives. A scene that many of the next generation may see repeated hundreds of times as our coastal areas are flooded by global warming. Maybe even in Govan.

How many died in New Orleans at Katrina? A thousand, two thousand? Nobody knows.

We do know though that there’s not many global warming cynics in New Orleans. They know what happens when floods come, and are frightened, though many are fatalistic as they think Jesus will save them. It’s strange, so much drink, so many drugs, so much casual sex, and yet so much talk of Jesus.

So is New Orleans all horrible in the wake of Katrina ? Not a bit of it. I love it, and so do most. Last night, Saturday, for example I was out in the streets till the early hours. Dancing, laughter. These guys sure know how to have fun.

And then I fell in with that bloody Dr P, a Prof of Global Warming again. I had met Dr P that day at the New Orleans conference on instilling creative education that I have been attending. I was speaking up for Mississippi State University as their local story teller. Went down well. Narrative is the new buzz word. Creativity must be supported as much as having exam skills. Diversity in both race and skills.

Now let me not be nasty about Dr P, he was one of the most interesting and delightful of the young Profs I met there. He described himself as a Professor of depression , a marketeer of gloom. Said that one of his main jobs was keeping his students from getting too depressed about their subject. Steering them away from suicidal thoughts. Said he sometimes diverted them to Tolkein, just to prevent them from thinking about it.

I put it to him that it was hard not to see New Orleans as being a place that was sometimes Hell and sometimes Heaven. Heaven when you thought of all the great jazz and the wonderful people, and Hell when you realised that the floods were almost certainly going to come back and that next time they might not recede so much . He agreed and we pondered how in our childrens lives there will be dozens of Katrinas, dozens of flooded cities, and a great deal of Bella Omnia Contra Omnes.

And I told him , with complete honesty, that the worst two minutes of my month in the States was when I had heard President Trump say at the Mississippi Rally that there was nothing to be worried about with the environment as we all had bags of clean air and water and the economy was growing.

I told him my best two minutes in America was when I had met him and he had shared my horror at the unfolding global warming nightmare and Trump’s crass stupidity in not attending to it. And so we talked of the psychology of global warming and decided it was like gambling and that nobody faced reality when the times seem good, and that if you had no solutions, and no leaders that there seemed, for most people, little point in worrying about it.

One of the themes of the conference we had both been attending had been the need for Universities to start taking a more radical new approach to education and encouraging new thinkers, more creativity, rather than just promoting plodders who could pass exams. We need the brave and the imaginative to face the massive challenges facing the next generation.

Don’t we just. I am not ashamed of being a story teller. I would however be ashamed of supporting Trump.

On the way back to my hotel I fell in with a pan handler, one of those who had been telling me that morning about the floods in 2005, and I asked him for his thoughts on global warming. He was very cold and on freezing nights many of the homeless use what call their “rabbits ” to get them through. They don’t sleep. They just walk, repeating their rabbit. It’s a sort of night mantra. Many feel too frightened to sleep in case they don’t wake up. It’s not so stupid. If you fall asleep on a cold pavement on a freezing night you do stand an increased chance of death, particularly if you are drunk. So they just walk, and sometimes talk to passing story tellers, laughing as much as they can.

I told him that when I had lived twice, very briefly, on the streets of New York (and always with a warm hotel room to run to) that my rabbit had been; “Who seeds the clouds, the clouds as big as cathedrals in the skies above America ? Why Jesus does, Jesus and his aeroplane.”

And he had laughed and said it was a good rabbit.

I said I worried for America. Worried how it could be saved from itself. I suggested that I hoped that maybe Jesus will persuade the faithful to wake from their sleeping. Jesus and his aeroplane. And he laughed through chattering teeth.

I asked him what his rabbit was going to be for that night and he laughed, thought about it, and replied; “Buy only bullets and canned goods and always find somewhere on the high ground to defend.”

Hmm, I thought, maybe we should get him a job in creative teaching.

Funny old place New Orleans. You never know if you are in heaven or hell.

Comments (7)

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  1. Alistair Taylor says:

    Aye, good one, Maxwell.
    A lot of thought provoking stuff in there. How best to respond?
    Universities? A waste of bloody time and money these days, imho.
    When was the last time they were radical?
    All the youngsters brainwashed by society into being channelled through Uni’s these days, in ever-increasing numbers, for the sake of what? Better career prospects?
    Let them loose on the University of life, more like… Teach them how to catch their own food and survive. Teach them kindness and compassion.

    I went to Glasgow Uni in the late 70’s. It wasn’t radical then, and i’m sure it’s not radical now. But it had a good mountaineering club, and that was worth it. Good craic.
    And we learned useful stuff, like how to survive a cold night out of doors. I even missed the dinner meet, and Hamish McInnes at the Kinghouse hotel, in the first week of February because of being benighted on Ben Nevis in a blizzard. Happy times.

    It beggars belief that a complete idiot like Trump is in charge of the USA, and this time next year will be jostling to be re-elected.
    If Jesus had any sense he’d run for President.
    Haha, did i really write that? What utter tosh.
    Excuse me, i have to leave.
    The nurse is taking my computer away now….

