Friday, July 28, 2006

On Vacation

The Wet Bank Guide is on vacation, and will return after the first week of August.

The View from Under the Volcano

A friend sent a link to the Serbian B92 online radio/news services Blog in which Jasmina Tešanović writes about a visit to Holly Beach and Cameron. In it, she asks (or perhaps it is her friend who asks) " Why do people stay in disaster sites, living under the volcano?"

The refrence to Malcolm Lowry's novel is interesting, but not an apt metaphor for the hurricane coast. The lurking dangers of Lowry's Under the Volcano are not geographical or natural. The volcano is a bit of theatrical backdrop. In Lowry's Mexico the real volcano is Geoffery Firmin, an alcoholic on the edge of a complete mental and physical breakdown, an man in a drunken head-on with his past, specifically his ex-wife and his half-brother.

New Orleans is full of Firmins, self-medicating themselves in the shadow of the volcano, stepping through life as gingerly as a drunk on a broken French Quarter sidewalk, working their way through the fog of life disaster zone, just focusing on the next thing that must get done (which is hopefully not to find the bottle they've hidden from themselves). It is peopled by uncertain idealists like Geoffery's half-brother Hugh, people in search of a lost past like his ex-wife Yvonne, by the corrupt officials and criminal pelados that lurk at the edges of the novel.

Their presence here is not tied directly to the eruption of flood waters that poured through the levees and into our streets. These people were here before the flood, and have returned. Our personal volcano, the lurking threat of flood and storm, does not loom over us in the way a smoldering caldara would. It is deeply internalized, hermetic, a very part of who we are. The tenuousness of life here imparts, I believe, much of the joie de vivre that makes New Orleans a special place. Every generation has its storm, or its near miss. We see ourselvesf or our neighbors reduced to the clothes on their backs, forced to start over. The text of New Orleans is that of Omar Khayyam, an in'shallah fatalism that reminds us to enjoy today for tomorrow it may all be gone. Again.

Why, I would ask Jasmina and her friend, do people live in Serbia and Croatia and Montenegro? Why didn't everyone leave when things fell apart? In modern Europe, there are roads and cars and air flights, the ability to flee to a safer place. Why would they stay? And once the shooting and bombing and raping stopped, why would people want to return? Shouldn't these places be empty wastelands like Holly Beach and Cameron?

The Balkans are not depopulated for the same reason New Orleans is not, for the same reason ravaged and exposed places from Holly Beach to Shell Beach will not remain that way. I expect to see women waiting on the steps of their piling-mounted houses watching their husbands tie up their boats for the day, children on bicycles weaving up and down shell roads chased half-heartedly by lazy dogs beneath a sky full of wheeling gulls. I expect this because of people's profound attachment to the place of their birth, to a way of life, to friends and family; the complex way in which our internal geography interacts with the social and physical one around us.

People do not give up such territory casually. I carried my absence from New Orleans like like a vivid scar for almost twenty years. Yes, it was well hidden by the daily life I put on during that time, but the incessant itch, the phantom pain never quite stopped. And now I've asked my family to cut their ties to Fargo, N.D. and move to New Orleans. Not a single day passes when I'm not reminded that my wife and two children are uprooted while I am home. It is the secret pain that replaces that of my severed ties to the city, but one which I think will heal for all of us with time, as Toulouse Street becomes home.

Why did I bring them to live under the volcano? In Lowry's fictional world Firmin's ex-wife is compelled to try to lure him away from a slow death by drink. His brother Hugh is bound for the Spanish Civil War. They are compelled by powerful emotions to go in directions that drives the reader to say to them: stop, don't go there. You can't save this drunk. You can't save the world from facism.

In the end they could not, but they were compelled to try, to go into an impossible situation to try to save something of the world they once knew, or to make the future world they dreamed of. It is my own experience of that same irrational and inherently human drive that tells me Holly Beach and Cameron will not remain empty.

Jasmina writes of the disturbing emptiness of these places:

I am interested in people, not things. But there are not many people around here any more. The new upright billboards, beside the older broken billboards, urge the local people, who are nowhere around, to sue their old insurers for the homes and possessions they have lost.The mass grave of a city appears, gated by barbed wire: RITA DUMP SITE. It used to be a town, Cameron... the heaped debris of the dead town is colorful and futuristic... made of all sorts of materials, without shapes, without traces.… What did these objects used to be?...

One of these days the world we know will disappear. The rusting wheels and wires and tortured trees and marsh grasses will survive. Unlike the pyramids, this debris will not testify of a lost civilization, but of our lack of one.

