Thursday, June 28, 2007

We've got something to believe in...

Back when moving to New Orleans was a work in progress, at a point where I'd pushed all of my chips onto the table and packed an uncertain Mrs. Wet onto an airplane to New Orleans, I wrote an angry screed chastising the President for his miserly relief, accusing him of not being a true Texan:

If you were a real Texan and not a pretender, you might understand. You might know the words to Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues”, the part that goes“'Cause when a Texan fancies,/he'll take his chances, / chances will be taken.” Or perhaps you’d know Guy Clark’s song "L.A. Freeway", especially the chorus: “If I can just get off of this LA freeway Without getting killed or caught I'd be down that road in a cloud of smoke For some land that I ain't bought bought bought.”
I've never been a fan of what programmers at CMT would call country music, but I consider myself a fan of what I call American music. A fine distinction, perhaps, but the music I ignore is the Tin Pan Alley sort of country music, Nashville pop. As someone drawn to words and writing, I've always been a sucker for songs that tell a compelling story regardless of the musical setting and you can find those artists in just about any genre.

As we executed our move to New Orleans, Clark's LA Freeway resonated in my head for months. The tale of a couple uprooted by a man's dream so closely mirrored my own: the escape from the "LA Freeway" sameness of Fargo, the singer's words to the song's Susanna "don't you cry, babe/Love's a gift that's surely handmade/We've got something to believe in/Don't you think it's time where leaving."

That song is at once hopeful and plaintive, mixing a look back, thoughts of what will and will not be missed, with a glance to the uncertainly of tomorrow, "down the road in a cloud of smoke/to some land I ain't bought bought bought." It was a perfect mirror of all of the emotions swirling through me at the time: hope, sadness, uncertainty, nostalgia (both for New Orleans and for the place my children had grown as small children) and, ultimately, resolve.

Somehow that post referencing Texas songwriters led to an email from a gentleman named Clay Eals, who was writing a biography of singer/songwriter Steve Goodman. Goodman, who was a fellow traveller of that country/folk scene (but was in fact a Chicagoan and good friend of fellow Midwesterner John Prine), penned a number of popular songs. One everyone in this city knows, although they likely associated it with Arlo Gutherie: "City of New Orleans".

Eals' biography promises more than just the musician, looking at Goodman's long battle with leukemia. The musician's life is an instructive one for people struggling to live in New Orleans. He fought his illness for fifteen years and went on to write dozens of wonderful songs (including "You Never Even Called Me By My Name", an unofficial anthem of The Abbey bar on Decatur when Texan Betz Brown was the owner).

Living in New Orleans feels so many days like the life of someone who's been in a horrible accident, or diagnosed with a wasting disease: a burden you can't let overwhelm you lest it kill you faster. Every time you step out into the heat you can't help but think of what lays around the corner--ruined and abandoned homes fronting streets collapsing into ground churned to pudding by the floodwaters. The city is run in part by people who've flocked here to profit from the promised billions of relief that never seem to arrive.

Then you see a debris pile. A lot of Orleanians think flat tire or mold spores when they see those piles of debris, but I see another person coming home. Or perhaps its someone with a sense of adventure, striking out into our own bit of the 21 Century Wild West, either to make their fortune or just to help. Maybe that house is being gutted by college kids who have decided to spend their vacation roasting in a respirator gutting a stranger house instead of baking in the sun of Yucatan.

Life gives you lemons, I say make whiskey sours; any other outlook down here would be as fatal as a terminal disease mixed with a terminal attitude. Better to be home than a sad expatriates like the ones in the Goodman song Banana Republics made popular by Jimmy Buffet. I think Steve Goodman should have a statue somewhere in town. If writing "City of New Orleans" were not enough, his life should remind us how to face a life-and-death struggle with the best possible medicine: beautiful music and lyrics, some "words we can dance to and a melody that rhymes."

