Wednesday, May 31, 2006

MidCity exits the Flood Zone
and enters the Twilight Zone

I laughed 'till I cried when I read the letter that began "We are writing to notify you that [MY MORTGAGE COMPANY] will no longer require you to carry flood insurance on your property.

"This change is the result of a flood review that was performed in accordance with the Flood Disaster Protection Act of 1973, a Federal law, amended by the National Flood Insurance Reform Act of 1994. This review indicates that your property is no longer in a flood zone..."

I rushed out to the porch to make sure that this letter was not the result of a determination that I was now officially a resident of the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, but there was no sign of sea life, not even a gull. Neither were there any signs of diminutive neighbors, crushed witches or any hint of yellow in the crumbling macadam visible from my porch.

No, there's the debris piles in front of the houses, and the one remaining rescue mark on the block. The gaily decorated flood car remains at the corner of Toulouse and N. St. Patrick. Best I can tell, I'm still in MidCity in New Orleans and neither in Oz nor rehearsing "Under The Sea" with a guy in a crab suit.

I will await the letter announcing that I am now required to participate in some other sort of program due to a determination that my house is situated in the Twilight Zone.

FEMA to send volunteers packing

NEW ORLEANS--If anyone is laboring under the impression that a reinvigorated FEMA is prepared for future disasters, then consider the agency's decision to close camps that have housed thousands of volunteers assisting with the ongoing recovery. Like HUD's attempt to end housing assistance for people whose destroyed homes it declared habitable, its clear Washington still has no idea has happened on the coast or a realistic appraisal of the current situtation.

In today's Times-Picayune, FEMA spokesman Ross Fredenburn says "[we]e are firmly committed to shutting down the camps by June 1. Demand has diminished to the point we feel we can do that. State and local entities can take up whatever needs remain."

Perhaps Mr. Fredenburn should be given an all-expense paid weeks' vacation in St. Bernard Parish, on a generous per diem. The only condition is that he not be allowed to leave the parish during that entire time, but should find housing and meals there. As the T-P explains:

"Without volunteers, we're out of business," said Col. David Dysart, a Marine reservist in charge of the recovery project in St. Bernard Parish, where 67,000 people live. Dysart said St. Bernard, the hardest-hit parish in the region, with all of its 40,000 structures seriously damaged or destroyed, has no way to house or feed volunteers.

"In St. Bernard, we have no infrastructure. Nothing," Dysart said. "All of our churches are devastated. We have no hospitals. No supermarkets. The schools are destroyed."

Camp Premier is about all there is in St. Bernard, except for a dollar store, a Home Depot and a few bars. "We literally have nowhere for volunteers to go," Dysart said.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that still We Are Not OK. For me, it is just a matter of an after dinner walk, passing around the (encouraging) debris piles andalso past houses still unattended to up to the shopping mail profiled here by Editor B under the title Nine Months After Katrina.

I still haven't ventured down through the Ninth Ward to St. Benard, where I worked for two years for a local newspaper as reporter and editor. I've only been home two days, but on prior trips I had other priorities, such as closing on a house and groveling in the hallways of charter schools for space for my children. Avoiding that trip down Judge Perez Drive down to Highway 300 and out to the End of the World is the easy path, because of the strong affection I have for the place and people, even after 25 years.

It doesn't take a tremendous effort to know how slow and painful the recovery is, that 123,000 families are still waiting for some settlement of their homes. Anyone who chooses to know can't escape the fact. That makes it all the more amazing that, in spite of a few superficial changes at the top, the federal officials involved in recovery clearly remain clueless as to actual conditions on the ground, and unable or worse unwilling to provide what is needed.

While its entirely possible that vast swaths of office space in D.C. is populated by tongue-dragging-on-the-floor idiots, its much more likely that the federals continuing wish is that we simple go away. We are on our own.

Still, if the federals insist that we are to be left alone with only our own bootstraps to lift ourselves up by, then we should expect and demand the one resource that makes that possible: the same deal other states receive for revenue sharing from oil-and-gas production on federal lands. That, and full and fair compensation for the results of the failure of the federal levees.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Transect of the Tchoupitoulas

Farewell, Fargo. At about 8 am central daylight time, the sailing vessel Tchoupitoulas (a mere boat, really, at 18' 16" on the waterline) departed for its southbound transect of the United States., a great circle distance of 1046 and one-half nautical miles from latitude 48.89 to 30.79 N, but a journey of just over 1,500 miles journeying in tow behind my Saturn Vue.

This is my second journey down the path marked by by Interstates 29, 70 and 55, a passage that covers North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Somewhere in Missouri (an awfully big state, if you have to drive down half it's western boarder, drive across, and finish your journey down the eastern edge), I saw a big section of blowndown trees, likely the victim of a nasty thunderstorm sometime past. It reminded me that on my journey to the land ruled by Huracan, I was traversing and leaving a place ruled just as much by the convective powers of weather, where Huracan's brothers derecho and tornado and hail routinely wreak their havoc on the land.

No where, I was reminded, is entirely safe at the end of the day.

I learned my first summer in thMidwestst of the power of weather everywhere. A derecho unleashed hurricane force winds, uprooting trees, tearing away roofs and leaving us without power for most of a week. Another vicious squall line passed through the next night, sending everyone scrambling back to the basement and toppling more limbs, but the second storm was short of a derecho. It was eerie as we stood around our yards drinking warm beer and marveling at thoppressiveve stillness on the third night, thinking please God don't let it happen again.

