Thursday, June 29, 2006

In the Brown Zone with Mother Cabrini

St. Francis Cabrini Church, Paris Avenue, New Orleans

Put your nose up to the door, I told my daughter, and take a good sniff. This I tell her is what Katrina smelled like, what the whole city smelled like, in the days after. We were peering through the locked doors into the nave of St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church, in the Vista Park section of Gentilly along Paris Avenue.

The interior of the church was a ruin of piled pews in the nave, as if prepared for a bonfire, in front of the dramatic sanctuary beneath its flying buttresses. The photograph is taken through thick leaded glass I was tempted to break for a better view, given that the Archdiocese could clearly care less. I was only stopped by the thought of all the Humvees full of National Guard I had seen on Robert E. Lee. There was no sign of them here on Paris Avenue, no sign of life at all, but something stayed my hand.

The nave and sanctuary of Cabrini

My father designed this church. I recall standing as a very small child in the back and watching him climb perhaps fifty feet of scaffolding to reach the top of the buttresses to inspect some work. To a very small child it seemed as if he had ascended the very ramparts of heaven to consult with God about the progress of the work on His house. It is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood, one I can call up clearly at any time.

My reverie is interrupted again by the smell as I press my eye to a window close to the crack in the door. Smell, I tell my own child, smell this. Remember this smell, remember what happened to your new home, to the church your grandfather built, remember it as clearly as I remember your grandfather at the gates of heaven so you can tell your own children some day.

So much of the city is still in danger of being reduced to memory. Sidney J. Folse, Jr., A.I.A. was a prominent architect, a president of the New Orleans Chapter of the A.I.A. at the height of the battle of the Riverfront Expressway. He designed the Rivergate, and I marveled at the model of the Superdome that was central to his office at Curtis & Davis on Canal Street in the 1960s.

The Rivergate is gone, replaced by Harrah's. Beneath it somewhere is no doubt the tunnel dug for the the riverfront expressway to cross Canal, the expressway my father helped to prevent. Given the life cycle of stadiums, it is certain that within my lifetime the Superdome will be reduced to a memory. There will be so little left of my father in this city soon, only the memories of people who knew him, and with each passing year there are fewer to recall his name over a drink or a meal in the way Orleanians invoke our ancestors, with some fond anecdote at the table.

Most of what he built was commercial and only interesting to people who paid for his services. Through an odd turn of career, he became the nation's leading expert on Corrections Architecture, building jails and prisons and courthouses all across the nation, all because one of his first jobs was to draw the Barracks at Angola Prison, an infamous place where prisoners preyed upon the weaker among them.

I believe he spent the rest of his life in a form of atonement for the Barracks. He voted Republican because Republicans built jails, but the facilities he proposed and built were humane and decent, designed to respect the remaining dignity of the prisoner lest they become like rats in a basement.

The only things that will remain in New Orleans from the hand of one of its prominent architects of the 20th Century will be a starkly modern house at 17 Egret Street in Lake Vista, just small enough in square footage to be itself at risk as a tear down in the land of McMansions, and this church.

Ten months after the flood the church shows no sign of any remediation what so ever. The smell is enough to know. The Archdiocese has apparently locked it and left it to rot, the pews piled up like coffins in the oven of a raised tomb. Perhaps they plan to return in a year and sweep the remains into the drawer just as we clean out our family tombs, to make way for the new.

Or perhaps the bulldozers will come, if the neighborhood remains as it appears today, as still and silent and monochrome as a New Orleans cemetery on a hot August afternoon. Someone righted the toppled Virgin behind the church, and placed a small offering of artificial blooms in each of the urns that flanked the statue. Someone has come back, if only for an afternoon. But as I sweep the open ground behind the church and school, the blocks of homes, I don't see them. I don't see anyone.

St. Francis Xavier Cabrini outside the church's rectory

Today, Mother Cabrini stands water stained near the impending ruin that bears her name, a fitting monument to the first American saint in a town thick with saints but abandoned by America, in a neighborhood where the homogeneous brown silence of the flood seems little changed since September, in a place where the water stood so high there are no rescue marks on the front of homes; instead, stroked zeros are marked on the roofs, to show aircraft where homes were searched.

I read Vista Park homeowner Tim's Nameless Blog regularly. I know that people are coming back to the neighborhood that stands across Paris Avenue. Today, I don't see them, even as a few blocks away Tim wrestles a push mower around Pratt Park and other neighbors work to bring the place they called home back from the disaster that stands in stark silence all around me.

If these places are saved, it will not be through the New Orleans Recreation Department saving Pratt Park or the Archdiocese of New Orleans saving Cabrini. It won't be the city or the Corps or even the grace of God. New Orleans will be saved only because people who love these places, this city, insist on saving them. They will do it on their own, whatever it takes. They are the descendants of the immigrants Mother Cabrini ministered to here, people who were not afraid go to into the unknown, into the heat and the funk of this place called New Orleans and make it their home. Their great grand children will do it again.

Mother Cabrini, pray for them.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Tsunami workers shocked by Ninth Ward

I missed this incredible story on WWL-TV on Friday.

Tsunami relief workers shocked by 9th Ward tour,
say they expected more signs of recovery
Two leaders of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights who have spent the last 18-months helping victims of last year’s Tsunami took a walk through the Lower Ninth Ward Friday.

Their reaction was one of shock, because they said they expected to see more signs of recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

“We think of America as being this fabulous, powerful superpower, and it’s exactly like Third World situations,” said [tsunami relief worker] Tom Kerr...

I haven't pitched Friday's or Saturday's Times-Picayune, but if this didn't make the paper and move on the national wires, then someone has dropped the ball. Or was told not to play with this dangerous ball in public. A quick check of Google News finds that this story was picked up by the Gulf Times of Qatar. And no one else.