It is the ruin of today--the ruin of Cameron and Chalmette, of Gentilly and Gulfport, not that of some misty future--that testifies to our lack of civilization. The Dutch have shown how to live with the sea. In 21st century America, as long as the oil-and-gas and the port are on line, the lives of the rest of us--simple, disposable cogs in the great economic engine--are of little consequence. We can be as easily relocated from our homes as pallets of product, should accounting dictate. What we have is not a civilization but an economy, one that is overtaxed by debt and war, that has no cost center to which to bill the saving of its soul.

If we cannot save the home of Jazz, our uniquely American art, or the rest of the cultural treasures of New Orleans, do we truly have a culture, a civilization? If all we have to offer the world is the cross and the gun, then precisely how far above our latest adverseries are we? Or are we both rump cultures, we as deeply disconnected from our Enlightenment roots as the Islamists are from the civilization that gave the world algebra and named all the stars. The world today seems almost as bleak as that Lowry saw in the middle of the last century. The prospects for the future of The West remain just as unclear, threatened from without and rotting from within.

Still, out of this morass we must find a way to live. We can do what most people in America do: ignore it, and go shopping or play golf. Or we can watch cable television obsessively and rant and rave against the Other that has ruined our ideal world. I find both of these scenarios more disturbing than my decision to take my family and move them under the volcano. The people of New Orleans are not the ones ignoring the danger. They are the ones confronting it, the people working a day job and gutting a house by night in the shadow of the volcano who are a greatest generation in their own right. (Not me, a recent arrival in an unflooded home, but they are all around me.)

People live under real volcanos, Jasmina, because of the immense richness of the place, because it is a land that gives them the opportunity of the joy of life and not just its toil. And that is why Camercon will comeback. As long as fishermen haul in full nets, for as long as the gas flares burn atop the refineires, and as long as the ships come up and the barges come down the Mississippi River to our wharves, there will be compelling reasons to rebuild New Orleans and the surrounding areas. And as long as enough of us are home, we will save our city, it's culture, and ourselves.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

We're gonna party
like it's not 8-29

What can I say about the Mayor's plans for a festive gala and fireworks to celebrate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood that followed? I think that Jack Ware at Metroblogging New Orleans, Matri at VatulNet and Kimberly at DangerBlonde pretty much cover the waterfront.

Most of my reactions are visceral and unpleasant. The nicest suggestion I have is to round up all of the remaining unopened refrigerators we can find, and dump the contents out in front of all the entrances to Harrah's right before the Gala. Perhaps we could somehow manage some tickets (or at least an unlocked door), and enact the Masque of the Brown Death, a silent parade of people dressed as the folks as the Convention Center and as the dead, to silently march through the festivities.

Fireworks, Ray? A silent jewelry auction? A masquerade gala for "platinum and gold ticket holders"? If there was any lingering doubt among us that our mayor is completely out of his mind, this pretty much takes care of that. This dude is one chocolate bar short of a Snickers; he's pure nuts.

In case you haven't noticed, Ray, most people here are just hanging on. They're not ready to party like its not 8-29. They want to know when the damn debris is going to be picked up, when the water pressure will come back, when they can expect the lights to come on and stay on, when the schools are going to really open. They don't think anybody is ready for a victory lap yet, not until we're really sure we aren't going to find any more of the dead in an unopened house.

This twisted party plan collides this particular evening with my meeting of the Mid-City recovery planning group. After tonight's homework from that meeting, I fully expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find I have turned into a cockroach. Each committee was asked to research a few of the planners selected for us by Our Betters at the Greater New Orleans Foundation for the latest and greatest disaster recovery planning exercise. I drew Torre Design Consortium.

It turns out that TDC specializes in Zoo and related designs, and were responsible for the Aquarium of the Americas. What particular expertise they have in disaster recovery planning is not apparently clear from their pitifully designed website. Perhaps they could guide us in the construction of the Herpatorium of the Americas next to the Rock-n-Bowl, with live gator wrasslin' at 10, 12, 2 and 4. That would give all the snake-handlers another Nice Family Oriented Attraction to visit next time they are in town.

What is clear is that a firm in their line of work with the Aquarium on their vitae is almost certainly close to Ron Foreman of the Audubon Institute. I look forward to see what other interesting planning firms are selected, based on their vast experience in Japanese garden design or perhaps a particular specialty in desert xeriscaping, and their close ties to, oh, heck, who knows? Joe Canizaro? Jimmy Reiss?

It's hard to put a finger on it, but there is an increasing sense that Our Betters have A Plan of their own. Perhaps they will be celebrating how its all coming together next month at the gala at Harrah's. The only thing that is increasingly clear is that they believe we are not invited. Well, sorry guys but C. Ray already invited a whole lot of us to the party, back in the Fall. Well, we're here. And we're not about to let the recovery (and the billions we need to rebuild) get hijacked.

Like the Yippies said back in '68, The Whole World is Watching.

