Sunday, April 30, 2006

Roll Black Water

Where's Ed when we need him?
I'm not sure which is less surprising or more disturbing, the report that many of the lift pumps that move rainwater out of the city are still burning out because they haven't been properly repaired after the flood, or the news that the city's sewerage infrastructure was also badly damaged last fall.

Saturday night's forecast of three to four inches of rain should make the pumps issue number one, although I can't find any reports online Sunday morning of any street flooding. Of course, with the prospect a lot of standing water in the street and seepage everywhere from the decrepit sewerage system, the combination is not a promising picture. Rebuilding a few dozen pumps and lift stations will seem a small task compared against rebuilding the entire underground sewerage system.

After the flood, the prospect of seeing water in the streets is the most immediate and visceral threat. While reports of New Orleans elevation (or rather lack thereof) are greatly exaggerated, at least 50% of the city lies to some small extent below sea level, and some isolated areas as much as six feet. Without the pumping capacity of the Sewerage & Water Board Wood Screw Pumps (named for their inventor Albert B. Wood), rainwater would pond in city streets until it evaporated. The map here gives you an idea of who is most prone to flooding

The electric motors that drive these immense pumps (under consideration for designation as national historical sites, like the city's street cars) were submerged in the brackish waters of the flood, and several have burned out. While the Corps of Engineers is spending $40 million to repair the pumping system, the bids on that contract will only go out next week.

As for the sewerage system, an acquiatance told me months ago (while discussing infrastructure damage and reconstruction) that the S&WB sewerage infrastructure was already a mess due to subsidence. A pre-Katrina Bureau of Governmental Research report describes "an aging infrastructure buried in unstable soils. Much of the 3,000 miles of New Orleans' water and sewer system is more than 50 years old. Drainage pumps and the electrical generating plant that powers them were built at the turn of the century, and are still in service."

I should shut up before somebody in Washington remembers that we had this problem before the storm. We're going to need a large investment to restore all parts of the city's infrastructure, and Katrina may just be our best chance to get it. For now, the concern about the S&WB pumps and leaking sewage will have to get in line with incomplete levee repairs and foot dragging by the Corps on levee improvements, FEMA tardy flood maps, slow pay insurance companies and all the other components of life today in the "big easy".

Until the pumps are repaired, Orleanians will have to deal with the prospect of seeing the streets fill with water in a good tropical downpour. This is nothing new but after the flood, the vision of streets filling with water will take on the frightening aspect of recurring nightmare. If the pumping system can't be restored in short order, common street-level flooding will certainly be the coup de grace for slab-on-grade construction in the lowest areas, and push returnees toward the only sensible solution: elevating their new or rebuilt homes.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Jazz Fest

OK evacuees, ex-pats and friends of NOLA: MSN will be presenting free live webcasts of selected performances at Jazz Fest. This is one amazing lineup of NOLA and Louisiana talent, with Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews thrown in for good measure.

Try to visualize me somewhere around the edge of the crowd Sunday afternoon, gyrating and grooving, just as I'll be imagining a few tens of thousands of my friends and neighbors around me as I sway in my mother-in-law's Fargo basement. She's due to leave for her lake cabin to do some pre-season cleanup, so I don't have to worry about her calling the guys in the white coats as I celebrate my own personal Fest.

End of Sunday at the Fest was always a spiritual experience for me, when the combination of beer, sun and music transports me to a place usually involving sweat lodges or drumming. It's part of the magic of New Orleans, a special sort of voodoun available to all willing to surrender to it, to be possessed by the music and transported to the place all rythem and song are born.

If sometime tomorrow night as you walk walk out through the slow crowds, you can't help but think you saw me, well, the Folse genes are strong, and there are a lot of near-Doppelgangers roaming around southeast Louisiana. Or perhaps, this time, the magic will take me a stop farther than it has in the past, and that glimpse out of the corner of your eye of a guy that looks a lot like me might be, well, shouldn't you be watching the stage, or just swaying with your eyes closed?

The Web Cast Schedule:

3:00-4:30 p.m.
Sonny Landreth
Dr. John

4:30-6:30 p.m.
Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello
Terence Blanchard
Herbie Hancock

6:30-8:00 p.m.
Keb' Mo'
Dave Matthews Band
Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band

Anybody got a recipe for Crawfish Monica?

web casting

Friday, April 28, 2006

Suspect Device Nails Bay Buchanan

Ewwww. Yeah, I know I should change the headline (and possibly apologize to Suspect Device) but if I don't find someway to laugh at this, the anger will consume me. As I've said, I think the only way I can live postdeluvian is to be in NOLA and find something direct and constructive to do. Sitting here in limbo in the Far North will just kill me.

I really don't need to add anything else to Suspect Device's rant on Bay Buchanan's heartless suggestion that America is tired of hearing about Katrina, a pronouncement she made on CNN's Situation Room this week. Suspect Device has done a job everyone who cares about New Orleans should be proud of.

Bay, I'm tired of your America, of the America people like you and your brother have built. It increasingly bears no resemblance to the nation I was raised in, the one I was taught to believe in. The nation that saved itself from the Great Depression and saved the world from European Fascism, the nation that built the interstate system and sent men to the moon, it is gone. Now we are a nation that can't save its own people, even as we empty the treasury into the sinkhole of Iraq. It has become an alien place where the old joke that your brother's speeches sounded better in the original German is no longer quite so funny.

