A 2-by-3-foot painting of the rooftops of New Orleans hangs on the wall behind my computer. I bought the watercolor print while I was covering the Republican National Convention in the Big Easy in August 1988. Until this week, I adored the yellowing cityscape. It evoked exciting memories of good times, delicious food, raucous jazz and, of course, important breaking news.
Vice President George H.W. Bush was nominated for president at that conclave, and a barely known senator from Indiana, Dan Quayle, was chosen his running mate. The '88 New Orleans convention was a coming-out party for the conservative religious bloc that would shortly dominate the GOP. It was a farewell soiree for many Southern moderates.
Whenever I look at the rooftops picture, I can almost hear the laughter and shouting of the conventioneers at the Superdome and in the French Quarter. I recall other assignments to the Crescent City - nearly all happy and productive experiences.
"There's not one bad restaurant in New Orleans," my colleagues and I would tell each other, knowing we exaggerated. Surely, somewhere in the city, at least one bad eatery existed.
On this September morning, I look again at the painting. It no longer conjures merry thoughts. The imagined cheering and laughter are gone. The picture is silent. The Superdome has become a symbol of helplessness and death. I wonder how many of those rooftops are intact. I wonder how many residents of those ramshackle two- and three-story houses have succumbed to the flood.
I turn my attention to other images - television footage of devastation and looting and, finally, the full evacuation of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath of shattered levees and toxic floodwater may have fatally injured this aging Southern party girl. Except for her port facilities, she could shortly disappear from the scope as an important American city.
Even now, Katrina and New Orleans are becoming to the American South what Sept. 11 and New York City already mean to the nation - a turning point and milestone in our lives.
Much of our nation's recent national history is divided into two parts - after Sept. 11 and before Sept. 11. Will we soon begin to look at the South through similar lenses - pre-Katrina and post-Katrina?
Though New Orleans after Katrina (like New York after the terrorist attacks) became the initial focal point for TV coverage, the great storm sent shock waves through the country, but especially across the central Southeast.
Mississippi, Alabama and even several places in Georgia were devastated. The affected region has never seen anything so horrific.
Refugees poured into our state. Gas prices, already at breathtaking highs, continued to soar. Shortages were everywhere. The dead piled up. The poor got poorer.
Almost prophetically, on the day before Katrina struck, the Census Bureau reported that poverty in America was on the rise. The number of measurably poor families increased to 12.7 percent in 2004, up from 12.5 percent during the previous year. However, the gross domestic product rocked along with a healthy 4.2 percent growth, the Census Bureau added, despite the Iraq war, sky-high budget deficits and increasing fuel prices.
The Census Bureau also reported that Georgia led the nation in the percentage drop in income over the last two years, with a 4.7 percent decline in real household income. Georgia's overall poverty rate was up slightly, and the number of uninsured people continued to increase, according to the bureau.
One wonders what next year's Census Bureau report will show. Will the government's poverty graphs, especially those related to the South, rise from Katrina's effects?
As hundreds of thousands of refugees in our neighboring states seek shelter, food and clothing, one wonders whether our living standard finally begin to wilt after all these years of relative prosperity. Will poverty resume its reign in the South?
I don't believe that it will. Though our democracy is slow to react until a crisis is upon us, when that crisis does come, we move quickly in almost miraculous ways to recover.
In the South, for nearly 135 years, we have bounced back from one disaster after another - from Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Depression and world wars. Each time the region has emerged with renewed vigor and an improved quality of life. We will respond no differently to the catastrophe of Katrina. We will keep climbing.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA, 30160, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.