If we had stayed in Fargo it would soon be summer, the season when the tornado sirens often sound as greaMidwesterner thunderstorms sweep through. It's a big and empty state, and the city has escaped a truly monstrous tornado since the great storm of '57, but the sounding of the sirens is a routine. I went outside one evening amid the electro-mechanical shrieking and looked at the sky, and could clearly see the clouds swirling almost directly over my head, but still up at cloud level.

Winter seems less dangerous, until I remind myself of the days when blizzard conditions prevail, schools are closed and the police advise no travel. Everyone, of course, is expected to report to work. Snow or cold may not seem as dangerous as wind, until you consider this: people have died on the edge of Fargo because they stalled in a blizzard, and tried to walk a few blocks to safety.

All along my transect were reminders of the potential for catastrophe. I had thought to stop on my transect in New Madrid, just a few minutes off the road, but elected instead to press on. I had hope to find some sign, perhaps as simple as a tee shirt, to remind myself of the perils that lurk here in the heartland. How will Memphis fare when the next big one comes? Do they even have an earthquake code there?

I crossed flood control structures, including a spillway somewhere between St. Louis and Memphis, and thought: when the next 1927 comes, how will levees built fifty years earlier stand up? Did the Corps of Engineers only short change New Orleans, or will it be someone else's turn next?

There were other insecurities living in Fargo. I had a good job in there. In fact, I'm bringing that same job with me as a telecommuter. Still, I always knew I would never find a comparable job in Fargo, should another merger swallow the bank and I be found redundantnt. My wife also had problems finding suitable professional work, in spite of a stellar education and job record. It was simply too small, too insular, it's old boy network impenetrable to us. It was just a matter of time before one of us would force a move, for job reasons. When it finally came, the first job offered was in New Orleans. I felt we were being called home.

It's a big country, my slow drive with the Tchoupitoulas in tow reminds me. It's almost been a blue highway moment, forced to travel at 60 mph or less, no longer on the watch for troopers or intent on keeping the car on the road at the more typical 85 mph most rural American drive. Passing Omaha and Kansas City and St. Louis and Memphis remind me that I could choose cities with vibrant economies, low crime rates (not counting East St. Louis), winter's I'd learned to live with and no fear of hurricanes.

Passing that blown-down section of trees and New Madrid and that spillway, watching the the convective clouds pile up in the 90 degree swelter that settled over thMidwestst during the trip, all combined to remind me that the risk I take is one of degree, a calculable risk we choose to take. It has been almost a generation since Betsy and Camille, and a generation before that since the last great New Orleans storm. And no where is truly safe. I might as well be home.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Steamrolling the recovery

If a letter from one professional planning group assigned to one neighborhood under the New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan is an indication of the general approach, we are about to be steamrolled by someone with an agenda.

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission Strategic Framework Development Process Point Three called for "planning grants and technical assistance to the city's neighborhoods" for a process in which the neighborhoods would first justify themselves, then come up with a plan for reconstruction.

After a quiet period while the city sought FEMA or other assistance to hire professional planners to assist in this (this Business Week article gives some backround to that process), the New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan process has finally begun.

The organization set up by the New Orleans City Council can be found here. The home states that the group will "work with neighborhoods to develop revitalization plans that are thoughtful, can be implemented, and formed into a citywide recovery and improvement plan for submission to the state and federal government."

Neighborhood activists in Midcity were disturbed to find out (on very short notice) of a public meeting sponsored by planners associated with the New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan process, with only three public meetings to be held, the last to present the planners recommendations.

But that's not the view of the planning team working on one neighborhood, which is rejecting months of work by neighborhood activists (and insulting them for trying). The residents of that neighborhood took the Bring New Orleans Back comission's charge for neighborhoods to prove their viability and to come up with a plan seriously have been meeting for months to do just that.

Imagine their surprise at this email response (currently circulating via local email lists) to an invitation to join their regular meeting from the planning group assigned to that neighborhood :

I appreciate the information you have sent to me. No one from our Neighborhood Planning team will be attending your volunteer group meeting on Saturday.

Although your efforts may have been well intentioned prior to our assignment to the Neighborhood Planning project currently underway, we ask that you respect the residents of (the neighborhood) and the planning team assigned by allowing the process to flow uninterruptedly. At this time my presence may only serve to confuse citizens in (the neighborhood) who may get the false impression that there is an association between our funded professional effort and your volunteer splinter group who has no official capacity to produce a "plan" for (the neighborhood). You are invited to continue to attend our meetings and participate as other citizens have in our official planning effort and appropriately present information you have gathered.

The information will be treated as a single point of view, however, until a consensus of those living in the individual neighborhoods has been reached. Points of view by those living in the neighborhood and expressed in our meetings will be given more weight than those by non-residents. We have begun to gather our own information through in-field surveys and other research methods and through neighborhood meetings we have begun to have.

We will put pertinent material into our report and make recommendations that we feel is most relevant to the recovery effort.

We would appreciate you explaining these facts and the ad-hoc and unofficial nature of your effort to anyone attending your meeting. Please explain that there will be duplication of effort in what you are attempting to achieve and our planning process since we may be going through similar steps to gain information and insight into the needs and desires of the neighborhoods for which we are attempting to plan. Thank you for the invitation, non-the-less. [sic]

If this is the general view of the New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan and not just an individual, then we are about to be steamrolled by somebody. The only reason I can think of to reject months of work by a neighborhood organization is that the fix is in, and neighborhood organizations are not invited.

JayBatt the Hutt may be gone from the council, but apparently his spirit of cooperative and complimentary neighborhood development lives on in the NONRP.

