Thursday, August 31, 2006

Into the breech

I was surprised at how few people cried at the memorial at the 17th Street Canal levee breach on the anniversay of Katrina, I told the interviewer with Minnestoa Public Radio. Grim determination and solemn remebrance were the best words I could find to describe to people far away the small crowd gathered to hear the names of those lost in Lakeview read and watch pink roses tossed into the canal.

The morning was breezy and bright, a rare New Orleans morning when it seems an August day might just be bearable if nine o'clock were the worst of it, if the sun would just stand still and the wind would whisk away every last drop of humidity back to the Gulf, a time to think about the going to the boat or perhaps cycling through the park, to call the office with a lame excuse and forget for a placid hour or two that the stove was just lit, that soon the air would begin to simmer.

The fresh concrete of the nearly new bridge and recapped floodwalls was as blindingly white as the tombs at Cemeteries. Raw red iron sheet piles stood up nearby at the cofferdame, and temporarily silenced cranes and pile drivers hovered over the new flood gates. We were not a funeral crowd, even by New Orleans loose standards, and the moment looked more like the dedication of some new public work rather than the commemoration of the failure of one.

One woman paraded in slow protest through the crowd in a sandwhich board of Hold The Corps Accountable signs carrying an American flag. An irregular line of men in hardhats and orange vests lined one side of the bridge, released from work on the new flood gates so that they would not disturb the moment, standing back from the crowd as if waiting for the ribbon to be cut. The Catholic deacon came in white and red robes, the Baptist minister in rumpled seersucker. The rest of us wore clothes we might chose for any other Tuesday: men dressed in polos and chinos and women in summer dresses, a picture of lunchtime on Poydras Avenue on a casual Friday, while others wore rough work clothes as if they were ready to plunge back into the ruined neighborhood behind us with tools in hand. A few matrons dressed as if today's destination were the clock at D.H. Homes and not a remembrance of the dead. Only a few VIPs tugged at tight shirt collars under dark suits.

The deacon cracked jokes in his practiced wake manner, speaking lightly to the living of their common experience with the dead before he hushed us with a prayer. They called for any family of the remembered to step forward and join the dignitaries in dispensing the flowers into the water. Here in the whitest corner of New Orleans, hard up against Metairie, two black women came forward with the others. I followed their slow march to the front peripherally, watching not the women but the reflection of their pasage in the faces of the crowd. No one seemed to find their presence remarkable in a neighborhood where blacks most often came to clean house or cut grass. Everyone who had crowded up toward the bridge took a careful step back as they passed, as if the two women were carrying the gifts to the altar.

The names were read and the flowers tossed by twos and by half dozens into the dingy canal water below, landing amid the odd trash that always seems to dot these mostly hidden and utilitarian waterways. The roses landed in a cluster around a single sheet piling that seemed to stand up for no other purpose except to display a spraypainted "17th" near the top, as if it were a part of a memorial sculpture, a reminder of the place and the pilings like it that had buckled and failed and loosed the water into Lakeview. When the reading of the names was complete, the local city council woman said a few words then tossed the official wreath the newspaper had promised in among the roses. Another prayer, and we were done.

As the tight crowd that pressed up against the bridge rail and floodwalls for the ceremony slowly backed away and sorted itself out, no one rushing off to any pressing appointment but uncertain of what to do next, the television crews clustered around a handful of the neighbors and small groups circled up in conversation. We had been told to listen for church bells, but the wind was too brisk, and we could not hear anything from the churches in the city behind us. I wandered solitarily through the crowd, and stopped to watch one woman ringing her own small bell, her eyes downcast, having her own private memorial. I shot a brief video of her, and reluctantly went up to ask her name, almost afraid to disturb her moment, ashamed to emulate the hovering cameramen.

Before I turned to go, I hung one more time over the bridge's walled railing and watched as the wind took the flowers and pushed them not into the lake that flooded us but back into the canal , back toward Cemetaries and the city beyond, the sodden blossoms driven toward home by the same wind that pushed the waters into this canal and took the lives those flowers represent, that drove us all away then blew us all home again to stand on August 29, 2006 atop the Bucktown bridge.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

You Lying Sack of Shit

Author's Note: When I found that this piece was the second thing to appear on Google under my name, I considered taking it down. Of all of the tens of thousands of words I've published on Wet Bank Guide in the past year, I did not really want to be most remember for an angry rant. I also considered the impact it might have on anyone who was Googling me up for a pre-employment or other screening. On further consideration, I republished the piece.

If you are here as part of some pre-employment or other screening, let me tell you this: anyone from New Orleans who doesn't generally share these views is either mentally deficient, or is as crooked as a snake and raking in lots of recovery money under the table. Basically, if you require any discernable intelligence and honesty and you find this post abhorent, I strongly recommend you look outside New Orleans for any future employees.

Bush at Jackson Square

I'm sorry. I have to apologize for that language. It is an insult to every sack of shit currently lying the side yard of a garden center waiting to bring life to a garden. A sack of shit has its uses. I've spread my share of manure, including the bags I picked up once very cheaply only to discover that most garden center manure is "denatured" or some such process to make it less, um, fragrant. When I cracked that first bag of the really cheap stuff, I knew exactly what I was about.

A sack of shit properly applied helps bring life to the soil, to make a place bloom with flowers and tomatoes and all of the joys of a garden. The particular sack of shit above brings something, a particular version of bull shit that is denatured to the point of infertility. You can spread it around as much as you like, George, but from it nothing will grow.