As the central government's national holiday celebrating freedom from remote incompetence and tyranny approaches, I'm frustrated to think how, or why, I would want to celebrate. Vicksburg MS fell to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863. The city did not observe the Fourth of July as a holiday again until 1945. I wonder how long it will be before New Orleans forgives and forgets?

Props to LiveJournal blogger fivecats for calling this one out.

Failure Was The Only Option, slight return

Schroeder at People Get Ready raises an important question about the flood and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in his post Organizational dysfunction at the Corps of Engineers.

Should individual Corps engineers have spoken up if they knew the designs were flawed? That assumes that someone knew what was happening in a multi-tiered decision-making organization. It also assumes that the Corps had a system in place for self-criticism.

[Civil engineer Bob] Bea argued [on WWL-FM] that the Corps had, and still has, an organization that kills the messenger who bears bad news. I know that to be true. That's why, notwithstanding the fact that individual engineers know why the levees failed, the Corps as an organization keeps trying to publicly defend its actions.

In part, that might be due to the patriarchal military hierarchy of the Corps. It is also, however, a function of how the political goals of whoever sits in Congress and the White House percolate through the organization.

I think Schroeder is pointed in the right direction. What occurred where engineering failures in a highly technical sense, but these moved from the drafting board onto the ground not because the CoE was staffed with bad engineers, but because of the political and budgetary imperatives of the USACOE. The culture of the Coe was at odds with good engineering practice and true public service.

The people who designed the I-walls didn't choose them, or decide ultimately on the depth or frequency of soil tests: people at the level where politics (internal and external) and money prevailed ultimately made those decisions. The people at the engineering level didn't resist moving the pumping stations to the lake or decline to gate the canals or build a structure across the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain or Lake Borgne.

These decisions were the outcome of political algebra that weighed cost and political influence more heavily than substrates and wind-and-water loads. These were multi-layered failures that go all the way up to Congress, but don't let off the hook the local levee boards or the port authority (who gets far too little blame for insisting the MR-GO be kept open until an expensive rework of the Industrial Canal locks was completed) or other responsible local officials.

It seems to me increasingly analogous to the failures that led to the loss of two space shuttles. In the case of Challenger, NASA had evolved from a quasi-military defense project with clear objectives and chains of command (and little budgetary pressure in the early days), into a contractor-run bureaucracy more answerable to stockholders and managing directors elsewhere, and not to the guys who routine strapped great, dangerous rockets to their butts for the greater glory of mankind.

If the managers of NASA had only known of what had happened in southeast Louisiana with the CoE, they would have a a model for how to fix NASA when the right stuff went wrong. By the same lights, the people running the CoE and overseeing it in Congress (and on the levee boards) might have taken the Challenger disaster as a warning against allowing organization charts to trump schematics,weighing budgets more heavily that the calculations of ultimate stability, if only someone had stepped up and said: Stop, wait, something here is not right.

In the end, the only thing more powerful than the storm surge of Katrina was the bureaucratic inertia of the Corps. And the Levee Board. And the Port Authority. And the Congress.

The question for the individual engineers and their engineering-trained managers (and not the officers who run the place or the politicians they ultimately must answer to) is this: when do the imperatives of professional conduct trump organizational (dys)function? When should individual's have stepped forward (possibly jeopardizing their careers) and said You Are Not Being Protected. What can we put in place so that no engineer inside or outside the USA CoE has to ever make that choice?

N.B.--The title comes from this earlier postand comes from from the film Apollo 13, the failed mission to the moon in which engineer struggled valiantly to bring home the three astronauts. The mission director in the movie (but not in reality; this is an urban myth) tells his team that "failure is not an option".

Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Triangle of Hope

My neighborhood does not seem a faubourg of Bagdhdad even as the newspaper trumpets nightly curfews (for kids) and the Triangle of Death, the clever newsy name for our returning violent crime problem. Government at every level fumbles for excuses and solutions, when the fix seems so clear, but I am just pleased to see the state troopers standing on French Quarter corners, to hear from friends in Lakeview that the Humvees are once again patrolling their battered streets.

From the porch of my Mid-City home, the city seems serene in the baking midday sun, even as I watch the laborers up the street come and go from the house being restored, adding to the debris piles that mark every street here on my little island in the archipelago of outlying neigborhoods. There is no column of smoke or chattering helicopters to mark yet another fire. Murder and mayhem seems far away. All is calm, all is bright even as a police car crawls up the street.

I feel safe even as I stand at the top of my steps, and visualize the water that stood in September two risers below my feet, and remember that my house stayed dry through near to the worst imaginable case. It was not the worst case, I reminded myself. I test computer software, and spend my days taking the hopeful requirements of Pangloss, Inc. and submiting their new software to every indignity I can imagine, a digital de Sade. I can always imagine a worse case. It is what I do for my daily bread.

Even with global warming and the Delphicly dire predictions of the forecasters, the Fate whose Greek name translates as Statistics is likely to be kind, or at least otherwise occupied. The last serious blow was Betsy 40 years early. The last prior storm of consequence was in the late 1940s, a storm only my 82-year-old mother, of everyone of my aquaintance, would remember personally. While I can envision seeing a roofless shell standing in water to where the eaves once hung, I do not, can not live in that vision, any more than I could routinely contemplate every possible circumstance of my death, and still make my way up the hall to breakfast.

Today's problem is not the flood, but the aftermath, in particular the raging crime in parts of the city. That same Fate will likely decree that it will never profoundly touch my life. Bloack-on-black, often criminal-on-criminal, it easy for the city to just seek to contain it, to keep it away from others neighborhoods, other people, to sweep it under the rug before the tourist buses unload.

