Sunday, December 31, 2006

Just One Victory


When I worked on the Dukkakis campaign in 1988 and I was asked by someone in the national media about the campaign's apparent decision to abandon the southern states, I didn't call Boston to ask for an appropriate response. I simply replied with the same answer Gen. Anthony McAuliffe gave to the German invitation to surrender at Bastogne: Nuts.

Like the Germans staff officers who delivered that answer, I had to explain what it meant: no surrender.

Some people have taken my references to the dark views of others in New Orleans as something personal, something about me. I feel infected in part by what I hear on the street and online. If I haven't written anything resembling an optimistic piece, I'm just a reflection of the city.

No one should take what I write as indicative of some personal funk. There are people with way more serious problems than I confronted in moving here-Poppy Brite, and Tim and Morwen in Gentilly come to mind along with a host of friends from Lakeview-- people who've lost everything they owned who have come back here to make a stand. I am a mere gnat buzzing about their bright light.

The problems of the city at large are immense and to treat them as insignificant would be wrong. At the same time, to treat my own view of them as significant is also wrong. I'm just a guy with a laptop and too much time on his hands, apparently. If I tend to find the glass half-empty too often, my world view is colored by how I spent the last several years at work: in computer software testing. When you are paid to imagine all the worst things that can happen, where the golden rule is expect the worst, and you'll never be disappointed, only pleasantly surprised when things turn out better than expected, its bound to stamp a systemic pessimism onto one's view of things.

Is that the real me? I don't think so. The last thing I did at that job on my last day was to send the same email I sent at the start of ever new software release: a GIF image of the Don't Panic icon from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and an attached WAV file of REM' s Its The End of the World as We Know It. What some people find dark and pessimistic is for me both a simple form of realism, an purely intellectual understanding of the Buddhist concept that Suffering Is.

If I haven't managed an optimistic post in the last several months, well, its been had to find the inspiration. Instead, Peter of Adrastos cited my own funk and that of other bloggers and posted a video clip of a song I have returned to over and over again since its release in the early 1970s, whenever the funk seemed it was about to drag me down.

Thank you, Peter. His simple few links and a link to a song is the most important blog post for New Orleans of 2006, so visit it now and follow the link to the song. If you listen closely, you will understand the importance. If you grok why a song might be the most important thing of the past year, you are already one of us. And if you're in the doldrums, this is the song to lift you up and take you to the next level.

Somehow. Someday.
We need just one victory and we're on our way.
Praying for it all day. Fighting for it all night.
Give just just once victory and we'll be all alright.

Thank you, Peter. Thank you, Todd.

If you gave my a blank check to spend on saving New Orleans, I would hire Todd Rundgren to play this at the opening of the Sugar Bowl. Forget the Saints Are Coming. Forget victimhood and When The Levees Broke.

This is the song I want everyone in New Orleans to hear. Because I know a place where dreams are born, and time is never planned. I just needed Peter and Todd to remind me, to lift my own spirits so I can help to find the good amidst all the struggle here, to send me off to reread the words I posted in one of those "dark" pieces of the last few weeks:
"...the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside
you. If you only see problems and darkness that's all there's ever going to be.
But if you're one of those people who see lightness and hope, then you can make

Friday, December 29, 2006

How long, lord?

Leadership would be great. Lack of leadership is not great, but we can deal with it. But the illusion of leadership would be the most dangerous thing of all.
--Harry Shearer in Chris Rose' Sixty Second Interview
Actor, comedian and activist Harry Shearer is a voice more people in New Orleans and the entire nation need to hear. This is particularly true at a time when I hear the quiet despair in Jack Ware's comment on the post "We all in da same pirogue, cher" that "many people have told me they're waiting until after Carnival to move out of the city".
Rose: Without using references to food or music, tell me why New Orleans is special.

Shearer: I heard (photographer) Herman Leonard quoted on that very subject
today, so I will defer to the great one. He said: "There's no place on Earth where I feel more comfortable in my own skin."

Rose: But Leonard doesn't live here any more.

Shearer: I'm carrying the torch for him....

Leonard is not alone. Over half of the city's population remains scattered to the four winds a year-and-a-half after the calamitous failure of the Federal Flood, when the levees we were promised would protect us crumbled like the promises of all politicians under pressure. Worse is the uncertainly among may of the 200,000 who are here, the burning question is just how much they can do alone and unaided by the government, which has dispensed only a fraction of what was promised .

How long, lord?" The question the biblical psalmist asks is one tied in my mind with the tradition in the black churches' of identification with the people of ancient Israel, enslaved and downtrodden so long on their path to the promised land. In Psalm 13, it continues, "How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day?...I trust in your faithfulness. Grant my heart joy in your help..."

It was that identification with the Israelites that gave at least a passing, Sunday joy to the life of a people who had known great suffering. It counseled patience and faith. I imagine it is a message one could hear today in the small storefronts of Central City or a mega-church advertised by the billboards that line my daily drive down Claiborne Avenue.

It was not something I heard much in my Catholic upbringin, and I wonder how much those of us who do not have those messages ingrained in our hearts suffer the more for it now. If Ware's supposition is right, that some or even many small businesses are just hanging on through Sugar Bowl and Carnival hoping to make up some of the immense debt they have racked up by reopening before they fold, or if the rumor that many individuals may decide to leave come Lent is true, it should surprise no one.