Now excuse me while I get busy on my costume for the Masque of the Brown Death. Oh, and if you know where we can find an unopened refrigerator, let me know. I'll bring my respirator.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Rising Tide-Katrina
and the Federal Flood
One Year Later

Dear Bloggers [and everyone in the diaspora, ex-pat and friends of NOLA communities]:

The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans will soon be here. On August 25-27, 2006, there will be a convention for all people who care about New Orleans, here in New Orleans. The Rising Tide Conference is being planned and hosted by bloggers and we are requesting your participation.

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 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 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.

A Rising Tide Wiki has been assembled where you can find information, make suggestions, offer help and provide information.

Please go to the Blogger List part of the Wiki and check the entry for your blog and make sure the information is correct. If you see that a blog is missing, please add it to the list.
More information will be coming soon. Check the Wiki for updates.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

This Year's Model

How did I manage to elect myself the model of anything? This week, an LA Times photographer came by to snap my family and I for a story on returning ex-pats, and next week I will have coffee with an NPR reporter on the same subject. Fellow blogger Schroeder has asked me to read a post for broadcast on WTUL's Community Gumbo radio show.

While I have publicly chronicled aspects of my return through the past year, I hardly expected to make a national stir. I appreciate it when people take interesting in what I write, as my readership slowly grows and prominent bloggers link back to my posts, when I found myself listed on the Radio France Katrina page--the only blogger--between the links to the BBC and FEMA.

The other day I found a link into the Wet Bank Guide from the TPM cafe, where I was once again quoted by Boyd Blondell of After the Levees . Boyd seems to fancy my angry, ranting side, the same approach that got me some notice from Will Pitt of Truthout back in January. I should have asked the photog if he could get a shot of my angry side. Then I could post it up in the gutter of the Wet Bank Guide; perhaps I could also have a wistful, thoughtful shot to chose from, a sort of avatar of the mood of the day's post.

The angry posts are the easiest to write and the hardest to publish. I don't want to tip over the edge in anger, and when there is so much to be angry about that's a highly springy tightrope I find myself crossing like a bear on a unicycle. Now that I'm about to go national, I think I will have to watch it even more closely. The angry tenor of political blogs, while it has been energizing the marginalized left, is not going to result in a rapid return to civic discourse. Angry sells, but I don't know that I want to be remembered as a footnote in this history of political talk radio and blogging as the angry voice of Katrina. (And, lets face it, I think Professor Morris does angry so much better).

Instead, I hope I can inspire. I'm glad that, through the agency of some former colleagues in journalism, I have this opportunity to tell my story to a wider audience, and to bring in the stories of another half-dozen returning ex-pats I know of. I hope that the outcome of Ashley (aka Professor Morris) and Ray and myself telling our stories is that we will discover we are not alone.

Even more important, I hope that there are hundreds if not thousands more in the ex-pat community who feel as I have since the unfolding of the flood and its aftermath last September: a powerful desire to come home, to plant their flag for the future of New Orleans, to be another spear in the host who are committed to the future of the city.

I'm reminded of the long, narrative anti-Vietnam war ballad Alice's Restaurant, which everyone in a certain Baby Boomer age bracket will remember. Toward the end, when Arlo Guthrie talks about singing the song to the draft board, he says this:

You know, if one person, just one person does it they may think he's really sick and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots and they won't take either of them. And three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. They may think it's an organization. And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day,I said fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out. And friends they may thinks it's a movement.

And that's what this is about--the blogs, the stories. It's about the Rebirth of New Orleans Movement. If the articles and the NPR story push even a couple of ex-pats or lingering evacuees over the edge and make them decide to come home, then I can lay aside my lingering doubts about my own suitability as poster child, the nagging fear that I have over taken the story, that the Gonzo Journalism Version 2.0 style that defines much of Citizen Journalism in the blogosphere has eclipsed the subject.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Color of Katrina

The color of the flood is not the blue of the Lake waters that innundated the city, or the day-glo orange or red spray paint that make the rescue marks on homes. The color is the brown the water left behind, strikingly revealed by Google Maps now that some areas of New Orleans have been updated with post-Flood imagery.

You can see the stark difference between the pre-flood photos west of the railway line--the sharp, dark green of trees and lawns, the crisp greys of the city strees from before the Federal flood--and the homogenous brown of the Ninth Ward after. Zoom into highest resolution, then browse to the east past the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (known to most as the Industrial Canal). You can see the homes scattered like an upset Monopoly board found in the mud, without regard for the grid of streets on which these homes once had addresses.

Eight, ten blocks, a good straight line mile in from the levee breach, you can still find houses pushed off their piers by the force of the water. Look at the closest zoom, and you can still see some streets with standing water, the unexpected Canal along Jourdon Avenue by the floodwall. The scene most resembles an after-action photo of the dropping of some terrible weapon, one of the arcade screens of modern warfare. Game Over.