I look up and down my block. No one in my neighborhood has bars on their doors or windows, no outward sign that a few miles away another kind of storm rages on the nightime streets as the drug dealers flood Central City. My new neighborhood is not like other places I have lived in New Orleans and back East, where I judged an apartment in part by the quality of the iron and the locks.

I lived in the shadow of this monster once before, when we lived in Northeast DC halfway between the Capitol Building and Len Bias' favorite crack market. In the early Nineties the urban world I loved to live in turned Clockwork Orange. Three people died in the space of a few months within a block of our home, and with our newborn daughter we fled to the near suburbs.
This time, while I don't live in the belly of the beast, I can not turn and run. Like every other monstrous problem confronting us, we have to face it, to find some way to mitigagte the damage of a century of neglected problems. But today, as I linger on my porch, it seems as distant as the crack wars of DC appeared from the serenity of the tidal basin's edge at the Jefferson Memorial.

As I look at the the Times-Picayune's map of death that accompanied the announcement of another young, black man found shot in the new Triangle of Death, I notice on that map a triangle without blemishes, defined by Carrollton and City Park Avenues and the Pontchartrain Expressway. It is, for me, a Triangle of Hope, as spotless as an unflooded blue-clad virgin in an upended bathtub niche, if you could find such a one in the water-marked town.

I lookup and town my block again, looking for a water mark. There is none. The water didn't stand here long enough to mark the brick of the piers that lifted our homes above it. As the police car slowly crawls up the street, I remember the bleak triangle directly behind me but miles to the south, the bodies of forgotten young men scattered like dots on a map, and I think: I have taken the good ground, and paid dearly for it. This is where we will make our stand. I have come to fight and will leave this porch with my shield or on it.

And that is a kind of hope.

As I said before, the hope of a New Orleanian is a funny kind of hope. I was once asked by a former boss, who was a yoga teacher and a great believer in the power of mind, for a statement of daily personal affirmation. It was not a good day to ask that question, and I straighted up as stiffly as Klingon on parade and answered, "today is a good day to die."

It was not, she offerered, exactly what she was looking for, but it fit the day. It it a statement not just of the obvious fatalism of the Hollywood warrior, but also the cryptic optimism of Krisha addressing Arjuna, a belief that no matter how bad it looks, remember: it is supposed to be this bad, it could get worse and there's no point in spending your fleeting life knotted in worry about it. Get on with it

There is a quote from writer and activist Audre Lorde I have carried with me since I ended a self-imposed exile from politics to rage at the lying of the right: "When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive."

If you can find the optimism in that sentence, then you can understand why my little bit of heaven in the hellish heat is in the Triangle of Hope, why I can stand on my porch and accept all the lurking menace as cheerfully as I accept an afternoon thunderstorm or a stack of bills from the mailman, yet will still insist that we confront all our city's problems. You can understand why and how I have found my high ground in the postdeluvian wilderness, and choose this place and time to make my stand.

Today is a good day, a good day for whatever comes, a good day to be at home in New Orleans, as thunderheads pile up across the lake and the laborers go back and forth like termites with their bits of ruin and somewhere in the hot distance a wild siren howls. I want the people everywhere to feel the same, even in Central City. We have to find a way.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

America Cuts and Runs

What must they think of us, that the National Guard has to come and save us, that we can't police ourselves? How embarrassing.

That's all the talk now that state police and Louisiana National Guard are being called in to help staunch the city's bloody crime spree. Frankly, I don't care what they think. Instead, I want to tell you what I think of the rest of America. But first, some facts.

The Guard, in fact, won't be involved in policing high-crime neighborhoods or protecting the tourists. They will be patrolling the empty quarters, the vast regions of town still largely unoccupied since the federal levees failed and flooded the city. They will not be "federalized", which requires them to be unarmed. They will be authorized to stop, arrest and use any force necessary. (That, by the way, is why Gov. Blanco refused to federalize the Guard in September. She wasn't going to send them into the chaos unarmed, as Bush insisted).

Even 10 months later, looting is still rampant in areas like Lakeview, New Orleans East and the Ninth Ward. Architectural details are being ripped off homes and cant' be found in local markets because, we are told, they are being taken out of state, stolen by carpetbaggers who've come to Louisiana to pillage. Others who are trying to rebuild in the hardest hit areas tell of fixtures and appliances newly delivered stolen in the night. That is what the Guard have come to protect.

The reason the Guard is here is that America cut and run, turned its timid and yellow back on New Orleans and pulled out the Guard when there were still vast tracts of ruin to recover, when the help of the Guard was still needed. The Guard are back to protect a disaster zone created by the federal government's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They never should have left.

They were pulled out anyway, because we are an inconvenient fact: poverty and third world conditions amid plenty, an inept government that knowingly built levees that would not protect us then lied about it, and a response that showed our government was no more ready to deal with a real terrorist attack or other major disaster than the Girls Scouts.

So they pulled the guard out. Nothing to see here. Look how nice the French Quarter is! Look at the tourists! It's all over. Time to move on.

I'm not embarrassed that the Guard are here. I'm embarrassed to be the citizen of a nation that let them leave in the first place, that allowed the entire catastrophic flood to happen and then could not deal with the aftermath. I'm embarrassed people are still living in tents and tin trailers almost a year after a disaster.

Do I sound bitter? My anger is only directed at the carpetbaggers and the central government. I sit in my home which is neither in the Triangle of Death nor in the vast ruined tracts of suburban New Orleans, and I'm happy to be home, ready and anxious to tackle the city's problems, with or without America's help.