The rush of stories these past weeks about the Road Home program, that promised up to $150,000 in rebuilding assistance but is often delivering as little as $500 , should be enough to tell us that people are being stretched to the breaking point. Over and over we have read of people who tell the newspaper they have been waiting on those funds to begin rebuilding, or even to decide whether they can rebuild and come home. I can barely imagine what they must have felt when they opened the envelope, and found an insulting pittance, can barely imagine it because it is too painful to contemplate.

For how many will it be the last bitter insult in a long train since Federal levees failed us and our city was flooded? I have to wonder if here in the New South, people still take counsel from Psalms, or are we become just another part of a society that taps its foot impatiently to wait for a hamburger or a cup of coffee at the fast food restaurant. Are we ready for this marathon? I recall from my trip down from North Dakota that as close as Jackson, Mississippi the big and little box national retailers gleam clean in the morning sun along a ribbon of interstate highway, calling to people living in small trailers in ruined neighborhoods. How much longer will they resist that call from other cities?

How long, Lord, how long? ". . . Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure. Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours: and our enemies laugh among themselves . . ." the Psalmist laments in number 80. Unlike the children of Israel, release for the 200,000 is as close as the nearest tank of gas and entrance to the interstate. A conversation with a friend a few weeks back, a couple that came home early and rebuilt and who threw themselves into the endless parade of rebuilding meetings, turned to he takling whistfully of what life would be like in Memphis, and I wonder, how long?

Much comes down to what we can accomplish on our own. The question I have asked here again and again, is this: are we still the nation that weathered the great depression, or who turned back the seemingly invincible Japanese advance into the Pacific? Are we the country that, flush with those victories, erected a home for every soldier and the highways that tied them together, the nation that sent men to the moon.

Those who held the reins of power when Katrina wipped the Gulf Coast clean and the Federal levees failed measure greatness by prowess of arms. They were amply rewarded for their failure in Iraq with a serious thrubbing at the polls this past Fall. I think a greater test is whether this nation can rebuild New Orleans and the hurricane coast. As the blogger Ashley likes to remind us all, they rebuilt Hiroshima. For that matter, they also rebuilt post-war Europe, a fact I am reminded of when I think of the European foundation established to repay that largesse, which is helping to rebuild the gymnasium at my son's school.

The pronoun they in both cases refers ultimatley not to the Europeans or the Japanese, but to ourselves. It was our decision to spend the necessary billions to rebuild our war-torn enemies out of pure self interest. No one wanted to recreate the environment of widespread dislocation and fear that gave rise to the Third Reich in the first place. The chance for the nation to redeem itself by acting to save New Orleans has not passed, but the tipping point grows closer every day and the repercussions of failure are almost as dire. If we fail here as we are failing in Iraq, then it will be the milestone that marks the end of the American era of greatness and the beginning of a long and potentially painful slide down into the dustbin of history.

Either way, I'm staying. The end of empires is never a pretty sight, and I'll feel more comfortable living someplace that the powers that be have already decided is not worth their trouble, far from the angry mobs or the marching of soldiers. Perhaps it is all for the best. The invisible hand that now rules the world, the same that shuttered the stores of Canal Street and replaced K&B with Rite-Aid and D.H. Holmes with Dillards, then sent the corporate headquarters retreating to Atlanta and Dallas: that hand of Mammon has not been kind to us.

If we want a city that resembles the one of memory and desire, perhaps it is best if we are left to ourselves to build it. Give me enough people like Shearer, like the New Orleans bloggers listed at right and I believe we can do it: ourselves alone; Sinn Fein, as Ashley says. Going it alone, without fair compensation from the government for the damage they caused, will be painful. Some will try and not make it, risk everything to return and rebuild or reopen, only to loose everything. If we must go it alone, this will certainly be a smaller city, and some will leave ruined and broken by the effort. Whether we are recalled as heroes or fools only history will tell, but I think know the measure of those who have chosen to come home and try. There is no finer place to be an American today than in their company.

8.82:Corrected with to without fair compensation in the last paragraph...

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Yes, New Orleans, There Is A Santa Claus

There is a young tradition in my family of watching the Muppet film The Christmas Toy at this holiday. It was never a popular holiday staple. If you blinked during is television airing sometime in the the early 1990s, you would have missed it. My children, however, still love to watch it. For myself, it is my reminder that Christmas miracles do come true.

I won't need much of a reminder this evening or tomorrow, sitting in my house on Toulouse Street in New Orleans. The first part of the wish I expressed in the piece below came true not a month after I wrote this: we were on our way home to New Orleans. Like most wishes for great things, it did not come without a cost, but on balance we were so lucky: finding a dry house we could afford, children ensconced in Lusher and Franklin charter schools, my daughter Killian at NOCCA. So many pieces fell into place, that the miraculousness of it all is striking.

Much of the rest of what I wished for seems distant, almost beyond hope. My hopes for the rest of the city seem mired in a willingness of us all to slide easily into old ways that could drag us down back even deeper into the old problems, the old divisions. And so I'm going to repost this, as a reminder that wishes can come true if one sets out to make them so. The city need not slide into racial turmoil, does not have to tolerate failing schools or rampant crime, and should not accept that corruption or incompetence are just some part of the natural order.

You have to have faith. Still, that is not enough. The lesson in my homecoming is that faith is never enough without works. If you find the thoughts for the city something devoutly to be wished, then it will only happen if we are determined to make is so. And there is sacrifice. This Christmas post is dedicated to my wife, Rebecca, who took a difficult new job in a strange city, coming here alone six months before the children and I, and found and made the home were we will celebrate our first real Christmas in New Orleans. Her love for me, her faith in my dreams, and her work and sacrafice were the essential components of this wish come true.