Ed. Note--I removed the neighborhood reference and name of the planner from this post until I can give the person named as the signatory of the letter a chance to respond. References to the neighborhood name in the letter have been replaced with "(the neighborhood)".

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Haunted by Ghosts of the Uncivil War

What do people thinks of New Orleans? I just visited this subject in the past week, but I ignored one important block of Americans: right wing bloggers. What did this important if certifiable segment of the alternative media machine have to say?

Browse the headlines or posts of some bloggers like Tempis Fugit, Virtual Memories, Dumbass Central, Mark in Mexico, Insignificant Thoughts and enjoy headlines like "Goodbye New Orleans...and good riddance" and "Rot Underwater for All I Care" and comparisons of Ray Nagin to Marion Barry.

I won't do these people the favor of links that will increase their prominence. You can just go to Technorati New Orleans and browse back a few pages to Sunday and Monday of this week and find the links. These people are some sick puppies.

These people thankfully are not "most Americans" as Suspect Device posits. They are, however, representatives of an incredibly influential block of tens of millions who have drunk the kook-aid, who treat Limbaugh and Hannity as if they were news sources and not shock-jock entertainers.

They are the acolytes of deranged zealots like Michele Malkin and Ann Coulter, people who are so deranged I don't think they're competent to manage their own affairs, much less make suggestions about the management of mine.

These are people who have peered into the abyss and been swallowed by the darkness. It's dangerous to read their rantings. To do so is to peer into the same abyss, to be drawn into the same darkness by our own fallible nature, to think of tens of millions of people who believe every word they hear on AM radio and begin to wonder about the practicality of re-education camps. That way madness lie.

Neither can we just ignore them. The phenomenal success of the rabid right in this country is in part the result of the civility of reasonable people, folks who don't want to have a confrontation at the coffee pot at work with their resident right wing bat-shit-crazy freak. As a result, the bat-shit-crazy freak gets to put his warped views out their as if they had some basis in reality. They win, and ultimately the very civility that lets them get away with it loses.

There is an argument raging on Suspect Device's blog, and behind the scenes via email, over the productivity of ranting about the ranters. It think its a natural reaction, when you read their venomous postings. There's no whay to read them and not start screaming obscenities. If you don't, you need to look at how hard you're hitting the Xanax . Hell, go back and read my posts from the first six months after the Flood, and I'll measure some of them dram versus dram of flying spittle against anybody's for pure boiled-in-lead anger.

I don't do that much anymore. There's too much practical work to be done. What's important for the blogging community is to get the truth out, because all of the Coulter and Malkin wannabees in the world are going at it 24x7 spreading the false memes about NOLA.

We can't fall into an inverse, parallel relationship with the fear-and-hate crowd. Those people have made it possible for their favorite higher ups to make an incredible mess of our country, and incidentally our city. They are a real problem, but we won't solve that problem by emulating them.

Still, we have to answer them, both as Suspect Device and Traveling Mermaid would have us do. We have to answer them here, in our words, and out on the streets of our city, by building a New Orleans that confounds their every prediction and exposes them for a pack of fools and liars.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Playing the hand you're dealt

The election is over. I'll leave it to another post and other commentators to take apart the victory of C. Ray Nagin as mayor, but I'm prepared to live with it.

The fact is, moving back home after a long absence and into postdiluvian Debrisville is a tremendous gamble and I have to play the cards I'm dealt. So far, the game has gone well. I've won important hands: dry house we can (just) afford found, daughter into NOCCA and Ben Franklin, son into Lusher, employer willing to let me continue my current job as a telecommuter.

I have to remind myself (and my wife) that on every truly important hand, we've had a turn of luck when we needed is most. And you can't win every hand. The mathematics of the game don't work that way. What's important is to play well and bet wisely, if you're going to beat the house.

So, while I may come back here later today and join the predictable deluge of comments on the details of the election, I will remind myself of all the good fortune I've had so far, remember that the voters also selected three new city council members to temper my disappointment in the mayor's race outcome.

Mr. Mayor, I've gambled everything on trying to come home, to join in the rebuilding of the city. I supported you against your critics all through the Fall, patiently (and then angrily) explained about the evacuation, the city emergency plan, the foibles of FEMA and the disinterest of the federal government, just as you have.

As time passed, things like your decision to pass on a car removal contract that would have paid rather than cost the taxpayers, your strange behavior over the Algiers trailer park, all of this turned me against you and toward an alternative. You seemed, like so many people in NOLA, to have been paralyzed and confused by the stress of the aftermath.

But a majority of the city's voters, both at home and displaced, choose you. I'm prepared to deal with that. If I wasn't steeled for a challenge, I wouldn't be coming. Just remember: you repeated told everyone to come home, to join in the rebirth of the city, to take the risk.

Here we are.

Don't let us down.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Come on, Rise Up

With all of the festivals of winter and spring behind us and the Big Day staring us in the face, it seems that everyone is down. Matri reminds us that blogging traffic is off, and some NOLA bloggers like Dangle and Jaybirdo are just letting go. I haven't talked to most of my local peeps in weeks, the steady dribble of emails from the fall and winter having ground to a halt. Everybody is too damned busy or depressed or angry. Or busy and depressed and angry.

My wife is alone in a new house and a new job in a city strange to her, four months seperated from her children, battling the carpenters from hell in the place where you can't buy a vacumn cleaner, and trying her ant-not-a-grasshopper midwestern best to make it home before we arrive. Our conversations of the last several days involve her pointing out that I Did This To Her in a way I associate with an anesthetist who arrived to late for an epidural and a desperate attempt to pull my skin off over my head while awaiting the birth of our son.