The Guard and the State Police are a distraction from the real issues. The real issue is we have no jails to hold the criminals our police arrest, and no resources to build more. The mayor and governor and police chief hold a press conference to announce the coming of the troopers and Guard, but say nothing about the DA's office that doesn't prosecute and judges that turn the criminals back onto the streets. Give us enough tents and hurricane fence and concertina wire and we'll have someplace to put the people who endanger us, including Judge Charles Elloie (scroll down to find his name).

We know the problems that are within our grasp to solve, even if our city administration is afraid to confront them. All we need is the resources to do so, money that should be rights be ours. And while the federals cut and run on their own fellow citizens, the Louisiana Guard and State Police stand tall on the streets of New Orleans, committed to the work of saving their neighbors.

No, I'm not embarrassed, but the rest of American should be.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Flight of the Wild Geese

In a few hours, I leave for lunch at Galatoire's with a dear old friend who is forced for business reasons to leave New Orleans and move to (shudder) Ft. Worth, Texas. I will have to try to restrain myself and avoid any comparisons with the condemned man's last meal, but Brian (while a childhood transplant) is New Orleans to the bone, and it will be a sad occasion, the wake meal for some of the last remnants of the life I knew before I began my self-exile in places to the north.

My wife keeps asking me how I feel about so many of my good friends leaving just as I return, and I have to admit it is a sad turn. Still, I knew they were likely leaving long before I arrived, and chose to come anyway. I keep reminding myself of why I'm home, of the public pledge I made, that I am coming home in part to help prepare the city for their return. I don't share novelist and blogger Poppy Brite's anger at those who leave (scroll down to the 12:08 am posting). She says at one point:

I'll be honest -- I can understand people leaving, but I have a HUGE problem with people who say as they leave, "Well, I might come back in a couple of years." Yeah, after WE'VE done all the damn work to make things better. Regardless of my resentment, though, the city will still be here and will be better in a couple of years, should you leave but find that you cannot stay away.
I can't hold any grudge against those who leave, promising or at least hoping to come home, perhaps because I made the same sad journey and the same private vow myself long ago, a vow I have at last fulfilled. Everyone I know or have heard of who is making this sad march into expariot exile is, like the the Wild Geese of Ireland, driven from their home by events beyond their ability to turn. And each, like those dispersed Irish patriots, carries that sad longing for home, that skirling of pipes in the soul. And each I am certain has made the secret vow that they will someday return, if only to a whitewashed double somewhere near the intersection of City Park and Canal called Cemeteries.

The loss of each of these Orleanians is balanced in part by those like myself who are choosing now for the time of their return. Two new acquaintances met in the online community of expats and evacuees that grew up in the weeks after the flood are returning expats: Ray in Austin and Ashley. Ashley returned first, back in the Fall, when the prospect was much more daunting that it is today.

My nephew has long considered going to law school, and has decided to leave his career elsewhere behind and come to Tulane for this degree, and my sister and I are scouring Mid-City to find he and his wife and apartment. Others are coming home, or working at coming home if they can. Even my friend, the guest of honor at today's wake, has a sister who married an old friend from the West Bank, and they've come home and landing in Bywater, although she only lived here as a child and has long resided in California.

Those I know who are leaving are not the idiots of online forums who sit in their comfortable new home in Texas or Georgia and rail against the city's civic ineptitude or returning crime, the people who were probably going to abandon the city anyway, and who revel in its problems, crying good riddance and I told you so from a comfortable distance. Those people make me angry, too.

The people I know who are leaving have no real choice. One's law practice and his rented Lakeview home were both swept away by the flood. Another lived on Belle Aire, and if anyone wants to buy his ruin and perhaps make it possible for him to stay, I'm sure he'll welcome any reasonable offer. A third's eyeglass clinic on Canal Street, where the people I knew from the Lakefront religiously assembled to catch Endymion, was also taken by the flood. Do you think he voluntarily chooses exile in West Monroe? Would you?

These people are not running away from the problems; they were swept away by the flood, are a part of the problem Katrina and the Corps' left behind. The absence of these people weighs as heavily on me as the presence of a debris pile, will leave a hole in the city as raw as the empty lots of every demolished home, their leaving an unrepaired leak in the heart of the city as hidden but critical as those of the city's ruined water lines.

What I wrote for the Picayune in January is still true. Today's farewell feast is just another reminder of the long road ahead, of the reasons why some return and some leave, of the work that must be gone so that everyone can come home again if they chose.

I'm coming back because every person who returns makes it that much more possible -- to buy a house that would otherwise sit empty, to add another pair of hands to the immense tasks ahead.We're returning because I owe it to my father's memory, to my family and to my city. I'm doing it for the friends who've lost houses, jobs, everything, and can't come back right now, to help prepare the city for their return.
So, bon voyage, Brian. We understand why you have to go, that the same hand that converged the storm models on Bay St. Louis and pushed down the walls and loosed the flood, will someday steer you home. Come Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, the city will still be here, and we'll make room for you. When you finally make it home again , we will panee' the best parts of the fatted calf. Remember, the Wild Geese never lived to see it, but the Irish rebellion finally succeeded. We will somehow save this city from ineptitude and corruption at home and in the north, will clean out the bowl that is New Orleans, and fill it again with the gumbo you remember, ready for your return.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Planning Putsch

Is that light at the end of the tunnel the headlight of a train? As yet another rushed and secretive planning efforts comes out of the dark, its hard not to believe that the people of New Orleans are about to be run over by recovery.

In a poorly publicized meeting (most neighborhood groups learned of it only by accident and only the day before) a third recovery planning efforts is launched, sponsored by the Louisisana Recovery Authority and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

An email hit the circuit of neighborhood organization mailing lists late Thursday and Friday calling for all groups to attend a previously unpublicized meeting sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which has worked with the Louisiana Recovery Authority to secure a Rockefeller Foundation grant to start a third planing effort.