You came and gave us the same damned speech you gave last November in Jackson Sqaure. Perhaps most of America, lulled into catatonic fear by lurking child murderers and burning airplanes, is fooled. We know you for what you are, a sack of shit that comes complete with the full smell, but not a bit of the stuff of life, the things we need to rebuild.

Virtually all of the money spent so far has gone to FEMA contractors, on lavish cost-plus, no-bid contracts to out of state companies close to your friends, the sort handed out by your friend the governor of Mississippi. Most people have received the couple of thousand in immediate assistance last September, which quickly went to replace the clothes on their backs and feed themselves.

Several thousand are still getting their rent covered, encouraging them not to pick themselves up and get back home and get to work. It seems, George, that the only thing the government did well is the same sort of War on Poverty stuff that you and your party have railed against for two generations. Conveniently, it keeps away from the city and state a lot of people who don't much like you to begin with, and never vote for you. As for the rest of us: as of last week, the grand total of Louisianians who have received direct compensation for their losses caused by the federal government: two. Show us the money.

You came down here and told us the same lies you told last September, the same ones you've been mouthing for a year while you prayed for a Red Alert to change the subject, so you could jump into your Eisenhower jacket and swagger around with your crop and boots. And you insulted us by suggesting to the over 200,000 people who've come back at their own expense and by the mold-stained sweat of their own brows that its their own fault they haven't gotten more money.

George, we had a plan. It was called the Baker Plan, and it would have done the difficult things we are asked to do: clean up not just individual homes but entire neighborhoods; tell some of our friends and neighbors that their areas might not come back. The only real problem with the plan was that you scuttled it and said, no, we won't do that. You said, go back to the drawing board and try again and try to figure out a way to do it that doesn't put the federal government on the hook for all the damage it caused. Fine, George. Whatever.

I guess it is our own fault, if the President says so. We're not like those industrious Mississippians who smartly elected a Republican governor, one who knows how to shake dollars out of the system even if most of those dollars go to his out of state consulting clients. We should have been sharp enough to realize that the country is run by racketeers, and bought our protection with our loyal votes, to make sure we'd get our share of the crumbs that fall out to the little guys like us. The trouble is, George, we're pretty simple down here. Not only do we lap up the foolishness of folks like Uncle Earl Long and Edwin Edwards, we even take all of that nonsense they teach us in Civics and Free Enterprise seriously. I mean, how gullible can you get.

Too bad you didn't share some of your real world experience of civics and free enterprise with the students at Warren Easton High School. It's good you picked a school for your little speech, somewhere where the students are required to sit respectfully and quietly while you shovel it up. I know you didn't want to venture out where my daughter's friend and her mother were caught in a traffic jam for your motorcade, an instant mob in which people of every race, creed, income and age stood out of their cars or leaned out their windows and unleashed a torrent of insult and profanity and interesting gestures as you went by. If you had stopped there to shake hands, as your predecessor might have, I wonder if you could find one not balled into a fist.

I have a bit of advice for you, George. I believe its what the guys people in your line of business call "enforcers" say when bets aren't covered or the protection money is overdue. Save us the sob speech and the bullshit, they say. Next time, don't show up without the money.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

We Are Not OK

Katrina Memorial at 17th Street Canal

I am posting today at the Rising Tide conference blog. There are some wireless posts from my pager and a video of this morning's memorial at the 17th Street Canal.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Setting the records straight: The Money

In today's Asociated Press story on Bush and Katrina, Don Powell makes this statement:
"... no more money would flow to the region until there is proof that what has been approved is being spent well."
Does this mean there will be no real aid to the people on the ground (beyond the $2,000 immediate asstance to each household), becaue all of the money spent so far has gone to FEMA to pay their contractors for their immediate "relief" work, and to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? And we all know how well those two groups spent the money they were given.

Remind me again where the nexus of corruption in government in America is today? I think it's somewhere to the northeast of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Setting the record straight: Evacuation

Last night on 60 Minutes and again today on Good Morning America, we heard about the failure to evacuate the city. This is complete bullshit, and should be retracted in the same time, space and manner as it is being published with a complete and reckless disreguard for the truth.

To quote from the book Disater: Hurricane Katrina an dthe Failure of Homeland Secuity.

"City and state officials had manged to evacuate some 90 percenbt of the city in advance of the storm--a rate unprecednted in the annals of disaster response."

--- from the Author's Note, page xiv.

Somewhere, I have the backround to show that the reason a mandatory evacuation order wasn't given until Saturday is that the National Weather Service was still unsure Friday where the hurricane was going, and told state and local officials not to make an announcment until the models run Friday afternoon Aug. 26 were re-run overnight. I'm going to bo back a year and try to find those links.

Based on what I've heard so far, we are going to hear and read so many bald-faced lies in the next few hours fed to the media by people who are not friends of New Orleans, people with their own agendas directly contrary to ours.

I strongly recommend you watch this space and all of the New Orleans bloggers listed in the gutter at right if you want the real facts.

Have Beret, Will Travel

Republished from the Times-Picayune, where this originally appeared on Jan. 17. It appeared on this blog the same date. The piece "I think she'll stick" (link at right) incorporates matter about my wife's decision that fell on the floor while getting down to 700 words for the newspaper.

Expat ready to hang his hat here again
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Mark Folse
In Fargo, N.D., I'm practically an eccentric, largely because I wear a hat. OK, a beret. And in the summer, I hang that up and take out my Panama. In Fargo, that qualifies as eccentric. But I have a ready excuse: I'm from New Orleans. And now, I'm coming back.

