Friday, March 31, 2006
These are a wonderful idea and so forward thinking.
But then why would I expect this logic to extend to FEMA. Maybe I need some coffee.
I have highlighted one paragraph in it, as this was the paragraph my friend was upset about, with good reason. If you don't read anything else in the letter, read that paragraph, then go through the file cabinet in your head and think about levees and the Corps of Engineers.
Below is the letter, complete with no editing other than to delete my friend's name.
Sent: Thursday, March 30, 2006 8:08 AM
Subject: Responding to your message
Dear D :
Thank you for contacting me regarding the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast . I appreciate your sharing your views with me on this important matter.
My heart goes out to all those who continue to be affected by the devastation left behind by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and I share your concerns regarding the speed of recovery of the Gulf Coast . I believe reconstruction of the Gulf Coast should be done in a thoughtful and fiscally responsible way, and I have visited the area and am eager to see a swift recovery. With regard to housing, I am concerned with the delay in providing adequate housing. I am working with Senators from both parties to determine the most effective and financially responsible means of advancing reconstruction efforts.
As you may know there have been several hearings in the Senate and the House of Representatives focusing on the failures of the federal, state, and local governments in responding to Hurricane Katrina. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs will release a final report in March, and the House Special Committee to Investigate Preparation for and the Response to Hurricane Katrina released its report on February 15. Findings from the report have shown that a failure of leadership and initiative significantly undermined and detracted from response efforts.
The House Special Committee found that levees protecting New Orleans were not built for the most severe hurricanes; the failure of complete evacuations led to preventable deaths, great suffering, and further delays in relief; critical elements of the National Response Plan were executed late, ineffectively, or not at all; the Department of Homeland Security and the states were not prepared for this catastrophic event; massive communications damage and a failure to adequately plan for alternatives impaired response efforts, command and control, and situational awareness; long-standing weaknesses and the magnitude of the disaster overwhelmed FEMA's ability to provide emergency shelter and temporary housing. It is my hope that the findings in this report and the Senate's upcoming report will aid in developing emergency procedures that will help prevent another such response.
Although the Administration has stated that it will seek an additional $19 billion in funds for Gulf Coast reconstruction as part of an emergency supplemental request, the current 2007 Budget Request cuts funding for several programs that are needed during the current reconstruction process. In addition, the Administration proposed to cut funding for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for carrying out projects that help prevent flooding and coastal damage, including levee projects, by 11 percent, from $5.3 billion to $4.7 billion in 2007. Funding for the National Weather Service (NWS), which provides warnings and forecasts to ensure public safety, is cut from $107 million to $98 million. Programs to assist the elderly with housing costs are cut by 25 percent, and funding for programs to assist persons with disabilities with housing costs are cut by 50 percent. These budget cuts have been announced at an especially challenging time for hurricane survivors, especially because FEMA is forcing thousands of displaced survivors from hotel rooms. Reconstruction projects continue to be under funded and please be assured that I will continue to work to address the challenges we face in rebuilding the Gulf Coast .
Again, thank you for writing. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future regarding any other matter of importance to you and your community.
United States Senator
I am simply too astonished to comment.
Thursday, March 30, 2006
The Levee Girl had a Levee Guy who had stuck with her through thick and thin for many years. They would get off work in the Quarter and meet up for what Levee Guy called a "big red drink." It was delivered by a pretty young bartender who became their friend. Once when Levee Girl had too many of the big red drinks, the pretty young bartender had crawled under the locked bathroom stall door to get the reeling woman out to the car that Levee Guy had parked illegally on Bourbon Street to haul her sorry ass home.
Most weekend nights, though, the two LG's would just wander around the Quarter, going wherever their ears took them. In love with music, they'd go from a zydeco symphony to a blues buffet and finish up with an R&B blast, closing the club and calling the cabbie they had on speed dial to get them across the bridge. There they would drag their bicycles out of the cab's trunk, then stagger around the block walking the dog before they fell into bed with a song playing in their heads. In the morning, Levee Guy would do his rendition of his favorite piece of the night before with his tousled hair and sometimes bleary eyes accompanying his grin as he headed for the shower.
Now, seven months later, Levee Girl decided to do some walking. She walked into a local bar. There she saw an older man, very red faced and very drunk, grab a young skinny also drunk punk roofer by the shirt. Cocking his fist and aiming it for the younger man's face, he shouted, "Don't you EVER say that about New Orleans!" Like chimpanzees, the males in the bar had some secret agreement to which she wasn't privy. They formed groups around each of the fighters, and one in each group was designated to be the negotiator. No words had been spoken for Levee Girl to hear as they clustered around the two fighting men but they were separated and the fighting stopped. The rest of the men returned to their stools and the muffled sound of bar conversation was all she could hear over the jukebox.