I hope it works out for y'all. I'm going home to the only country that matters to me: New Orleans, Louisiana.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Decoding the vote for visitors
from our neighbor to the north

The AP story Incumbents Prevail in New Orleans Races is just wrong, but it's not surprising. Our political system may seem confusing to visitors from our neighbor to the north, so a little explication is in order.

Simply put, if you are an incumbent and don't carry the day in the primary, you lose. It's about that simple. If the candidate isn't in the statistical margin of error for 50%+1, you can pretty much build an exacta around the assumption they will lose.

If you accept this proposition, then the outcomes takes on an entirely different character, at least as it applies to races in City Government. Nagin lost. Oliver Thomas won. Everybody else on the council lost. We will throw out Sapir's at-large seat, for which he could not seek re-election under term limits. We should note, however, that one of the five district council members, Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, did not win that seat outright, but faces a runoff against a political newcomer. Not good for the incumbent slate.

Of the four district incumbents seeking re-election, only Cynthia Willard-Lewis won. The other three incumbents seeking re-election were tossed into runoffs. By our calculation, they lost.

So, let's review:

Mayor: Incumbent Lost

Council at Large: One incumbent wins, but district incumbent fails to win the second seat. We''ll call that a draw.

District Council : Two of four incumbent candidates lost. Almost no one has returned to District E in New Orleans East, making it hard for anyone to mount a real challenge. In District D centered in Gentilly, the Times-Picayune version of events points out that incumbent Cynthia Hedge-Morrell as been a vocal champion of her flooded constituents, as has District E incument Cynthia Willard-Lewis. In the district where there are a lot of returned voters on the ground, where interest was strongest, the incumbents lost.

Let's then consider the assessor races. Everyone in American who will vote tomorrow for a candidate whose entire is "I Promise To Raise Your Taxes" please raise your hand. Anybody? No? Ok, I thought so.

The tricky bit about the assessor races is that nobody is going to vote to toss out the old system until they know the new rules. The most obvious outcome of the new rules as proposed by I.Q. is that most peoples taxes would go up, on top of doubling their homeowners insurance and the out-of-pocket losses from the hurricane and the looming threat of doubled utility bills, already way to high. Anyone who doesn't understand this, I hear there's an opening in the Bush Office of Management and Budget you'd be perfect for.

You could call that a good day for incumbents. I call it a rejection of the idea of raising taxes for nothing in return.

The only way we are going to see the entirely noble platform of the I.Q. candidates accepted by the public at large is if there is a cap on all existing taxes as a result of the reassessment. At some future election, the voters should be asked to equalize the revenue stream by voting to decrease or increase the millages appropriately, based on the new assessments, and have only those millages they have approved or extended collected based on the news assessments.

Put a simply as possible, the new assessment would only be used for taxes placed for an up or down public vote after the newer assessment was made. Yeah, I know, it sound complicated, but if you have a better idea, I'm willing to hear it.

For the rest of the city races, the challengers never really gave voters a reason to vote against the incumbent. For Civil Sheriff, long-time incumbent Paul Valteau accepted that his office may likely disappear, and campaigned on the idea that he's the best person to handle the transition. The opponent to the criminal sheriff never got traction against the incumbent, who had the support of his predecessor and the head of Angola for his handling of the prisoner evacuation during the storm. Similarly, there was no real challenge to the civil district clerk of court.

Down at the bottom, you had one incumbent who won by promising to make the elimination of his office go smoothly (something the I.Q. candidates failed to do), one who is believed to have actually done a good job in his first term, and two races where the opponent never really mounted a challenge.

So sorry, y'all, but you got it flat wrong this time. The incumbents in the most important city offices, mayor and council, mostly had their incumbancies handed to them. Yeah, we do it a little different, but it's not as if we all still spoke French or something.

election incumbent

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Chernobyl on the Bayou

The anniversary of the Chernobyl has spawned a slew of stories about the disastrous failure of engineering that took thousands of lives and destroyed a region. I think its important in this context to remember that the inundation of New Orleans was not an act of capricious nature, but an engineering failure compounded by government incompetence.

The Reuters story When home is a blighted land: tales form Chernobyll contains lines eerily familiar to New Orleanians:

"It was a long time ago, but it is hard to forget. It was worse than a war. We were told so many lies," [Chernobyl survivor Olga] Rudchenko, 71, says, outside a small, shabby house in need of a coat of paint.

"They took us away in buses and said we were leaving for three days. We came back eight years later. I cried every night. I wanted to go home..."
It would be easy to imagine these words spoken in a similar story recounting the failure of the federal levees that inundated New Orleans, and the failure of the government to deal with the resulting catastrophe.

Some will scoff at the comparison, but it is apt. Katrina was more akin to Bhopal or Chernobyl than to the natural catastrophe of Katrina on the Gulf Coast, or Rita in southwest Louisiana, or the storms of 2004 that hammered Florida.

Recall how, on Monday, Aug. 29, the media announced that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet", the storm weakened and only struck the city a glancing blow. Then came the water, and be Wednesday the photograph nailed to the front of MSNBC was of the onrush of water from the Industrial Canal into the Ninth Ward.

New Orleans was a failure of engineering, defects in the levees apparent to every outside engineering agency, but only lately admitted by the Corps of Engineers. Even then, the Corps argues the defects were not visible, the failure not predictable.

"We were told so many lies" the aged Ukrainian reminds us. And so it goes, this time in New Orleans.