I tell people that my family and I are moving back to the city where I grew up, and they give me this look. Why, they ask incredulously, would I leave a place with great public schools, where my house cost half what it would in New Orleans, where people -- I am told -- would never behave like those people on TV? Why would I go to the devastation and division and uncertainty of New Orleans? They look at the beret, and shake their heads.

I'm coming home because of that beret, the one my wife got me to replace one I wore for years, then lost. That cap belonged to my father who hoped to wear it in retirement, hanging his paintings on the fence at Jackson Square, until Parkinson's stole his dream.

But he was not just an amateur artist with a dream; he was a prominent local architect. Most of his commercial, highly specialized work was done far away, but he left his mark on the city: the Rivergate, Cabrini Church, the striking flat-roofed box of brick and glass on Egret Street in Lake Vista, where I grew up.

Near the peak of his career, as president of the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects, he was a leader in the fight against the riverfront expressway. Although his firm had important public contracts including the Superdome, he stood up against the city's political and business leadership, challenging the head of the downtown business community to debate him on television. He loved New Orleans, and was willing to stand up and try to save it. He wanted that dream place to hang his pictures, stroke his goatee and be part of the soul of the city.

Now I am at a point in life where one begins to think about a legacy. Beyond a couple of practically perfect children, what mark if any will I leave? Even from the safety of 1,200 miles and two decades, Katrina upended my world and answered my question.

What I want to leave behind me, to leave to my children, is New Orleans.

So last week, my wife accepted a job offer in the city. And we're coming home, with all that entails: finding a safe and affordable house, dealing with the fractured schools, finding a job for me and leaving a safe and comfortable life in the Midwest for the only life I really want, the only one I think worth living for the rest of my days.

We are coming home not just to find an old home and make it live another generation, or because I miss the food and the friends, the music and the parades, or because I want my children to partake of all that.

I want those things, I always have, but the challenge after Katrina is too large for such a simplistic dream.

I'm coming home because I see all of the devastation and division and uncertainty and think, there must be something I can do to make this better. I'm coming back because I see the city's leaders on the verge of losing the treasure, just as they nearly did 30 years ago. But this time it's not just the Quarter. It's the whole city.

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.

The task is so huge; it seems that it's impossible to know where to start.

But that's not true. For us the first step is clear.

We're coming home.

. . . . . . .

Mark Folse lives in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at his blog, Wet Bank Guide, at

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Counting Up the Cost of the Corps' Failures

A massive story in the Aug. 26 Times-Picayune blames "centuries of missteps" for the failure of the federal levees. The long lead in from page one appears to exonerate the Corps of Engineers for the engineering mistakes clearly documented by the Berkley forensics team, but a careful reading of the the three and a half inside pages leads to a conclusion inconsistent with the lead paragraphs.

Lets take a hard look at each of the decisions broken out by the paper, scoring each mentioned group. The first is the original decision by Bienville to build site the city in its current location. I think its ridiculous to include this in the catalog of missteps. First, it it tantamount to including gravity and inertia in the allocation of fault in a car accident. Second, even as the article says that "if Bienville conducted his search [for a location] in 1950 instead of 1718, the location would clearly have been folly...But in 1718, he could not have done better." Well, the city wasn't founded in 1950. I imagine they felt they had to include this to answer the bitter enemies of New Orleans who argue the city should not be rebuilt in its current location at all. No one gets a demerit for this bullet.

In 1871, the original drainage plan proposed by W.H. Bell would have put the pumping stations at the lakefront rather than the back of town. Score one mark against the City. In the bullet 1828-1970s, the article points out that while channelization of the river (from which the city directly benefited) would have let to incremental wetlands loss on a scale of thousands of years, oil-and-gas exploration accelerated that time line for wetland loss to decades. Score one against America (meaning, the country in general). Score, N.O.-1, U.S. -1.

The next bullet reviews the "factor of safety" decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which set a standard of 1.3 based on its project to construction river levees after the great flood of 1927. This standard was considered sufficient to protect the largely agricultural lands the river levees would protect in the delta. As river levee reaches cities, and as storm levee construction is taken over by the Corps in the wake of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, this standard goes unchanged. Minus one, Corps.

The next item is the decision to build the MRGO in St. Bernard to connect the city more directly to the Gulf. It proved an economic white elephant, and it was built even though the Corps news of its dangers, warning in a 1963 report the channel would increase water inflow in a storm. City minus one, Corps minus one. At about the same time, the story points out there was no after action report, no postmortem on the flooding produced by Hurricane Betsy. Minus one, Corps of Engineers (which was responsible for the post-1965 levee hurricane protection project, as was the logical group to undertake such a study).

The section covering 1965-1979 covers the design and construction of the post-Betsy Hurricane protection system for New Orleans. It reviews the Corp's decision to use the standard project hurricane rather than the maximum project hurricane, and to ignore changes in the project hurricanes published in the 1970s. This was primarily a cost/benefit decision made by Congress and the Corps to our detriment. U.S. And Corps, each one demerit.

The next milestone is 1977, when the Corps proposes to use gates across the mouth Lake Pontchartrain to keep water out of the lake and away from the interior levees. This was fought both by environmentalists and fishing interests, and the story points out that is the key point by which some seek to blame the environmental movement for Katrina and the federal flood (including official efforts coordinated out of the White House to try to place blame here). This section points out, however, that the Corps' own analysis shows the plan would not have prevented the Federal Flood, because the original design spec was insufficiently high, like the rest of the Corps levee system. For this, minus one Corps.