Later she walked home and Levee Guy was waiting on the porch with a disgusted look on his face. He had overheard their proud-to-be-a-racist-white-cracker neighbor hollering on his cell phone as he was wont to do. Believing himself to be a combination of Bill Graham and George Patton, he had recently gotten involved with another local bar. This bar was often frequented by what some people would call ne'er-do-wells and it was assumed that a lot of substances other than whiskey had changed hands within its walls. It had a reputation, that much was certain. Levee Girl listened as Levee Guy recounted the overheard conversation. Graham/Patton was evidently having a problem with some kind of permit, and ever the opportunist, he hollered into his cell phone that he should "go to the papers and say that the only reason they're giving us a hard time is because we're a place where African Americans come to relax." Levee Girl knew that this man wouldn't normally have used THAT term, and just shook her head. Dollars were the only thing this guy really cared about. Sometimes she didn't want to listen to another thing.
Just then her cell phone rang. She listened as the pretty young bartender said, "I'll be home by Easter! I can't wait!" And Levee Girl rejoiced, knowing that some things would sound the same again, like the pretty young bartender's voice over the din.
Yesterday's choice was a jewel from the Westbank forum. I had sent it to a couple people with no comment as it needed none. By this morning I had been sent a copy of it from six different people, all in various parts of the United States. I was intrigued that so many folks from disparate places had all noted this particular little post. What's the post say?
"There are too many undesirable types walking and trying to drive their
newly bought cars around the Westbank, and I for one don't want them here no
more. If I see any suspcious thugs walking about in my once thugless
neighborhood, I call 911 ASAP. These stupid refugees don't know how to drive the
cars that FEMA helped them purchase, and I certainly give them the dirtiest look
whenever I get the chance." -unorules » West Bank
Put a giant (sic) at the end of that. I changed nothing although I was dying to correct the spelling of suspicious after I smacked him upside his head! I rarely read the Westbank forum as there is an overload of this kind of rhetoric on it, and this particular poster is regularly in the forefront of the venom spitting types. What he said was awful. But it bothered me beyond that.
So far this morning I've been sent six copies of this post (although the private email discussions of this have been great fun), an article from the New York Times about crime rising here in New Orleans (which I mentioned in an earlier post, referring to it as the "Houston/New Orleans gang foreign exchange program"), and an article from AP about Houston wanting the evacuees to go home.
Perception. Many have written about the perception people outside of New Orleans have of us here. I even mentioned in the post about driving through Texas, that we actually were concerned with that perception and how it might impact us as we blithely drove around with our Mardi Gras beads on the rearview. Would people think we were criminals? Would people think we were looking for a handout? Maybe they'd look in the back of the car for a kid who might be a burden on their school system, or a shotgun that we might be planning to use.
There is no question that there were problems before the storm, during the storm, immediately after the storm, and that they continue now, seven months later. What's bothering me is the way it's being reported and the smug xenophobic tone I'm seeing in the press.
The bozo who wrote the post above, while definitely representing a certain point of view here, particularly on the Westbank ("Keep all those filthy Eastbank people out! Put the Gretna cops back on the Bridge!"), there are a lot of us who don't share that point of view. But someone out there who reads this post might mistakenly think that we ALL feel that way. A real perception problem.
The headline on the AP story was "'City That Sleeps' Sick of Big Easy Transplants?
Some Say Katrina Evacuees Are Wearing Out Welcome in Houston." SOME say. The article outlined some of the real problems that Houston is facing with the influx of more than 100,000 former New Orleanians. However, there were many people interviewed for the article who said that most of the evacuees they'd met were NOT criminals, and one woman, a truly compassionate soul said, "They're not thinking about how long it's going to take one family to get back on their feet." Some of the most idiotic statements quoted in the article were out of the mouths of high school kids from both cities who were having trouble adjusting to each other. Unfortunately many people will only read the headline, then head for the water cooler and tsk tsking all the way say, "Houston is sick of those people from New Orleans and want them to go home." Swell. Another perception problem, for both cities in this instance. Houstonians are either A. Cold bastards who don't care, or B. Long suffering samaritans who are now resenting their generosity to a bunch of criminals from New Orleans. From what I can tell, most of the people in Houston are just trying to figure out how to deal with the changes in their city as we are trying to deal with the changes in ours.
