Monday, November 07, 2005

Get off your asses and do something, part 2

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, in a speech delivered yesterday to open the first legislative session since Hurricane Katrina:

"We need a strong, coordinated plan to show Washington that southeast Louisiana needs Category 5 levees."

Yes! YES! YES!!!

Yet, when I heard Governor Blanco's plea, somehow it just rang hollow - and it wasn't just her flaccid speaking style.

So much has been happening here on a daily basis, on so many fronts, that I haven't had time to really keep up with the task of posting my thoughts on so many things. Everybody has a story to tell, but there's no time to repeat them.

This, however, is very important. It's not just important - it is the only thing that REALLY matters in the end!

Why might Louisiana residents have felt so under-impressed by Governor Blanco's appeal? Maybe it was because there wasn't a single federal official standing on the stage with her. If there was, it certainly wasn't apparent. Yet, this tragedy demands greater federal involvement.

I don't care that people say that Blanco and Nagin aren't on the same page, or that Landrieu and Vitter don't like each other. Leadership is getting people to WORK TOGETHER - despite their differences. Leadership is providing the resources needed to help devastated people put their lives back together. I expect the President of the United States to be a thoroughbred champion of building coalitions. Sadly, George W. Bush is lacking almost everything needed in a good leader. As regards his response to Hurricane Katrina, he has yet to assure Louisiana residents that it will never again suffer the same devastation from a storm due to flooding. He needs to commit himself to a regional storm protection system. So far, he has balked at the idea.

The truth is that President Bush and members of Congress simply are not taking the devastation of Hurricane Katrina seriously. Maybe they think that Americans will forget about the destruction with the passage of time. It certainly doesn't help when they express their reservations about funding the response required, ignoring the enormous importance of southeast Louisiana to the stability of the entire U.S. economy. It certainly doesn't help when grisly old guys, like Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), who should have quit a long time ago, visit Louisiana only to make stupid remarks, suggesting that New Orleans should just be moved somewhere else:
"Why would we want to rebuild these homes in an area below sea level?"

Maybe because the residents didn't choose to build there, dumbass. Maybe because a growing nation depended upon commerce moving through New Orleans, and it still does, and therefore engineered a system to hold the water at bay to make that trade possible. Maybe because New Orleans is this country's oldest city, and its most culturally unique. Maybe ... maybe just because we're talking about rebuilding the lives of hundreds of thousands of people - and that's something nobody can put a price tag on.

I'm not surprised by President Bush's behavior - anyone who visits this forum knows that I've never been impressed with his leadership, I don't think he's very smart (and that's being polite), I don't believe he's at all "compassionate" or conservative, and that last detail sums up my thoughts about Bush generally - he's a heartless liar. His entire rise to the White House was built upon a career of using his daddie's name, rewarding his rich friends, and lying.

But that's another post.

Why is a storm protection system so important?

I think the answer might be best illustrated by a conversation I had yesterday with a couple of people as I traveled around St. Bernard parish assessing the damage for myself. I'll say their names were John and Peggy. John stood in the middle of the street talking to Peggy while she waited for a FEMA inspector to show up.

When I asked them which were their houses, Peggy joked, "Why? Do you want to buy a house?"

Spray painted in one of John's windows was "Home sweet home."

Both houses were under 14 feet of water for something like two weeks, maybe longer. It was so much water in fact, that it went into the attic, dissolving the ceilings. I'm not just talking about nice fresh water here. I'm talking about a nasty, stinky, muddy, toxic brew, probably laced with heavy metals and poisons from the area's petrochemical plants. When the water receded, the sediment settled onto everything and baked into a half-inch cake of muck - except inside people's homes, where it remains a soggy, thick, muddy rioux.

It's not just the destruction of the physical house that one thinks about. With a hurricane that struck so quickly, one wonders how many cherished family heirlooms and irreplaceable items of memorabilia may have been lost under the water. It's absolutely heartbreaking to see. I got choked up talking to them.

I asked them if they thought they were going to return. The woman couldn't answer. She talked about how much she loved "the parish" (as St. Bernard is often called, sometimes lovingly, sometimes in humor). She said she grew up there. She talked about how wonderful the community was - how she had so many friends and family there. It's a hard decision for St. Bernard residents to say they want to return to that hell.

Neither could John answer. I asked him what it would take for him to rebuild. I wasn't surprised by his answer - it's the same answer everyone has been giving, in any conversation I've had with anyone, since Katrina - everyone, that is, except the people who can actually DO something.

John said the number one factor would have to be a believable, tangible, quantifiable commitment that his house would never flood again. He said he wanted the levees raised, or a protection system built, or an engineered system of dikes, or wetlands restoration - whatever it takes.

Second, he said he had to know how high he was going to have to raise his house - because no one will ever again be allowed to build their houses on concrete slabs in this area. So far, no one has an answer. Until he has an answer, he can't start rebuilding.

Third, John said he couldn't make a decision until he finds out whether he'll get enough money from his damaged home to rebuild at all.

John, and Peggy, and several hundred thousand other residents of southeast Louisiana are completely unified about the need for a storm protection system, but it seems that Washington has yet to get the picture.

Allow me here another opportunity to paint that picture.