Many of us have seen the videos of the 2004 tsunami shot by tourists , have witnessed on a small screen the incredible power of a tidal wave of debris pushing through a crowded neigborhood. There is no such video of the Ninth Ward, nothing like the film shot by a fire department crew in Lakeview shortly after the levee there began to fail.

Anyone in the lower Ninth Ward who did not leave would not have had a chance to aim a camera at the onslought. They would have been desperately fighing to live, too many loosing that battle. There will be no footage of the water sweeping down Dorgenois and Rochenblave playing on television this next August 28, as Anderson Coooper and Brian Williams try to remind America what happened.

All we have is this god's-eye view of the failure of man, the same prospect from the clouds that overlooked the unfinished Tower of Babel, a sight made possible for mere men by a wonder of modern engineering. I think of other engineering wonders; the Great Wall, visible from space without the aid of magnification. How did the Corps' engineers fail us so catastrophically?

As I stare at another little screen, I imagine the last images captured by the eyes of the people who lived on those streets, synthesizing my own memory of these neighborhoods with the videos of the tsunami, running a monstrous newsreel of my own imagining. It is as if the victims of the Federal Flood were reaching across and directing the camera, telling me: this is what it was like, what we saw, what they did to us. I can almost feel them crowd around me, the cliche of a haunting image made palpable, whispering as I type: Remember.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hey, Charlie, I think you missed one

Now that Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti has arrested several health care workers for their actions after the Federal Flood, I look forward to the announcment of the arrest of this FEMA worker for murder by order of our Grand Inquisitor.

From a 9/16/05 post on Wet Bank Guide:

FEMA orders doctor to leave survivors to die

Apparently, his paperwork was not in order.

Doctor says FEMA ordered him

to stop treating hurricane victims

In the midst of administering chest compressions to a dying woman several days after Hurricane Katrina struck, Dr. Mark N. Perlmutter was ordered to stop by a federal official because he wasn't registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency."I begged him to let me continue," said Perlmutter, who left his home and practice as an orthopedic surgeon in Pennsylvania to come to Louisiana and volunteer to care for hurricane victims.
"People were dying, and I was the only doctor on the tarmac (at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport) where scores of nonresponsive patients lay on stretchers. Two patients died in front of me.

The orignal link to the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate is gone, but I'm not the only person who commented on this travesty.

I think Foti's action is sordid political grandstanding; nothing more than a crass play to the pews in the cult of neo-christianity. If the care givers acted as reported, it would be better--in our Attorney General's opinion--if those patients had just been left behind to die slowly and painfully in the way his god intended. They could have offered up their final suffering in penance, the way the nuns instructed us to do in Catholic school.

Foti's decision completely disregards the circumstances: the single worst disaster in the history of the United States. The alleged crimes would be extraordinary measures in an extraordinary situation, one most of us can barely contemplate but which hundreds of emergency workers suffered through without relief from God or government. Foti's action is like trying soldiers in combat for murder of collateral casualties. I think it also sends a pretty clear message to all future rescue workers. Make triange decisions, maybe go to prison for the rest of your life. Better maybe if you just didn't come.

We are also waiting for Mr. Foti to announce his indictment not just of the FEMA workers noted above, but also of the commanding officers of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers for negligent homocide in the death of another 1,000 plus residents of his state. But I'm not holding my breath.

Personally, I think we should handcuff Mr. Foti to something very secure in the lowest level of a building next storm, with a hacksaw in easy reach, and see what sort of decisions he might make under similar circumstances as the water rises about him.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Walgreens Kills Neighborhoods

I can't add much to the thoughts of Editor B or Third Battle of New Orleans to banners that were unfurled over the weekend at two locations in Uptown New Orleans, the first an abandoned Walgreens, the other a site where Walgreens is sitting on a blighted property demanding waiver of city zoning ordinances before they will open do something with the property.

You can catch up with the neighborhood's battle for force Walgreens to obey the law, and not use a blighted property to blackmail a neighborhood into getting it's way, here.

The important of this post is to make sure that the word gets out on the Internet: Walgreens Kills Neighborhoods.

(Attention, Google-bot: did you get that? Wagreens Kills Neighborhoods.)

The New Cottage for an Old City

How do we rebuild a city there there were thousands of blighted homes from before The Flood, and now thousands more additional homes liable to be demolished? How do we provide affordable housing to a city where less than 50% of residents own their home, and 25% of the population lives in poverty?