Meanwhile, back at the New York Times, "As Life Returns to New Orleans, So Does Crime." There is no doubt about it. And yes we have to pay attention. But that headline just burned me. Is this really a surprise? Of course not. Put enough people together on a piece of real estate, and some are bound to be criminals of one kind or another. Must New Orleans always be referred to as some sort of pitiful Sodom and Gomorrah with her streets overflowing with blood, booze and drugs? While I am certainly not advocating that the negatives be shoved under the rug, or not reported, I just wish there was a bit less sensationalism and little bit more balance. (Please spare me the emails about media bias. I've been there so many times I could make a form letter response!)
That having been said, those of us here have to quit ignoring the perception others have of us. If we see something like that post, we need to refute it. We need to write some letters to publications letting them know that most of us in New Orleans are not racist, reactionary maniacs, nor are we all criminals skating through the justice system with our hands out to social services once we're released.
It was the seven month mark yesterday. Some around here have started calling it the "watermark," typical of a particular brand of dark humor found here since the storm. There is so much that has to be done here. So many people and decisions falling through the cracks of bureaucracies. If we don't do something to change the "outsider's" perception of us, we're really going to make our already uphill battle even steeper.
And just for the record, today's Boston Globe has an article saying that the murder rate there has reached a ten year high after a "miraculous" drop in the 1990's. They are debating whether immigration has anything to do with it (most are saying no), and local politicians and law enforcement officials are trying to figure out what to do about it. Boston? Ya don't say!
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
I then got an email from someone about whom I care beyond reason. The sender was clearly angry about my political views and later said that there was nothing really personal in them. The sender wanted to know what was going on with ME.
I tried to explain that in a post-Katrina New Orleans, there is no way to extricate decisions made by "authorities" from one's personal life. That things like concern over the upcoming mayoral elections ARE "what is going on with me." Levees, their failure, their rebuilding, and all the issues connected to that ARE "what is going on with me." FEMA and insurance companies screwing over my neighbors and then listening to their stories on my front porch is what is going on with me. Friends leaving because they have no choice is an issue that cuts to the bone of what is going on with me. All of this seemingly impersonal stuff is deeply personal and every day presents those of us who are living here with decisions we have to make.
Below is a list of things that are "going on with me." I hope it suffices.
~We're still on permanent hold with FEMA.
~We have filed for but haven't heard from the SBA about a loan.
~We are still dealing with the stuff from storage and trying to find a new storage unit that's not a day's drive from here or priced higher than our apartment.
~We're wondering if the FEMA trailers in our neighborhood, which we're told can't sustain a Cat 1 storm, will turn into projectiles if a tropical storm comes ashore and undo the repair work that's been done already.
~We're trying to work around the Ferry being out of service for a film shoot. (Hopefully only a couple more weeks of that!)
~We're hoping that the restaurants, shops and clubs that we love will be able to make it. Sometimes we decide to go somewhere and find it gone when we get there.
~We're wading through the rhetoric in hopes of finding the best candidate to take on the rebuilding of this city.
~We're going to the Old Point here and there to socialize the new dog and have a couple drinks with others who are in the same boat.
Still not personal enough?
~I need to get some laundry done.
~I need to buy some glucosamine 'cuz my hips are hurting these days.
~I gotta color my hair, the roots are obscenely gray.
~I REALLY need to vacuum but the new dog hasn't seen a vacuum yet, so I'm putting it off.
~I'm nervous for my sweet neighbor and friend who's going to run a triathlon in a little over a week.
I'm going to go make a sandwich and read FEMA's new "hardcore" evacuation plan. What appears to be impersonal/political is deeply personal to me.
If I think of anything later, I'll post it.
Oh yeah, the new dog just bared his teeth at the cat and got corrected, I found my other sandal in the rubble under the bed, and I have to rebuild my address book in my PDA because I foolishly let the battery die.
That's what's going on with me.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
"Why rebuild New Orleans? It's below sea level." My god, we've heard that so many times since Katrina hit us. After we get over the anger we sputter our various personal reasons, emotional reasons and cultural reasons, and then, if we're really on a roll, we start in on the economic reasons. Then depending on how much time and energy we have, we try to rationally explain to whatever idiot just made the statement, that New Orleans, and the entire Gulf Coast region, are important to America, and oh yeah, in case they forgot, we are still a part of America. "And by the way, buster, do ya like your SUV? We don't just have rum down here ya know! You can't run that Escalade on rum."