  2. James Mills says:

    Enjoyed this latest ‘Letter from America’ , Maxwell . But was it complete ? Just my opinion but I felt that it was a shortened version of a much longer piece – but seemed to be curtailed for some reason . No ?
    Maybe it was just envy on my part of your being able to spend time in one of the world’s most iconic cities and wanting to hear more of its colour and uniqueness !

  3. William Ross says:


    I now make a point of not commenting on Bella articles because I reject almost everything Bella stands for apart from Scottish independence.

    But I did live in Louisiana for seven years and in NOLA for five of these seven. So I take the liberty of commenting in a case where I have some very direct experience. This piece is interesting, but I preferred your first America article on the Trump rally in Miss. I lived in New Orleans quite a bit before Katrina in the late eighties/early nineties. I am by the way a life-long oilman.

    The key thing about Katrina was that is was a major hurricane which unfortunately passed over exactly the wrong places, bursting the “levees” which protect NOLA from the water. Much of NOLA lies below sea level. Such a hurricane with that trajectory did not happen in hundreds of years. It was a true black swan.

    The idea of Ibrox doubling up on the Superdome is just fanciful, but you are a real storyteller.

    Your article just assumes that flooding and violent weather is getting/will get much worse without any evidence. The US has always had hurricanes and there is no sign that these are worsening. Disappointing. You could have written more about a brilliant historic city, now prospering in large part. I do not think that there are too many global warming true believers in Louisiana but they are afraid of flooding. Louisiana is booming through petro-chemicals and fracking.Is anyone going to write off these vital industries just because of uncertain climate models?

    If you want to get rid of fossil fuels you need to be able to explain how modern societies will be able to replace the source of 85% of their current energy? What happens when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining? Why did western societies exit the Little Ice Age long before the large increases in green house gas omissions?

    I thought that your Trump article was well balanced because you observed how the Trump supporters, even with their objectionable views, were good people. The people of the South, of all races, are really good people. I have no brief for President Trump but for me it would be a tough choice between him and an increasingly radical Democratic party.

    Keep up the articles. You will get a bad name by giving Bella some much needed balance.


    1. maxwell macleod says:

      Dear Mr Ross,
      Thank you for your interesting and well informed posting. I an reluctant to counter your observations on the area as you are obviously able and have lived there, whilst I am just a visiting story teller.
      Just for the record I am a supporter of much that I read I Bella, expect Independence!
      Most of my conclusions of climate change comes from a visit to northern India last Spring where I was asked to go and consult with the Dalai Lama and his staff on public relations. I am the President of the Walter Scott club in Edinburgh and the good people surrounding the DL have an interest in developing his profile, whilst Scott transformed the profile of Scotland.
      During my visit to the area I became fascinated by the Tibet plateau, an area the size of Europe where the patterns of the retention of water have been changing radically in recent decades leading to the disappearance of hundreds of glaciers. Should this continue, and there is no reason for it not to, the water tank that feeds around forty per cent of the world’s population will be radically altered, and there’s not much ‘will’ about it. Roads, railways and houses are already collapsing. There will be war and rumours of war, migration and starvation on a level seldom seen in our world.
      This was my interest in climate change when I made my brief visit to New Orleans . I saw little evidence of the radical improvement in the levees that so many are saying is needed, black swans may yet arrive in numbers. I can only hope they become a threatened species.

    2. Alistair Taylor says:

      Dear William,

      I am not much of a one for commentating either, but sometimes it does a person good to say their piece.
      We have a few things in common; a desire for Scotish independence being one of them. Thank you Bella Caledonia for providing the platform for diverse voices.
      I enjoy Mr MacLeod’s writing also. Thank you, Maxwell.

      How to wean off from our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is a huge challenge. But it’s one that needs to be addressed.
      I’m not a life-long oilman myself, but I might have been had life worked out a little differently.
      Was working in the Gulf of Mexico at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea. July 1988.
      Got sent back to Aberdeen, since 2 of our crew had been among the 167 to perish in that horrendous event.
      Handed in my notice, and returned to work in the Antarctic, supporting scientists there. Have never regretted leaving the oil patch.
      (But, could have made a fortune in the directional drilling game had I stayed in oil. Much more to life than making money.)

      Climate change models will always been uncertain, but climate change and global warming are for real; there is no denying that.
      Well, there is denying that, obviously (see Mr Trump, etc); but the scientific evidence is there, and it’s happening.
      The challenge now is for people to work in cooperation to do what we can. It’s going to be a tough road.

      There are good people everywhere, I agree.

  4. William Ross says:


    Thanks for your response.

    Reading your articles as I do it did occur to me that you would have the reverse of my position: you support most of what Bella argues for, but not independence!

    You make a very good point about the Himalayas and you have been there to see the problems. We must never ignore real situations. I would only make this point. I agree with you that the World has been warming since the mid 19th Century. Glaciers have been retreating. The emission of greenhouse gases is having an effect. But are greenhouse gases the causative driver of climate change? Have a look at this admittedly sceptical article looking at glacier retreat.

    Were the glaciers retreating during the Early Medieval Warm Period?

    Keep writing us good stuff! I won`t respond again on this chain.


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