You may scoff at the comparison if you wish, but only by ignoring the well established facts of the two cases. Both were failures of government engineering compounded by government ineptitude in the response, failures that ruined vast areas and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands. Both events featured prominently the heroics of those who rushed in to save others. And as the Olga story of a return to life in the forbidden zone, both include the determination of people to return to their home.

It only remains to be seen if the United States can do better by the people of Katrina than the U.S.S.R did for the people of Chernobyl, whether the glowing stories of American superiority I learned in the "comparative" civics class I was taught in late Cold War Catholic school were simply another set of fables not much different than those offered in the catechism.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Eye of the Storm has passed

Eye of the Storm, a blog by Pulitzer-prize winning journalists Josh Norman and M Kellier of the Biloxi (MS) Sun-Herald, is ending it's run. For the last eight months they have chronicled the struggles of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina.

First, congratulations to everyone at the Sun-Herald and to everybody at the Times-Picayune on their well-deserved prizes. (especially former colleaues: Dennis, you finally got your Chicken Surprise, and are hereby nominated for next year's Worst Newsroom Pun Award).

I don't often write about the coast or about south-west Louisiana, even though the immediate Folse family is spread out from Bayou Lafourche to Bay St. Louis. My first concern has always been New Orleans. I don't mean to slight our neighbors and cousins to the east and west. Their sufering and loss was tremendous, in some ways more horrific than that of New Orleans. And in the parishes around Lake Charles and in many small communities of Mississippi, the people are just as forgotten by their government.

I have counsins on the coast, who have twice in their lives lost everything. I remember my first trip into Waveland post-Camille. What I remember most clearly is my uncle pointing out where a stone bank had once stood. There was a foundation, and a massive safe that had moved from the rear of the building to the front.

That was the first time I truly understood the power of storm, even more than walking from my cousins gutted home along the tracks up the block to where the houses disappeared, and only foundations remained. I also remember the trailers, and the sound of saws and hammers. Right there on the coast looking out into the Gulf, after Camille, people were returning.

The closing of Eye of the Storm rasies the question: when will it ever end? When does it stop being about the storm or the flood and start becoming about the future? As the sub-title of this blog "Remembering Katrina, Envisioning New Orleans" implies, I've always tried to make it about both from the very start.

It was clear from the start that massive reconstruction, would be required, with battles over preservation of the historic and over which areas could be saved in something like their existing character, or saved at all. Because most of the damage was the result of the Corp's negligence, we should settle for nothing less than being made whole. They did it for the people of 9-11, and they must do it for the people of New Orleans. And the future of the area, especially coastal restoration financed by a full 50% share of off-shore lease revenues, will be the work of several generations.

This blog will continue until all those issues are settled, I can find nothing else to say about the Flood Formerly Known as Katrina, when the last remnants are stone or metal memorials to the tragedy of it, boxes of papers in the library, and the memories of the old. I don't expect that to come to pass in my lifetime.

Recovery will be the work of a generation, and I believe I will always find something worth comment. And, no matter how high they build the levees, everyone will always remember that we were once the Wet Bank. We will never let them forget.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sitting here in Limbo (Slight Return)

My wife is with us for Easter. Home is such an ambiguous word at this point: packing for movers on Wednesday, closing the sale of the Fargo house on Friday, and just five weeks more of school until we return.

It's hard not to say my wife came home, but I know that my home is again in New Orleans, in the house my wife will return to Monday and prepare for the unpacking and our arrival

She has become one with the post-K lifestyle--living at Lowes on Elysian Fields, trundling off to the post office to try to convince them to deliver her mail, chasing down a carpenter who will make our double a single..

She also has one thing that she finds lacking in many New Orleanians now: anger. At the government (all of them), at the post office, and the Sewerage & Water Board. Everyone, she says, must be on meds or they would all be raving in the street. It's not just the Deep South-meets-the Carribean lifestyle. It is the half-million people, about a quarter of whom live in or around New Orleans still, who are in deep post-traumatic stress disorder, either too shell-shocked or medicated to be as angry as they should be.

If the federal government doesn't step completely up to the plate and help us, the entire population would become the largest population of homeless and destitute people suffering PTSD we've seen since the end of the Vietnam War, itself a debacle of government mis- and malfeasence that left behind tens of thousands of its citizens the traumatized forgotten, and a landscape where one can after decades still uncovers the remains of the dead.

The only think we're lacking in this analogy is old land mines, but there are plenty of potholes in NOLA that could take out an unarmored HumVee and all its occupants if you hit it at speed.

While my wife was in Fargo we talked not about whether crime would return, but about the suicides, and the murder/suicides. As an H.R. professional with some training in post-trauma counseling, she wonders when will people start to lose it, to "go postal". We spoke about the hidden death toll: not just the unreported missing, but all of those who are dying after the storm, especially the elderly. The stress of dislocation and disaster has shortened what should have been their retirement years. We talked about how clear it is that for virtually everyone in the city not a contractor, We Are Not Ok, and that most of America has no clue just how bad things remain.

And that makes her angry, as angry as I've been in these postings.

She's one of the lucky ones. Like people in the Island uptown, she didn't lose everything to the Flood. She arrived in town in January, as power returned and the city began to move from the Nagasaki stage into the plain old disaster scene phase of life some are calling Debrisville. We have a house that took no water, a line on a carpenter to cut a walkway between the sides of our new shotgun double, new counter tops in the garage in Fargo the movers will deliver for them to install. The children, our biggest worry, seem taken care of. My daughter has been accepted to Ben Franklin and NOCCA, my son to Lusher.