Faith, works, sacrifice. If you make it into church today you probably won't here those words. Even if tomorrow is the only day, or one of the few you make it into a church, you will still recall these concepts from other gospels of Sundays long past. You can even be a believer but not a Christian: these are the timeless principles off all faiths. All of them are required of us--believers or not--if our dreams and aspirations are to come true. But on this winter's day we can start with faith, with a willingness to believe in miracles.

Saturday, December 24, 2005
All I want for Xmas is New Orleans

There is an old convention in journalism that we bloggers, as the New Journalists of the 21st Century, will feel bound to observe: the Christmas piece. As a former reporter, I can't seem to resist the temptation. But it's more than dragging out the fir and lights; it's a deeply ingrained desire to say or do something good at this time of year.

All I want for Christmas is New Orleans.

How easily this conventional, almost trite sentiment comes to mind. But it is true. Even for a 20-year ex-pat, there is nothing I want more. Outside of my wife and kids, there is nothing dearer to my heart than the home I left behind New Year's Eve 1986. Like most first-generation emigrants (and I have always considered myself an immigrant to the United States from the Republic of New Orleans), I have never, could never break the ties of place to my only real home.

And since I said to my wife back in late September "I want to move back to New Orleans" and she, instead of spitting wine all over herself in convulsive laughter, said yes, its become even more important to me personally, and not just because I was what Dr. John called traumaticalized in a recent Chris Rose column in the T-P.

At an age when my kids are more than halfway grown, and I sit and contemplate what to do with the rest of my life, I can't think of anything I want to do more than be a part of the future of New Orleans. Anything else will, for me, be an excuse for a life, the poet's quiet desperation of hanging on until it's over.

That's not a life.

I have no illusions about what was lost. Hell, the city I left in my rear view mirror nineteen years ago was not the city I grew up in. So much had been lost already to the relentless floods of time and American commerce; so much more was swept away between that New Year's Eve when I left and the flood. But the failure of local stores, as dear as they were to us all, was not a New Orleans problem. It was an American problem, happening everywhere. Losing D.H. Holmes or K&B were a disappointment. But that was not the same as losing the neighborhood bars and restaurants and stores, all threatened in the aftermath of Katrina and the flood.

Much that remains the same would not be missed if it could somehow be carried away with the ruined appliances and the moldy drywall: the crime that blossomed in New Orleans just like in every other heavily poor and black urban area, the political division and bickering that separated New Orleanians into warring camps, the corruption of the School and Levee Boards.

And there are the embarrassing headlines about the N.O.P.D. or Bourbon Street bartenders, the remarks sitting in my inbox today from various lists about the people Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris called "the criminal element" in his 60 Minutes interview. You know who I mean. Many of the people I hear complaining the loudest about Mama D must have lost all their mirrors to Katrina, because they could mostly use a long, hard look in one.

I won't accept just resettling, merely rebuilding New Orleans. Somehow, it must be better, fairer, less poor and less divided, and still every bit as much the city of memory and dreams. Not many cities are presented with the opportunity of starting over from scratch on such a vast scale, being given a second chance to do things right.

The New Orleans of my Christmas wish is not just the town I grew up in, or the town I constantly pine for on some level--the city of food and friends, of music and Mardi Gras--it is for a city where people make a decent living and can afford to own and fix up their homes, where the schools and police and the levees work at least as well as most other places, where the unifying spirit of resettlement and recovery breaks down the fear that divides Audubon Place from Almonaster, separates Lakeview from Lafitte.

It should be a place that is rebuilt for the benefit of it's people, and not at the whims of the market-place that's already left so many of them behind, the invisible hand that turned the last jazz club on Bourbon Street into a karaoke bar, the idol Mammon that would demolish everything to rule over a thousand suburban boulevards lined with box stores, that would be perfectly appeased to make New Orleans into an historic shell for upscale boutiques.

Only if a critical mass of people come home can what is good be saved, and what is not be averted. I understand why some people who lived in crime-ridden neighborhoods would stay in their newly adopted homes, why others who sacrificed the high salaries of elsewhere to live in New Orleans might find it hard to return home to sub-market wages and inflated rents.Good luck to you all. But you may find, five or ten or twenty years from now, that you have never really been happy living in your new home. The city’s pull will begin to work at you. You will want to go home.

That’s my Christmas Wish, not just to come home, but to be part of one of the great stories, the one about miraculous births and resurrections. There are so many pieces that must fall into place, so many immense hurdles to overcome--multiplied by the hundreds of thousands, once for each of us--it seems only a miracle will do.

But I believe in Christmas miracles. A decade ago, my three-year old daughter fell in love with a character called Rugby Tiger, from an obscure Muppet’s movie call the Christmas Toy. Having Rugby Tiger was her only Christmas wish, the only secret she had for Santa.

Finding Rugby Tiger proved to be impossible. The Christmas Toy is a wonderful show, but not a spectacular of the sort that generates tie-in marketing. The stores at Christmas are full of great piles of stuffed animals, but none came close to looking like Rugby. We scoured the smallish town we lived in at the time, and all the stores of Fargo, N.D. as well. I dredged through catalogs online stores back in the early days of e-commerce, and called every major toy store I could think of. It became increasingly clear there would be no miracle, that the first Christmas my first child really understood would be a failure, a disappointment that would haunt her the rest of her life.

There’s a happy holiday thought.

Then one day, perhaps a week before Christmas, I went into a little mom-and-pop drug store in little Detroit Lakes, MN, and walked past the big pile of stuffed animals I had twice before torn apart. As I came back from the pharmacist with my little bag, I decided to have one last desperate dig. And that’s when I found him. His tag didn’t say Rugby Tiger, but he was a perfect replica, the very image of the television tiger.

