Wednesday, May 30, 2007

State of the City

Bart at B Rox let's us all know that Ray No-C-Em Nagin will give his State of the City address today at 6:30 pm at the National D-Day Museum.

Read about it here:

Since I'm in Destin (wo is me, eh?) I guess I'll be stuck with the account of the Times-Picayune, a newspaper that has about the same relationship with Perdido Street that Pravda had with Soviet part bosses.

What can Nagoin tell us: that crime is down? That his fabulously expensive garbage contract with its ridiculous giant cans is a stunning success? That there is no real aid for local business in the pipeline but he has high hopes to bring Elmwood to Mid-City?

Those of us who choose to live here know the state of the city and there is nothing Nagin can say that would rise above fodder for laughter and derision. The recovery of the city to date is in spite of city government (and statew and federal government, for that matter).

The best we can hope for is that he not embarress us again. We could greet him with a shower of new Creole tomatoes but that would be a waste of perefectly good food.

It's ironic he would choose the D-Day museum. As I've said beforeN the 200,000 who resettled the city are the equal of the Greatest Generation, the best living example of the traits of self-reliance and oingenuity and perseverance we are told built the U.S.

Like the generation the museum honors they know the meaning of SNAFU and yet they trudge on and get the job done in the face of tremendous adversity and even danger. What ever idiocy comes out of C Ray's mouth tonight he cannot sully what they have accomplished.

Update: I think I like Michael Holman's gloss on the Mayor's speech best so far.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Save the Coast

Yes, I'm dredging up old posts again, but work has been insanely busy and trying to get ready (at work and home) to leave on vacation for a week has not helped. Posting will resume when I return from Margaritaville.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neither of these storm were The Big One. If we don't act to protect the coast, when the Big One comes the United States could lose 25% of its domestic imported oil-and-gas (if you include the imports from the off-shore Superport). Will we be able to help anyone to rebuild when gas goes to $5 or $7 or $10 a gallon and stays there?

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

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

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

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Ethics of Allstate

After reading today's latest revalations of rampant fraud by Allstate, I found myself reading from the Allstate Corporation Code of Ethics:

Making Ethical Decision

Allstate is committed to operating its business with honesty and

Integrity and Compliance

Allstate is deeply committed to integrity and compliance [with the law] ... As one of Allstate's core values, integrity must be a part of all business goals and activities....

  • We act honestly and deal fairly and ethically with customers, suppliers, competitors...
  • We will avoid any unethical activity even if it is not expressly illegal.

Questions to Consider

  • Is it legal?
  • Does it comply with this code and the policies that apply to the
  • How will it affect others -- consumers, competitors, shareholders, other
    employees, agencies, or the community, and you?
  • How will it look to others...?
  • How would you feel if this decision were made public? ...
How does anyone in the Northbrook, Illinios headquarters square this with the continuing revelations that the company has committed systematic fraud in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood?

I can hardly find words to describe the anger I get when I read about the insurance companies. The best I can do is this. New Orleans is a city beset by a horrendous violent crime problem tied to the drug trade. If I could push a Big Red Button and choose to send either all of the gun-tottin' ganstas or all of the fiduciary officials of Allstate to prison tomorrow, I would choose the suits at Allstate and take my chances with the gang bangers.

But in a story which I did not see online yesterday, I find that I may not have to make that choice. There may yet be one uncorrupted official left in the entire United States with authority to take these scum down.

Actually, scum is not a fair and accurate description. The Allstate executives and employees engaged in this massive, interstate fraud are not scum. They are below scum. They are the nasty little things that live in the dark of the pond and feed off the uderside of the scum.

When I'm done venting here, I going to call a telephone number I discovered in Allstate's Code of Ethics and ask what precisely they plan to do about the company's continuing criminal activity.

The Allstate Alert Us Line is a 24 x 7 toll-free number that all non-employees can use to alert the company about issues with company employees ... The Alert Us Line can be accessed by calling 1-800-427-9389.
Or perhaps we should all go to the web site of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud and follow the link to report Allstate to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. (They also have a toll free number: 1-800-835-6422.

I think that's a much better idea than picking Allstate agents at random out of the phonebook and asking why we shouldn't armor the levees with their skulls. Hell, it's not the agent's fault. They just sell the stuff. Still, I can't figure out why anyone would want their name and photo plaster on the side of a bus advertising their affiliation with Allstate. You might as well slap your business glamour shot up on a billboard with Pedophile in three foot letters.