After our road trip, we got to thinking about the weird logic that causes someone to make a statement like that. If we follow that logic then Americans just about everywhere are going to have to rethink they way they build their houses and where they choose to live. Clearly most of them will have to move.
Texas, on fire. California, Arizona, New Mexico, all prone to wildfires, and given what we saw as we drove, it's a real tinderbox in the Southwest right now. In northwestern Texas last week, a wildfire had killed over 10,000 cattle and the locals were talking to the authorities about where on earth (no pun intended) they were going to dispose of the carcasses. Ten thousand cattle. That's daunting. There were many homes destroyed, many people left homeless. That was just in Texas. Is there a FEMA "wildfire plain" map being developed? "Okay, we're not sure you can rebuild here, but if you do, you'll have to build your house out of asbestos and put a helicopter pad on the roof so you can get out if a wildfire is heading your way. We'll give you $2000 dollars toward the helicopter purchase if you qualify, but you probably won't. Besides you won't be able to prove your losses since all your records were burned up, so you're on your own with this. Also we have no idea how much your homeowners is going to increase. It'll probably double. Before you can rebuild we're going to get the EPA out here to see if the cattle carcasses were within 7 miles of your burned out home as they might be an environmental hazard. Why 7 miles? Ah, we just threw a dart. Don't buy the asbestos quite yet though. We're not sure that this will, in the end, be the official plan."
Okay, let's move everyone out of those wildfire prone states, immediately. Do NOT let them rebuild their homes there. After all, everyone KNOWS wildfires happen in those areas, so anyone who rebuilds there has to be stupid in the first place.
Springfield, Missouri, devastated by a tornado a few weeks ago. Everyone knows the term Tornado Alley. The warning times are a little better than they were years ago, but not by much. And the darn things just love to hit in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep. FEMA's tornado plan would probably require everyone in the Midwest to build their houses underground. "No more above ground structures. You guys in the Midwest are going to have to start building underground cities immediately and at your own expense. Our tornado plain map has shown that the footprint of the Midwest will have to shrink considerably, and no we don't know how you're going to grow corn underground."
Now we gotta move everyone out of those tornado prone states. Do NOT let the people of Springfield, Missouri rebuild their homes there. After all, everyone KNOWS tornadoes happen in those areas and anyone who rebuilds there has to be stupid in the first place.
The Hayward Fault in the San Francisco Bay area is "locked and loaded" according to an AP article this week. The article continues:
It slices the earth's crust along a 50-mile swath of suburbia east of San Francisco, from exclusive hilltop manors overlooking the bay to Hayward's humble flatlands. It snakes beneath highway bridges, strip malls, nursing facilities and retirement centers, and it splits the uprights of the football stadium at the University of California, Berkeley.
"A lot of these structures are going to come down," said David P. Schwartz, chief of the USGS's Bay Area Earthquake Hazards Project. He spoke with one foot on either side of the fault, marked by a crack that snaked through a parking lot in Hayward's business district.
The anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Quake is coming up in April. Then there was the quake in 1989 that caused a lot of damage and heartbreak. Is FEMA going to require that all homes damaged by an earthquake must be built on rollers like the Transamerica Pyramid?
Nope, what we need to do is move them out, not let them rebuild there. After all, everyone KNOWS earthquakes happen. . . . . . . . . . . . rebuild. . . . . . . . must be stupid anyway.
This year the hurricane predicters are saying that there will probably be 17 named storms and that many of them will probably hit the Atlantic Coast. We better move those people too. Anyone who might possibly be in the storm path will have to relocate.
Where should all these people build their homes. Not in hurricane, wildfire, tornado or earthquake areas. Not below sea level and not in a dangerous fire zone. Hmm, maybe Minnesota? Everyone should move to Minnesota. That's it! Wait, they have some pretty good blizzards there, so does Chicago. When you think about it, so does New York City. Okay, blizzards, known to happen in certain places. Let's not build there.
. . . . . . .stupid anyway.
I'm curious what the "footprint" of the United States would look like if FEMA eliminated home building in any area prone to a natural disaster. Little islands of habitation, like a hopscotch board drawn on the sidewalk in chalk.
Perhaps we should all move to Canada or Mexico, then FEMA wouldn't have the bother of a population, the inconvenience of citizens. But if we choose Mexico, we better hurry up and evacuate there before they build the proposed 300 mile long wall along the border. Berlin in the Southwest. (As soon as it's built maybe we should put a giant puppet of Ronald Reagan up there saying, "Mr. President, tear down this wall!") We can build a wall on our border to keep illegal immigrants out and protect our "national security," but we can't build levees to keep flood waters out and protect this region? Maybe we need to redefine "national security." Many New Orleanians no longer feel very secure in having a place in this nation.