So, as we all wrestle the cap off another bottle of whatever everyone needs to bow down on the ground the ground like the faithful subjects of Queen Coleen and thank Traveling Mermaid for finding this slidshow/music presentation of pictures from the aftermath of IT in September married to a fabulous Bruce Springsteen song, to remind us that its up to us to Rise Up.

Come On, Rise Up.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Seeking Chris Matthew's cab driver

The nationally televised mayoral debate Tuesday night again was as much about Hardball host Chris Matthews as it was about the candidates. While Mattews ended the night on a high note, suggesting Americans wanted to see New Orleans rebuilt, his signature controntational style sent a mixed message.

He again asked the candidates to explain to an imaginary cab driver why his tax dollars should go to rebuild houses below seas level, unfortunately reenforcing the myth that the entire city lies as much as ten feet below the surround waters.

They're going to think it's crazy," Matthews said at one point, referring to citizens outside New Orleans and their view of using federal tax money to reconstruct a city below sea level, the Times-Picayune reports. "Nobody out there thinks the problems are with the levees," Matthews asserted [later], but rather with corrupt local officials.

Matthews represents a real problem: the perception not of that cab driver, but of the political and media elite. Matthew's ignorant suggestion that the levees aren't a federal responsibility or that the city lies far below sea level do us a greater disservice than Bay Buchanan's howling about Katrina fatigue. Folks like Matthews are about theatre, not journalism, and they don't let the facts get in the way of the show.

So, what does that cab driver really think?

A poster on LiveJournal New Orleans earlier this weeklamented here that polls shows a majority of Americans don't believe the city should be rebuilt. On closer examination, the truth is that in self-selecting, on-line polls this is true, but the news from a examination of formal polling data (based on random samples) presents a more encouraging if mixed picture.

The poll numbers show Americans have a more positive opinion than CNN commentator Bay Buchanan or NBC anchor Brian William's most vocal viewers. The available poll results taper off after February, but through that point in time a CBS news poll found that people know that We Are Not Ok, an important starting point for the discussion

"Which of these do you think is most likely? (1) Most of New Orleans will be rebuilt in the next year or two. (2) Most of New Orleans will be rebuilt, but it will take longer than a year or two. (3) Most of New Orleans will probably not be rebuilt," 60 percent say longer than a year or two, and 27 percent say probably not be rebuilt. The fact that well over half recognize the it will take years for the city to recover indicates people know that We Are Not Ok.

An AP-Ipsos poll from the same time period found the same result. It asked: "Thinking about the areas in Louisiana and Mississippi hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina: To the best of your knowledge, are those areas now mostly recovered, or are they still badly damaged?" 87% responded still badly damaged. The same poll found that 46% of respondents agreed the government was spending "the right amount" on hurricane recovery, while 28% concured the government "should spend more."

We clearly have work ahead of us to convince people that the government is not spending enough to compensate New Orleanlians for their losses from the failure of the federal levees, and to give Louisiana the same share of revenue from oil leases on federal lands that inland states receive. That cab driver (and all his imaginary passengers) need to know we're only asking for the same deal that states like Alaska get, so we can put that money into reconstruction and coastal restoration and, if necessary, into protecting ourselves.

The really troubling number is that which indicates half of Americans think we should be left on our own in handling predictable disasters. Asked "There are many people in this country who choose to live in areas and homes that are known to be especially susceptible to destruction by natural disasters such as landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes, and flooding. In general, when these disasters strike these areas, do you think the government should give money to local residents to help them recover, or do you think the residents of these areas should live there solely at their own risk?" 47% opted for help them recover and 49% chose live solely at their own risk.

There is still a glimmer of hope even in this number. While many New Orleanians rightly believe we are owed compensation, since the vast majority of uninsured damaged resulted from the predictable failure of the substandard U.S. Army Corps of Engineers levees, the clearest long term path to recovery is one of self-sufficiency. What Louisiana needs is to receive the same proportion of federal oil-and-gas lease revenue that states with on-shore production on federal lands get. This would provide the funds we need for levee construction and critical coastal restoration.

We only need to convince America that we can do it ourselves, if we're given the same deal that allows Alaska to send each of it citizens an anual check instead of collecting taxes. We could use that money to rebuild and protect ourselves. To convince them of that, they need to understand that saving New Orleans and all of coastal Louisiana is an essential investment, one that is necessary to keeping the port open and the oil-and-gas flowing for the nation''s economy.

The cab driver, it seems, isn't as negative as Chris Matthews would like to think, but we clearly have work to do to convince him of the worth of our needs, and the real culpability of the federal government in our disaster. And psudeo-journalist entertainers like Chris Matthews, who misinform the public for the sake of spectacle, aren't helping.

Ed. Note--I started this before watching tonight's debate and no I 'm not going to write about it, unless I develop a screed about how much bad journalism Rita Cosby managed in the first five minutes of her post debate show. Another day.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Saving ourselves this Saturday

As the runoff election approaches, commentators in the traditional and alternative media are trying to puzzle out how the mayoral race will turn out. Reading Sunday's Frank Donze story seems to have a subtext that Nagin will have a hard time winning re-election. Bayou Buzz agrees.