As for the fishing interests and their allies in the environmental movement, to allocate blame there would be to suggest that a large portion of the vast local seafood industry be shut down to provide for this project, which would not have protected the city in 2006. Let me ask this: the nation could have saved billions (in current dollars) if they had chosen not to build the river protection system if the nation had decided not to protect the vast swathes of land in the Mississippi Delta and other flood plains, choosing instead to import more food. Does anyone thing this argument would have lasted in Congress more than five minutes? I am going to give the fisherman and environmentalists a minus one, provided the Corps is prepared to abandon the protection of rural farmland in the rest of the Mississippi drainage basis.

In the 1980s, the Corps proposed building floodgates to close the mouth of the drainage canals. The Sewerage & Water Board fought the proposal because it would significantly reduce the pumping capacity, and result in the flooding the city with rainwater instead of lakewater in low lying areas. Locals forced the Corps, through action of the Congressional delegation, to pursue the plan to raise the levees along the outfall canals, which was more expensive. As the Picayune points out, the Corps did not object to the plan to improve the canal levees except on a cost basis. This one, as a result, is a draw. No demerits.

In 1985 the chief of engineering for the New Orleans District decided not to use updated elevation data, knowing that much of the levee system would--as a result--be below Congressionally authorized protection levels. I would like to give the Corps a minus 10 for this, but in fairness, we will stick to giving another minus 1. In 1989, the Corps make bad assumptions about the permeability of the bottom of the London Avenue Canal, leading to massive leakage that undermined those floodwalls and levees after Katrina. Again, Corps minus 1. And in 1990, the Corps disregarded samples of the soils around the 17th Street Canal levees, directly contributing to the failures in Lakeview. Minus one.

Over three decades, the Corps disregards new findings in engineering science and never incorporates these into Corps design manuals, allowing fatal weaknesses in floodwalls to go unnoticed. Corps minus one. And finally a 200 foot gap is left in the floodwall along the Orleans Canal as an intentional floodway, to protect substandard structures in the old pumping stations building. The S&WB or Levee Board could have acted to protect the pumping stations and raise the floodwall, but choose not to. The Corps, as a result, did not build the wall to Congressional mandated protection heights. So we will call this one, N.O., minus one and Corps, minus one.

The Picayune story says there was no "smoking gun...That one person, agency, policy or decision...respposible." That is technically true, but a reasonable assessment finds one agency overwhelmingly responsible, based on our score:

N.O. -2
U.S. -2
Corps: - 7

I think that we should take blame where the city is at fault. In fairness, the federal government should only be required to pay 81% of the full cost of all losses in New Orleans and surrounding areas. The $110 billion is an acceptable down payment. We look forward to the timely payment of the balance.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

I wanted to thank President Bush
for the millions of FEMA trailers

10,700 unused FEMA trailers still in Arkansas Posted by Picasa

"And my mission was very simple. I wanted to thank President Bush for the millions of FEMA trailers that were brought down there. They gave roofs over people’s head. People had the chance to have baths, air condition. We have TV, we have toiletry, we have things that are necessities that we can live upon. But now, I wanted to remind the President that the job’s not done, and he knows that. And I just don’t want the government and President Bush to forget about us. And I just wish the President could have another term in Washington."

-Hurricaine Katrina survivor Rockey Vaccarella, after he drove his FEMA trailer from New Orleans to Washington to demand a meeting with President Bush, which he was, surprisingly, granted.

First, Mr. Vaccarella didn't drive a FEMA trailer to Washington. That would be an act of grand theft that FEMA would likely take a dim view of. I'm curious to know from whom he "borrowed" an "exact replica of a FEMA trailer" as reported by the Times-Picayune. The T-P couldn't muster up the gumption to ask. I woul ask that because, second, Mr. Vaccarella is a former GOP candidate for office in St. Bernard, and the banter at this White House press conference hints that this was a staged event.

Welcome to the Anniversary as orchestrated by the White House that put Karl rove--its chief political hack and hachetman--in charge of Katrina response. This think stinks to high heaven, and the big media fell for it hook, line and sinker.

There is going to be an ugly war of words this weekend. Spike Lee launched the first salvo, and the White House offers up this to show what real (white, Republican) Americans on the Hurricane Coast are like, so that the rest of y'all don't have to get all in a tizzy about that Spike Lee fellow and his movie.

I can say without reservation that Mr. Vaccarella does not speak for the vast majority of people in this area, who harbor tremendous anger and resentment toward the executive branch of the federal government--the President, FEMA, SBA, the Corps of Engineers--and everyone who represents it. The closest analogy that comes to me is one I used to explain to some fool Texan a while back: the resettlement of Indians, and their treatment by Indian agents and the U.S. Army.

Bush needed to have this little staged event because, frankly, he could not put in a personal appearance that wasn't carefully staged and screened. It would burst the safe little bubble he has built for himself in an ugly way. People would tend to be respectful of the office, I imagine, but lurking just beneath the surface would be an ugly mob with tar and feathers on its mind.

Still, Bush is coming anyway for the annivesary, so he can tell us what a swell, caring fellow he is, as he demonstrated for all of us and the entire world last year. It will be a safe, scripted environment, the sort of event I was banned from in Fargo N.D. for having the temerity to write a column in the newspaper suggesting the ten commandments monument in the public park outside city hall and the library be replaced with one listing the Bill of Rights, for serving as a district Democratic Party chair and placing my name on the ballot for the state legislature, for once attending a meeting about Howard Dean. Seditious stuff, that.

This is what I wrote back in January, after the fleeting, self-congrtulatory notice in the State of the Union address of the greatest disaster in the history of the United States. We will not let Bush rewrite our history, to deny his own minor holocausts like Saddam in the dock.
There are hundreds of thousands of us, scattered throughout most of the United States. We are everywhere you and your party will go to campaign: Arkansas and Atlanta and Austin, Dallas and Detroit and Denver, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Baltimore and Boston, Chicago and Charlotte. Many will remain there indefinitely, unable to go home, precisely because you have lied to them and betrayed them.