If I try to tell my wife she's in the gravy in the best joint on easy street, I'm liable to require emergency room care, which is not something you want to go looking for in NOLA right now. But truly, she is among the luckiest in the city.

There are so many challenges facing us, facing the city. Sunday's Picayune discusses the mayoral hopefuls plans for the city's finances, including bankruptcy; how small business that are trying to return will likely fail without direct grants of assistance from the government. There's no news from Washington, where Congress has adjourned for the Passover/Easter break. There might be more money for Community Development Block Grants, and for levee armoring. Or not. We'll find out in May, we're told. The money, if it's coming, likely won't arrive until Fall.

Before I could post this, Tuesday rolled around and New Orleans Metroblogger Craig Ciesecke talks about the travails of small business in the city, and the Second Wind movement to try to get grants in aid to keep local small business alive. He worries (as many do) that the small businesses that are a linchpin of the local economy will not survive the summer, and end up being replaced by generic big box realtailers. Truth is, the big retailers aren't rushing back. The only stores open in Riverwalk are local stores. The big national chains base their decisions on traffic counts, and the counts aren't there. The real danger isn't Gap on Jackson Square--it's having to shop in Baton Rouge.

The biggest news story is the government's plan to abandon effectively east Plaquemines. If they start basing storm protection on population density, we're all going to be eating a lot more South American farm-raised crawfish and canned Korean oysters. It just wouldn't be the same town if the best seafood in town comes out of a freezer at Bubba Gump's.

Everyone talks about the need for money and help and how they're just holding on, but there's only so much the people in the street (literally for the trailer townies), there is only so much they can do. For now, everyone is sitting in limbo, taking their meds, and thinking about (or trying not to think about) the start of hurricane season on June 1, the day I hope to arrive home.

In an earlier posting from the end of December, I found some inspiration in the remembered sound of Jimmy Cliff signing "Sitting Here in Limbo", and from the closing title song of the same movie, "You Can Make It If You Really Want."

"I think we can make it" says the first song by Allen Toussaint on the Our New Orleans CD. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't be coming. Those of us who are returning, or who lived on the sliver by the river and haven't lost everything, we have to take a lead in making things happen. People who struggle through days at work and nights working on still-ruined homes, who sleep in tiny trailers by night, washing down Xanax with beer, these folks aren't going to be able to do it alone.

If your a survivor or an ex-pat and you know you're not coming home, that's OK, or at least its not cause for people to judge you. Everyone needs to get on with their lives as best they can, and for some people that will mean somewhere else. I left myself almost 20 years ago for reasons of my own, because at the time it was the best choice, for all the pain it caused me.

Don't let anyone tell you that you have abandoned New Orleans. We know you haven't. All we ask is that you do everything you can to help: to bend the ears of your new neighbors and co-workers and make sure they know We Are Not Ok, that it's all about the negligence of the Corps. We need you to Flood Washington and harass your new congress critters to insist on compensation, protection and restoration.

All of us who can count ourselves in some way lucky have a special obligation, a species of noblesse oblige. We must take the lead to fight for those who are just barely making it, who are sitting her in limbo.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Us and Them

Those who have returned versus those who have not: is that the newest divide to add to those of race and class and neighborhood that plague New Orleans? The dispute over whether to hold the election exposed this new twist to our crazy caste system in the city, but a post by the author of the blogs Every Poet Needs a Patio and kd5qel reminded me of the arguments that flew between the returned, pro-Mardi Gras faction and the displace, no-to-Carnival crowd a few months back.

The emerging hierarchy and tension between those who came home early versus those who came later against those not yet returned, and possibly not returning, occasionally boils to the surface in blog posts and comments, in online forums and letters to the Picayune, with the early returnees claiming the first right to speak for the city, and chastising those who criticize who have not returned and often don't plan to.

I struggled with this new twist to our complex identity culture and class system myself all Fall.

When I started this blog, I called upon the training and practice of a decade of journalism and treated New Orleans and the Flood as distant events. I spoke of the city and the survivors (and the victims) in a third-person remove, even as I ranted and raved against the water and the storm, the government and god. This came easily, as I lived in Fargo, N.D. on 8-29, and have lived away from the city for almost two decades.

This detachment was a mask I had carefully crafted when I worked in newspapering, the one costume I cherished above all others, and wore 364 days of the year. It was a mask made by someone who cheerfully took a first job paying in the high four figures (pause for internal arithmetic), and faithfully discharged the vow of distance and objectivity that mask implied, an oath faithfully undertaken so long ago.

I took up that old familiar mask for the protection it afforded me. A grandchild of the Cote des Allemandes, German reserve kept me from weeping for my dead father for years. I first wept after Katrina on September 1, as I wrote the post The Tragedy of St. Bernard.

As as the year ground on and events developed and I wrote endlessly on them, I could never bring myself to use we or us, always speaking of the people of New Orleans as if they resided in a distant land. That enforced remoteness helped me to bottle up the genuine pain and anger, and channel it into this forum. It was also done out of respect.

I was not a survivor, not among those who remained or who snuck past the checkpoints to return home in September or November. Their place in these events is special, and they will be marked by it for life as much as the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were: traumatized by what they say, wracked by survivor guilt, suffering more than any others the stigma the rest of the nation stamped on NOLA.