Get out your maps, folks. You better start thinking about where you're going to move if the "why rebuild" idiots start looking at the disaster possibilities in your city or town. Don't get too comfortable. It might just be too expensive or too difficult to rebuild your home or your city if something catastrophic happens there. These people might try to apply their "logic" to your area, and I guarantee you won't like it.
Maybe we should move to Iraq. I hear they're building new schools there. Lots of infrastructure.
One last FEMA story for today. Young man, 22, resident of Chalmette, enlists in the Navy. Gets sent to Iraq as a corpsman. Nice kid. Hated Iraq. Can't wait for his tour to be over. His home was in Chalmette. It's gone. Katrina ate it along with all his uniforms and everything else he owned. FEMA denied his claim because he was "in Iraq, not Chalmette, Louisiana when the storm hit." He wasn't qualified to receive any assistance and had to pay to replace his uniforms out of his own pocket. I've heard a lot of disqualification stories, but that one takes the cake.
Monday, March 27, 2006
In the last three days, I've heard these stories. There are reports of progress being made here with houses being gutted, people trying to return, the strong spirit of the people here. There are also reports of Corps of Engineers reports contradicting themselves, laws that keep the Corps from being sued, insurance companies refusing to pay. Mostly these stories are about stuff. Homes, money, jobs. But there are ancillary stories connected to all of the above, and I've heard them this week.
We took Zola up to the levee so he could see people and bicycles. We watched as they shot a scene from the Denzel Washington movie, "Deja Vu", on the Ferry (which Disney rented for a month causing no end of problems with commuting from the Westbank). A woman came up to us with some binoculars. Everyone, it seems, is waiting for a glimpse of Denzel, but so far no one has actually seen him. We started talking with her. She lives on Powder Street here on Algiers Point, a street that we delivered lots of food and water to in early September. There was an entire family that hadn't evacuated and they had nothing. One of the women we met up there was an elderly woman, about 83 as I recall. She was one of the women who needed her medication refilled and was part of the surreal tea party under the Army tent at Blaine Kern's as she waited with the others for a ride to West Jefferson. Her hair was black, her makeup severe, her laugh raucous and wonderful. I can't find my notebook (been searching all morning, her name is in there), but I think her name was Joy Boudreaux, a very common surname here in New Orleans. She told me that she had been born on Powder Street and had lived on Powder Street her entire life. She was a fascinating woman. She died this week. Evidently she had other ailments, as her list of prescriptions could attest to, but her heart gave out.
The woman we were talking with was probably in her late 50's, also lived on Powder Street. She said she had a circle of girlfriends that consisted of 12 women. They'd known each other for years. Five of them have died since the storm, of heart attacks from stress. Four others had moved out of New Orleans because of their jobs. She just shook her head, still not believing her personal human loss.
You've read about our friend Louis from up the street. He's the one with the amazing evacuation story that took him to Utah after being refused entry to the Westbank by the Gretna police which was really just the second to last chapter of his harrowing story. Louis is in his 50's and always rode his bike to work in Metairie, which is a long way by bicycle. Before the storm, he lost a grandson, 21 yrs old , to kidney failure. While in the Convention Center for four days, he lost his nephew, shot by police while getting water for some older ladies. His nephew died in his arms. Yesterday he buried his 20 year old son. Coroner said heart failure due to stress. No drugs in his system. TWENTY YEARS OLD?!?! He now is trying to raise money to return to Utah to get his car. He has to leave day after tomorrow and he has no money because his landlord, who owns many properties in this area and has rented them out Section 8 for years, has raised their rent from $900 to $1500. Louis, his wife and their grandson, are planning to move to Baton Rouge or maybe Houston. Shoved out of their hometown by greed after suffering so much loss. You can see it in Louis's eyes. He's not the same man that we knew before the storm. Something is broken inside of him.
The doctors told him that they were seeing very large numbers of heart attacks due to stress in the New Orleans area. While everyone is busy talking about money, insurance, FEMA, they are overlooking the people that these delays and lack of money are affecting. Can they come home? Will they be safe if they do? Will they be able to rebuild? Many people are still searching for missing relatives. A local tv news station reported that in addition to the two bodies they found in the Ninth Ward this week, they also found a child's body at an intersection off of Forstall. My god, this is an area that we've driven by over and over when we went to the area. We no doubt drove right by where this little one was found. Who's looking for that little one and what agency will find the people who are looking? The impersonal rules and regulations simply aren't taking into account the toll, physical and psychological, that this is taking on human beings who are just trying to get by after an historic catastrophe.
