1) The Place
We pulled out our pictures of New Orleans the other day. RoZ had some from when she was there in 1988, and we had a bunch from when we went there together in ’98. Seeing these photographs while hearing the post-Katrina news coming from that city was hard, knowing that some of the things we were looking at were under water.
In a past life, I used to travel the country selling underground newspapers on the street, and in that life I worked in New Orleans several times. Most of my time there was spent in the French Quarter, which is the part of New Orleans that newcomers and outsiders tend to gravitate to. For most of us who have never lived there, the French Quarter is our image of New Orleans.
Fortunately, New Orleans first settlers knew where the high ground was… or at least the ground that was the “least low.” At any rate, the French Quarter is dry… not a pleasant place to hang out, by any means. I mean, there’s no water you can safely touch, much less drink. There’s no electricity, which means no refrigeration, and no air conditioning, which in a city as consistently hot and steamy as New Orleans is no trivial thing. And working toilets are a distant memory. Some resourseful people are pressing on in spite of all this, and “the Quarter” is largely intact. It’s the rest of the city that’s in rough shape.
I’ve been to a lot of the other neighborhoods, and the signature image of New Orleans in my memory is the canopy of massive, sprawling hardwood trees over streets and sidewalks, and the lovingly-kept nineteenth-century homes. In the rich neighborhoods, you had the ornate southern mansions. In the middle-class neighborhoods, the mansions were scaled down, but they still had the porches and the lush yards. Even the poor neighborhoods had their splashes of color and style.
But my favorite thing about New Orleans has always been the people. Now New Orleans is not a very rich city, in fact, it has a LOT of people who are dirt poor. But that doesn’t stop them from being nice. I’ve always found them ready and willing to share a smile and a good conversation. They’re incredibly kind-hearted, they’re totally unpretentious and they’re determined not to let poverty get in the way of their enjoyment of life.
Culturally, New Orleans has always been a magnet for the creative class, and you can see how a city is transformed when you nurture spontaneous creativity. New Orleans is also a world-class music city. It has its own homegrown styles of music, and there’s a long list of world-renowned musicians who come from there, from Louie Armstrong, to the Neville Bros, Buckwheat Zydeco, The Radiators, Dr. John, Fats Domino, and a lot of others.
New Orleans is a place that’s easier than others to get by without a lot of money; and it’s also an easy place to get around without a car. The transit system runs often and it runs late with everything from buses to historic streetcars and modern streetcars. And if you want to get out of town, there is direct Amtrak service to LA, Chicago, New York, Jacksonville, and lots of interesting places in between.
Yes, there are a lot of things to love about New Orleans……
But then came Katrina, and life got hard in the “Big Easy.”
2) The Hurricane
Katrina seemed like a second-rate storm at first, but it was fierce enough to take south Florida by surprise. It killed a bunch of people and did a lot of damage, then slipped into the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes build up strength over warm water, and the Gulf of Mexico in late August is VERY warm. By the time Katrina turned north, it was a category five hurricane headed directly toward New Orleans with winds of 175 miles-per-hour. Days before the hurricane made landfall, we were reading news articles explaining why this would be a Very Bad Thing…. articles that discussed scenarios that were common knowledge among disaster experts.
New Orleans is in a bowl that lies mostly below sea level. The only thing that keeps the bowl from filling with water is a series of levees and flood walls that surround the city. But when a major hurricane comes through, it brings along a huge storm surge. That means that the water surrounding the city rises as much as 24 feet or more. According to all the experts, if the levees fail to keep the rising waters out of the city, New Orleans would fill with water up to 20 feet deep, and the city would be swimming in a soup of sewage and toxic chemicals.
So when the Emperor gets on tv and says “no one anticipated the breaching of the levees,” he’s either a bald-faced liar, or a complete idiot. (personally, I think he’s both) This has been among the Big Three disaster senarios for decades.
So just before Katrina came ashore, it veered a little bit to the east and diminished to a category 4 storm. Once the wind died down, there was a lot of damage, but everything seemed all right overall. But then we heard that the water in Lake Ponchatraine was still rising, and a short time later we heard that a 200-foot section of flood wall had collapsed and that water was cascading over the levee and into the city.