As my wife and I considered a return to New Orleans, I maintained my journalistic distance, and even as I wrote about my own reaction to events, never dared to speak of we or us, to put myself in the same group as those who had lost all, who came home early to the devastation. Then, fully committed to move home, in this post I took the plunge

I still find myself hesitating as I write about the recent flood elevations. I didn't lose my house. I can't fairly say We in this space when it I'm not one of those who lost everything. Still, because I care deeply about the city I have to speak out on these issues.Certainly my condemnation of the preliminary flood maps goes contrary to the grain, and perhaps everyone who did lose there home is happy to know what to do next, even if they don't know how to go about doing it or how to pay for it. And some day, I'm sure, someone one or some group or survivors will tell me to shut up, that I don't have any right to speak for them, that I am not one of them.

It's their priviledge to tell me what is best for them, to tell me when I'm wrong, even to remind me that I'm not one of them. It's never a claim I've made. To correct me is a right they've earned, have paid for in pain.

However, I would hate to see us add another divide to our already convoluted caste system, another measure by which to judge our neighbors. As the storm vividly and violently exposed, and as event every since have amplified, that which makes New Orleans the city it is, the city we love, are the things that divide us: the haves of Carnival and Commanders, the have-nots at the Second Line or the corner po-boy place.

We don't need another divide. Everyone who loves New Orleans wants, at some level, the best for the city and its people. They want this whether they suffered at the Superdome, lost their lives savings in Lakeview, or even if they watched from afar as I did. I'm coming home, but several people who write about the city as I have are not. They left, as I did, for their own good reasons and with a partially broken heart, as if parting from a lover. They have gotten on with their lives elsewhere, and mean to live out those lives in that elsewhere. Most, with a few bitter (mostly partisan) taint, say otherwise. I don't care about them.

I care about the community of New Orleans, which is bigger than the geographical boundaries of Orleans Parish or the Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. If the city is going to survive, we are going to have to figure out how to cooperate, how to work together--black and white, uptown or downtown, survivor and expat--to convince the nation to help us, or to figure out how to do it on our own.

We don't need another way to measure Us and Them. That's what's killing us, more than the storm or FEMA or the Corps of Engineers. Dividing ourselves into Us and Them.

(cue end of Us and Them blending into Great Gig in the Sky....

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

FEMA to NOLA: Drop Dead

The announcement today of new flood advisory maps effectively condemns tens of thousands of homes on the New Orleans area, and seems makes it official that the levees can't be relied upon in calculating flood protection.

The advisories will require homes built slab-on-grade to be elevated 1-3 feet if they are damanged more than 50% to qualify for future flood insurance, which will likely elevate the cost of reconstruction or renovation far beyond payouts for flood-insured homes, even including the mitigation payments that will pay a small part of the cost of elevating homes.

In a latter concession to some home owners, which the Times Picayune says was targeted at older residents, some homes might be allowed to rebuild or renovate at current elevations, but would have to be elevated when they are sold in the future. While this might allow some residents to return, it would effectively confiscate the value of the homes, which could not be sold without being elevated.

The target of 1-3 feet seems odd, unless one assumes this incorporates additional funding for levee armoring. This would appear to imply that, with the approval of additional funds for levee armoring, the city will end up with a Category Three system susceptible to overtopping. It is also the amount of water we could wind up with in some neighborhoods with gated drainage canals in a significant tropical storm.

Federal recovery czarina Donald Powell also announced today that the White House would request $2.5 billion "to improve levees", presumably the funds requested by the Corps for armouring the levees so they could be certified by FEMA. Without the additional funds, FEMA flood maps would be drawn as if there were no protective levees. That additional funding would indicate that FEMA is making assumptions that we have survivable Cat 3 levees.

This seems, from a distance, to be an eminently reasonable decsision. It is not

Currently, FEMA may provide grants of up to $30,000 to elevate homes, but elevating a slab-on-grade home can cost twice that amount. In the Ninth Ward, where may lower-middle-class black homeowners did not carry flood insurance and just barely qualified for mortgages, reconstruction will likely be impossible.

In much of the rest of the city, this may be the decision that tips the scale against rebuilding, as it could add as much as $50,000 above and beyond any assistance grants to the cost of reconstruction, or more for rebuilt homes, pricing many survivors out of the local housing market.

The ugly arithmetic is laid out here in a Times-Picayune article headlined "Future of slab house construction in question." Kinch of Building Big Easy explains how this will likely play out in an excellent post here. To extend his thoughts, one of two things can happen. The city can start ramping down the damage estimates and face charges of being "corrupt" and "crooked" and cheating the system.

Or we can abandon Lakeview and Gentilly, New Orleans East and St. Bernard, except for lakefront enclaves for the weathly who can afford the new elevations, which is essentially what Mr. Powell announced today.

In a single day, Bush and Powell and FEMA have done what Osama bin Laden only dreams of: they have wiped off the map a vast swath of a great American city.

flood elevation

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Relearning The Ways
of Democracy in NOLA

A confluence of seemingly disconnected threads--a book I'm reading, stories in the news not particularly about New Orleans or the Flood formerly known as Katrina, the upcoming city election--inspired me to wonder if our city must not relearn the lessons of democracy if we are going to survive.

Reading John M. Barry's excellent Rising Tide about the 1927 flood reminded me how much our city and state has relied upon, and been at the mercy of, strong men. The private executive meetings of a select few before the actual meetings of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, no doubt where the real decisions were made, reminds us things have not changed that much since the 1920s.