The online bloggers of a political bent are mixed. Ernie the Attorney offers a non-partisan post of a friend's view of Nagin from the outside. I'm still outside myself, and tend to agree: re-electing Nagin won't quite by the equivalent of D.C. returning Marion Barry post drug bust, but it will be bad enough. Third Battle of N.O. offers a repost of an editorial that amounts to an anybody but Nagin endorsement.

More revealing is the comment thread on the Moon Meme posts on Oyster's Right Hand Thief, (where the author himself is pretty clear in his views on Nagin here). The blogging community (or at least the regular readers of RHT) clearly reject the virulently anti-Landrieu crowd for the sublimated racism.

In response to the general idea that the Landrieu's are "old New Orleans politics" (that is, corrupt), blogger dangerblonde is offering $50 cash money to anybody with a credible story of Landrieu corruption. So far she has no takers. If you're looking for corrupt motives, look at GOP-tied candidates who ran against Nagin then endorsed him, such as Rob Couhig. These are people who would sell out the city's well being for political advantage. They are not our friends.

I think I have to agree with Ernie the Attorney's friend and Citibusiness: Nagin had his chance to rise up to the post-K challenge, and has failed. His re-election would make it easier for our city's enemies (foreign and domestic) to block funding for recovery. He can't deal with either the internal or external challenges. And time is running out.

Whatever Landrieu's faults as a lifetime politician, he clearly has the skills we need to remake the relationship with Baton Rouge and Washington. What we need to deal with a disinterested President and Congress and a dysfunctional relationship with both Baton Rouge and Washington is a professional politician, someone who is dialed in to Baton Rouge and Washington, and who can cut us a better deal.

We need someone who can attract voters of both races, and start brining them together on the common challenges the city faces. One thing Landrieu brings to the table is the good will of black voters of a certain age, who will remember his father reaching out for their votes. He also brings an air of competence that should enable him to attract white voters, at least those don't buy into the racist view that Moon started the city's slide by encouraging "them" to vote.

He also brings any goodwill toward his sister, who falls clearly into the practical part of the Democratic Party exemplified by John Breaux, which believes government existst to get things done for people (including not but exclusively business people). That is the approach we need right now, not the laissez-faire approach favored by many who support Nagin.

As Landrieu is fond of saying, what was OK pre-K is no longer OK. That's an awfully simplistic formulation, but its exactly what the city needs right now. It's clear from the reaction (or lack thereof) in Washington and to some extent Baton Rouge, that we are responsible for savings ourselves. Saturday will be an important first step. I hope we all take the right one.

Monday, May 15, 2006

First, the Good News

The announcment by Accuweather that the greatest threat of major hurricane strikes will be away from the Gulf Coast after June has to be the best news New Orleans has had in a while.
"Early in the season the Texas Gulf Coast faces the highest likelihood of a hurricane strike, possibly putting Gulf energy production in the line of fire," [AccuWeather Chief Forecaster Joe Bastardi] said. "As early as July, and through much of the rest of the season, the highest level of risk shifts to the Carolinas."
This is, however, not good news taken in context of the delays in levee repairs, and particuarly the delay in the flood gates at the mouths of the drainage canals serving Orleans Parish and a large swath of Metairie.

Still any hope that the season might spare the Gulf Coast is something everyone along the Rita/Katrina footprint must be glad to hear. organizer Sandy Rosenthal suggested in an email to her supoorters that today's announcment of the results of the National Science Foundation levee failure study will be positive for New Orleans. I take that to imply that the U.S. Army Corps' of Engineerrs culpability for $100 billion in damage will be made clear.

Hopefully, additional evidence of the Corp's role will lead to some necessary, aggresive course correction by the agency to remedy past deficiencies in New Orleans, especially as we approach The Day (you know which Day I mean).

N.B. Updated to fix tags on a test of emailing a post, since this is not reporting in Technorati.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

GH38 - The East Coast's Big One

In 1938, the East Coast experienced The Big One. In what is known as The Great Hurricane of 1938 (this was before the practice of naming storms) at least six hundred died, and 75,000 structures were destroyed. It was a monstrous storm, combining with a low pressure system in the manner of The Perfect Storm, becoming at its largest a behemoth extra tropical storm 1,000 miles across.

The storm surge struck the coast from Rhode Island across Long Island and the coast of the sound behind, the storm surge coming ashore at high Spring tide to produce a storm surge of over 20 feet, while Category 4 winds pushed 50 foot waves ashore atop that.

Coming as it did the day before Hitler invaded the Sudentenland and before the saturation media of today, GH38 was largely missed by most of the nation, just as it was missed by the National Weather Service in the days before satellites, radar and hurricane hunter aircraft. There was no forecast, and some people flocked down to the shore to watch the big storm role in. A lone junior forecaster warned of the impending disaster, but was discounted.

Cherie Burn's The Great Hurricane of 1938 is powerful reading, perhaps powerful enough that no one who stayed for Katrina would want attempt it . If you live anywhere along the east coast, and are suffering from Katrina fatigue, I would highly recommended it. With the impact of global warming on hurricane formation, it is an urgent reminder that it could happen to you.

Burn's tales of heroism and foolish risk, of loss and redemption, ring familiar to those who know Huracan's power. One common thread with the recent experience of NOLA and the Gulf Coast is the looting of downtown Providence, R.I.

"The looters outnumbered the officers, who were more intent on rescue than law enforcement" could have been taken from the Times-Picayune in 2006, but comes from an articles in Yankee Magazine in 1938.

"It was the opportunity so many had waited for, to finally have some of what they had been missing through the long Depression years," wrote David De John in magazine. "Brazen and insatiable, they swarmed like rats, they took everything."