Christmas was saved.

I’ve told this story to my children, when they finally asked me about Santa Claus. Yes, I can tell them with a straight face, I do believe in Santa Claus, because once when I truly needed a mieraculous Christmas present for someone I loved, it happened. Perhaps I’ve used up my quotient of miracles. But I know that belief is more than just a bit of sustaining psychology. I am a poor excuse for a Christian, probably not one at all at this point in my life. But I know there is a power within us and without us that, sustained by belief, can work miracles in this world.

Most miracles are small and personal things: two people meeting and falling in love, a child’s face on Christmas morning when they find a dream come true, the birth on a winter’s night of a child entirely ordinary and no less miraculous. My Christmas wishes for myself and for my city may seem as improbable as the sentiments of a beauty contestant, but they’re not. My wish is for the thousand tiny and entirely human miracles I know are possible.

My wish is that at this holiday, somewhere in America, the separated parts of a family come together in exile--a little more complete—and begin their plans to go home; that somewhere in a line at a government office, two people discover that the other is not a greedy white boss or a scary black criminal, but someone with whom they share memories and hopes; that someone will come home today and, when the tears have finally stopped, they will begin again their life in New Orleans.

I'll see you there.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Ordinary Time

This AP story Katrina's Nameless Dead on efforts to identify the remaining unclaimed victims of the Federal Flood brings back an old newspaper memory, a shipping accident on the Mississippi River front in the early 1980s in the days before right Xmas that claimed several lives.

Back then I had wanted to write an editorial quoting the old hymn dedicated to those in peril on the sea. Back in those pre-Google days, the words to lyric that were not easily come by late of an afternoon in a small newsroom. Something came up in news and the column was never written. The failure to write that has always stuck with me as one of those small regrets that linger in our memory, perhaps because I recall it each year about this time and pause to think of those in peril when the rest of us sit down with family and friends to celebrate.

In the past year, in one fashion or another I have written a great deal about those whose peril is past, those I called the ghosts of the flood. A year ago, I tended to write about the lost, the thousands of missing I feared would prove to be among the ultimate toll, and referred to them routinely as the dead. I resurrected a post from fall of 2006--Citites of the Dead--this past October for All Saints Day that attempts to explain, after a fashion, this compulsion. We all go on about the problems of the living--which is certainly the right thing to do--that I sometimes think we will forget the lost.

There is some comfort that the list of the missing, and now that of the unidentified dead at St. Gabriel, grows so short. Reading this long story of the naming of the brother's Kiestutis and Peter Pranckunas brings stirs not the anger of my early posts about the lost or the unidentified dead; none of the strong words pounding like drums of alarm, a sound like that of the riding of the wild host. Instead the feeling is more one of melancholic communion, a certain quiet sadness that seems appropriate in the latter part of the darkening days.

While I still feel the flashes of anger that kept this blog alive for the last year and a half, my mood of late has been frantic activity of a very personal sort relieved by quiet reflection. It has not been the spirit of the Wet Bank Guide of the past, and so posting here has fallen off. So has the work I thought I came here to do, to be a warrior in the last battle of New Orleans. Instead, I miss a string of Mid-City and UNOP meetings to drive my young warrior to endless Tae Kwon Do classes to prepare to test for the next level of Cho Dan Bo, his junior black belt, and I don't feel particularly guilty. A warrior is impeccable, I remind myself as I search out the words of Don Juan for a friend struggling with the people the Indian sage (through Carlos Casteneda) called petty tyrants. Given the choice of my son's preparation or arguing over the dribble of recovery dollars, I think I know which is the choice of the impeccable warrior.

So I missed a month of meetings, and found myself on the short end of the elections for my neighborhood association. It's just as well, I remind myself. My new job at a local bank precludes leading any effort to create a Community Recovery Corporation. One of the other two people bumped off the list of nominees comes up to a group of us at the annual meeting/social and is clearly angry at what she sees as the high handedness of the group. I shrug and wave my empty Abita at the bartender and listen to a friend tell me of his own struggles with the idea of a new job. We discuss the cities we would pick if things don't work out here, and agree that Memphis seems a better choice that most.

I don't really look that far ahead lately. I can't see myself in Houston or Dallas or Atlanta or even Memphis, and I'm far from giving up on New Orleans. As I've said before, I'm all in on the river card for this city. I listen to my friend talk and tell him of one vision of the future of New Orleans that has come to me lately, a city that is the new Mandeville, a quaint place to live while we all commute to businesses relocated across the lake to the dry I-12 corridor, and I don't find that the worst of all possible worlds. My wife talks of where we might retire, and I imagine myself leaving the place I've struggled for the last year and a half to reach an imagine myself sitting on the on rock by the sea, admiring a piece of driftwood while the sea thunders and my ears and I think: perhaps.

For now I am here, and I have work to do. It may or may not be keeping up Wet Bank Guide, or the struggles of the rebuilding process. It will take every ounce of political acumen I can muster to suceed in my new job, and I wonder how much of that energy I can invest in the continuing battles over reconstruction. I've stolen immense amounts of time from my family and work and reasonable sleep to keep up the earlier pace of the blog, time that I can't afford to keep up indefinitely. So many stories in the last month to write about--the insanity of the LRA and UNOP, the generation's work it will take to rebuild the levees: the headlines lie folded up on the porch swing. Heading out to an office for my new job, I no longer have the leisure to read the paper for my morning break. So much I could say, but it seems I never have the time.