Like this:

This is a Katrina Cottage, as an alternative to the FEMA trailer designed by cottage designer Marianne Cusato and architect Eric Moser, as the result of a inside and compare that to the inside of a FEMA trailer. Given the choice, which you you select? Don't bother to answer. FEMA has decided for you. They claim the Stafford Act, the legislation authorizing FEMA activities, prevents them from providing permanent housing.

But the story doesn't stop there, as hard as FEMA tires. There is a Katrina Cottage II, designed by town planner Andres Duany and described as "Creole inpisred", which can be built for $70,000 or less and is 770 square feet, or twice the size of the model shown above. It is about the size of a smallish Creole cottage in New Orleans.

I think at this point, most people are anxious to get out of the FEMA punishment box and into a real home. This is the real moment for the Katrina Cottage and its spin-offs. New Orleans is full of homes that looked like this before The Flood, and like this after. The Katrina cottage industry provides one way to rebuild the city.

One modular home builder is clearly moving into the New Orleans market. New Era Homes is putting up what looks like a shotgun cottage on West End Boulevard just at the exit from the Pontchartrain Expressway. Such homes could provide a way to quickly and, from the look of it, appropriately reconstruction much of new Orleans.

Two New Era modular home unites in Lakeview

Much of New Orleans housing stock is (or was) in the shotgun double. They were built to fit the narrow lots of a city constrained by lack of high, dry land. And they were the affordable housing of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

It's time to rediscover our roots, and look to find a house that fits the housing profile of New Orleans, is affordable to average working people, and leverages materials ideally suited to the climate. While there isn't any cypress wood in a Katrina cottage, there is fiber-cement siding and crimped metal roofs that resist damage by hurricanes.

As we look to rebuild the city, a modular, storm resistant home that fits the profile and character of of our neighborhoods, that could in fact be dropped on top of existing piers or easily elevated to three feet, that could put people back into affordable-to-own homes is just the thing we need.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Happy Bastille Day

Happy Bastille Day from New Orleans. I have heard not a peep of the annual Waiters Race or any other observance, which makes this a damn sad day in Debrisville. Porquois pas le bons temps roulet?

For the unitiated (everybody outside of NOLA), the mark on the Flag of New Orleans is called a rescue mark. It indicates a building was searched during the early days of the Federal flood, on the date (at top) by whom (at left-- in this case NOLA, since we are being forced to save ourselves), and the number of persons or bodies found. One thousand, five hundred and seventy seven is the last dealth toll I have seen for Katrina and the Federal flood in Louisiana.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Messin' with Texas

Bill Woodall
Kilgore News Herald
Kilgore, Texas

Dear Mister Woodall,

I read your letter to CitiBusiness on the subject of the National Guard in New Orleans, and have to ask you: on your last trip here, did you visit anyplace outside of the French Quarter and the CBD, the "sliver by the river"? If you had, perhaps you would understand why the Guard are here

They returned to patrol the vast areas of a major American city that are largely uninhabited, in fact uninhabitable until services are restored--an area closer in size to Gregg County than to the little town Kilgore, TX, where you publish your newspaper. The Guard are here because America can't seem to handle what happened to New Orleans.

The folks in camo are here to patrol areas like the Ninth Ward, where tsunami relief workers were incredulous that such devastation could still exist in the United States ten months later. They are hear to patrol Vista Park in Gentilly, which ten months later looks little different than it did when the flood waters receded. They are here to patrol New Orleans East and Lakeview, where looting of homes continues to this day.

Like too many Americans, including many who may have come to visit their favorite spots in the French Quarter or Uptown, I think you just don't get it. We are at the center of a disaster are that covers 23,000 square miles, in a city where half the people are effectively still homeless, where we are still waiting for real relief almost a year later.

Or perhaps you do get it and are too embarrassed to admit the real situation. Most newspaper editors aren't idiots, not even the ones I used to work for. So, I think you do get it, and are just a bit ashamed about New Orleans.

We're not embarrassed to have the Guard here. We kiss the damn ground their boots have touched. I've said it before and I'll say it again, this is what embarrasses me: to be a citizen of the richest country on earth when, almost a year after the flood that followed the failure of the federal government built levees, we need the national guard to patrol a vast ruin of neighborhoods in a major American city, while the bureaucrats in Washington demand reams of plans before they will begin to give us the most meager compensation for the loss they caused.

Yes, the Guard and the State Police are freeing up the NOPD to patrol high-crime neighborhoods. God knows we need it. The Flood exposed the dark underbelly of urban America. And it's not just New Orleans. I fled Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s to escape the Clockwork Orange turn urban living took during the first years of the crack wars. Its a problem, everywhere.; even, as you point out, even in Marshall, Texas.