Apparently, this sort of event is as likely to happen among what Burns calls "the yeasty mix of Yankees, Irish, Italians and Portuguese" that populated Providence in 1938 as it was among poor, inner-city blacks of 2006. The common thread is not race or political point of view, it was poverty and opportunity.

I leave you with this quote, from writer Frances Legrand who weathered the storm. "Confronting a storm is like fighting God. All the powers in the universe seem to be against you, your irrelevance is at the same time humbling and exhilarating."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Meet the NOLAs

Blogger Boyd Blundell hits the nail square on with his analogous family the NOLAs in this TPM Cafe posting.

It's been a very bad year for the Nolas; as disastrous a year as anyone can remember. Their house burned to the ground, the entire property is destroyed, and they can't even think about the expense rebuilding the family house until all sorts of even more expensive repairs are done to the property. Most of the people in Bush Gardens are great. They seem to feel really good about helping the Nolas. But when it becomes clear that the help needs to be ongoing, the enthusiasm of many starts to wane...

The Nolas, when they have time to think about it at all, are mystified by all this. "When did we become a them?" they wonder. Less than a year ago, the Nolas were part of the "we"... the Nolas are finding out what it's like to be a "they", to be "those people...."

Ok, stop right here for a minute. Read that last paragraph closely, and think about all of the divisions of race and class and section we have built up among ourselves. Then take a hard look at what the rest of the nation thinks about all of us. Now take another look at that person standing at the next bus stop you pass, the one you always thought of as one of them. Ok, we're done here. Moving onto more from Blundell:

In their darkest moments, they have come to suspect something awful: There is no neighborhood. They realize that the if Bush Gardens could do this to the Nolas, who had been such a celebrated part of the neighborhood, then it could do it to any other family in a similar plight. It is dawning on these wise Nolas that not only will they be abandoned by Bush Gardens, but that the neighborhood they were always so proud of is nothing like they thought it was. And that hurts even more..."

What is it like to be left behind as Americans? In the past, if your skin was white and your job wasn't a primate candidate for outsourcing (a fate as old as the steel and textile collapse of decades past), you weren't likely to have to think too hard about this. Now, an entire major Ameircan city, and everyone in it regardless of race or wealth or education, stands at the bottom of the hole, peering up and wondering how the hell to get out.

Sure, there are some kind people ready to throw you a rope, but where the hole stands today was once your home, your possessions, your job, your life. And it's all rubble beneath your feet at the bottom of the hole, rubble you've lived in the middle of for nine months. While you wait for your turn at the rope, people up above have calm and reasoned discussion about whether or not you should even be allowed to climb out, given the cost.

Is this a great country or what?

I've echoed so many of these same themes here, and struggled with how to tell the neighbors I leave behind in North Dakota how we feel about Katrina fatigue and the haggling in Congress, about how the same thing could happen to them, but I don't think I've hit the note as clearly as Blundel has.

There's no mailto link on his post, but send this one out to everyone you know out of state.

N.B. Props to Suspect Device for sussing this one out.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

$hadenfreude in the marketplace of disaster

The announcement that the Bush Administration seeks to terminate the National Civilian Community Corps, a disaster response program in the Americorps volunteer program, is further evidence that the central government views the suffering of some Americans they way they view everything else: an opportunity for unbridled profit.

It's not different from the way Bush et al have handled with war in Iraq, turning the cost-center of 9-11 into the profitable War in Iraq, including the coincidental run up of oil profits for their buddies back in Texas. (It's not a good sign for our current rulers that the extremely conservative Washington Times and UPI run a story like this on contract abuse in Iraq). And the rampant corruption in post-storm contracting by the Corps and FEMA, often discussed in this forum, is now well understood.

Bush was elected by convincing people he was one of them, a regular guy. But the regular people I know, Republicans included, don't show the sociopathic lack of empathy exhibited by the current ruling party. Sure, there are thousands of people running around Gulf Coast profiting from the misery of others, but they aren't the President or Cabinet Secretaries or other officials charged with providing for the general welfare.

In the context of the performance of the federal government in post-storm contracting, the irony of this warning from FEMA is almost beyond bearing.

I try to avoid turning this into a political forum, since so many of in our deeply polarized citizenry will brook no criticism of their preferred leaders. I don't want them to turn away from what I have to say. Sometimes, it's can't be avoided. The way in which the federal government has shirked its responsibility at every turn is too central to the story. In my view, it doesn't matter what party is responsible. Corruption in Baton Rouge, such as Blanco steering contracts to the Shaw Group or on Loyola Avenue, are equally damaging to our future.

Simply take this as a reminder that, as Ashley pointed out long ago, we are going to have to rely on Ourselves Alone.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Hermes scarf to benefit City Park

The Hermes company of Paris will reintroduce a New Orleans-themed silk scarf, sales of which will benefit City Park, according to this Knight-Ridder story. At $320, I don't think I'll be rushing out to pick up one for Mother's Day, but let me discourage you. The $320 scarf is available at Herm├Ęs boutiques and at

City Park was badly damaged in the flooding, and many trees were also damaged by the hurricane. The Times-Picayune summarized the impart of the storm and flood in an October story "Once majestic, City park now tattered and torn". There was extensive damage to the tree canopy that once covered much of the park, and to all of its attractions. Total damage to the park is estimated at $42 million dollars. Over 1,000 trees were toppled, and another 1,000 are not expected to survive due to the the flooding or other damage.

The park relies primarily on income from its attractions to maintain operations, receiving only $200,000 a year in government support, and has slashed its maintenance staff even as the park struggles to recover.