We will not let you escape from the net of lies you have woven. Wherever you turn, you will find us, ready to call you out. 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. We will not soon forget what you are doing. We will not let you or the American people or the world forget either.

Remember 8-29.

Remember Convention Center Boulevard.

Remember the Industrial and 17th Street and London Avenue Canals.

Remember the St. Claude Avenue and Judge Perez Drive.


Friday, August 25, 2006

Rising Tide Conference

One last plug for the Rising Tide Conference, at which I will be a co-moderator/panelist on a panel on blogging and journalism in the post-Katrina world.

The Rising Tide Conferencewill be a gathering for all who wish to learn more and do more to assist New Orleans' recovery from the aftermath of the natural disasters of both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, the manmade disaster of the levee and floodwall collapses, and the incompetence of government on all levels. We will come together to dispel myths, promote facts, share personal testimonies, highlight progress and regress, discuss recovery ideas, and promote sound policies at all levels. We aim to be a "real life" demonstration of internet activism as the nation prepares to mark the one year anniversary of a massive natural disaster followed by governmental failures on a similar scale.
I don't normally get this geeky in public, but I've setup another blogspot called Rising Tide Blog, to which I can use my crackberry pager to send periodic updates (since my laptops is hors de combat) from the conference during the day.

It's not too late to just show up at the door to hear some fantastic panels featuring bloggers (of course) local journalists, politicians and neighborhood activitists talk about the future of New Orleans (and the role of blogging therein).

See you at the New Orleans Yacht Club tomorrow (Saturday, Aug. 26) between 8 and 9 am for registration. A lunch from Dunbar's is included in the $20 door, and we will commander the NOYC's bar afterward.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Death By Demography

What are we to make of all these population numbers? Are people coming home or not? Social scientists are strugging to define the longterm outcome of the Katrina diaspora, to determine how many of the displaced may never return, to puzzle out what communities will gain in the long term what New Orleans may lose. For the consumer, the news reports are contradictory and confusing.

First the Times-Picayune gave us this bleak assessment of the city's population on Aug. 8, estimating as few as 171,000 Orleanians have returned based on Post Office statistics dating to early June. Then on Aug. 23, we get Entergy's rosier assessment promoted from a page 3 footnote in the earlier story to the lead number in the story Entergy data shed light on N.O.'s population.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. "I still think there are a lot of electric meters for people who are not full-time residents," [Shreveport demographer Elliott Stonecipher] said. "We need to be sensitive about what is our daytime versus our permanent population."

My first question is, why did the Picayune rush back to report a story they had already buried on Aug. 8? One expects a certain level of boosterism in a city's newspaper, and the bright spots are hard to find amidst the clouds of diesal exhaust from the rubble trucks.

And what about those trucks? One thing I constantly notice in Mid-City is the continuing apperance of new refrigerators and other appliaces, signs that houses abandoned until now are being gutted. Is this just the city's deadline or is it a sign of continuing progress?

We get conflicting stories and no clear answers. Each of us is forced to look around, and make our own assessment, just as the decision to stay, return or leave is an individual decision influenced by so many unique factors.

The Houma Daily Courier story Katrina accelerated the speed of people leaving Louisiana, N.O. examines the question, and offers some debate on where those who do return may land. Not the New Orleans area is the answer they pull from the crystal ball.

While good data is hard to come by, there is a trend demographers are well aware of: Louisiana was hemorrhaging residents prior to last year’s hurricane season. Based on the most recent census, 75,000 more people moved out of Louisiana than into it from 1995 to 2000. New Orleans alone lost more than 47,000 people during the same period.
[Shreveport-based demographer and political analyst Elliot] Stonecipher said the storms have placed this historical trend into hyper-drive. Additionally, recent reports have used postal records to show the wave of people moving back into New Orleans has slowed, and Stonecipher believes a counter-wave of people moving out is about to occur.
"We don’t want to believe that any of the people that stayed are going to leave, but they are," he said. "They’re going to leave because the schools didn’t work out. They’re going to leave because of Entergy. They’re going to leave because of the mayor’s race and state politics. They are fed up, and they do not want to wait anymore."

The last bleak assessment is based on nothing cited in the story beyond Stonecipher's gut telling him that we are at a tipping point. The story suggests there is data indicating people who stayed or returned are ready to leave, but it offers no evidence, and I have no insight into Stonecipher's motivation. I'm all in betting against him, so I have my own prejudices. My own belief is that some areas of southeast Louisiana are going to gain population from New Orleans. People who can't ( or won't) come home to the city may find enough of the Louisiana lifestyle in Baton Rouge or Houma or Lafayette.

Local urban planner and political commentator Gerg Rigamer had a more upbeat take on WWL-AM drive time radio on Thursday. He suggests the population of Orleans Parish is in fact at 50% or better, and his opinion is a ray of hope of Stonecipher's gloom. He told WWL that there are more people who want to come in than [those] who cant to move out. The constraint is lack of available housing. The people who are home now are those who have a place to live. Until the housing crisis is resolved, more people simply can not come home.

Who is right, Rigamer or Stonecipher? August is an ugly time here, with the anniversary upon us and the continuing parade of bad news--Entergy rates staying skyhigh, and perhaps going higher, the state Recovery District schools in disarray-- weighs heavily on everyone. Are some people giving up on returning, or giving up and leaving? Some certainly are, and no one should be surprised when a year later only a trickle federal money has to come to the actual survivors of the storm and the the flood?