A friend sends me an article asking "have you seen this?", and I have to confess I had stopped reading Google News of New Orleans, was missing the articles that often spawned the postings on this blog. Partially from a sense of guilt, I click for the first time in weeks on a Yahoo link to stories tagged Hurricane Katrina, and I find there the story of the brothers Pranckunas. The ghosts of the flood, it seems, will not let me be, are the one story I can't escape.

When I write about the ghosts, about Vera Smith, the question that keeps returning is: how do I best honor them? It seems in little bits of syncronicity that they answered my query, come truly crowding about me to see if I have an answer. For now, I'm not sure. Is it virtual pamphleteering, or battling in the streets block by block to save the city like the defenders of Stalingrad? Or will I become one of the mumbling men who once haunted places like Canal Street and still do the boulevards in other big cities, handing out smeary flyers laced with rage?

As things close inward at the dark of the year, it seems a good time to slow down and figure that out. A large part of me thinks increasingly that just living a life here in New Orleans may be enough, may be the medicine for myself, for my city, and for the ghosts of the flood. I'm not as young or as fit as some bloggers out their demolishing houses or as free as others to dedicate myself to nearly full-time, on-line journalism. What I most need to do, what so many of us need to do is to find a way just to make as normal a life here as possible, and to find the time to taste all that which makes the city the place we wish to save. I read Dangerblonde's extraordinary record of the common place and I think: this is what Kiestutis and Peter Pranckunas, what Vera Smith would have wanted.

Here at the cusp of the year, at the high season of the ecclesiastical calendar, I find myself called to live in ordinary time. While I'm mostly severed from that circular calendar of purple, green and gold, I recognize that real faith isn't that of those who show up at Christmas and Easter, so much like the fans who drape themselves in black-and-gold only while the Saints win. It is the faith of ordinary time that is the most profound because it is the hardest to achieve and sustain. It requires that which has kept me from being profoundly religious all of my life: a willingness to surrender.

I think I need to surrender to New Orleans, to pay attention to living here comfortably because I think that is what will make my family more comfortable here. It means remebering that funny kind of hope I once wrote about, it means being more hopeful than angry or despairing. This little bit of surrender doesn't mean I won't find my way back here to rail against our bumbling politicians . I sat down to write inteinding a piece about the bright and hopeful mayor of Newark Cory Booker and contrasting him with You Know Who. Listen to to this NPR piece. It says it all about how ill served we are here.

What I really took away from that story--besides the tale the young man who died in his arms after a shooting at the housing project where he lives by choice--was his anecdote about the tenant council leader in his highrise project. She asked him what he saw in the neighborhood and he listed the crackhouse and the drug deladers. She told him, "the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you. If you only see problems and darkness that's all there's ever going to be. But if you're one of those people who see lightness and hope, then you can make change."

So, instead of holding our mayor to up in detailed comparison to Booker and complaining, I think what I'm going to go do is open a beer, plug in the holiday lights to drive back the darkness a bit, and listen to Bayou Christmas while I wrap a few presents for the people who mean more to me than all the rest of this city. I need to work on my faith in the simplest ways possible at a time when it's the natural thing to do, and relish the perfectly Orleanian ease of it, so I'll be ready for the challenge of keeping up the faith in ordinary time.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Thank You Dallas

On what seemed a bleak day after Dollar Bill Jefferson was able to roll up a victory built on racism and homophobia, exploting our divisions at a time when we can't afford it, a bunch of guys who think only in terms of black and gold were led by a couple of folk from out of town to crush the Dallas Cowboys on prime-time national television.

It's time for bed so I'll cheat a bit and quote myself from back in September:
The Saints are one of the things that make us a city, that overcomes the immense divides of race and class that we struggle with every day. On a Sunday afternoon (or occasionally a Monday or Sunday night) we put all of that aside. We are all Saints fans. We need that unity, that sense of common purpose, as much as we need to chalk up one more W for the season, even against the detested division rivals.
They are a better team than we deserve. If you voted for Dollar Bill or stayed home and let him be re-elected; if you voted Republican in the past and acquiesce in (if not endorse) the sort of politics that left him unindicted on the odd chance he might be re-elected to provide some future political advantage or a West Banker who helped send a future felon back in our name on the odd chance you might do better next time, don't be putting on your Bush jersey tomorrow. You don't deserve to wear it. If you want to be part of team New Orleans, then you damned well better start acting like it.

What the hell good will it do to make the playoffs and lose the city? Saturday's election was an embarressment because we all forgot that we're on the same team. The opponent isn't that guy across town who paints his face black-and-gold instead of gold-and-black, its the people in other cites and other states who benefit from our loss. We need to shake off Saturday and remember the levee and assessor vote, the election of a new city council in all the repopulated districts.

The Jefferson voters need to forget all of the racist and homophobic nonesense and realize that Dollar Bill is a liability to the franchise, that keeping him was a mistake, that his inevitable indictment will be for them a second chance to get it right. And the dimwads who thought Karen Cater was the person we ought to send to Congress, its time to pull your collective heads out. The 200,000 deserve better than that.

We need to get up tomorrow and get back to work at being a city worthy of what we saw, of what the nation saw on television tonight. We need to figure out how to be a team that models itself on the 53 men who did honor Sunday to the names New Orleans and Louisiana. All right, now shower up and get on the damned bus so we can start over tomorrow on doing it right.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

By what right?

