Monday, April 17, 2006

Undecidedly Uneasy

I haven't posted for days. There is a reason. Confusion and discouragement. So many levels of it that just putting them in the proper file folder in my brain has been tough. My generalized ennui has finally been sorted into four categories: Mayoral Election, FEMA Maps, Disgust and Worry. What a lovely party it's been!

Mayoral Election
I've watched the Mayoral Debates and the panels that included all the lesser candidates. Yet here I am, five days before the election and still undecided. That hasn't happened to me in nearly 35 years of voting. In fact, I've always been one of those people who laughed at the "20% undecided" listings in pre-election polls. "How can anyone be this close to an election and NOT know who they want to vote for." Didn't understand it. Now I do.

Some of the lesser candidates, terrible term but it was better than the don't-stand-a-chance-in-hell candidates, have some good ideas. Some have really terrific ideas, but they only have one idea, not a fully fleshed out plan. Some have plans to make plans. Some would turn New Orleans into one gigantic trailer park. A few of these people really should be consulted by the next Mayor of New Orleans and be put to work on their ideas, but letting these folks run the City would be a bad idea. Integrate some of the best of their ideas, the really bold, fresh ideas, and let the rest go. So who do we have that does have a chance?

It appears to be narrowed down to three, and in conversations I've had with people of every socioeconomic and racial category, the quandary is the same with regard to these guys. Nagin, Landrieu and Forman. These are the frontrunners, with a smaller segment firmly behind Couhig.

Here's what I'm hearing, and it pretty much mirrors my own issues with this election. We're left with one guy, Nagin, who knows the ropes, knows what is and is not happening with regard to rebuilding, but he's not perceived well in the rest of the country and probably burned too many bridges during the storm's aftermath. That puts him in a category of "they won't help us if he's the Mayor, even if we'd like him to be re-elected." And many would like to see him re-elected. We also have Landrieu, from a political dynasty, seems to play well in polls with both black and white voters being asked, has the inside track on how the State works, and his sister is the Senator, so he certainly has the federal connections to use as a resource. That puts him in the category of "we're not sure we like him or the idea of voting for a guy based on his connections rather than his platform, but he probably can help." Then there's Forman, who did an amazing job with Audobon Park, but is definitely seen as a rich white guy beholden to elitist interests. Although he has some really good ideas, a lot of people can't get past the sense that he would be a "rich man's Mayor," and according to his opponents and his record, he supported the ex-Mayor Morial for a third term even though Morial's administration was, from all reports, pretty corrupt.

So where does that leave us? My guess is Landrieu will win, and probably based on his connections, because it's clear that connections help. People seem to be banking on his ability to make the rest of the country (through his connections on the Federal level) remember that Louisiana is part of it, as Mississippi has done so well. What a way to choose a Mayor, especially right now when the choice is so very important. If pressed I couldn't really endorse any of them wholeheartedly. We need a Vulcan Mind Meld or something. Put the three of them together and we might have the right guy.

Whoever is elected will be an integral component of the rebuilding or languishing of this City. We all know how important our choice is.

How lovely. FEMA finally put out their flood maps, and rather than clearing up confusion, they only added to it. Some people will evidently have to raise their homes 1-3 feet, but only if. . . .. . . . . . . .here's where it's a mess. Supposedly if your house is a slab construction and you've already gutted it and rebuilt it, you won't have to raise it, but your neighbor, who hasn't gotten as far as you might have to raise theirs, but they might not. You might, depending on who's interpreting all this, have to rip out your sheetrock and start over raising your house, even if it's already been completely rebuilt. Clear as mud, huh? Insurance gonna pay to raise your house? (Estimates I've heard are about $50,000 to raise a home three feet. Not being a contractor, I don't know if that's accurate or not, but it's probably close.) Nah, insurance probably didn't pay you much to begin with. How are you gonna pay for it? FEMA doesn't care. Sell the damn house to someone who can afford to pay for it, and let's hope they can pay for the purchase of the house outright because the mortgage won't close without insurance and the insurance companies are not writing policies. Around and around it goes with no real answers or any real help for the displaced who want to come home. And once they come home, they might lose whatever money they did manage to squeeze out of the insurance company's tight ass to an out of state contractor who rips them off. (The reports of this have skyrocketed over the last four months.)