There are some bright spots. The park's web site reports the Tennis Courts, the Botanical Garden, Storyland, and Golf Driving Range are now open. The Botanical Garden has also opened a new retail nursery on the grounds of the garden which is open during garden hours. Additionally, the children's playground is open and walkers, joggers, and bicyclists are enjoying the park in great numbers.

Others are stepping forward to help the devastated park. Employees of Hampton Hotels are helping to renovate the City Park Carosel in time for the rides 100th anniversary. The park is looking for sponsors to donate $750 toward planting a live oak tree. Fifteen had been sponsored so far and were planted on Arbor day.

The park is one of the city's jewels and its continued healthy operation is as essential to any real recovery. The web site offers other opportunities to help that won't take such a bit out of your wallet, including volunteer opportunities.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Will we have to dynamite the levees next time?

So far, the leaders of the New Orleanians have dodged making the hard choices about redevelopment, about where and how to focus their resources, have avoided favoring one section over the other. The Corps of Engineers may force that decision on us all before the next hurricane season ends.

A report in Friday's Picayune points out that restoring the east side wall of the Industrial Canal to its originally specified height of fifteen feet threatens the core city with flooding, as the west side wall will remain at a height of only 12.5, due to subsidence. This means, simply, that in a Category Three storm, the largely uninhabited east will be spared and the core of the city will flood.

Any surge coming up the canal under this configuration will simply go over the west side much faster than before," said Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and a member of the state team investigating the levee failures.
This is going to anger a lot of people, but it's been in the back of my mind for a long time, and simmering on the front burner ever singe the announcement that the Corps wasn't moving to restore levee protection to east Plaquemines: it is time to focus on protecting the core city for this hurricane season, then building out east as seems best.

This suggestion will bring out a lot of historical angst in St. Bernard, where there is resentment dating back to the decision to dynamite the river levees in the parish to protect the city in the flood of 1927, and in the Ninth Ward, where many believe the same was done to protect the city during Hurricane Betsy. Rumors that the flood walls were intentionally sabotaged during Katrina to save the west abound, and made their way to a Congressional hearing.

At this point, the core city is the area most advanced in recovery, and holds virtually all of the population east of Jefferson Parish. It is the area that will be the easiest to protect in the near term, and is central to the recovery of the entire region. To have a floodwall several feet higher protecting the rubble of the east simply makes no sense. If the Corps can't raise the wall on the west to 15 feet in a matter of weeks and months, the city will again confront the question of 1927: do we intentionally flood the Ninth Ward and St. Bernard to save the city?

Update 5/10/06: If you dont' normally read comments, read Tim's here. As he points out, the increased elevation is only along the failed section. The rest of the east side floodwall of the Industrial Canal will remain at pre-K (subsided) elevations. It makes sense to build the repair to the original spec, but only if the remaining walls are going to be elevated.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Down by the river

A story in Business Week outlining visions for a redeveloped riverfront raise questions about how the city should allocate its recovery resources. How much time and public money should the city spend on developments that will likely be out of the price range of most New Orleanians while so many people remain out of homes and jobs?

Of course development along the river make sense. No one denies that the Sliver by the River is the most valuable property in the city, because it is the least likely to flood. I expect to see all property south of the waterline redeveloped in the same way the St. Thomas Housing Projects became River Garden.

No development along the river will succeed without some public funds. Much of the downtown/warehouse district revitalization was spurred by the public spending tied to the 1984 Worlds Fair, and as the above link points out, Pres Kabakoff's River Gardens received above average public support.

At a time when no level of government is willing to commit to compensation for our losses from the failure of the federal levees, and when the first public agency has defaulted on a debt payment, the idea that any government money would be siphoned into condos and apartments for the wealthy--certainly the only people who could afford river front views--is patently ridiculous.

The loss of the old, working riverfront could also change the character of the city. The main question for many of the old wharves isn't should they be replaced, it is what will replace them. Attempts have already been made to raise the height limitations in historic neighborhoods like Faubourg Marigny from 50 to 75 feet. The barricades that the railroad tracks and wharves represent could simply be replaced by a high wall of secured communities.

The best use of much of the urban riverfront would be as public space, a massive river-front park. Such an investment would make the city an incredibly attractive place to live, and spur redevelopment all along the sliver. The only blur in that vision is that the city and state can't afford to save City Park, a national treasure of an urban park. How much can we afford to spend on developing a riverfront park if we can't save an existing jewel?

It all comes down to money. Until the central government admits their culpability in the devastation of the city and begins to fully compensate the city and its citizens, all of this is just talk. We will muddle along trying to save what we can, while keeping on eye on people who want to raid the little money we're getting to enrich themselves through cockeyed redevelopment schemes.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Little House on the Bayou

A fellow blogger on New Orleans writes this weekend to apologize for not posting, pleading too much going on in his life. I've only met him in person once, although we've corresponded, so I don't claim to know what problems life has tossed into his path. I only know that, like myself, he is taking his family and moving to New Orleans.

I imagine that, like me, he rises early and reads the Times-Picayune online, the early morning litany of problems and failures and crises we are voluntarily launching ourselves, our spouses, and our children into. The challenges of finding an affordable and livable house after the flood, of dealing with the difficulties of placing the chidren into good schools, of finding work or managing a career, are steep and the outcome uncertain.

