Sometimes it takes a lot to clean up a dirty city. From the Old Testament’s Babylon to HBO’s “The Wire,” it’s clear that the American metropolis is often a place where graft, street crime and economic inequality run rampant. But rarely does a writer for a major American newspaper wish her home was visited a Category 5 hurricane that killed more than 1,800 people and destroyed the lives of tens of thousands more — all in the name of a fresh start.
Yet, in a piece published Thursday, that is what Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary appeared to do. The “peg” was the upcoming 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005.
“Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” McQueary wrote. “But with Aug. 29 fast approaching and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu making media rounds, including at the Tribune Editorial Board, 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.”
She continued: “That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.”
In wishing for a tabula rasa for Chicago, McQueary was perhaps voicing the wishes of many residents of what, after a violent year, has come to be called “Chiraq.” Her piece lambasted the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the perilous state of the city’s finances.
“That’s why I find myself praying for a storm,” she wrote. “OK, a figurative storm, something that will prompt a rebirth in Chicago. 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.”
Then, McQueary landed one final blow against the Chicago officials she was criticizing by suggesting that, unlike the post-Katrina government in New Orleans, those in Chicago cannot see their city’s desperate need for fundamental change.
“Except here, no one responds to the SOS messages painted boldly in the sky,” she wrote. “Instead, they double down on their own man-made disaster.”
This did not go over well.
“As a native NOLAN, I know the correct response to the author of this piece would be to invite her down to The Big Easy to see for herself just how far off and hurtful she is in her suggested comparison,” one commenter wrote. “But I’m afraid all I can muster is … ‘Ms. McQueary, never visit New Orleans.'”
As the Times-Picayune pointed out, the piece’s original headline was “In Chicago, wishing for a Hurricane Katrina.” It’s now “Chicago, New Orleans, and rebirth.”
“Apparently it takes a Katrina (or, more accurately, a federal levee disaster) to clean up what McQueary calls Chicago’s ‘rot,'” Kevin Allman of the Gambit, a New Orleans alternative weekly, wrote. “Not surprisingly, social media is going nuts in both cities. Is McQueary a troll, a cheap provocateur or just … I dunno?”
Huffington Post editor Kim Bellware had this to say:
“Now, after an extensive cleanup, you can restart fresh,” she added.
McQueary responded via Twitter.
“If you read the piece, it’s about finances and government,” she wrote. “I would never diminish the tragedy of thousands of lives lost.”