The Chicago Tribune apparently decided the approaching 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a great hook for an op-ed extolling the cleansing and restorative virtues of a natural disaster that left 1,833 people dead.
"In Chicago, Wishing For A Hurricane Katrina," written by Tribune Editorial board member Kristen McQueary, drew immediate backlash online. The original headline and more offensive passages were quickly scrubbed without any annotation, but the original text and headline can be read here.
McQueary compared the political corruption, financial distress and ruinous school system of pre-Katrina New Orleans to present-day Chicago, writing:
I find myself wishing 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.
That's what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.
It would be hard to call a city that survived Katrina lucky, but McQueary insists that the hurricane "gave a great American city a rebirth."
The column naively assesses the city's gains as a result of the hurricane: the "overthrow" of a corrupt government, a smaller city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, "detonated labor contracts" and a school system unburdened by teachers union demands.
Today, New Orleans rates 14th in the nation for political corruption (which is only respectable relative to Chicago's first-place ranking); furloughs cut costs, but in some cases simply pushed the burden elsewhere; and a report out Thursday by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University shows the post-Katrina school system is still in flux. But the city finances, at least, are in better shape than 10 years ago.
Based on readers' reactions on social media, the op-ed was not very persuasive:
[UPDATE:] McQueary on Friday wrote a second op-ed to further explain her point, but did not offer any apology.
Those lives are part of the calamity that the editorial says enabled New Orleans to "hit the reset button" -- yet they go virtually unmentioned.
The "thousands of lives lost" were overwhelmingly among New Orleans' most vulnerable. Residents without access to a car -- largely the poor and elderly -- were the most affected. Black residents made up a disproportionate share of the hurricane victims: roughly one in three residents from the hardest-hit areas was black.
The most objectionable passage -- which was later changed on the sly -- was especially out-of-touch with the real-life human toll of Katrina. Per the op-ed:
That's why I find myself praying for a real storm. It's why I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.
As a reminder, here are some images of what actual residents of New Orleans experienced during Katrina:
This story has been updated with additional info about the demographics of Hurricane Katrina victims and McQueary's follow-up editorial.