Friday, June 22, 2007

Living with Chaos

"In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order."
--Carl Jung

This week British weather forecasters announced the 2007 hurricane season may be less blustery than predicted by U.S. forecasters. The Associated Press story notes that while this is the first time the Brits have published a season forecast, the British Navy-affiliated office has routinely made hurricane forecasts. Apparently, our cousins-in-English did a better job of forecasting last year's less active season than the National Weather Service or noted State University researcher William Gray.

"Who really knows?" I want to ask, almost imperceptibly shrugging my shoulders with the least possible expenditure of calories in the June swelter. I think we can no more predict a particular hurricane season than I can be certain of the next turn the little green anole lizard on the garden wall will make. These anole scurry about my backyard in seemingly random patterns, like tiny green soldiers mounting an assault on the backyard shed. A time lapse photograph of this little fellow's ramble along the wall would produce something resembling the work of M.C. Escher.

I'm certain that the lizard's trail is anything but random. All around my backyard are patterns, some recognizable and some hidden to me. The symmetry of the spider web I understand, recognizing a net to catch supper. The spread of the Bougainvillea or the lazy patterns the bamboo trace in the wind are more difficult to decipher. Someone less challenged by math involving Greek letters could, I am sure, explain it to me. Or at least try. As for the weather, it's the ultimate challenge for the pocket-protector set, a massive array of forces that on one hand follows simple rules like "red sky at night, sailor's delight" and is at the same time is wildly unpredictable.

It is unpredictable, we are told, because it is a chaotic system. This doesn't mean that the weather is without rules, the formless void of the ancients. If it were, then "red sky at morning, sailor take warning" would never have caught on. The weather appears chaotic to us in part because any particular bit of weather is incredibly dependent on initial conditions, what the meteorologist Frank Lofrenz described in the early 1970s as the Butterfly Effect: the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.

That is perhaps a metaphoric exaggeration, but the import is clear. I don't know what spawns tropical waves, those masses of air coming off the coast of Africa and colliding with the warm south Atlantic along the Horse Latitudes: some contours perhaps of the African landscape that send the winds swirling like the dust devils I used to observe in the tiny smoker's corner behind my office building. Many weather systems spin out into the ocean but only one in a hundred, with the chance cough of a camel somewhere in the Sahara, gives birth to Katrina.

The big pattern is clear. I know it. The anole, in some sense, knows it. The bamboo dancing in the wind knows as well. That is why we are all back living here again., sharing this space. Something terrible happened here two years ago, but it was that once in a generation storm that every one who lives on the hurricane coast is raised to expect. We have internalized that risk because we live in that pattern the way seabirds live in the wind and the waves, a world that to an outsider seems untenable but is to us the only landscape that matters, the one that inhabits us as much as we inhabit it.

Somewhere in Connecticut insurance accounts are fretting over forecasts and their columns of numbers, worrying that the pattern is broken. What will we tell the stockholders, they worry. How can we possibly afford the Hamptons this summer if these storms continue? The only Connecticut insurance man who matters to me once wrote: "We live in an old chaos of the sun/ Or an old dependency of day and night,/ Or island solitude, unsponsored, free/Of that wide water, inescapable." Wallace Stevens in Sunday Morning outlines a chaos as predictable as the heat death of the universe and as beautiful as June, then yanks god off the table as a source of blame or comfort like a trickster pulling the table cloth from beneath the dishes.

All that Stevens leaves me, in the end, is myself sitting at a table observing all the order and chaos in the universe in the particular of an anole wandering along a garden wall. It is enough. A flood may come and sweep away this wall and this anole. No matter. I've placed my bet, knowing as the anole knows which way to turn that one hundred years ago and one hundred years hence, someone sits in a patio in New Orleans and looks at a wall, wondering which way the anole will turn. I know this because in spite of all that happened I'm sitting here now, watching the lizard's progress in the place I call home.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Little Miracles

The neighbor's crepe myrtle trees are blooming, and it seems to me as miraculous a gift as the olive branch delivered to Noah.