It's probably safe to say that everyone has seen one or another photo of a damaged house. Sure, some of those photos render unto the viewer a sense of the tragedy that befell one family. But let me tell you - in no way does an occasional photo provide a sense of the scale of the disaster, nor prepare you for the surreal shock of seeing that whole communities you once knew have been completely destroyed. Driving through neighborhood after neighborhood after neighborhood in St. Bernard parish, Plaquemines Parish, in Orleans Parish Mid-City, Gentilly, Lakeview, the lower 9th Ward, or any other flooded area, you only just begin to understand.

Pick a street, any street. Drive. Drive through block after block after block - mile after mile after mile. On either side, left or right, look down the side streets. For as far as the eye can see, it's the same destruction - four feet, six feet, ten feet, twelve feet, fourteen feet of water, soaked house after house after house, until all that remained when the water receded was furniture which floated off wherever the water took it, covered in sludge, appliances that had flipped themselves over in the water, covered in sludge, photos that had fallen off of walls, also covered in sludge - and all of it in a jumbled mess piled up in the living room, or a bedroom, or half out of a window. In fact, few walls or ceilings remained at all to discern what room was what. And now, two months later, on every surface, billions upon billions of living mold communities are pumping spores into the air until it chokes you.

You see, there just won't be much point in rebuilding, not just a city, but a region, if that area could be hit again with another Katrina, or worse, and a levee system that has already proven itself to be faulty.

Very few residents of southeast Louisiana will feel comfortable living in an area that still hasn't seen the worst punch that nature can deliver. As bad as Katrina was for southeast Louisiana, it was in reality a category 3 hurricane whose energy was centered on Mississippi. I've heard estimates that strength of the hurricane in much of New Orleans was actually reduced to the equivalent of a category 2 after landfall, and given the distance of New Orleans from the Katrina's eye.

President Bush is balking at the price of a storm protection system - estimates range from $2.5-35 billion. Yet, with all of petroleum products that move through Louisiana, a storm protection system would pay for itself if only the state could keep 50 percent of the revenue the federal Minerals Management Service collects in coastal oil drilling leases.

But do we really need to worry about the price tag given the unprecedented scale of this disaster on every level?

There are some other priorities as well, like how to rebuild the homes of so many people of modest means who didn't have any insurance (typically, because the home was inherited, or bought before flood insurance was required for a mortgage). There are a whole lot of elderly people who live/lived in the Ninth Ward. What are they going to do?

Finally, I can't leave this post without paying respect to some remarks I heard on WWL's Garland Robinette show (870 AM, 2-5 PM). I believe Garland was interviewing Jason Berry (aka Jaybirdo), a documentary filmmaker in New Orleans (his latest feature is Left Behind, about the New Orleans public school system). Berry cautioned against one possible future for New Orleans if local, state, and federal leaders don't get their acts together. He used the metaphor of a dance, comparing the exodus of New Orleanians to other cities as having a dance with another girl, and deciding you like your new girl better than the one you had before. New Orleanians may decide they don't want to return to the city they once loved. That would be tragic, because, as Berry explained in Katrenema (hat tip Humid Beings), the celebrated culture of New Orleans is a historically-evolved weave of people from different cultures:
When people used to ask me why I lived in New Orleans, I would answer them with this metaphor: "Ya know how when you first date a woman, and you're completely enamored with her? There's a whole world to be explored in her eyes. Then at some point, you eventually think you've figured her out...the mystery disappears because you think you "know" her. Well everytime I think I know this city, it opens up this whole new door...a whole new part of it I wasn't aware of. It's endlessly mysterious to me. I never get tired of it."

Maybe it's time for another Bush photo op. This time, instead of getting in the way of relief workers, I propose he help the relief workers. I suggest he roll up his sleeves - not just for the cameras - and prepare to get dirty, put on some rubber boots and a gas mask, and spend a day helping a family try to salvage anything - anything at all - from their mud-drenched, moldy homes.

Is New Orleans worth rebuilding? Well, "Have you ever been to New Orleans?":
There is a culture and tradition in New Orleans that is sweet and simple. No need to over analyze this. It recognizes that the enjoyment of family and life is as attainable for the poor as it is for the rich. A hand on a shoulder and touch on the arm is just the way we say hello. We know that good music, food, and drink is made all the better when surrounded by friends who share the same outlook. When it is your way of life, when it is woven into your circle of friends, social gatherings aren't seen as "excesses" but as something you just do.

George W. Bush, his administration, and members of Congress, need to go to New Orleans.

To quote what may be the only memorable moment of admirable leadership displayed by Mayor Ray Nagin during this crisis:
"Get off your asses and do something!"

Oh, one more thing, in addition to Mitch Landrieu, I think Garland Robinette should run for mayor. I don't agree with him all the time, but he definitely knows how to drum up an idea, and he listens to people. Even if Ray-Ray is re-elected, he's sharper when he's being challenged. It'd be good for the city to make him try to sell his skills - AND HIS PLANS - to the city.


At 11/15/2005 03:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I listen to Garland Robinette every day! Now that's a man who speaks what's on his mind and has a clear and concise vision for this city ...and state. I'd seriously consider voting for him for governor. He is outspoken, has nothing but the best interest of New Orleans at heart and his voice would be heard near and far, of that I have no doubt.



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