What we have in New Orleans today is the Wild West, a concept that someone from Texas ought to understand on at least on a dime-store novel basis. Much of Orleans territory is not recognizably a part of the settled United States. There are a lot of people here still don't have gas or electric service or telephones; forget internet or cable television. Potable water was only restored to the Ninth Ward weeks ago, and a lot of people don't have garbage collection. Many more do not get their U.S. mail. Those who have returned to Lakeview and Gentilly and the East are truly settlers, determined to carve out a home from an urban wilderness, and willing to take their chances.

Roaming this territory are the new marauders. Instead of rootless, jobless and well armed former Confederate raiders and veterans of Sherman's looting horde, we have a 21st century version of the same sort: aimless in the vast urban wasteland that mirrors the bleak emptiness of the high plains, schooled in blood, unafraid of death and well armed, these are the new desperados in a town that after the flood is as open and lawless as the unfenced West.

In those books and movies of the long ago, the lone sheriff could stand up a dozen fellas who, except for their dress, were pretty much the same sort we have running amok in Central City. I think we both know that, in the real world, it would have taken more than the lone sheriff or even the Magnificent Seven to handle that situation. Enter the Calvary bugle blowing, without which America would have run out of fools trying to go west long before the natives ran out of arrows or bullets.

Maybe this analogy is completely lost on you. Perhaps, like W, you're not a real Texan. Could be you don't know who the hell Doc Holliday or Gary Cooper is. Texas is like DC or California, full of people from somewhere else with the right clothes and no idea, and you might be one of them. If so, that's fine. Maybe Governor Kinky can explain it to you some day.

If you were a real native of Kilgore, you might recall that Texas Governor Ross Sterling had to declare marshall law in Kilgore in August, 1931 to control the 1930s version of the Wild West, the east Texas oil boom. Must be those Texas Rangers aren't all they're cracked up to be, to have to send in the troops along with them. How embarrassing. That Sterling must have been one Texas-sized idiot, right up there with our mayor.

I think the real problem is we that we're an embarrassment that you, as an American, own lock, stock and barrel, but would rather not admit to. Well, that's too damn bad. We're the poster children for what greed and race and Jesus have done to this country, writ large and ugly. Like the folks of the old west, we're not taking this lying down. We're in here mucking out and building up, even as the desparadoes and threatening natives circle around us, fighting with FEMA drones and insurance companies whose conduct would shame an Indian agent. We're not going to stand for living this way forever, and will do whatever it takes to bring some law-and-order, to bring civilization [back] to this bit of the bayou. When the cavalry rides in, we're damned glad to see them.

If that doesn't please you, perhaps we should reconsider our desire to resume full membership in the United States and its economy. Maybe we should start to look for another country that would like to have us. Or start our own. That way we'll be certain to get our fair share of the oil revenue that comes from or crosses our land. And we needn't be an embarrassment to you or that eastern banker's son who pretends to be from Texas or the rest of Katrina-weary America.

We'd like to have good relations with the Republic of Texas, but your letter was not a good start.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bring. It. On.

Courtesy of Gentilly Girl: the Massachusetts Attorney General is treating the failure of a tunnel in the Big Dig highway project as a homicide investigation. This AP story is from from Yahoo news:
BOSTON - Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly said Tuesday he is treating the concrete collapse in a Big Dig tunnel that killed a motorist as a crime scene that could lead to charges of negligent homicide. ...

"What we are looking at is anyone who had anything to do with what happened last night," Reilly said. "No one is going to be spared." ...

If Louisiana AG Charles C. Foti, Jr. can second guess the decisions of medical personal in an unimaginable crisis during the Deluge, then he damned well better get busy working the cases of more than 1,500 who died when the Federal levees failed, or be charged himself as an accomplice to murder.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Monsoon Afternoon

It rained again today.

So what? you ask. This is New Orleans, where the weather forecasters peer into the past and tell us to expect 57 inches a year.

Still, the drought of recent years makes this seem a remarkable event. Before the flood came, the trees that shade our city were already in distress due to the lack of rain, and people were in a postdeluvian panic a few weeks ago when they found cracks in the levees caused by the lack of rain.

I had grown unused to a daily deluge. The drought in our subtropical outpost of North America does not compare to the decade I spent on the steppes of Dakota, where the average rainfall is 10 inches a year. I know those cracks in the levees. Miniature versions plagued my yard in Fargo if I went away for more than a few days in the summer. I could almost watch the earth heave and close as I stood over a garden patch with the hose after an absence. Come back in an hour and the cracks that crazed the ground are gone.

It seems this past week in New Orleans that the drought has broken, although it will take more than a week of afternoon thunderstorms to reverse years of not enough rain. Still, I imagine the cracks in the levees slowly closing up, and the grass that holds the cover earth on those mounds of earth and clay slowing greening up as water pours from the skies and is taken up by the parched ground.