Last year this time I counted my time home in days, not months or years. It was a time marked not by the flowering of trees like magnolias and crepe myrtles and sweet olive but a period filled with visions of trees dead and dying, the grey and broken limbs which haunted each street like the frightening claws of a dark Disney forest. What clearly stands out in memory from summer of 2006 is seeing every single magnolia on Broadway taken down in July, even those few that were clearly leafed out in part and trying to recover. In that time, if the crepe myrtle bloomed, I was too busy looking at the ground for roofing nails and debris piles to notice.

Roofing nails still spontaneously appear in the grass alongside my house like toadstools after a soaking rain, and the neighbors’ house is about to sell and will be gutted, so it will be another summer of sitting on my porch and looking at debris. There is no escaping the reminders that we still live in a city as much a ruin as not even 22 months after the Federal Flood. I have to remind myself that the debris and nails are just a byproduct of rebirth, no different than the leaves or brown petals that the crepe myrtle will scatter on the sidewalk, the price of the persistence of life.

I was reminded of the way life insistently returns to the scene of disaster as I drove down Marconi between drowned Lakeview and the feral north end of City Park, all of the street lights extinguished so that the middle of a large America city seemed as dark as a country lane. I passed the routinely flooded expanse between the road and the Orleans Avenue Canal levee just south of Robert E. Lee Boulevard, and slowed to a crawl with the windows down in the steamy dark to listen to a raucous chorus of frogs bellowing lustily in the dark. Last summer seemed eerily quiet, as a single cicada struggled to make a decent noise on my street. That night on Marconi it seemed all of Frogdom has assembled for their own Mardi Gras in this pocket swamp, and the street (deserted at just after 10 at night) was filled with ducks waddling over from the park to see what all the commotion was about.

Tomorrow I must call someone. There was routine and ignored seepage under the levee along the 17th Street Canal in the years before the floodwalls failed, and this persistent wet spot concerns me. That's tomorrow's worry. On this night I come to a dead stop on a once busy four-lane suburban artery, turn off the headlights and listen to the singing of the frogs. Just as my neighbor's house is coming back, and just as sure as I know there is new framing on the many demolished lots just over the levee, these frogs insist on coming back here at the toe of this questionable levee. The frogs, it seems, have not gotten the memo that its just too dangerous here, that we have no right or sense to be here.

All of us here cling to life --people, trees, frogs--as tenaciously as sea worms in a cauldron of boiling sulfurated water at a sea bottom vent: life where reasonable minds might not expect it. In the deep of the ocean it is considered miraculous and treated with glossy photos in National Geographic. The people of the hurricane coast are treated by the same publication to a gloomy article predicting our imminent doom behind failed levees facing carbon-exhaust boiled seas. And yet, like those sea worms, we live in a colorful and improbable world of our own making.

The frogs and ducks crowing this little sinkhole of a wetland, what I learned to call a slough when I lived in north-west Minnesota, reminds me what a fecund place these marshy bottom lands are. There is good reason that people have settled the most easily flooded places, thick with wildlife for the taking and built from fertile alluvial soil. Where there is food or the promise of it, people since pre-historic times have gone and lived. Given a modicum of civilization, rivers and other watercourses are a bonus, allowing for trade in the easily acquired surplus of such a fertile place. Of course there's a city here. We've been building cities on the alluvial banks of rivers since man first piled mud-brick on mud-brick along the Tigris and Euphrates.

Orleanians may seem as odd as something dredged up from the sea bottom, but it is a good life in spite of the heat and the threat of the odd hurricane. I spent a decade in the upper Great Plains and have to wonder at why people persist in living up where the weather can kill you not once in a decade or a generation, but once a week or so through the seemingly endless months of winter.