The conflicting reports on the rebuild are astounding. And the conflicting messages even more so. Small businesses are dying on the vine--no homes so no workers, no workers no business, no workers no tax base, limited hours because no workers, no workers because no homes--we'll have to close the business is what many will decide. You've heard it all before. Now the very people we are telling to come back, repopulate, rebuild, are the people caught in the FEMA map/insurance company/contractor ripoff web, and the black widow of no clear answers is eating them alive. Many will give up their homes out of sheer frustration, others because they can't afford to comply with ever changing interpretations of where they can or cannot rebuild and under what circumstances. These are the people we need to come home. These are the workers! Buyout plans, equity, pre-Katrina vs. post-Katrina appraisals. All this is the tip of the iceburg for someone trying to make a decision. If they're living and working in Baton Rouge and trying to wade through the paperwork or the wrong answer from the right person/right answer from the wrong person labyrinth, why wouldn't they just give up? Many of them will, and they will abdicate their homes, set up shop elsewhere, and call it a day.

Since FEMA issued the maps, they should have to help facilitate compliance, and that takes money and no more stonewalling with mountains of paperwork, lack of accountability and conflicting explanations of what they really meant.

Third category for me was disgust. I'm disgusted by the racism I'm seeing and hearing here. Utter divisiveness from all sides. Some of the worst is the Times Picayune Forum message boards. The West Bank is far and away the winner of the most offensive and flagrant racist postings, a dubious honor, but the other areas of the City are not immune. What disgusts me is the racism itself, but I'm also disgusted that people from all over the country are reading this and forming opinions of us as a population.

Here in our house we've talked a lot about how we absolutely have to look like a unified population to the rest of the country if we want support from them in our rebuilding efforts. Not lockstep agreement, but at least an outward appearance of wanting to work through all this together, making compromises along the way. Instead the rhetoric on these message boards gets worse and worse, occasionally punctuated by a really swell out of towner "praying that another hurricane hits and wipes you and your pathetic city off the map for good this time."

Unfortunately, it's not only on message boards that racism is seen. You can see it in the streets, hear it in a bar, feel unspoken prejudice in a group that's gathered to use the Ferry. It's not that it wasn't here before the storm, it's just that now it seems to have taken on a more incendiary, slightly menacing tone. Speaking of tones, there are also distinctly classist overtones to all this. Property owners whose homes were relatively unscathed vs. renters, property owners who have worked to rebuild their homes vs. those who were waiting out the definitive FEMA maps, well to do, or middle class working black people vs. poor black people. Interestingly, the same lines seem to be drawn in the white population.

And we can't forget the immigrant Mexican roofers. They are also the object of scorn. A black man told me three days ago that he was talking to a Mexican work crew about getting some work. They turned him down. He said it was the third time it had happened to him. "Mexicans won't hire blacks," was his comment. Great, another group to add to the hate-each-other mix.

Then again, if you believe what you hear in the streets, no blacks or Mexicans really want to work. White people, in small groups, wishing the black people would just stay in Houston or wherever they went and the Mexicans should get bussed home, then one of the guys in the group hollers in a hail-fellow-well-met voice to a black guy from the block, "I got some stuff I need hauled outta my yard. Wanna make a few bucks?" "Sure!" comes the reply. The transaction is made but the tension remains.

If you believe what you hear on the streets about congenital lack of ambition, then picture this: 9AM on a Friday. Gas station near Lee's Circle. Car pulls in for gas. The white male owner of the car is descended upon by dozens and dozens of men, mostly black or Hispanic. "You got any work, man?" they ask. A scene out of Grapes of Wrath. This happened last Friday. The mutual usury will continue, with disdain and contempt from both sides, until it finally explodes.

The only heading for what I'm seeing is Disgust.

What? Me worry? (Too much Mad Magazine when I was younger!)

I am worried that the discouragement will continue, and that our population will continue to dwindle. It will be pure attrition brought on by frustration and lack of attention to the problems here.

I am worried about the divisiveness tearing us apart from within.

I am worried that the small businesses won't survive and we'll be left with nothing but corporate flagship stores.

I am worried that the displaced thousands will not be in a financial position to rebuild and will forever mourn their home, finding no way back.

I am worried that too many aren't worried enough.

1 comment:

Mark Folse said...

There so much I could say, but its hard typing standing in the Box Free Zone in the kitchen. Those who are back, and especially those who are coming home like myself (without the burden of a ruined home and posession) have to pave the way for those who can't find their way home yet.

I'm rooting for Landrieu (I didn't have time to register to vote the week I was back in town, as I only closed the house deal late on a Friday of that week) because of his bi-racial support. He need someone who really is a uniter and not a divider, and (and as an old political/Capitol Hill hack) knows how to play the game. Format and Couhig can't do that, I don't believe, and Nagin is damaged goods, the anti-Gulliani.

And this really needs this tag. I hope you aren't offended by my viral tagging:
We Are Not OK