I hear that fatalism in on-line forums such as the NOLA.Com Moving To New Orleans chat room , but I suspect much of that comes from people who gave up long ago, and sit in their comfortable brick boxes on the northshore or in the river parishes and try to tear New Orleans down, to vindicate their own decision to flee the city. I do not hear that buzz on the street. For every anecdotal story of someone giving up, I meet someone on the street who has moved to New Orleans post-Flood. As fast as the debris teams can clear Mid-City, a new house is started and new piles appear.

The story you will miss if you read the Picayune online is the picture of recovery neighborhood by neighborhood that Wednesday's online graphic gives. The population of New Orleans East, measured by Entergy, is off 75 to 85%. Gentilly and Lakeview both remain depopulated by 75%. Every area has lost population, even Algiers is off 6%. There is a steady return of people, and the most devestated areas showed a real increase in meters since March, but the population remains well below 50%.

The sliver is safe, with all areas showing well over 50% population return. Where I live in Mid-City is a bit more dicey at 42%, but there was a vast population of renters, people for whom the return home is made more difficult by no real compensation for their losses, no ready assistance for landlords, and skyrocketing rents. The homeowners here are clearly trying to come back. But in Broadmoor and the Ninth Ward, in the outlying areas of Lakeview, Gentilly and New Oreans East, the return figures approaching the one year mark are bleak, 25% or less.

That's the real question I read in the storyLocal inertia dooming recovery, report says, in which Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana criticize the city for its lack of a plan. Even as we jump through every flaming hoop they put it front of us, the question keeps coming back: what is the plan?

The real answer is is again a question the Picayune and other media do not ask, or at least to not publish the answer to: what do they mean by a plan? The answer is hinted at in the stories about demographics, particularly in the graphic in today's Picayune story about population numbers, the answer to the question that's been taboo since the firestorm around the Bring New Orleans Back report. What areas may not make it because not enough people are coming home this year?

The report recognizes the challenges, citing uncertinties about flood elevation rules, the failure of the private insurance system, and the failure of the federal government to get even partial compensation into the hands of the people who need it to rebuld. But it continues to restate the question that's been stashed away since the mayor's commission first asked it.

"Without clear guidelines from community leaders about what areas will be rebuilt and when, many residents put off making a decision about whether to return, and the longer the delay, the more likely they are to stay where they are. That, in turn, has consequences for any community's long-term survival," according to Dr. Richard Nathan, co-director of the Rockefeller Institute.

Are we at a tipping point, a place where the specter of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's recommendation that neighborhoods prove their viability comes back to haunt us? The flow of recovery money from LRA has been so slow to start that many of the worst neighborhoods have missed the chance to get home before the school year starts, which both demographers agree is an important milestone. Stonecipher says families that put their children in school this fall elsewhere may never return. I suspect that those who want to come home will, even if they have to move their children midyear. Rigamer points to the slowly opening spigot of LRA money, and argues that there will be a continued rise in population through year's end as people finally get some government compensation to help them rebuild.

Even with Rigamer's optimism, with the East, Gentilly and Lakeview still at around one-quarter of their pre-storm population, it may be time to revist the hard question, the one many of us hoped Mayor Nagin would rise to and confront once he was safely re-elected: can those outlying and badly flooded neighborhoods be saved? Is it time to start encouraging people to move into core city neighborhoods such as Broadmoor and Mid-City, where return remains below 50% but are still far ahead of the outlying suburbs? Should the city and Entergy be investing scare resource we really can't afford to restore services in neighborhoods that are a ghost of their former selves?

At the risk of angering good friends of mine who live in these places, its time we started to have this discussion, including how we might fully buy out people who've made the investment to return to places that prove unsustainable. We are now a city of half its former size. Any return to something approaching half a million citizens is in the distant future, and we need to start coming to terms with the reality around us.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Decoding Spike Lee's movie

Is Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke too Afro-centric? Its impossible to tell for those of us who haven't seen the film.

I was not in the crowd at the Arena when Spike Lee debuted When The Levees Broke. I don't have HBO either, so I don't know when I will get to see the film. I do know that the Times-Picayune gave an immense amount of ink to a movie reviewer to discuss it, and his impression focuses I think too much on the predetermined line of it's too black and talks about the levees blowing up. These are the themes echoing on anonymous online forums and on conservative radio. He seems to have gotten the talking point memo, even if only by osmosis.

There is an instructive discussion going on at People Get Ready. I think Schroder's initial response relies to heavily on the Picayune review, which presents a synopsis of the film that other viewers reject (in the discussion at PGR and elsewhere) as patently unfair and incorrect. None of us will be able to judge the movie until we see it for ourselves.

At the risk of impuning Dave Walker or angering Schroeder, someone I like and admire, I have to ask everyone who is writing or talking about it how what baggage they bring to the film. Walker's review has this one line that struck me: "In one of his future installments, perhaps, will be the stories of Lakeview families whose losses were every bit as tragic as the stories told so movingly in this film". Where does Mr. Walker live? Is he a native of New Orleans?

The last is the most important question, because of the one piece of baggage everyone born and raised here carries around: we are all to some extant racists. I don't mean that the city is equally divided between secret White Citizens Councils and devotees of Louis Farrakhan. It means that virtually all of us were raised, directly or indirectly, to have a racially tinged view of the world, learned the language of racial indentity, the code words for ourselves and the Other.
Many of us, thankfully, are racists in recovery, who have to work every day of our lives to keep from taking that drink from the demon bottle we were weaned on, but like alcoholics it is the daily work of a life time to keep the deeply ingrained impulse in check. That young man walking behind you as you return to your car in the Garden District; would you hurry your steps the same if he were white? Did you really vote for Nagin because he was the best candidate, or because he was one of your own?