Shreveport associate professor of political science Jeffrey D. Sadow's makes a claim widely repeated in the past year, that the people of New Orleans (and the hurricane coast in general) have no right to live where we do at the general expense of the rest of the nation.

Why, he and many others ask, should the costs of hurricane protection, coastal restoration and flood insurance be borne by a nation that does not choose to live in such a dangerous place?

While he grants that there are compelling reasons to be here--the oil-and-gass, the port, and coastal fisheries and agriculture--he misses the real question lurking behind that assertion: does the rest of America have the right to live where ever they choose, if their choice requires they own an SUV or large truck and drive it 100 miles or more in their daily commute? Does that right extend to the destruction of coastal Louisiana in the name of oil-and-gas exploitation to feed their bad decision, if that cost is to be borne by the people of Louisiana?

I put this question another way in a post back in June:

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?

Clearly the nation is full of people who will cheerfully send their sons and daughter off to fight wars to secure their right to live in exurbia, and to drive that SUV so that they feel safe traveling in a bumper to bumper crowd at 70 mph from their semi-rural castle to where ever it is they make their daily bread. These same people will clamor against us if we try to require they pay the hundreds of billions of dollars in deferred costs for doing so, to repair a half-century of damage to our coast.

There are vast untold costs for the decisions of the last century, and those bills are now coming due. If global warming shifts climate enough that the semi-arid midwest becomes unsustainable as an acricultural region, when then should I pay them any compensation for the loss of their homes and livihood, or shell out the millions of millions it would require to divert the Great Lakes to water their crops, all so that we can all continue to live the post-war dream of a house as far out as we can stand to drive, and a fleet of large gasoline engine vehicles to carry us there and back again?

New Orleans and the rest of the hurricne coast (say, from Brownsville, TX to Savanna, GA) are not the only places people choose to live that are in danger. According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study, the coastal strip of the United States comprises about 17% of the nation's landmass, but almost half of the population chooses to live there. In an era of massive climate change, and when by our settlement we disrupt the fragile coastal ecosystems we all choose to live in close proximity to, can this be sustained? Or will we require the millions who make the coast their home move to Omaha?

The simple fact is this: European people have lived on this coast for 300 years, and the native populations longer because it is economically attractive. There are vast resources of prime agricultural land (created by the silt transport of the Mississippi and other rivers) and fisheries, the opportunity for water-borne commerce, and in the last century the extraction of oil-and-gas. Living here was tenable because we settled in places that were protected to the best possible extent from flooding.

Even before we outgrew the highest and safest land, efforts were made to make sustainable coastal cities through the construction of larger and more extensive flood protection system. If the levees around New Orleans had been built and maintained to their authorized standard, we would not even be having this conversation. The first issue is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through murderous negligence failed to build and maintain the levees we paid for with our tax dollars. In my view, they should be held to the same standard as the contractors of Massachuetts's Big Dig project, and be tried for their murderous negligence. But that's not the real issue.

The problem we on the Louisiana coast face is that the barrier land that surrounded our places of settlement is being lost at a precipitous rate, only in small part due to natural subsidence. The lost is largely the result of man's own works, to channelize the Mississippi River for commerce and to exploit the oil-and-gas found in the coastal zone. One of the hidden costs of a cheap oil-and-gas economy was to expose cities like New Orleans to flooding which the coast previously protected them from.

Now that cost, like other costs from our fossil fuel economy, are now coming due. Yesterday's vote in Washington to begin paying reasonable royalties from offshore exploitation, the money appropriatde to pay for damage from the Federal Flood, are only a start, a downpayment.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Wrong Lizards

"Because if they didn't vote for a lizard," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might
get in. Got any gin?"

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, by Douglas Adams

In the little tale within a tale quoted above, a character explains why on a distant planet people keep voting in evil lizards to rule them. Sorry to spoil it a truly funny bit by revealing the punchline, but it is an apt summary for our own little morality play involving the lizards we elect to represent our interets.

Today's Times-Picayune story on the study by Risk Management Solutions estimating flood risk for insurance companies is an instructive example of how our elected officials completely fail to grasp the situation we are in, or simply don't give a damn. And I don't mean people from distant states railing against us in Washington, but people in City Hall and Baton Rouge. In a clearly adversarial situation, they retreat into timidity and abandon us to our fate.

The RMS study, which tosses out an yhistorical baseline for storm frequency and disregards the scheduled improvements to flood protection for metro New Orleans, is being widely touted by insurance companies as the basis for jacking up insurance rates. Now I'm not a statistician, but have had enough exposure to know that reducing the historical sample is probably not a very bright way to project into the future. Unless, of course, your purpose is not to try to predict the future, but to shape it to your own purposes. (c.f. Mark Twain on the uses of statistics).

Even after throwing out a century of data, the worst risk cited by the report placed the likely frequency of flooding at Filmore and Elysian Fields in Gentilly (the lowest spot considered) at once in every 55 years. The report then throws in an assumption of as much as a one foot rise in sea level from subsidence and global warming, which raises the assumption to once every 41 years.

What they disregard is that at current assumptions about how much sea level might rise. One study suggests an averge increase on the order of four inches over the next century, although you can find data suggesting that it could be more precipitous if there were massive polar ice sheet meltdowns. However, if something that drastic happens, New Orleans will just be another threatened spot on the map in a world of global catastrophe. How much precisely should my insurance go up based on the possibiity of a giant asteriod strike that ends life on earth?