As Barry reminds us, in the early 20th century a handful of bankers and exclusive carnival krewe members could meet in a downtown boardroom and secretly decide the fate of entire cities and parishes. The politicians, to the extent they were involved, were there to receive their marching orders. The moneyed men of the 1920s never really recovered from the flood, and spent the next decade in a life and death battle for power with Huey P. Long, himself a reminder of our tendency--like our Latin neighbors to the south--to rely upon the the leadership of strong men and oligarchs.

What inspired me to think about New Orleans and democracy was the intersection of the upcoming election, and a story on National Public Radio about a one room school house in New England and, more importantly, the annual town meeting that debated its future. In that section, people have never lost their connection to the grass roots democracy that grew in the eighteenth century and became the United States of America.

This led me to think about the charter school rebellion in New Orleans, in which activist parents have essentially moved to secede from the criminally corrupt Orleans Parish School Board. I am following this movement closely because my son will be a new student to NOLA come Fall, and I am a partisan for public (and against parochial) schools. I think that the public school system (in much of the country) is the great leveling institution in which we learn to live with all our fellow citizens, much as the military was in the last century. It is an important counterweight to the growling tribalism and sectionalism that dominates our civic life.

A charter school can be like that school in a small New Hampshire village reported by NPR. It depends upon the good will and energy of committed citizen-parents, a drama I watch being re-enacted on the mailing lists of the Parent Teacher Organization of Hynes school as they furiously debate the future of their school, and the details of their charter application. It is democracy of a sort the people of New Hampshire would recognize.

I believe that the charter school rebellion offers a window of opportunity for the average people of New Orleans to reclaim their city, to have a direct voice in the future, to discover some common ground--Lakeview or Ninth Ward--in providing a quality education for their children out of the clutches of the long foundering school board.

A similar opportunity is afoot in neighborhoods that took the BNOB commission's suggestion to organize themselves for recovery and ran with it, even as the BNOB plan came apart at the wheels. Residents of neighborhoods as diverse a Gentilly, Lakeview, Broadmoor and Arabi are coming together to plan their own future, to reclaim their right to exist and set the terms of that existence. Our future need not be left to those privileged to lunch with the mayor before the open BNOB meetings. It is in our own hands.

The city has risen up against the strong men in the past. The most prominent example was the Second Battle of New Orleans, the fight against the Riverfront Expressway. In response to the idea to build a smog-cloaked Berlin Wall between the French Quarter and the river, citizens all across the city rose up against the money men and their servants in City Hall and Baton Rouge, and won.

The opponents were not average Joes, but were themselves often prominent men and women. It was not a mass movement, but then neither is the the charter school uprising It did show that by concerted action it is possible for the people of the city to rise up against those who usually run the place, and define the city we all will live in.

As we approach the election, New Orleanians need to think long and hard about the mistakes of the past. The school board is an excellent example of how democracy can go awry, an example of how the corrupt and power-hungry manipulate our identity politics--white and black, uptown and downtown--to the detriment of the city. And behind all our elected officials lurks the secret machinations of the BNOB commission, like a historical re-enactment of the work of the 1920s leadership cabal described in Barry's book, equally dangerous to our future.

We are rapidly (and too easily) slipping into the habits of the past. The identify-politics challenge to the election is a good example. Yes it's hard to vote absentee. What about our lives now is not hard? Is it really that difficult to mail in a request for an absentee ballot, to complete the ballot and mail it back? Does it even rank with dealing with FEMA and your insurance company? By making this an issue of race simply drags us back into our own divisions, ones we can't afford right now.

The model for the democratic future of New Orleans is not the posturing of Jesse Jackson or gossip over to whom Jimmy Reiss is giving his money and support. It is in that town in New Hampshire, and in the meetings and phone calls and emails that are defining the charter school future of New Orleans education and the rebuilding of neighborhoods. It is not in a division of the spoiled, but in finding common ground.

charter schools democracy

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Insurance Companies grow fat on Hurricane Coast

One of the myths of the Hurricane Coast is that the insurance companies have taken disastorous losses in places like Florida and the Gulf Coast.

Wrong. They want you to think they have, because they would rather grow even richer by only writing policies for people who never file claims. But as the linked post on Da Po Blog shows, the idea that the insurance companies are struggling because of Katrina or the Florida hurricane season of 2005 is a myth, to put it kindly. The only stuggle they are having is deciding how to spend the money.
The companies that provide Americans with their homeowners and auto insurance
made a record $44.8-billion profit last year even after accounting for the
claims of policyholders wiped out by Hurricane Katrina and the other big storms
of 2005, according to the firms' filings with state regulators.

One again, Da Po Blog proves himself a one-man Daily Kos and Bureau of Governmental Research rolled into one.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Corps confession ignored by media

As I suspected, the admission by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the flooding of New Orleans was the result of a design defect has been ignored by the national media.

The only notice captured by Google News includes: two English-language papers in India, the Post-Chronicle, an online newspaper site I can't figure out the physical location of and AL.Com, a site tied to the Birmingham (Greatest City in Alabam').News.

That's it. Imagine if the head of the CIA said, "I'm sorry, we really f---ed up and 9-11 was all our fault." And the only media that picked up the story outside of New York were two newspapers in India and the Birmingham News.

Just another reminder that We Are Not Ok.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Corps chief confesses to design defects

Why hasn't this Times-Picayune story moved on the Associated Press news wire?