The news kept getting worse from that point on. It was like listening to a play-by-play of the sinking of the Titanic, except that in this case it was an entire city that was sinking into the sea. And just like on the Titanic, if was the poor who suffered the most.
80% of New Orleans became part of Lake Pontchetrain (sp?), and as the city flooded, the water picked up gasoline, oil, paint, chemicals, sewage, and everything else it encountered as it rose thru garages, warehouses, homes and toilets all over the city. A toxic soup filled with sewage and dead bodies swept thru the city, and the people who were left behind were left for days to fend for themselves in squalor.
3) The Outrage
The worst-case scenario we had read about days earlier had come true. And in spite of the warnings and predictions of the scale of this disaster, nothing was done to prepare for a rapid evacuation of the city. The tales of outrage… of indifference and incompetence at the highest levels of government… bombarded the airwaves from all directions. Even the shills at Fox News were expressing outrage at the disaster response… or, more accurately, the LACK of disaster response.
While the great city of New Orleans was filling up with water, the emperor was out giving fundraising speeches, playing golf, and strumming a guitar. Why wasn’t he on the phone getting relief moving? The head of Homeland Security didn’t even know that 15,000 people were at the convention center waiting for help until he heard about it from a reporter days later. When some Navy ships were finally mobilized to go to New Orleans for rescue operations, why did they have to come from Norfolk, VA? Do they mean to tell me that there are no ships in any naval port on the Gulf of Mexico, from Brownsville to Key West, that could have been mobilized to help those people? If that’s the case, then our national defense is stretched so thin, they couldn’t repel an invasion from Jamaica.
So while hundreds – if not thousands – of people were dying from the horrific and disgusting conditions of this flood, and the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana were BEGGING the federal government for help, emperor Bush was playing golf, Condi-sleeza Rice was watching Broadway shows and shopping for fancy shoes, and Cheney and Rumsfeld were hiding in the back room, probably plotting how to turn this disaster to their advantage.
These fools sat on their hands for days, and when the nation began to notice their negligence, those bastards started blaming the victims. They blamed them for not evacuating when they were told to… even though most of these people had NO WAY to evacuate… they didn’t have cars; Greyhound, Amtrak and the airlines had cancelled service, and every rental car in the area was long gone. Some people did have cars, but they didn’t have any money and they didn’t have credit cards, so how were they going to pay for gas or motel rooms?
So even though there was a “mandatory evacuation,” a lot of people had no means to evacuate, and nothing was done to help them. How hard could it have been to come up with a few hundred school buses to bring people up to Baton Rouge or someplace?
Regarding the so-called “looting.” People were starving, people couldn’t get drinkable water, and their clothes were in shambles. The supplies they desperately needed could only be found on the shelves of stores that were closed… many of these people were willing and able to buy what they needed, but they were unable to do so. So when desperate people are left with no choice but to commandeer the supplies they need, they call it ‘looting.’
Give these folks a break. When the business owners come back, everything in their stores will be written off as a loss, and they’ll get big checks from their insurance companies. If the food stays on the shelf, is it going to be any good by the time the city is resettled? When people are starving and gathering food that they so desperately need, you can’t call it “looting.”
There are many other outragous tales coming out of New Orleans. Amtrak offered to evacuate people by the trainload, but they were turned down. The Red Cross was being denied access to New Orleans. We heard of other countries from all over the world lining up to offer help in the rescue and recovery efforts, and being turned away. FEMA even sent out a communication, urging first responders not to respond!
Some nursing home operators in St. Bernard Parish were charged with negligent homicide for allowing their patients to die. It seems to me that the same charges would be appropriate for the authorities at FEMA who neglected the starving and dying citizens of New Orleans while preventing other American citizens from helping them.
4) The Hope
Right now there are at least a hundred thousand people who will never forget being forgotten this way. They have become a twentifirst-century diaspora, fanning out to communities in big cities and small towns all over America. The kids will be going to school in their places of exile, and they’ll be telling their stories to their new classmates. At bus stops, water coolers, lunch rooms, church basements, and all the other places that people interact; the citizens of New Orleans will meet the rest of America, and stories will be passed on.