There is no mention of this in the Times-Picayune that can be found online, and not a word about this process on the GNOF website. We learned through Friday's email:

The lead entity in this process is to be the "Community Support Organization" (CS)). It will oversee the work of planning to be done for city-wide infrastructure projects and neighborhood redevelopment plans for the 13 planning districts of the city.

ON SATURDAY, THE FINAL STRUCTURE OF THE COMMUNITY SUPPORT ORGANIZATION IS TO BE APPROVED by the "New Orleans Support Board," which was created through GNOF to develop the make-up of the Community Support Organization (CSO). The CSO is proposed to include ... appointees "selected from nominations submitted by individual neighborhood organizations."

The issues raised by Mid-City neighborhood activist and blogger Editor B in the comments here (kudos to Schroeder for getting this out Thursday) are the qeustions everyone should be asking: why has this been done in secret and who are the pre-selected "neighborhood representatives?" Why wasn't the meeting or the possibility of nominating neighborhood representatives mentioned in this Times-Picayune story on May 27?

There have been at least three planning efforts announced since last September, starting with the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's call for a neighborhood-led planning effort to identify which neighborhoods were coming back, and what services and support they would need.

That effort (or at least the funding and technical support portion) never got off the ground, although some neighborhoods such as Broadmoor took up the challenge and begain work. The second major initiative was the city council's decision to start its own planning process, given that the mayor's and BNOBs seemed to be going nowhere for lack of funding.

That effort didn't appear to get off the auspicious start, when the active residents of Hollygrove were told where they could shelve their plan by the council's consultant. My experience at the first meeting of the Lambert Group-sponsored planners with the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization was an opposite experience, and there was some hope that at least the process was undereway.

And now we have this LRA-sanctioned process which has also attempted to mute neighborhood input. The questions that should be asked this morning are: why weren't the neighborhoods ask to participate in naming their representatives? What is the agenda of this effort? What say are the citizens of New Orleans going to be allowed by our dear leaders in City Hall and Baton Rouge in the disposition of federal recovery dollars?

Thursday, June 15, 2006


That is the grand total in fradulent expenditures out of $39 million in cash FEMA assistance, according to the LA Times. Alas, our own Times here in LA missed that tidbit when they went with a sensational wire story long on Girls Gone Wild and sex change operations but short on facts.

In part, the AP hack job in the T-P reads;

Congress' Government Accountability Office used a statistical analysis to estimate the fraud may have totaled 16 percent of the individual assistance after the two hurricanes last year.

But Dannels told a House Homeland Security subcommittee that the GAO looked only at .01 percent of the 2.5 million applications for assistance, and said FEMA only learned of the new estimates last week.

In a sharp exchange, Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., told Dannels: "The amount of fraud outlined in this report ... I don't think it's refutable."
Perhaps we should get Rep. Shays a subscription to the LA Times, since they seemed to have noticed it was refutable.

During a hearing Wednesday before the House Homeland Security subcommittee on investigations, Donna M. Dannels, FEMA's acting director for recovery, said the "questionable purchases" in the GAO investigation totaled "just under $8,000, or 0.02% of nearly $39 million" in aid. As for the rental assistance checks, she argued that the fraudulent cases represented only "a fraction of the overall assistance provided" — $6.3 billion in housing payments distributed by the agency.

Both stories do manage to get to the fact that a lot of the fraud was perpetrated by people who were not Katrina survivors, including a slew of prisoners who filed for rental assistance. The LA Times in particular gives full attention to the inneptitude at FEMA that allowed the fraud to occur. However, the casual viewer/listener to this day's news cycle came away with the clear impression that it was just another instance of Katrina Looters Gone Wild.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Commission to remind USA: We Are Not OK

A coalition of church and social groups is banding together to form a Katrina National Justice Commission to remind the rest of the nation that after nine months, , the Times-Picayune reports today. The comission is sponsored by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, an African-American church group.

The commission will convence in Washington, D.C. this week to take testimony this week from representatives of FEMA, the Red Cross, U.S. Army, and from others involved in hurricane relief and will solicit the testimomey of average Katrina survivors.

"The people's experiences, the nation's compassionate responses, the failures and successes of those engaged in rescue and recovery, and the opportunities for restoration and healing must be documented and widely shared," the commissioners said in a statement of their goals.
"Of course there was a lot of attention when it happened, but then it kind of waned, and we all know that it's not good yet in New Orleans," said the Rev. Susan Smith of Columbus, Ohio, a board member for the commission's sponsor, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. "People are still suffering, people still don't know where their relatives are, and the devastation, it's still there. Neighborhoods haven't beencleaned up; people are still being found dead. We don't want Katrina forgotten as we move on to new issues and new concerns."
Survivors of the hurricane (and the flood caused by the failure of the federal levees) who want to share their experiences should write to the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference Inc., 4533 S. Lake Park Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60653, or send an e-mail to the organization at

Sadly, I think this group will be marginalized by being sponsored by an exclusively African-American organization. This should be a Congressionally-chartered effort of the sort conducted after 9-11, but conservatives in the Congress block that to prevent any ill reflection on their Dear Leader. I think the group made a terrible mistake by having Dollar Bill Jefferson (and Sen. Hillary Clinton) among its first witnesses. I can almost hear the (very) little wheels in Rush Limbaugh's brain turning.

In a similar vein, Mississippi Democrat Benny Thompson told another progressive group "New Orleans has seen no improvement since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina nine months ago".