Corps chief admits to 'design failure'

WASHINGTON -- In the closest thing yet to a mea culpa, the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged Wednesday that a "design failure" led to the breach of the 17th Street Canal levee that flooded much of the city during Hurricane Katrina.

This is an admission of what three independent engineering investigations have shown: Katrina was only incidental to the flooding of New Orleans. The levee system was a disaster waiting for a storm to come along to precipitate it.

I can't find this story anywhere else.

As the story points out, this doesn't remove the immunity Congress granted the Corps. The Corps would have built the damn things of cotton candy and pocketed the difference in cost, and we would have no cause in the courts.

It makes clear, however, the obligation of the nation to restore us and protect us. This was not a natural disaster. It was a failure of the government to do what is promised. It failed to protect us. The last time the government failed so stupendously, they emptied the public purse into the lap of New York, and declared wars to cover for their ineptitude.

What will they do for us?

We will know tomorrow morning if the nation is still with us, or has turned their backs on us. If this crucial admission is not found prominently in the nation's great newspapers, if men and women representing Portland, Maine and Portland, Oregon do not take to the well in Congress to denounce the Corps and demand an immediate response, if the President is not forced to come to the microphones to explain and apologize, we will know that we are truly on our own.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Ninth Ward

Another cross post of a piece written last Fall from my Flood Street memoir project.

After a twenty year absence, some parts of the city are a blur in my memory. Then, suddenly, I read a line in the newspaper, and I am transported back in time, can clearly see the view out my car window as I drive down a street I haven’t traveled in over two decades.

[Back in October or November], I read this about the Ninth Ward: “The city plans to finally reopen the lake side of North Claiborne on Dec. 1, allowing residents to freely walk or drive around their neighborhood.”

Until I read that line, I couldn't match the terrible newspaper or television pictures of devastation with a neighborhood, could not place it in my own experience because, frankly, I never knew Bywater or the Ninth Ward.

In the early 1980s, it was a routine part of my daily commute to follow Claiborne Avenue out from Esplanade until it became Judge Perez Drive. The places I traveled on that daily traverse had not crossed my mind in years. Suddenly, after reading one line in a single story in a distant newspaper, I am driving along east bound along North Robertson, a block south from Claiborne, which here is a one-way street running west. Claiborne and Robertson are both narrow two-lane streets, made into thoroughfares in a part of the city that did not anticipate the automobile. There is a stoplight somewhere along here, but I can no longer recall if it’s at Alvar or another corner.

I can dimly see boxy modern duplexes—almost identical to the ones I lived in, built decades earlier as off-base housing for the Naval air stations that became the ruined university on the lakefront--and a few apartment complexes. I see many more of the narrow shotguns with rotting ironwork fences enclosing tiny front yards and newer iron work barricading the doors and windows.

I remember the seafood restaurant on North Claiborne west of the Canal, and I can find an advertisement for it today on my computer. But I cannot, to save my own life, remember where precisely was the seafood place that loudly announced cowan could be had fresh, ready for those intrepid enough to prepare their own turtle soup. Was that at Poland and North Robertson? Or was that on St. Claude? I took both routes out to the Parish, and now I am uncertain. I am afraid that the painted plaster sign will be gone. How can I record memories that begin to fade in early middle age, from the distance of twenty years and 1,200 miles?

After crossing the Industrial Canal, the road opens out again to a broad median, and I am in the Ninth Ward. I pass a once famous nightclub on the river side, a building of no real account except for a sign bearing a famous name. I don’t know if the building is still there. The current city directories are no help. There is something called the Chicken Box in about the same spot, and the famous name that comes to mind now belongs to a business in another part of town.

There was also, I vaguely recall, a fenced-in brick school building, surrounding by a crumbling blacktop yard, and a modern-looking health clinic built by a famous mayor during the height of the war on poverty. And even twenty five years ago there were already lots on this main drag surrendered back to nature, slowly reverting to the scrub forest that once had been. Beyond this one famous corner, were no landmarks of note here in the middle of the Ninth Ward.

The fact is I never really knew the Ninth Ward. I only skimmed its surface between here and there, peering into side streets as I waited for a stoplight, venturing into Holy Cross to see Fats Domino’s or the steamboat houses. But I had never ventured between St. Claude and Claiborne, or back between Claiborne and Florida. As a boy the Ninth Ward was always terra incognita to us, a place older boys—the ones with cars and cigarettes and girls hanging on their arm—threatened to take us and dump us if we didn’t scram, a place of terrible reputation, frightful because it was the unknown.

A rambling urge had carried me through most of New Orleans. First I travled by bicycle, until I discovered that a thin dime and a transfer would transport my anywhere I dared to go. After that, I roamed everywhere. After I had a car, days when I lacked any real purpose I would just head out with a pack of cigarettes and drive aimlessly about the city, imagining myself Kerouac on the Road, restlessly exploring so many odd corners of the town.

For a son of Robert E. Lee, a boy from the idyllic neighborhoods along the lakefront, the ancient and the decrepit corners of the city held a tremendous charm, promised a life wildly different from that I was raised to. Boys from the Midwest might dream of running away to Paris or Spain or North Africa. For a boy from New Orleans, all that was required was just to turn an unexpected corner, to find a European café or roam the local Kasbah.

But the Ninth Ward, seen from North Claiborne, seemed to offer no secrets worth testing the warnings of my childhood, and so I never roamed those streets that thousands called home, that neighborhood that became the focus of a catastrophe that will rival any this city of great fires and floods and epidemics has known in 300 years.