Subsidence is a larger problem, with studies suggesting the city could sink by as much as three feet in the next century. This is based on a single study, contradicted by others that find as little as 10 millimeters per century. I suspect some of the wildly inflated subsidence rates are based on areas that were improperly reclaimed. While I don't have links or other evidence, I clearly recall conversations from the 1980s about the development of New Orleans east where land was not being allowed to property setttle after drainage and before backfill and development, because developers were not interested in waiting decades for the drained land to stabalize.

What RMS has done is take the worst possible case because it presents the information its clients want, and packaging it up as science supported by math. What is appears to be, according to the T-P article, is a crass misuse of science and math to profit from the desires of RMS' customer: the insurance industry. What then do those in positions of power have to say about this skewed bit of scienticsm? the T-P reports:

Col. Terry Ebbert, director of homeland security for the City of New Orleans, said the report would be one more useful piece of information to help shape the city's future.
Yeah, helpful like a lead life ring, but then what would you expect from a an Oompa-Loompa?

The Louisiana Recovery Authority heralded the report as a validation of its belief that South Louisiana needs to be rebuild stronger, safer and smarter.
L. R. A. Does anyone in Louisiana need any further explanation for their failure to support us?
These are the people who should be advocating for our recovery. By their acquiesence in this report, they demonstrate their incompetence.

Dan Hitchings, director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Hope which is re-engineering the levees, takes a slightly stronger position and points out that the reports decision to ignore the improvments to area levees is one reason "the report [does] not have much value. It talks about a situation that doesn't exist any more. They put that risk right back on to pre-Katrina condition with no known weaknesses."

[He] suggested that RMS and the corps share technical assumptions to make
sure that the insurance industry doesn't end up using one set of data and
rebuilding leaders end up using another. "I think it's important that we share
at least on a technical basis so we don't end up with broadly different
conclusions," he said.

Translated from project manager speak (in which I am moderately fluent): you're a fuckmook, but in deference to your corner office we'll disregard your drooling idiocy and have some sort of meeting at which we pretend you're not an idiot. The technical basis part of the discussion will pretty much expose you to everyone as an idiot, after which the remaining rational people can either get on with the real work, or all adjourn to call our headhunters.

This RMS report is the same sort of selective use of evidence used to debunk global warming, except used in this case it leverages global warming to expand insurance company profits. Presto, Change-O! we can through the magic of numbers change the basic business model o finsurance to one where only people with no risk get to have insurance, and the insurance industry executives laugh all the way to the bank.

The fact that no one in a position of authority has (yet) called them out on this bit of flim-flam pretty much goes to my point of earlier this week. Our leaders are like the lizards in Douglas Adams dystopic fairy tale cited at the begining. We believe we live in a democracy where our interests are represented, but keep voting for people who do not represent our interests out of fear that something worse might happen. And then we complain about the outcome.

Got any gin?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Times Are (Still) Not Good Here

"Times are not good here. The city is crumbling into ashes. It has been buried under a lava flood of taxes and frauds and maladministrations so that it has become only a study for archaeologists. Its condition is so bad that when I write about it, as I intend to do soon, nobody will believe I am telling the truth. But it is better to live here in sackcloth and ashes than to own the whole state of Ohio."

-- Lafcadio Hearn

Will our leaders hear the clarion call of the new poll out of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, in which a third of area residents say they may leave the area, and take decisive action to address our most pressing problems, or will this get lost in the whirl of holidays and Mardi Gras and be tossed aside like a newspaper we were too busy to read, not knowing it contained the ad for the new job we have been hoping for?

The poll reports a disturbing 32% of residents of both Orleans and Jefferson Parishes say they are likely or somewhat likely to leave the area in the next two years. The issues cited in Orleans Parish (which contains the entire City of New Orleans) include crime, action from government, fixing the levees and infrastructure (streets and the like). Without a baseline it's hard to interpret that result. Given the difficulties the city faced before the storm, I have to wonder how many people would have given a similar answer to the same question two or three years ago, even if only to vent to an anonymous pollster?

It takes a tremendous effort to get back home, and I have to wonder how quickly people are going to toss that effort aside and surrender. You can certainly hear that sort of chatter online, about whether those who are home are going to make it, are going to be able to stay. The obstacles are so clear--fix the levees, squash crime, do something about property insurance rates and the schools--that I am amazed that the city is not swarming with bright-eyed technocrats tackling these problems.

In another era, that would have happened. People believed in government as their agent of good, in each other abstractly as fellow Americans, and so such things were made to happen. After a generation of political climate based on fear of the Other and a concerted effort to tear down and even sabotage the effectiveness of government, we are no longer the people or the nation that defeated the Axis or put men on the moon. Behind the jovial faces of Reagan and the Bushes was a concerted effort to put an end to effective government, to return to a laissez-faire economy in which only the market would decide the tasks at hand.

The invisible hand has passed over us, and marked like the doors of the Israelites what it would save. Oil-and-gas production is restored. The port and the interstates are open. Everything that is necessary to commerce has been done. What remains are the needs of individuals, consumers and workers that in the current model are interchangeable and if necessary disposable.

As the blogger Ashley Morris constantly reminds us, we are on our own. Sinn Fein.

I missed the discussion on local talk radio yesterday, but I can't imagine anyone would be surprised by these findings. In a time of crisis decisive action is needed. Instead we get the usual slow pace of government. After the excitement of an election in which the districts with a large returned population replaced the incumbents, City Hall has largely lapsed back into its pre-Federal Flood torpor, our formerly reformist mayor crafting secret contracts that vastly increase costs to the benefits of shady operators. In Washington, the response to the nation's largest natural disaster in a century is treated as if it were a debate on the subsidies for the export of soybeans.