I am troubled that this message seems only to play well on one side of the political spectrum. It doesn't help that people like Limbaugh and Hannity use our suffering to make political hay, poisoning the discussion with a good one-third of Americans who confuse these shock-jocks with journalists. This message needs to get out to everyone, unfiltered by political pursuasion or identity politics.

While we should turn away aid from no one, we need to try to reach out to the people who put the idiots running Idaho in office, so that they understand that they could be next.

Monday, June 12, 2006

NOLA declared Satan free

With all of our problems, I'm so glad we got this cleared up.

According to this AP story carried by KLFY-TV in Lafayette:

The president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary says Hurricane Katrina has cleansed the city... "Satan got floated out of the flood," leaving New Orleans open and ready to listen to "the gospel of Jesus Christ."

The good reverand did not make clear if Satan had taken any action to remediate any property he owned, or if he left any vehicles abandoned somewhere. I just hope he got all of his gutting waste into clear bags and his garbage into black, because I don't want to think about what Satan's debris pile would smell like after a few weeks in the summer sun.

Attempts to determine if Satan had applied for FEMA assistance in any other location were unsuccessful.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Chinese Character for Crisis

It is a well-established truism of business and management writers that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the two characters meaning danger and opportunity. This is, unfortunately, wrong. Instead, the second character, means something like "incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)."

The Flood is clearly our incipient moment, when something begins or changes. The city is profoundly transformed by the flood: smaller in population, less diverse and more afluent, with a large influx of Latino tradesmen and laborers looking for recovery work.

For the immigrant workers, for those who might prefer a smaller, whiter, more affluent city, the incipient moment has truly been an opportunity, one that could profoundly transform New Orleans. What about the rest of us? What are we doing to take this moment and make it into an opportunity?

Some other changes have already begun. The charter school secession from the Orleans Parish Public School system and the state takeover of almost all remaining public schools is a transforming moment, one that could address one of the city's most profound antediluvian weaknesses (after, of course, the defective Federal levees and floodwalls).

The announcement of plans for a large jazz park to transform the Superdome end of Poydras street shows that some people are ready to turn the moment of danger and change into one of opportunity. Plans by the US Postal Service to try and convert vast swaths of the city to efficient, ugly and inappropriate cluster boxes, is another example. These groups see the opportunity in the moment. What about the rest of us, the rest of the city?

I attended the city council's New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan meeting for Planning District Four (which includes my new home in Mid-City) this weekend. There was the expected: short pep talks from our new city council members and the facilitator, belly aching about postal service plans to end house delivery, debris piles and irregular garbage pickup, high Sewerage & Water Board bills, Home Deport buying an abandoned grocery store on Carollton Avenue: all of the things you would expect to hear if you take a room full of neighborhood activists and politicians and turn on a microphone.

I also heard complaining from some that this was the third time some residents had been asked to participate in a recovery planning process: first the Bring New Orleans Back committee's, then the Louisiana Recovery Authority's and now the City Council's. One man asked the question: why another plan? What happened to the other processes? Who, in the end, is in charge? Others suggested that it was the city government's role to take the lead, and not foist it off on neighborhood groups.

What I took away from the meeting was the facilitator's clear statement that this process is to develop a recovery plan, one that would identify projects for which federal or other funds could be sought to assist in the recovery, a people's plan developed by the neighborhoods with technical assistance from professional planners. It is what the Mayor's BNOB plan proposed but did not follow through on. We, they tell us, are in charge.

This process is our windows to make opportunity out of the incipient moment , when something not yet here can first be glimpsed, when things can begin to change. Members of our largest neighborhood group , the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, have begun to draft a document outlining ideas for this process including traditional planning issues such as land use, but also discussing transforming projects such as converting the Lafitte Corridor rail line into a trail/bicycle path, and creating a downtown-to-airport light rail link running down Tulane Avenue.

The idea that caught my attention is the Lafitte Rails-to-Trails project. I have to confess the line runs a block behind my home, and my patio yard backs up to a high cinderblock wall of one of the light industrial buildings that line the corridor, so I have a close personal interest in this project.

I think this is an example of a project could profoundly transform the character of Mid-City east of Canal Street for the better, by breaking the city's patchwork land-use pattern in older areas, by transforming a light industrial area in the residential heart of the city into desirable residential land facing a park space. It fits with the recovery plan because it would provide more space for people in the most threatened areas to move into the heart of the city, as LRA vice chair Walter Isaacson suggested in the New York Times this week. The need for more housing in the city is the lever by which we can lift a project like this onto the recovery aid conveyor.

In my view, this is the sort of transforming recovery project we should all be looking for. How do we take existing problems and turn them into opportunities? Can we use the city's August deadline to address flooding homes to address previously blighted properties? A bill was introduced by the legislature (then scuttled by the mayor) to give the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority bonding authority to enhance its powers to acquire property.

If we're going to address flood blight, why not try to turn every homesite in the city into a home, when housing is our most desperate need? There should be an emphasis on home-ownership, and on providing housing for the working class of New Orleans that staffs the city's tourism industry, the one need every agrees is critical to our economic recovery.

The city is deeply in crisis, and this is the incipient moment the professor of Mandarin talks about, the moment when things begin to change. In order to make that into the opportunity of the in-flight magazine business brief, we can't wait for the government or someone else to do it for us. We have to make the opportunity ourselves. This planning process is one way we can do this. Yes the city is full of debris and other problems, but if you look at it through the lens of recovery and rebirth, it is also full of opportunity.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Firebirds

As I stepped out onto my porch with my morning coffee, I was met with a new twist to the urban experience in postdeluvian New Orleans: the urban firebirds.

I heard the loud, low buzzing of a helicopter: not in itself a unique eperience. Then it grew louder, and it seemed there was more than one from the mix of echoing sounds. The first came into view, a Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter carrying a fire bucket, bound apparently for the 17th Street Canal for water.