Ours is a different sort life, conditioned by the sultry climate and 300 years of a relatively easily life off the fertile land and convenient waters. You may think us as indolent as the fabled grasshopper but like the people who settled into sod houses to wait out howling blizzards, we've just adapted. Like life everywhere, we've found a niche where we can live and learned how to do it. Just because we don't march down Poydras Street in a "tropical" wool suit like it’s an Olympic event doesn't make us lazy. It makes us sensible, unlike the mad dogs and Englishmen on a forced march from hotel to meeting.

At first I wrote easier instead of different to open the last paragraph, but life here is not easy, not anymore. The fact that we find cause to celebrate and relax in the way we have for 300 years, in spite of being a continuing disaster zone, is as miraculous as the blossoming of the crepe myrtle or the festival of frogs reveling in their permanently flooded bit of New Orleans. The way we chose to live is part of the equation that makes life on the sultry hurricane coast irresistibly attractive to those of us raised to it, or the odd visitor who becomes hooked.

The imperatives of commerce, like the imperatives of life, would repopulate some sort of city here if only to serve the port. Commerce is just an expression of our species, no different than the hunting of a predator or the mating dance of a bird. The return of life to the city is less miraculous than the sort of life we all returned to make here, a life where the blooming of a crepe myrtle or the reopening of a restaurant is as important -- no, more important than mere commerce or the earning of our daily bread. We prefer our daily bread to be fresh and French and eaten under the flowering trees, and as restaurants and crepe myrtles alike bloom in Mid-City hope is reborn that for all our challenges, the newest incarnation of New Orleans will be very much the city we feared we had lost forever.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Stuck On Stupid

What is wrong with this picture? In an area which took two-to-four feet of water HANO, HUD and the developer have built slab-on-grade homes.

Worse, an earlier Picayune story pointed out that units constructed before 8-29 were razed and started over together with additional post-Federal Flood units. Slab-on-grade in a flooded neighborhood almost in sight of the Industrial Canal and a stones throw from the neck of "the funnel" connected to the MRGO and the Intracoastal Watwerway.


I won't even address the question of who will want to buy or rent the mixed-income units in a neighborhood isolated by the Industrial Canal railroad tracks and the interstate. Perhaps it will become an idyllic little corner of the city away from the hustle and bustle. Perhaps.

I think Tim of Tim's Nameless Blog sums it up well in today's post on the demolition of Cabrini Church in the Vista Park neighborhood of Gentilly.

"...throughout the neighborhood are slab-on-grade, ranch-style, suburban American homes...pretty much all of them below the 100- year Base Flood Elevation...the owners...think it appropriate to fix 'em up [with] no effort to elevate or flood proof their homes.

Cabrini Church, on the other hand, was a landmark, a genuine statement of architecture as it was practiced in the 1960's. Its owners decided it was not worthy of renovation, and they labored tirelessly with government agencies to clear the way for demolition.

It seems to me the church should be spared and the houses demolished and replaced--not the other way around.
Some days I wonder if we aren't as stupid as our neighbors to the north think we are.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Bring out your dead

In an effort to debunk this study showing 4,081 victims of Katrina including excess mortality (deaths beyond typical averages) among those who died following the evacuation, State epidemiologist Raoult Ratard appears to suggest that people put false death notices in the New Orleans Times-Picayune obituary section.
"Obituaries are a voluntary notice that is put in the newspaper by the families," Ratard [told the Times Picayune]. "You can see that there are all kind of things that can influence that."
The nut of the mattter is this: Dr. Kevin Stephens, Sr., Director pf the New Orleans Health Department, used the Theory of Excess Mortality to ascribe a large spike in obituary notices to the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood. Ratard prefers to rely only on death certificates issued in New Orleans, disregarding the dispersal of half the city's population elsewhere and clear evidence in the obituaries of a significant spike--2,358--in deaths reported in the newspaper over just a six month period in 2006.

Of course it's not clear evidence if, as Ratard suggests, people were for example just making up obituaries for fun. I've stared at the story from earlier this week for half and hour and can't for the life of me think of anything else Ratard could be suggesting by the quote above.