I worry now about too much rain, as the pumps that drain the lumpy, camp pottery class bowl that is New Orleans are not in good shape. The flood after Katrina submerged them, damaging the wiring of the tremenous Wood Pumps that can move millions of gallons and hour. Then there are the new new storm gates that will close the drainage canals that carry those millions of gallons away when next a hurricane come to call.

I think about that as I watch the water running down the gutters to the storm drains when fan behind me stops whirring and the radio goes silent. The power has gone out again, a more mundane concern when the thunderstorms blow and lightening flashes, but too frequent in New Orleans. Nothing down here works quite as well as it does in places to the north, a situation the late flood has only aggravated. So for now, there is no A/C and no working computers in my home office, so I linger on the porch a little longer.

As the storm pours down around me and the fan sulks quietly in the corner, I think: gin-and-tonic, no ice (best not to open the ice box, old boy). Time to take up the white man's cocktail and succumb to the climate here on my comfortable mini-veranda. No, I correct myself.. Just because I'm sitting on a porch in New Orleans in shorts and sandals in the cool of the downpour, I am not on vacation. This is my home. Inside is my office. The power will come back, and I will have to take up the burden again, to make the world a better place through the automation of banking.

I pad into the house, leaving the front door open to let in the storm cooled air, and make my way back to the kitchen for more iced tea. Taking the advice of my inner nabob, I head to the back shed to take some ice from the trays in the outside fridge. Nothing out there but ice trays, nothing to spoil should the power stay out. As I open the back door to the house, the rain-chilled air rushes in, reminding me that the shotgun floorplan was not built for easy target practice. The design allows, among other things, for the circulation of air through the house, front to back. It is an accommodation to the climate from the days when light came from lamps and ice was a rare treat this far South.

Europeans and their African slaves lived here for centuries before the widespread introduction of air conditioning, or even the simple relief of an electric fan or an ice-cooled drink. They built lives and houses and customs that made it livable. I had learned to live in this antique climate before I left, to make the same accommodations. My partner of some years was allergic to the nasty critters that make their homes in the damp of air conditioner condensers, and are blown out with the frigid air in search of sinuses to aggravate.

And so I lived for a period mostly without air conditioning, choosing old houses built before even electric fans were common place, running up the water bill instead of the light bill with more frequent showers. I chose my clothes in the same, sensible way. When left back in 1986, I arrived in Washington, D.C. with a suitcase full of Haspel suits and short-sleeved Oxford cloth dress shirts, a straw hat perched on my head.

I was quickly corrected against such a quirky if practical wardrobe. Here in America, with ubiquitous air conditioning and in-the-door chilled water and ice dispensers, where Ready Kilowatt had spit atom and electricity would someday be too cheap to meter, my wash-and-wear suits and short-sleeved shirts were a silly anachronism, an affectation inappropriate to the serious halls of Congress. Never mind that the climate of Washington is the same as New Orleans, simply a few less weeks of it. I succumbed and bought a new wardrobe.

When I came home to New Orleans in May and became a full-time telecommuter, I had promised myself I would dress every day in collared shirt (perhaps a polo, I allowed myself), with chinos, shoes and socks. I would dress as if I were headed in to the casual-every-day Midwestern office I had left behind, the company logo pin we are all encouraged to wear clipped just beneath my collar. It would be, I told myself, an important psychological aspect of becoming a full-time home worker.

Yesterday I wore socks for the second time since I abandoned this resolution. The last time I dug through my sock drawer was for dinner at Galatoire's, and that seemed a worthwhile reason to clap myself from neck to ankle in tropical wool (dreaming of my long lost seersuckers), and pull on a pair of the lightest socks I could find. Today I still have on a polo adorned with company pin, but have reverted to shorts and sandals below the belt for most days at the office. This way, I reason, I can keep the air turned up and the fan turning and likely manage to both eat and pay the utility bill.

It's not slovenliness or affectation to dress this way. It's just how to live in a country where the air is as thick as rain even on a sunny day, where thunderstorms are as routine as the passage of the mailman every afternoon, and the storms can sometimes steal away your modern lifestyle, and leave you sitting on the porch with a glass of tea, debating whether to open the freezer to steal some more ice.

The mailman (who unknowingly prompted this entire train of thought) makes his way through the curtain of rain under a blue poncho, the top held off his face by the bill of his ball cap. I wonder when the local mail carriers stopped wearing shorts and pith helmets, something I haven't seen since I came home. People increasingly retreat into their energy-efficient homes and forget how to live here. It's not just simple matters of dress, either. In the recent past, we delegated the worry about our levees and drainage to the government, and forgot the world of the flood of 1927, when citizens mounted their own patrols of the waterfront and every man jack was pressed into service to keep the water at bay.