Low-flying choppers aren't themselves a special feature if the cityscape. When I lived in NorthEast DC behind Union Station--about halfway beween the Capitol building and Len Bias' favorite crack market--police helicopters routinely made very low patrol flights over our house, and on at least one occasion hovered over my little patio back yard with their powerful searchlight on, sweeping the yards and alleys behind my house for dog knows who.

These bright orange birds with the pendulous buckets were another reminder that I was not in the place I left almost 20 years ago, but was now resident in Debrisville. To supplement the strained resources of the New Orleans Fire Department, the Coast Guard uses the water giant buckets, which would be familiar to residents of the fire-prone western states, to help fight urban fires.

The NOFD lost 22 of 36 houses and all of the equipment in those 22, and many firefighters continue to live and work from temporary quarters such as school houses, etc. Its unimaginable that in the United States of America that these guys shouldn't have been first in line for help.

Nine months later, the city still has an underequipped fire department and areas of very low water pressure. The only way to prevent an urban house or business fire from consuming an entire block is to bring in reinforcements, so the choppers and their fire buckets remain a fixture. When you see them flying, you start to look for a column of smoke and hope that it appears far away.

There is some small comfort in the hovering helicopters. It is one sign that the central government has not abandoned us entirely to search for our lost, rotting bootstraps in the bottom of a lightless and flooded closet. Even if , we are not entirely alone. Even as FEMA tries again to evict the thousands of volunteers that want to help us, help continues to come. Thank you Coasties; thank you all who came and continue to come.

The vision of those flying buckets passing over my porch is simply another reminder that we are living in The Zone, a place we are all adjusting to just barely, a sector apart from the rest of America, where a police car flying down a street of shuttered and ruined homes past piles of debris puts me briefly in mind of Mad Max tearing through a apocolyptic outback.

The Zone is a place where the gaily colored blue roofs are not a sub-tropical affectation of yuppie renovators, but the frayed remainders of tarps covering roofs still unrepaired after nine months, where we approach the ubiquitous debris piles on the neutral grounds as warily as a Hummer driver on patrol in Iraq, mindful of the roofing nails and other debris that routlinely punctures our tires, where the trailers in the front of houses are not a hopeful sign that the summer camping season has begun, but the tiny tin homes of people whose lives remain months if not years away from any normalcy, a place where .

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The collapse of the coast

For 5,000 years, there were hurricanes. For 5,000 years, there were floods, there was sea level rise and there was subsidence. So, you know, there are
forces of nature that wetlands have been able to survive. The one different ingredient in our landscape in the last 300 years is humans.
Robert Twilley, Louisiana State University on PBS' NewHour.

Forty square miles a year. That is the annual rate of coastal lost sustained in the last half century. By the year 2050, Louisiana will have lost an area the size of Rhode Island to the Gulf of Mexico. The graphic here gives an impression of the tremendous rate of loss.

This is in small part a natural process of subsidence. River deltas are built by periodic river floods that deposit silt, and the same land subsides when the river abandons a particular delta and changes course, when the flooding that replenishes the land comes to an end. But the river has not abandoned its current delta, the seventh it has built in this region. Man will not let it.

Instead, the channelization of the river, topsoil erosion control and the construction of river flood protection levees have deprived the southeast Louisiana coast of its natural replenishment. These losses have been immensely aggravated by the development of oil-and-gas long the coast, involving the dredging of tens of thousands of miles of pipeline and access canals and the construction of unnatural spoil banks. This has allowed the intrusion of salt-water into brackish water marsh, and brackish water into fresh water marsh. Killing the vegetation that holds this tenouos land together has sped up the process immenslvely. Without vegetation, the tenuous land is easily washed away.

Like the levee failure in New Orleans, the collapse of the coastal environment in Louisiana is largely man-made catastrophe, the outcome of a series of choices made for the benefit of the entire nation at our expense. Yes subsidence plays a part, but only a small one in the vast lossees of the last half century. What has occured has been the theft of land from Louisiana, without compensation, in order to provide additional agricultural land elsewhere, and to produce oil-and-gas.

Imagine this if you will: Los Angeles is the city most closely associated with America's lust affair with the personal automobile, and production of the oil necessary to make that lifestyle possible is in large part responsible for coastal erosion.

If we applied Louisiana's coastal erosion rate to the L.A. coastline (which Google tells me stretches 76 miles from Malibu to Long Beach), the city would have to move back from the sea a little under one mile a year. Would the Hummer continue to be so popular in SoCal if it were their land they were giving up at such an alarming rate in the name of cheap gas?

People tend to think of the coast of Louisiana as an abysmal swamp, perhaps imagining the place where the National Guardsmen got lost in the awful film Southern Comfort. In fact, it is one of the most productive places on earth, nurturing an immense bounty of seafood (and less importantly, as fashion trends change fur). It is an essential stopping point on the Mississippi flayway. Without these marshes, the future of a lot of popularly hunted birdlife would also be threatned.

According to the coastal advocacy group America's Wetland, Louisiana produces one-third of the nation's seafood by dollar value, and is ranked second behind Alaska in by weight of seafood landed. In 1981, the value of those commerical fisheries was about $680 million. Sport fishing and constitute over $10 billion a year in economic activity. All of this is being taken away from us, without compenstaion.

From the vantage point of New Orleans, the biggest impact is the loss of protection from storm surge, the water pushed up by low barometic pressue and storm winds into a tremendous tide. These maps (courtesy of Third Battle of New Orleans) show the impact on one small area in suburban New Orleans, in Chalmette, La. Here in St. Bernard Parish, the levees were overwhelmed by the storm surge and wave action made possible by the loss of these wetlands, which can reduce storm surge by as much as one foot for every mile between open water and the levee.