Poll number like these ought to be a wakeup call to local politicians that the pace of recovery is unacceptable, that there is only so much people are willing to bear. Unfortunately, leaders like Mayor Ray Nagin have been hit by news like this so many times they are punch drunk, wobbly clinching in the corner with no manager there to throw in the towel. The governor isn't much better, scrambling to find the magic combination of half-measures that will enable her re-election without upsetting the political status quo.

The political status quo has failed us. We just completed an election cycle in which not a single fiery reform candidate mounted a challenge for Insurance Commissioner, in which the one candidate who made the response to Katrina central to their candidacy ran for Congress in New Hampshire. The conventional political parties both appear incapable of addressing our needs: at home, in Baton Rouge or in Washington. We are on our own. Sinn Fein.

The invisible hand has what it needs and unless those needs are disrupted we will see little more from our government. Yes the oil-and-gas is flowing, but through pipelines critical to the offshore industry that were built for another coast, one that has vanished into open water. Can these pipelines continue to be operated safely in the new geography? Where is the candidate for governor who will close them until we can make that determination? I will cheerfully pay three, four or five dollars a gallon if that is the cost of getting the nation's attention.

The insurance industry is retreating, effectively shutting off commerce on the coast. A commenter on an earlier post pointed out to me that when California faced a similar problem, they simply cut off the lucrative markets for auto insurance to those who offered property and casualty elsewhere but not in California. Problem solved. Where is our insurance commissioner? Pleading on his knees? Be a man for christ sake.

Yes the port is open, but it is clear that the levees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are not to be trusted. Come the spring flood, we should do what they did in 1927 and inform all shipping that they must operate at bare steerage way while they pass through our state. This should slow things down a bit. If they don't listen, we can adopt the enforcement mechanism of '27 and inform all ships they should carry two pilots, because the state will post snipers that will shoot any pilot that doesn't follow the rule.

If you find that approach rather too strong, I have another suggestion. The state licenses and sets the fees of pilots. It is within our power to close the port of necessary. Come the spring flood, we should at least have a open discussion on the point, and watch the bushel price of crops plummet in the mercantile markets. That would get the attention of everyone in the drainage basin of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio.

We have to recognize that we are in the position of Lincoln in the depths of the civil war. We are in a battle for our very existence as we conceive ourselves, and the old generals are failing us, are leading us through timidity and incompetence to defeat. We need new generals, who will treat the rest of the nation as Grant and Sherman treated the south, as ruthlessly as necessary to get the job done.

It would sadden me to learn that people were forced to evacuate North Dakota, my home of ten years, because they could not sustain their (heavily subsidized) agricultural economy there at seven dollar a gallon and seventy cents a bushel, but it would not trouble me as much as having to abandon New Orleans.

It will be easy to lose the anger, especially as we slip into the Xmas holidays and then into Mardi Gras, but it won't go away. I find it hard to sustain that anger, as the frequency of posts here trails off under the demands of raising two children, a new job, etc. Still, the feeling this poll has tapped will simply simmer underneath the holiday wrapping and paper mache trappings of the season.

Whether it wraps itself in that cocoon of festivity and emerges as frustration and resignation that packs its bags and leaves, or becomes a real movement to demand compensation from the Feds from the flood they caused and honest officials who will use that money wisely remains to be seen. It is not beyond us. As I wrote last February, we are still those people who get up and go to work, who do our part to cross the invisible hand with what it demands. We built this city over the last three hundred years, and can preserve it for another 300 if we don't give up hope.

I believe the people of New Orleans haven't given up hope because we had so little of it to begin with. The venality of politicians, the inefficiency of government, the vicissitudes of weather and termites, of social and economic decay, all of these breed a certain sense of fatalism, an "if Allah wills it" quality that is alien to most Americans. We have a sense that New Orleans, without those burdens, would no longer be the place we love. We cherish a notion of ourselves as the equivalent of a nineteenth century sailor's Shanghai, a colonial outpost of sensuality and corruption and decay. We don't want to be 21st century Singapore, a model of totalitarian efficiency and cleanliness. It just ain't who we are.

And yet, the insha'Allah and the ennui are a mask, one we wear not just on a certain winter Tuesday, but most days of the year. Behind that mask are the people who get up five days a week and haul their kids to school, then go to work. They get up on a sweltering Saturday and overcome their tropical torpor to mow the grass. Later that night, they go out to try that new restaurant.

They get up on Sunday and hope that, this time, the Saints might win. Somewhere today in New Orleans (or Houston or Baton Rouge or Atlanta), someone will put down their beer, and talk about how wild it will be in the Quarter the year the Saints win the Super Bowl. At some level, and as much as we might not want to admit it, we are a hopeful people. Hedged in by levees that may or may not hold, beset Formosan termites and feckless politicians at every level, it would be impossible to live here without it.

Its a funny kind of hope, as old as Abraham. When you expect the worst around every corner, as often as not you will turn that corner and find some small thing that gives you a tremendous lift. That's where we find hope, like a glinting half dollar on the broken sidewalk as you walk from a bad day at the track to Liuzza's, the little mystical sign that maybe today or at least tomorrow is going to turn out all right.

As we stare at a new year that promises an endless series of challenges its important that we not give up hope, that we not let the anger that is righteous anger dissipate and become despair. Like Lincoln in his darkest moment, we need to get up from the darkened room and go out and find the generals who can win this war and stand beside them as they fight it. We the 200,000 who have fought our way home can not give up or the ten generations of our forebearers who built this city will have labored in vain.

Sinn Fein.

"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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