Sunday, November 20, 2005

Post-Katrina London Avenue Canal report

I visited the area of the London Canal yesterday where I talked to some people who had returned over the weekend to salvage belongings and gut their houses. Most of the people who do this -- it may not be obvious -- can't stay overnight. There's no electricity in the areas that were most flooded, no gas, and there may not be running water. These are tactical operations, where people drive in from Baton Rouge, north shore communities like Covington and Hammond, or Houston, Memphis, and other areas around New Orleans to which they may have evacuated and accomodated themselves to some sort of extended temporary existence. It's a new reality that people are beginning to realize and to which they are forced to adjust. It's an agonizing exile without any prospect of ending any time soon -- something of which most people around the country have no comprehension -- and how could they, when most of the now scant national press reports out of New Orleans are fluff pieces? There are few reporters who have a real sense of the depth and scale of the continuing tragedy on the ground, an understanding of the profound material and unique cultural character of New Orleans neighborhoods, and an appreciation of the infinite, numbing, sense of loss and grief that people are feeling -- hundreds of thousands of people!

First, I want to say that the London Avenue Canal area looks as bad as the lower 9th Ward -- vacant houses, few of which have been gutted, and a colorless landscape shrouded in the gray residue left behind from dirty, brackish flood waters. Some parts of the city -- notably Uptown, Mid--City, and parts of Gentilly and Lakeview -- have started to return to life -- which is not to say that the residents have returned, but at least they've returned for salvage and gutting operations. The London Avenue Canal area, by contrast, still looks much as it did after Katrina's waters had been drained -- like a neutron bomb went off.

I am reluctant to repeat the harrowing tale of a couple who survived the flood near the lakefront -- because one detail is highly improbable. The woman -- I'll say her name was Anne -- related the story while her husband worked to salvage what he could inside the house. The couple, in their forties, stayed in their slightly -- raised two -- story house for the hurricane. I gathered that they were in the upper story. They said the winds were terrifying. They huddled in the middle of the house praying that their termite -- eaten house would remain standing. They said they made it to the next morning. When they looked outside, there was anywhere from 3 to 4 feet of water. When they realized the water was continuing to rise, they decided they should get out and move across the street to another two--story where two of their sons were living. The door was blocked by a fallen tree, so the husband managed to get out -- I think she said through a window -- and he was then able to work on the door from the outside to get it open. By then, the water rose inside the first floor. The London Avenue Canal levee had broken. The water depth being deeper than would allow them to walk across the street, and there being enough of a current to produce rapids, they tied off a lifeline to the front stair rail with a yellow nylon rope that was long enough to reach the house across the street. The line was still tied to the rail. Using that line, they relayed food and other essentials they might want across the street. She said that Lake Pontchartrain was crashing over the lake levee (an anecdote that can be confirmed by the pile of boats well inland at the Southern Yacht Club, but which might be questioned from the generally good condition in which the University of New Orleans campus was found. Anne said there were pet birds inside the lower half of the house to retrieve, but that door was locked. The keyhole was under about two feet of water. To unlock the door, Anne had to duck her head under the then nasty water to reach the keyhole and doorknob. Up to here, the story was completely credible, but I seriously doubt what she said next. I couldn't imagine how she would have been able to move about the house if she couldn't stand up, and if she could stand up, why couldn't she reach the keyhole without going under water. Then, she related the most spectacular tale -- that a shark swam into the house and bumped her leg. Okay -- I just want to say that there were a lot of urban myths and photographs that circulated in the first week after the storm. It is true that small sharks can be found in Lake Pontchartrain's brackish waters which have an outlet to the Gulf. It is conceivable as well that sea life may have been pushed into the lake along with the storm surge, however, there were no signs of any sea life among the hurricane debris after the waters had been pumped out of the lakefront area. I can imagine that sea life might have been forced over the lakefront levee, that the water level remained above the levee for an extended period of time, and that, just as we might seek out fresh air if we were in a room full of smoke from a fire, sea animals would be inclined to seek out fresh, oxygenated water, and would therefore have found there way back out to the lake and the Gulf, but ... Anne's tale would be remarkable even in the most unusual of circumstances. Take it at face value. I haven't heard any legitimate confirmations of sharks in the city. Anne was very emotional. She just started talking to me when I stopped in front of her house. She was traumatized by the condition in which she found her house, and she may have been venting some of that trauma by embellishing her story. I relate it as just that -- a story. As I have always done, and will continue to do, when I question the veracity of a story, I'll let readers know.