I am sure there are some people in New Orleans who don't fit this mold, but I have a feeling most did not grow up in the south or in New Orleans. My children, raised in the upper Midwest (and through the labor of years to do or say nothing that might transmit this inherited syndrome) have not a bit of it. I hope that in their new city, they will be a shining beacon for everyone they meet.

Spike Lee is a Black film maker. He's not a Black man who makes films; he makes films about the Black experience. Still, is his focus on the Ninth Ward any different than that of the national media, who made that neighborhood the poster child for the federal flood? Did he arrange it so that the majority of people at the Convention Center and Superdome were black? Or did he just come to report what he learned as he watched CNN with the rest of us a year ago August, that the poor and the Black were left behind in the evacuation, and suffered terribly in the days after.

T-P reviewer Dave Walker is right: people lost everything in Lakeview and Gentilly, but most of those people did not spend days on Convention Center Boulevard begging passing soldiers for a bottle of water, only to be ignored. Most of those people in the old suburbs died in their homes or in the streets outside, swept away as the water came in, and not on a lawnchair on dry land. As I reported in the first week of September last, white people were dying in the heat in the Chalmette Slip and Asians at Mary Queen of Vietnam church in Versailles, waiting for the rescue that seemed it would never come the same as everyone at the Convention Center. I found that news after extensive digging because I had some experience of those places, cared about the fate of those people. The major media, however, focused on the disaster right around the corner from their hotels.

Was Spike Lee wrong to start from the story all America heard in the first days after, the story that his audience already knows, so as to draw them into a four hour event? Ultimately, I don't know. I hope that all of America will feel drawn or at least obliged to watch this film, just as I sat through the four hours of the Sorrow and the Pity at the Prytania years ago, not for an evening's entertainment but to educate myself about something terribly important.

What troubles me about this entire debate is that it is the wrong debate at the wrong time. It it just another exercise in digging ourselves deeper into the hole we're in instead of trying to get ourselves out of it. It is not about race. It is about the levees, the incompetence of government(at all levels, involving politicians of all races and creeds), about the future of New Orlenas. I'll dredge up words I wrote about the mayor's famous "chocolate city" speech in Martin Luther King Day:

The unintended outcome of the speech, both in its religious rhetoric and in it's signature "chocolate" moment, was to rip the scab off of the huge gash that separates New Orleans into separate, warring camps: by race, by section, by church, by income.

It's not all Nagin's fault. It's all of our fault, that we measure each other by skin color or the car we drive, or where we park that car on Sunday morning or at night.As long as we view each other like fellow travelers through a fun house mirror maze, distorted and funny strangers who are just part of the wild carney ride's landscape, we will never make it.

The Bitch didn't care. Her waters came up the MRGO and took the paint-bare, black-eyed-pea shotguns of the Lower Nine the same as it took the Bunny Bread, virgin-in-a-tub brick ranch houses of Chalmette. Claiborne Avenue or Judge Perez drive, they cried and struggled and drowned just the same. The waters that swept up Canal Boulevard and Paris Avenue didn't stop in at the Hibernia to check anybody's balance. They took everyone in their path, no checks accepted.

Don't let anyone forget. It's not about black or white, Lakeview versus NinthWard, rich and poor.

Its about the damned levees.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Profiteering, waste and failure

That is the legacy of the Bush Administration, FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Hurricane Coast. That is the finding of the non-profit CorpWatch as reported by the internet news aggregation site

In a report titled Big, Easy Money the corporate watchdog details how billions of dollars were funneled to politically connected corporations in no-bid, cost-plus contracts ripe for abuse. The same cast of corporate players were responsible for the massive waste and failure in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq.

"One year after disaster struck, the slow-motion rebuilding of the
Gulf Coast region looks identical to what has happened to date in Afghanistan
and Iraq. We see a pattern of profiteering, waste and failure - due to the same
flawed contracting system and even many of the same players" says CorpWatch
Director Pratap Chatterjee. "The process of getting Katrina-stricken areas back
on their feet is needlessly behind schedule, in part, due to the shunning of
local business people in favor of politically connected corporations from
elsewhere in the U.S. that have used their clout to win lucrative no-bid
contracts with little or no accountability and who have done little or no work
while ripping off the taxpayer."

The full report is available online here.

The Sept. 18 Times-Picayune continues the saga, detailing how large, out-of-state corporations gamed the system to win $200 million in bids to provide emergecy housing "FEMA" trailers. Everyone in America heard about the handful of (mostly out of state) grifters who gamed FEMA out of a few million dollars.

How many know that politically connected friends of the current administration have looted billions of tax payer dollars, effectively denying the aid Congress voted for to the people who truly need it? Everytime you hear some official mouth the lie about how much money was sent to the Gulf Coast during the August anniversary, remember to mark down that person as a liar, and remember that most of that money has never arrived here through the filter of big corporations that siphoned off most of it along the way.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

"She survived the storm.
She didn't survive the rescue."

While a flurry of lawsuits is inevitable as the one year anniversary of both Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood approaches, I felt obliged to call out this one for attention. The story of Ethel Freeman was an iconic one in the weeks that followed the collapse of the U.S. government's levees. It came to signify all of the failures that compounded to create the single largest tragedy in United State's history.