So I cannot tell you anything of note about the Ninth Ward. I can only describe the main streets I traveled as I passed it by. And even those memories are dim, even as the newspaper sends me wandering back to a time I drove those few streets. What I have carry in my head not the vivid diorama I have of so much of the city, but merely an impression, as much sense as I have of rural landscapes I traveled across bound for somewhere else.

It is difficult enough to map out in words the parts I know well, parts of a confusing place where the streets named North run east and those named South run west; a city where the cross streets all start out perpendicular to the curving riverfront, spreading away from each other in a mockery of the lines of perspective so jumbled the tourists must all get drunk just to keep their equilibrium; a town where as recently as August people sat in rhomboid parlors above isosceles corner bars, under the eaves of which new streets erupted to fill in the space between those which spread so far apart the depth of lots was measured in arpents; a crazy confusion of a city that grew with the random, fractal grace of things left to their own nature.

I can trace in ink so many of this city’s places, but not all. The Ninth Ward I will leave to others.

Still, before the bulldozers begin to clear the Ninth Ward I must once again make that drive, down North Robertson and out to Judge Perez Drive, and back down north Claiborne. This time, I will turn into the side streets, and see the Creole cottages and shotguns just like those of every neighborhood I knew, and imagine the lives of these people, not so different from those I knew better in the Irish Channel or other working class black neighborhoods.

I will have to see the devastation myself before there is only blank space and wild weeds and rip rap bits of ruined concrete and rebar left. I will need to stop in neighborhoods a small voice of my childhood tells to drive on through, and stand on the street, find someone to ask--not a fireman from Shreveport or a policeman from Atlanta, but someone walking down the street with the swagger of a son or daughter of the Ninth Ward; I will stop them and ask, wasn’t that where the Dew Drop Inn once stood?

Sunday, April 02, 2006

FEMA to expel volunteers from NOLA

In another dizzying twist in the alternate reality in which FEMA operates, the organization is moving to close camps housing thousands of volunteers helping with recovery efforts in the New Orleans area.

In a story reported by WWL-TV's online site but not picked up by the Times-Picayune, FEMA has announced that tent sites housing over 3,000 volunteers will close April 10 and 11. "FEMA originally had contracts for about the last six months to operate three camps in the New Orleans areas, and the contracts run out mid-April,” said FEMA representative Leo Skinner.

“Right now the biggest issue for us, especially coming up this summer when every youth group in the country wants to come down here, is where are we going to house them, where are we going to put them, where are we going to feed them?” questioned Aaron Arledge with the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

“The tent cities are critical in maintaining that level of volunteerism. If they are shut down or they go away, we’re going to have two alternatives. We’re either going to lose hundreds of hard working, willing volunteers, or we’re going to have to scramble to find other housing for them,” said Jim Pate with
Habitat for Humanity.
The only other media coverage has been by the Christian Broadcasting Network and a posting/discussion thread on the liberal political site TPM Cafe. Many of the volunteers come from church groups or liberal action groups, two groups not used to sharing showers and cafeterias.

The CBN story quotes Lt. Colonel David Dysart, director of recovery for St. Bernard Parish, on the need for continued volunteer support. "It's critical that we keep this up. We have approximately 800 homes to date that we've managed to move these items, out of the approximately 5,000 that applied.”

The story adds this: "The Lt. Colonel says it is going to take another six months to finish gutting thousands of homes to remove health and safety hazards. And that's where volunteers come in. Dysart says it takes 10 to 12 volunteers a day to a day-and-a-half to gut just one house."

Over the Spring break period, thousands of college students descended on the area to spend their time off from school in recovery activities, including the grueling and often gruesome work of gutting the homes of the poor and elderly.

In additional to traditional aid and missionary groups such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Salvation Army, new civic or political groups have descended on the area, or actually be created out of the aftermath of Katrina. Once such group,, is running a kitchen serving residents and volunteers in St. Bernard Parish.

It is great to see groups with a clear conservative agenda, such as the SBC and those with a liberal bent such as Common Ground Collective united on some common cause, the rescue of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. That is what defines us, more than anything else, as Americans, our ability to unite for a common civic goal. Our current leadership (in both parties) increasingly thwarts that, as it is oppugnant to their political strategy of divide and conquer. New Orleans offers an opportunity for people of good will to overcome that, to demonstrate that in the face of a challenge, Americans can still unite and do good.

FEMA once welcomed volunteers, as this 2003 press release point out. No longer. The agency is now just another tool in the arsenal of a political faction that sees every function of government as a means to a political end, even if that end is inimical to the agency's purpose.

If FEMA closes these camps, we will be reminded again that it is the policy of the central government to just make the Gulf Coast problem go away without any real solution. They don't want recovery. They want a functioning port and oil-and-gas infrastructure, nothing more. They already have that, and we can expect the federals to continue to retreat from the scene as soon as possible.

Only the good will of Americans of the sort who fill these camps can change that.


N.B. Today's new word is oppugnant. I love it's immediate association in my mind with something that doesn't smell right. If you think its insulting to link to a definition of an unfamiliar term, let me know and I will cut it out. But when I have recourse to a thesaurus, I always find myself wasting fifteen minutes browsing through the lists discovering new words. I have the same problem with dictionaries, especially my mammoth turn of the 19th century Oxford English Dictionary.

"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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