These rapidly disappearing coastal environments protect not only the city of New Orleans, but the massive oil-and-gas infrastructure along the coast. Outages along the coast from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita help keep the price of gasoline at between $2 and $3 a gallon since September of last year. Production is still 15% below normal nine month later.

Neither of these storm were The Big One. If we don't act to protect the coast, when the Big One comes the United States could lose 25% of its domestic imported oil-and-gas (if you include the imports from the off-shore Superport). Will we be able to help anyone to rebuild when gas goes to $5 a gallon or beyond, and stays there?

To survive, we must have coastal restoration, or everything that makes Louisiana a place unique in the world will be gone in our lifetime: New Orleans and Acadiana, the seafood and the oil, and all of the species of fish and fowl that depend on the coast. If the levees along the lower river start to go (as they did in stretches of Plaquemines Parish in Katrina), the river could cut itself a new, non-navigable channel. If that happens, the economy of all of the entire American heartland will be in peril, if agricultural exports have to be freighted to other ports by truck and rail.

We have known the solutions for years, as everyone at this recent gathering of experts says.The most recent statement was the Coast 2050 plan. A gathering of All we need are the funds to implement it. There is a model. Inland oil-and-gas production on federal lands rebates 50% of the lease revenue back to the state the federal lands are in. This money is why Alaskans get a check each year from their state instead of paying taxes. All we're asking for is the same 50% share of off-shore oil-and-gas lease revenue, because of the tremendous impact this has on our coastline.

And if we can't have that, then we want all of our damn money back, money we paid to the IRS and at the pump, from those shiftless, no-count Alaskans, who should have to pay state and local taxes like the rest of us instead of leaching off of the rest of America.

Festival of Neighborhoods

The Preservation Resource Center's Neighborhood's Planing Network is hosting a Festival of Neighborhoods to showcase neighborhood planning and recovery efforts in postdiluvian NOLA. The festival will be held Saturday June 24 from 10 am to 4 pm in the Botanical Gardens in City Park, in conjunction with the Mid City Art Market. From the announcement flyer:

The purpose of the festival is to showcase neighborhood planning and recovery efforts and to provide a venue for residents throughout the city to network in a relaxed, festive environment and to learn about what other neighborhoods have accomplished. Tents, tables, and chairs will be provided. There is no charge. We are also inviting nonprofits and other vendors that can be of service to neighborhoods and their residents in their recovery effort, such as Global Green, City Works, representatives from the Louisiana Recovery Authority, etc.

Neighborhoods can showcase whatever they choose but we urge you to display (distribute) items related to your planning efforts: pictures, maps, models, survey instruments, plans, etc. One 4 X 8 table, under a tent, will be available for each neighborhood. To display large maps, etc, you must bring your own easel. You can also sell t-shirts, pins, bumper stickers, raffle tickets, etc. Come fundraise for community!

For more information, contact or call Charmaine at 527-0499.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Brian William takes on the Corps

NBC News Anchor Brian Williams knows . Willliams, who reported from the Superdome in the ugly early days of the flood, has continued to focus his nightly newscast on New Orleans and the entire hurricane coast, even as people from other parts of his country flock to his MSNBC blog to tell them they're tired of hearing about it.

The June 1 broadcast opened with a story on the failure of the levees, focusing on the Corps of Engineers' role: " the work was bad, the work was humans and not an act of god that led to this failure here" Williams said as he stood on the Ninth Ward. "The Army Corps of Engineers has taken responsibility for the failure of the levee system." He also intervised Col. Lewis Setliff here.

Online commentator Harry Shearer took Williams to task for not focusing on the Corps at a preservation conference on Wednesday in New Orleans, the Times Picayune reports.

...Shearer, a part-time New Orleans resident who pens a blog highly critical of the media, rose from the crowd to accuse NBC, and Williams in particular, of downplaying the Army Corps of Engineers' role in constructing substandard levees and floodwalls. Federal culpability isn't widely recognized across the country, he argued.

"To me, the reason why the guy in North Dakota should care is that this isn't just a case of bad weather," Shearer said.
Williams challenged him to watch the Thursday night broadcast, which focus on the release of a Corps of Engineers report on the failure of the levees, covered here also by WWL-TV. Both the WWL and NBC reports fall short of discussing the engineering failures documented by the National Science Foundation report, but Williams and NBC continue to keep the aftermath of the failure of the CoE levees in the national eye.

The Corps' Performance Evaluation Task Force is not complete and could not be found online, but the T-P reports the PET "concluded that each of the many levee, floodwall and pumping failures that occurred during Katrina has its roots in the inadequate process that the United States uses to address flood control projects through the corps. "

Let me remind everyone in NOLA or who cares about the city to visit and get involved in keeping the issue alive before Congress and the nation.

What jumps out in the Picayune story is the Corps' claim that there was no "no evidence of government or contractor negligence or malfeasance.” Engineer Robert Bea, a part of the UC Berkely/NSF team that issued its own report, told the T-P "“that just jumps out of nowhere, and yet they don’t explain how they looked for that evidence. If you don’t consider ignoring changes in elevation datum and (storm) criteria as negligence, what do you consider negligence? And if the definition of malfeasance is a public official not doing what he is required to do by law, then certainly there are plenty of examples of that."

I would fault Williams for not taking that path in his stories yesterday. Everyone says the Corps has taken responsbility, but based on the Picayune's gloss of the report, they have fallen short. That sort of half-assed, I-didn't-really-do-it apology isn't acceptable from my children, and it doesn't cut it for the Corps.

"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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