I derive great hope from this hopefully temporary dispersal of the citizens of New Orleans. As more and more people meet survivors of Katrina, the lies, propaganda, and BS of this insensitive, incompetent and criminally negligent gang of thugs running the country will be exposed by those with first-hand experience. The nation’s tolerance for this evil cabal will run out., and we may even see the beginning of a new progressive movement growing in this country.
From the point of view of one who wants to see a sustainable world, there are a few other good things that will come from this tragedy.
People all over the world are witnessing the plight of those left behind in New Orleans, and they are pondering what they would do if faced with a similar situation. These thoughts are motivating people to plan and prepare in ways they haven’t considered before.
We have learned that electricity, running water, mobility, telephones and other tools of communication, and a lot of other important things must not be taken for granted. In future disasters, more people will be better prepared with emergency supplies of water, food, and fuel. Household evacuation plans will be more well thought-out. And I predict a huge influx of students for everything from swimming lessons to survival training.
People are learning new techniques for dealing with crisis. Hospital workers, rescuers, logistical coordinators, and many other professional classes are being presented with situations that aren’t in their training manuals, and they are improvising solutions. A lot will be learned from these improvisations as they are studied and improved upon in the years to come.
5) The Plan
For right now, there’s an unbelievable amount of work to be done. There are close to a million people displaced by the hurricane who need a place to live and something to do. The levees around New Orleans must be replaced and upgraded, and a long-term plan must be put in place to restore the barrier islands and coastal wetlands that cushion the effects of these storms.
It’ll take a long time to get all the water pumped out of New Orleans. It shouldn’t be too hard to reestablish some rail and shipping service to the city. Some of the most beloved areas are still intact, and it would be a great morale boost to get those areas functional again. Once a little core of functionality is established, the citizens of New Orleans need to sit down and figure out where to go from there.
One thing’s for sure: New Orleans will not die. For one thing, it sits at the mouth of the Mississippi River. It’s where the international shipping traffic meets the national railroad network and the river barges going back and forth to Pittsburg, Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, and hundreds of other ports along the way. This location makes New Orleans a major crossroads and a world port, so there will always be a city somewhere near where New Orleans stands today.
But more importantly, there is a spirit to that city that too many people want to nurture in that location… Simply put, New Orleans will never die because there are too many people who would rather die themselves than let that happen.
New Orleans must be rebuilt, and each neighborhood must be rebuilt by the residents of that neighborhood. This is no place for carpetbaggers, profiteers, and the corporate looters who are already appearing on the scene like the vultures that they are. As I speak, Fluor Corporation, Bechtel Corporation, Haliburton, the thugs and mercenaries of Blackwater Security, and a lot of other unsavory characters are all over the Gulf Coast cutting up the pie.
The People of New Orleans are being scattered to the winds, but these people need to be given every chance to reconnect with their families, their extended families, their friends and their neighbors; and then come back to New Orleans as a community with the tools and the resources they need to rebuild and resettle their own neighborhoods.
As New Orleans gets rebuilt, how do we as Americans deal with repairing and rebuilding our government? It’s obvious that America is suffering due to the insensitivity, indifference and incompetence of this crew of swindlers, liars and looters that are in charge right now. These people work for US, and they must be FIRED and fired SOON, before they do any more damage. The entire executive branch of government needs to be flushed out and sucked clean like a New Orleans porta-potty.
As citizens, it is our duty to demand of every senator and congressperson that the occupants of the White House be impeached – that’s the constitutional word for ‘fired’ – and if they don’t, we have to fire THEM and elect someone who WILL throw these thieving bastards – not onto the street – but into the darkest and coldest of jails where they belong. These people have committed war crimes and high treason, and only by making things right again can America regain honor and respect from the rest of the world.
So let’s rattle our legislators’ cages. At every appearance by a congressman or senator, there must be repeated and instistent calls for impeachment. This is a democracy, and they work for us. We must make our demands loud and clear.