It does not help matters that Mayor C. Ray Nagin misstates Stephen's case in his state of the city address to suggest the excess mortality was caused by the city's slow to recover health system. That's a leap that would suggest he didn't read Stephen's testimoney before Congress very closely, but that's par for C. Ray who is well known to just make stuff up that sounds good everytime you stuff a microphone in his face.

As to Ratard, his bizarre attempt to discredit results that contradict his own by suggesting people fabricated obituaries is not much better than something Nagin might come up with. I don't know about you, but I'd rather not be relying on a state epidemioligist who might be susceptible to poltical pressure to hide deaths when the asian bird flu virus comes around.

I still believe it comes down to this: no one in government wants you to understand that more people died because of the incompetence of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers than were killed on 9-11.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Adios, America

Tomorrow I return from America to New Orleans. Blogger American Zombie can explain that for you eloquently if you're not a regular reader who knows my views. Even my wife remarked on it after her year-and-a-half in New Orleans: Destin is just like everywhere else, she said was we drove down the main drag to dinner one night. The implication coming from one of the newest Orleanians was clear to me: New Orleans is not.

Long gone from the Florida panhandle are the aqua motels and family beach cottages I remember from long ago, replaced by the march of monolithic condos down the beachfront. All of the usual chains stores and restaurants are conveniently located just blocks off the beach along the highway. It is in one sense a warning of what New Orleans could become if we are not vigilent, a mostly soulless tourist destination.

It is in many ways Miramar Beach is precisely the sort of place built on a spit of sand senators from the interior have in mind when they complain of coastal communities built in harms way. Still, you would have to have some terrible aversion to the ocean not to be thankful someone built here after even a short visit.

Frankly, its been damned relaxing. Everyone in New Orleans needs to go someplace pleasant for a while, somewhere the drugstore is up the block and not half-a-city away, where there are not constant reminders of disaster and challenge. Forget the expanses of hurricane-hardened concrete behind you and turn to the sea and the sun and just tune out.

While my week at the beach has not been without reminders of what I left behind (it amazes me to see incredibly valuable beach-front property still boarded up from Hurricane Ivan in 2004), I plan to turn off of I-10 somewhere in Mississippi and drive past Wal-Mart and the Olive Garden until I get to Highway 90 and drive through the heart of Katrina.

I want to see for myself the rapid recovery I hear all those extra recovery millions sent to the faithful GOP voters should have bought. I already know what I will find: a barren landscape not unlike the bulldozed Ninth Ward. I have a clear mental picture of Waveland before. I had an aunt and uncle and cousins on the coast.

I know all that is gone. I need to remind myself (just as the boarded beach houses of Destin remind me) that we in New Orleans are not alone on the Hurricane Coast. I need to see or hear something that might rekindle my dwindling connection to the rest of America.

I need that because I increasingly share the view Ashley leaves in the comments under the post I linked to before. Perhaps it is time for our own Conch Republic moment, something dramatic so the nation to the north understands how little of the money they think was sent has reached us, will understand our feeling of abandonment by the central government, will hear why with every passing day I am less an American and more an Orleanian.

A final thought to add: I tried to grab the video of church volunteer Connie Uddo, but only got this audio. You can view the entire hearing here. Uddo's remarks occur between 1:13 and 1:17.

Ed.'S Note: apologies for typos but posting by Blackberry is a pain.

Updated Ed. Note: I cleaned up the typos, and added a bit here and there. I want to note that along Highway 90, there are signs of life along the road on the Bay Saint Louis end that I would compare to the commercial progress in Mid-City. After cruising the Pass Christian coast road, I decided to take my tired family home and didn't drive along the coast in Bay St. Louis and Waveland. I though Pass Christian offered enough in the way of barren slabs, tumbled walls and newly streched Tyvek for one Saturday afternoon.

"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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