We paid a terrible price for that negligence. If we don't rediscover how to live here, how to live everywhere by accomodating to the realities of climate, we won't make it. I feel a diatribe creeping up my gullet, but I'll resist it for now. Today, I'd rather sip iced tea, watch the rain fall and enjoy the cool.

When the storm passes and the convection from the thunderhead is gone, the heat will come back like the wave of a tsunami. I'll get up and close the doors to the house, and trap the storm cooled air inside. I won't save the world, or even that much on my light bill, but I will have reclaimed some of what I've lost over the last 20 years, what all of us have lost over the last generation. I will recapture another small piece of how to live in a place called New Orleans.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Thank you Lolis Elie

From today's Times-Picayune:

Post-Katrina failures stain our history

What does the Fourth of July mean to us, the folks who have survived the worst disaster in U.S. history? ...

All those old stories about the greatness of America's past accomplishments are cheapened when compared with the mediocrity of its current callousness. The history of America's shining moments means nothing, absolutely nothing, unless it informs and guides our behavior today. ...

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy 16 Messidor CCXIV

If you remember nothing else about history on this day, remember the American city of New Orleans "dodged the bullet" until the federal levees failed. We will never forget.

So have a Happy Décade II , Jour du Sextidi Messidor CCXIV* from the Wet Bank Guide as we Go 4th on the River and celebrate, an activity we have pretty much perfected for all occasions, even in the face of death.

Before I grill the frankfurters, I will boil the shrimps. Eh la bas.

* I cheated in the headline and added the first décade to sextidi to get 16, so it looked a little less confusing. If I have mangled both arithmetic and French, I apologize.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Xmas in July comes to Debrisville

By quitting time Friday, the debris piles were gone.

In mid-afternoon I sat on my porch with a glass of iced tea and marveled at the sight, estatically watching the cart-mounted claw toss the debris into the truck, as excited as a small boy demolishing his backyard with a new Tonka vehicle on Xmas morning.

Amy across the street, who'd called and called and lately erected a sign pointing out that pile reference number 52086 had been placed out on May 6 and requested for removal shortly thereafter, rushed out to give the crew--the size of which would have embarrassed the Sewerage & Water Board--cold drinks.

Bit by bit, the claw boom pushed the pile up in the same way we'd sweep the porch, then latched onto the roofing and drywall and odds and ends of a life, lifted it high into the sky, and deposited it in a trailer the size of two dumpsters stacked, a trailer I had cursed just a few days earlier on Carrollton Avenue as the dually pulling it had cut me off.

I approached Bill, who had the pile from his place removed, and asked him how he felt about it. "I kind of miss it," he said, with a grin twisted not just by his squint against the sun, but one which acknowledged the oddness of the thought. It is not so strange that the removal of debris is called for as a return to normalcy, but the piles have become normal here in the town blogger Adrastos has named Debrisville.

This is more than a warped sense of the normal in a town where normal is not a consensual affair: there is progress in the removal of the old piles, and there is also progress in every new or growing one I see. I saw a newly deposited refrigerator a few weeks ago. My first reaction was, man, I don't want to even imagine what the inside of that is like.

Then, as I drove the remaining blocks home, I remembered: every new refrigerator, every growing debris pile, is itself a sign of the return to normalcy. It is a sign that someone else has come home, that the insurance check and the SBA money have come, and they are starting on another house. I new see progress in each new or growing pile, and not just disaster and dysfunction.

I'm still amazed that the local governments had to argue with FEMA about extending the deadline to help with debris pickup. I worked in Washington for several years, and always tend to rise to the defense of the people who work there, most of whom are well intentioned and hard working and, well, you get the idea. Then there is FEMA, where there is clearly some sort of sick building syndrome problem, perhaps a carbon monoxide leak into the ventilation system, that produces ranks of the terminally incompetent and stupid. Ten months later and they still don't grasp the scale of what occurred here.

But the deal was done, and so the claw tractor and big trailer will continue to roll through Mid-City, clearing the sidewalks and gutters of debris. I hope they have a hard time keeping up. Every time I roll through an S&WB sinkhole to avoid the scattered roofing nails of a fresh pile, I am as happy as a farmer driving past a field and thinking "knee-high by the Fourth of July". I notice if there are children's toys scattered in the pile, and hope they are not gutting to sell, but coming home to a city that still has too few children. I look for art or books as if I were strolling a new acquaintance's living room for the first time, drink in hand.

I search, most of all, for the telltale signs of rebirth. I browse for the scraps of fresh cut drywall or cans of paint, the things the contractors are supposed to haul off themselves but increasingly don't bother to amid the many mounds of Debrisville. I look for the signs that this house is not just being cleared out to meet the city's do it or lose it deadline, but that it is being remade into a place that will live again and I think, welcome home.

"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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