Better yet, consider this: Allstate proudly lists $157 Billion in assets. They've already lost one $2.8 million judgement based on one of their fradulent "engineering" reports. We could build a lot of levees and houses with $157 Billion. All we need is an attorney general with some balls instead of the worthless one we've got.

Update 6-3: While I was on vacation, this further evidence of systematic fraud by Allstate, State Farm and other insurers came to light.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What Is Remembered Lives

Or are you a stranger without even a name
Enclosed and forgotten behind the glass frame
In a old photograph, torn and battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.
-- "No Man's Land" by Eric Bogle

"What is remembered lives" my friend Victoria reminds me in a poignant post unrelated to New Orleans. Remember. That has been a large part of why I write since the time when the water still stood in the street outside the house I sit, in the days when an old friend's husband chronicled the floating dead and many thought there might be 10,000.

There were not 10,000, and Mayor Ray Nagin was castigated for a wild exaggeration. This was not a number which our slippery tongued mayor chose to just make up. Republican Senator David Vitter offered the same grim estimate in the first week of September. Consider the context: an unknown number of people unevacuated and the city largely submerged by a sudden, tsunami-like incursion of the lake through the failed levees. Keep in mind that the worst case scenario in the Hurricane Pam exercise projected 61,900 dead in an inundated New Orleans.

Thankfully, the real total of the dead was smaller. How much smaller, however, depends on what is meant to say someone was killed by Katrina. There is an official number of people killed directly by Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed--1723--but it gives an incomplete picture of the impact of the storm and subsequent Federal Flood.

Four thousand and eighty one: that's the number independent journalist Robert Lindsay reports in this post, based on research by Dr. Kevin Stephens, Sr., Director ff the New Orleans Health Department, presented to the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on March 13, 2007.

...anecdotal reports caused Stephens and a team to undertake a study to count the number of death notices in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and compare it to a reference year which would serve as a baseline. 2003 was chosen as a reference year. The data can be seen on page nine of the testimony linked above. In the first six months of 2003, 5,544 deaths were counted.

In the first six months of 2006, 7,902 were counted, an increase of 2,358 deaths over baseline in the post-Katrina period. Based on this, we will assign 2,358 deaths as caused by the accelerated death rates that occurred in New Orleans even long after the storm.

Four thousand and eighty one. Some will scoff at the methodology but it seems sound. Over 2,300 more New Orleanians died in the first sixth months of 2006 than in the same period of 2002 or 2003, a forty-two percent increase. What other proximate cause can anyone suggest? "They just didn't up and decide that 2006 was a nice year for dying," suggests Lindsay.

It was not the waters themselves that killed those lucky enough to get away. They were killed in part because getting away did not mean to escape. Those lucky enough not to be trapped on a roof, or worse under it, sat in shelters and motels and friends or families houses, compelled to watch the disaster unfold under the unblinking eye of 24 hour news, could Google up their houses from space and see the water all around. There was safety in distance, but no escape.

Once the water subsided, things became worse and not better. Not since the Great Depression have so many people lost so much. Denied insurance payouts after a faithful lifetime of monthly payments, many without flood insurance because it was not required--we were, after all, protected by our government's levees--hundreds of thousands lost everything but the clothes on their backs. Worse, they were forced to continue mortgage payments on uninhabitable ruins while it became increasingly clear that there was nothing, including criminal conspiracy, their insurance companies would not do to deny them payment.

They were robbed of everything America had told them made their lives valuable: their houses, their possessions, the jobs that might help them to rebuild. The promises they have believed, that hard work and timely payment would make them safe, that their government would protect them in extremity, proved to have all been lies. They lost everything; not just things, but faith. Is it any wonder that many of the elderly or infirm could not cope, that even the younger and stronger might despair so that suicide rates spiked in the months after the storm?

What is remembered lives. It's been a long time since I've written about the dead, or seen any thing else published or posted besides Lindsay's piece. Google up Katrina deaths and 4081 and you find nothing. Here in New Orleans, we hear the anecdotal stories. They hover at the edge of consciousness like ghosts, but life here is just too damned hard to let the forgotten dead intrude too far.

In my early days home, the ghosts seemed to crowd around. It was an inescapable feeling in a city so clearly in ruin. With passing time there is a growing numbness, a scarring over that might be healthy, but I wonder. As the dead pass deeper into memory, does our sense of obligation to them wain as well? As Memorial Day creeps up on us, we will hear the routine speeches about the sacrifices of our glorious dead, and our own obligations to the constitutional republic they died to create or defend.