Another person I talked to -- I'll say his name was Richard -- was gutting his house. He was very involved in his neighborhood, having taken an inventory of where people were (if they could be tracked down). Some of his neighbors didn't make it through the storm. He was very angry about the lack of action, and the lack of a plan, by local and state leaders, and by the Bush administration in particular. He argued that if we can spend $200 billion rebuilding Iraq -- presumably to protect the United States -- then, he said, $200 billion is not too much to ask for New Orleans. He said that building a Category 5 storm protection system, and reassuring residents that their lives and property will be safe, is the essential number one priority that needs to be addressed immediately -- right now. He said that if the Bush administration wants to talk about homeland security, that this, New Orleans, is a homeland security priority. Getting emotional for the first time in our extended conversation, he said, "I lost neighbors here. Neighbors died. If that's not homeland security, then I don't know what is!"

Now, on to my political reaction to what I saw and heard. I couldn't agree more with Richard. Weapons of mass destruction my ass. New Orleans is being neglected by the Bush administration. This country is being neglected by the Bush administration. The domestic security of the United States is being neglected. Resources are being diverted from essential needs here at home. Unfortunately, a scenario for a devastating hurricane strike to New Orleans has been considered for a long time. George W. Bush was alerted in his first year in office that the number one domestic disaster concern of the Clinton administration was a hurricane strike on New Orleans. Last year, a hypothetical Hurricane Pam strike on New Orleans was demonstrated. Why it took the Bush administration a week -- just to start getting resources into Louisiana -- is, in my view, criminally negligent. To be sure, blame must fall as well on local and state leaders, and I have never defended their actions for any partisan or personal reason. Once it was known that a hurricane was going to hit New Orleans, and certainly once the levees broke, the problem became too large in scale for any entity but the federal government to handle. Why, now, President Bush is not providing positive reassurances that the New Orleans area will be rebuilt, that the resources are committed, and that a Category 5 storm protection system will be built, including coastal restoration, is completely, irresponsibly, reprehensibly, neglectful or malicious. Other areas of the country should take note. This is what you can expect from the most cronyistic, incompetent administration in the history of the United States. American citizens ought to wonder how many other domestic disaster scenarios has the Bush administration failed to prepare.


At 11/20/2005 10:22:00 AM, Blogger bayou_boy504 said...

I enjoyed your most recent post on your blog. After reading it I found myself nodding in agreement, especially with the part where you wrote, "...most of the now scant national press reports out of New Orleans are fluff pieces."

Great blog. Keep it up.

At 11/21/2005 07:47:00 AM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Thanks. It's not difficult for me to lose my head over commercial media ignorance.

At 11/22/2005 05:17:00 PM, Blogger Maverick said...

The sad truth is that, lacking foresight, the gov't spent that $200 billion; now they're loathe to spend another $200 billion because it would mean everyone would actually have to band together, and support each other, and stop being so fucking self-absorbed, and pay taxes.

I think that lady ran into a rat. Or *shudder* a cat, maybe.


Spitting in a Wishing Well

At 11/22/2005 11:10:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Yeah, it was very suspicious ... except I'm telling you she described it perfectly. Maybe she dreamed it. It's not completely inconceivable - I mean, the Gulf of Mexico was actually in the city. But ... you really have to suspend your disbelief. Who knows - there have been an awful lot of firsts and weird things because of the hurricane.

At 11/26/2005 08:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>She said that Lake Pontchartrain was crashing over the lake levee (an anecdote that can be confirmed by the pile of boats well inland at the Southern Yacht Club...

Do you not realize the Yacht Club is on the OTHER side of the levee...

If not it would be REAL had to lauch the boats no?


At 11/27/2005 06:35:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Thanks anonymous. I am indeed spatially challenged, but my intent was to describe an event anywhere on the lakefront that would confirm overtopping. I thought the mess at the Yacht Club fairly did that -- although, now that I mention it, I do believe the Yacht Club is on the lake side of the levees out there.

At 11/28/2005 03:35:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Update: To those who might question sea life inside the city (as did I), I came across at least one reference to "a large number of fish,
which were belly up, floating on the water."


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