Ethel Freeman, dead of neglect outside the convention center

(Before you go all 9-11 on me, let me suggest the attack on the World Trade Center could only compare if the federal government had known all about it, had perhaps even given the conspirator's free flying lessons. The fact that government at every level so completely failed us is what makes this, in my mind, the nation's greatest tragedy.

In 9-11, no FEMA official stood in the road and told rescuers they could not go forward because it was too dangerous, or because they did not have their paperwork in order. National Guardsmen did not barricade themselves behind doors because they had not food to give to the survivors outside. The victims were not left dead in the streets of Manhattan to be collected like the bodies of dogs.)

For those who have forgotten, here is a story on the lawsuit her son has filed against the city and state. Another suit against the federal government is pending.

The elderly woman died sitting in her wheelchair outside the city's convention center, which was overwhelmed with desperate evacuees. Her body, pushed to one side and covered with a poncho, became a widely noted icon of the botched hurricane response.

Freeman's lawyer, John Paul Massicot, said the mother and son were instructed to go the fetid convention center -- even though there was no aid available and no way out. "Let's not forget, she survived the storm. The storm didn't get her. She didn't survive the rescue," Massicot said.
If you want to talk to me about Spike Lee and his increasingly famous half-a-dozen minutes out of four hours listening to people in the Ninth Ward argue the levees were sabotaged, scroll back up and take a good hard look at that picture.

Or this one.

Or this one.

I could go on and on and on...

When you are done looking at these images, really studying them, get back to me.

Then you can talk to me about Spike Lee.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

That Corps of Engineers is some funny

Everyone in New Orleans, everone inthe entire United States and all the world who knows the true story of how the substandard levees built by the Corps of Engineers drowned New Orleans, needs to see this photo. Quality, the signs reads, means doing it right the first time. (Go ahead, click the link. I'm not, Mr. Barry, making this up).

No doubt it was placed there by some contractor and not by a Corps official. At least, one hopes that after their international and very public huminitation as incompetents that they would cringe at the thought that this sign appears on their repair sight for work on the 17th Street Canal. Then again, we have all had to lower our expectations.

My impression is that the Corps has more sense than this. The organization was smart enough not to publicize the awarding of a medal to the man who's overseen the levee restoration since 8-28, the man who only changed the composition of the St. Bernard levees from substandard, sandy soil to proper materials when outed by visiting engineers, who has consistently over promised and misrepresented the gating system at the drainage canals at which the above sign appears.

The Corps certainly managed to keep a lid on the retirement of the man who oversaw the catastrophe of New Orleans. The Reuter's story Army leader who admitted New Orleans errors quits didn't appear in the Times-Picayune. Google News doesn't find any mention of it anywhere outside of the original Reuters wire story. It was picked up by the Gulf News of Qatar, which I have noticed in the past takes a greater interest in these events than our own domestic media. I think I'll have to find out which big oil companies they own, and make a point of buying my gas there.

That leaves us with the latest Corps story on NOLA.Com:
Six months after the Army Corps of Engineers was given about a billion dollars
to raise sinking levees and rush unfinished hurricane protection and flood
prevention projects to completion by September 2007, none of that construction
has started anywhere in the metropolitan New Orleans area.
As the story points out, this was emergency work. There are lives at stake, and the Corps is busy tidying up its acquisition procedures. I wonder what all America would think if they Army were still studying how to speed up armoring Humvees in Iraq? I am confused at why some people from Crawford, Texas think that it's important to federalize disaster response and turn it over to the military, when six months after the Army Corps of Engineers given money for emergency work in a matter of life and death, they are still stuck on paperwork?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Rising Tide NOLA Bloggers Conference

On August 26, 2006, the Rising Tide Conference will be a gathering for all who wish to learn more and do more to assist New Orleans' recovery from the aftermath of the natural disasters of both Hurricane Katrina and Rita, the manmade disaster of the levee and floodwall collapses, and the incompetence of government on all levels.

Keynote speakers will be Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security. Your's truly will be a co-moderator of a panel Influence of Journalists and Bloggers, a bloggers as new media discussion in the context of Katrina and the flood.

We will come together to dispel myths, promote facts, share personal testimonies, highlight progress and regress, discuss recovery ideas, and promote sound policies at all levels. We aim to be a "real life" demonstration of internet activism as the nation prepares to mark the one year anniversary of a massive natural disaster followed by governmental failures on a similar scale.

Official Schedule

Friday, August 25th
Setup for organizers, travel day for visitors, EVENING RECEPTION

Saturday, August 26th
VENUE: New Orleans Yacht Club, 403 N. Roadway St., New Orleans, LA
8:00 - 9:00
Keynote Address: Christopher Cooper and Robert Bloch, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security.
9:15 - 10:15
Panel Discussion: Personal Viewpoints moderated by Mark Moseley
10:30 - 11:30
Think New Orleans by Alan Gutierrez
11:30 - 1:00
LUNCH (possible viewing of Katrina-related films)
1:00 - 2:00
Panel Discussion: New Orleans Politics moderated by Peter Athas
2:15 - 3:15
Panel Discussion: Influence of Journalists and Bloggers moderated by Maitri Venkat-Ramani and Mark Folse
3:30 - 4:30
Panel Discussion: Bloggers & Neighborhood Associations moderated by Morwen Madrigal and Peter Athas
4:30 - 5:30
Mixer and cash bar.

Sunday, August 27th
We have several options for your Sunday.
Work Day with Common Ground or Habitat for Humanity
Attend meeting of the African-American Leadership Council and attend church service or gospel brunch
Choice activities around town with the help of a buddy system


General Information
For more information on the conference, please email Kim Marshall.

"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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