I wonder if he finds himself thinking as I do, as if he were looking out the door of the droning plane at the remote landscape, tugging anxiously at the straps of the parachute , and remembering that his wife and children will jump with him. My own personal imaginary plane is a heavy lifter, painted the bright orange of a United moving van. My wife is already on the ground, preparing our landing zone. The supercargo has discharged the palletes of all we own, and we now are circling back for the final pass. I ready myself to take my children by the hand and jump.

Returning now can't help but produce an uneasy feeling, even though we are both natives of the place. After long absences, it's hard not to feel like a minor official of a government in exile, coming home to a country long wracked by war and uncertain of our welcome, however well intended our return. We were not there for the long struggle, had no valiant role in the great battle, our connection reduced to interpreting dispatches from others as we studied the maps from a comfortable distance.

We have both paid attention too closely to have anything but a painfully realistic assessment of what we are returning go. And yet we choose to go, even as voices inside us and all around us question the wisdom of the decision.

I raised my children in the upper Midwest. My daughter was of course read the Little House on the Prairie books, until she took over reading them herself and finally outgrew them. I think often lately of the father, a man who dragged his family all over the wild frontier in a harsh climate, from one fragile house to another in precarious circumstances, struggling to survive the fierce winters that frightened me at first from inside my oil-warmed and electrially illuminated house.

What sort of man was this who would do this to his wife and children? Why is the tale of his family so lionized? Why, I ask myself (and my incredulous North Dakota inl-aws) would anyone have settled in this place in the days before electric heat and piped in natural gas, when the outcome of invader versus native was not a settled question? What possessed them to come here? The Scandanavians I think I understand, as I walk from car with heated seats to my warm office, but what of the Irish and the Germans?

Every square acre of this country--the precipitous, the undulating and the unrelievedly flat; frozen to rock in winter or backed to stone by the sun, swept by the unrelenting prairie wind or washed by sometimes violent seas--all was settled and made habitable by people not so different from us. They were driven to leave the familiar, the safe path in life, to board coffin ships bound for the unknown.

Some fled from political or religious persecution, from governments and cultures that had grown alien and made the places of their birth no longer comfortable to them. They left in search of a somewhere they could build into something like places they remembered from childhood, the land of the stories their elders instilled in their hearts. No, it would not be exactly the home they left behind, but they could make it into a good home for themselves and their families, enough like promised land of their childhood catechism to be worth all the risk, with some hard work and a little luck.

As winter breaks on the plains and I prepare the final steps home, I think more of these people I leave behind, the ones whose grandparents set out into the unknown with only what would fill a wagon, their dreams, and a willingness to follow them. If I am a fool for the risks and uncertainty I expose not just myself but my family to, then they were fools, then this was a nation built by fools. Many would say that Washington and Madison Avenue and Hollywood prove me right, but I prefer to think of all of the country in between, and what us fools have made of it.

New Orleans needs fools like us right now. We both know so many bright, successful people who have no clear path back--homes ruined, jobs gone, everything lost and no settlement yet. We owe it to them to go back and prepare the city for their return. Without ourselves and our friends, the city will die. It needs its educated and willing sons and daughters to come home and work to rebuild.

All the old friends scattered to the four winds who were back for Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, the one's who can't come home to stay right now: if we don't come back in their stead, will there be a Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest for them, for all of us, ten years from now? Or will it be an event cast by Disney and catered by Marriott, the geniune article lost for ever?

New Orleans needs us, people smart enough to measure the risk and fool enough to take it. As you wonder where the hell you'll live and how to pay the new cost of living in New Olreans, as you look at your children and wonder if they'll be safe and find good schools, look in the mirror and remind yourself: it will work out because we will make it so. The place you stand today was made by fools like us. Now its out turn.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Love in the Ruins

My entry in the Corniest Jazz Fest Headline contest is inspired by today's Fest story in the Times-Picayune, and an AFP story headlined New Orleans Jazz Fest: celebration among the ruins. The TP story LOVE AT FEST SITE refers to one item in the story about a musician proposing marriage during his set.

My own headline looks at love and the Fest from another angle: the people who come to Jazz Fest every year, out of their love of the music, and everything about New Orleans. I'm sure many of them were dropped off by shuttle buses from downtown hotels, and missed a part of my own Jazz Fest (and a lot of locals) that they would miss: the walk to the Fair Grounds.

My sister lived for years on Grand Route St. John, and my mother has lived in Park Esplanade for the last 20 years. For me (and a lot of people) the first part of every day of the Fest has been the walk up the south side of the Fairgrounds, and the last the tired trudge home. What our visitors are missing are the walk up Ponce de Leon or Maurepas or Fortin streets, or a stroll down DeSaix Boulevard.

When I was home at Mardi Gras, I took my mom and the kids over to Liuzzas (one of the few neighborhood joints open in this part of town), and as we drove around to park, saw the empty houses, the water lines, the rescue marks: all the signs of a neighborhood still in the early stages of recovery.

I hope that all of our visitors from out of town get the chance to make that walk before their visit is done, that they don't come away with the view of one travel writer I found online who suggested things were pretty much back to normal. They are not. We Are Not OK.

If you have friends staying by your house, make sure that they take that walk, that they see the real city and not just the Island and the Quarter. People who plan their vacations around Jazz Fest, who don't live here but love the city every bit as much as we do, they are some of the best advocates we could have, and they come from every corner of America. Make sure they know that We Are Not OK, and still need them to make sure we are not forgotten.

Ed Note: Added missing link in first paragraph 5/2.

"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

Any copyrighted material presented here is done so for the purposes of news reporting and comment consistent with USC 17 Chapter 1 Title 107.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?