There was so much hope for our city even at the height of despair, that given a slate wiped clean we could rebuild it better: better levees, betters schools, better government: levee and assessor reform, the blossoming of new schools, the election of new officials (recall: in the districts where the population was returned in significant numbers, we tossed out the old ones. Nagin is the exception, not the rule). As we slide toward old ways, I believe we need to remember those who died in the flood--all of them, including those who died of despair under an unending burden of bad news--and the obligation we have to them.

Our obligation is this: to rebuild the city they despaired of seeing saved, a city recognizably New Orleans; a city protected by levees that work, with good schools for everyone and safe streets and a transparent government that works for us. We have not had those things for generations now, and it may be the work of generations to achieve but I think we are capable of it. The half or so of the population returned to the city have proven themselves capable of working through tremendous adversity.

As we move past the Spring festivals and see the restaurants popping open around us like flowers, we can't just assume that the city those forgotten dead passed pining for is returning, that we can just move on. It could happen again if we are not vigilant and persistent. We owe it to the the victims of the Flood to see that it should not.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hope floats.

This T-P article on the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation survey of the attitudes of Orleanians is just the tonic to the hangover week of news we've had. First, the National Geographic releases a web teaser of their next issue, promoting a story on persistent defects in the levee system. Then we have a named storm in April, even if it is something called a sub-tropical and not a true tropical storm.

"There's a tremendous sense of optimism and resilience," said Mollyann Brodie, vice president for media research for the foundation. "There's still a sense that things are moving in the right direction and that this place is going to recover."
I know I'll get smacked for "recycling", but I want to pull out these words I wrote in February of 2006. I thought these as good as anything I might sit down and right today:

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.

Its the kind of hope we like, because it lets us wear that cynical mask of the weary nabob struggling through another rainy season, slightly superior to our surroundings yet completely captivated by it, certain the natives are stealing from us even as we steal from them and hoping we all at least come out even.

I would add only this: ours is not the kind of hope America is used to thinking about, the kind found in television commercials and achieved through the purchase of some new miracle drug or the complete prayer kit of some religious huckster. Ours is hope none the less, and it is how we get past Jazz Fest and into a pile of warnings that hurricane season is just around the corner, and yet get up and get on with our lives.

Don't We All Deserve Levees That Work?

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Walking in their father's shoes

If you watch this bad camera video of a parade I encountered at Jazz Fest in New Orleans this Saturday, you should watch carefully for the two children. Both are equipped with just their size walking sticks just like the adult men of the New Generation Social Aid and Pleasure Club, and the eldest is doing his best to learn the steps.

In the dark days of late 2005 and into early 2006, I was not the only one worrying about the potential death of the unique, indigenous culture of New Orleans. I joined a parade of national commentators in wondering of this largest displacement of people the nation's had seen since the Civil War would lead to the death of New Orleans native culture. As early as September 9, 2005, I wrote:

Imagine if you will a New Orleans without Mardi Gras Indians; without neighborhoods where young boys actually want to learn to play the trombone, so they can march proudly at the head of the parade; without the little neighborhood restaurants where Creole cooking was perfected before we gave it to the world; without the little bars where every generation of musicians have played for a circle of friends and neighbors before they took our music into the world...

It would be an act of cultural genocide , a word I choose carefully and mindful of its terrible implications. It would be the ethnic cleansing of an alien other perched on the edge of America. It would be a crime not much different from that of the Taliban when they chose to demolish the ancient cliff Buddhas.

Seeing these children was a tremendous moment for me, an indication that the culture can survive if it is nurtured as it has been for generation. It worries me not to see any teenagers or young men. Have they all been lost to the ghetto culture, the self-titled "convict music" that blares from their radios, touting criminality, violence and misogyny?

I was heartened on my first Jazz Fest Saturday watching Chief Iron Horse and the Black Seminoles on the Heritage stage. Only two were in full costume, but there was a large compliment of young men who looked to be in their twenties drumming and singing on stage. They were not lost to dark side of hip-hop culture. Still, I wonder where are the teenagers.

Those young men on stage and the children in the parade area small but important sign of hope. This culture need not die, unless America chooses to let the city go, chooses in effect to kill it by failing to rebuild the levees and the coast, to pay the debt they have run up over the last one hundred years for a navigable river and oil-and-gas.

If America chooses to do this, it will not be remembered in this time as the enemy of the Taliban in the East or the ethnic cleansers of central Europe. It will be remembered as a fellow traveler with the demolishers of the Buddhas of Bamyan.

"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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