It's not just the money and the delays. It's the loss of family, through death or because they're still missing. It's the loss of their neighborhood, their social safety net. It's the loss of friends. We will be losing two of our dearest friends to Houston this coming week. Company setting up shop in Houston, not in New Orleans. This happens every day here. "We are moving. We have no choice." And most really don't have a choice. The reasons vary but the void is still the same.
Yes, indeed. The people of New Orleans have a wonderful, tough spirit. That's what's going to see us through all this, I think. A sense that one doesn't just abandon their home because it's too hard. But somehow in the midst of these commentaries on the billions of dollars, the levee failures, the loss of the structure that was home, there has to be some way to really address the post-Katrina loss of life that all this has contributed to.
Hearing about seven fatal stress related heart attacks, in people ranging from 83 to 20, over the course of three days is overwhelming. These seven came from every ethnic and socio-economic group. The stress is an equal opportunity killer, it seems. When you see all the reports about structures and dollars, please remember the humans involved. They seem to be getting lost in the shuffle now that they're off the roofs and off your TV screens.
And pray that the ones who died when the levees broke are reunited with the families who are looking for them.
---NOTE: I found the notebook. Her name was June Boudreaux.
Sorry to have been out of touch. David and I went on a road trip. Why would we do that when we're still living hand to mouth and hoping that Jazzfest helps? Because our dear friend in Albuquerque, whom we helped with German Shepherd rescue before we moved, called and said, "I have your dog here." We had just lost Jasper and had decided we were not getting another dog for a while, but here was the same story that brought us Jasper. Puppy mill jerk, 18 German Shepherds, living in filth and starving, seized by the county, needed homes. And one of them looked like he was probably Jasper's grandson, great grandson, grand nephew, something. Or so she said. Well, us being us, we couldn't turn that down and she knows us and what kind of dog we tend toward. So we got in our car and drove to get him. He's back home with us now, learning about people and struggling to figure out that most of them won't hurt him. He's handsome and smart and somewhere between 2-3 yrs old, but he's got the experience level of a 3 month old. He's fabulous and we're glad we went for him.
It was also the first road trip we'd taken together that wasn't a family visit in years and years. And it was our first long trip since Katrina hit. I had gone back to Albuquerque in November, but flew in, worked for two days and came back. It's a different thing from a road trip. We headed out having decided to take the "short" route through Shreveport to Dallas to Amarillo to Albuquerque. No problem. We'd done it before and we knew that Texas is the endless state. We both abhor driving through Dallas but managed it with few issues as long as we paid attention to the cutoffs. We got to Albuquerque, had no time to do a lot of socializing but got to see a couple people briefly, and that was great. Spending time with Kathy and her own pack of dogs was really a treat. We were also surprised by how many people we met in stores and gas stations who upon hearing we were from New Orleans, seemed almost compelled to tell us that they were ashamed and appalled at the federal handling of Katrina. It was interesting to hear what they had to say. Most of them, however, had no idea that about 30% of New Orleans still has no power. They were stunned.
We loaded up the dog and headed home via the "long" way: Albuquerque, El Paso, San Antonio, Houston, Baton Rouge, home. We did the TexasWorld Tour. Yes I did mean for TexasWorld to be all one word. Anyone sensitive about Texas might not want to go on reading from here!
Having seen almost all of the major cities in Texas in a six day period (two days each way), we were astonished. The roads are, by and large, wonderful. Something that cannot be said of New Orleans before or after Katrina. We noticed the Texan intent on being BIG: big auto dealerships, big flags, big steaks, big vehicles. We were fascinated by some of the tiny little towns, a lot of them agricultural or ranching towns, that had nothing but a few trailers strewn together in some semblance of a village. There's a lot of that in New Mexico too, but we didn't expect the huge contrast between these little burgs and the bigger cities. Trailer colonias and a truck stop out your window, then the blazing overdone glass of Dallas. We'd seen that before as we had gone that way on other trips across Texas. But we saw the same thing on the southern route. It seemed that the gap between the rich and poor in Texas was huge and obvious. I did say they like things big there.
The first five to ten miles of any one of the cities we went through were endless parades of franchises. Everyone is represented: Applebees, Chilis, McDonalds, Burger King, Target, Walmart, Home Depot, etc. We talked a lot about the homogenization of America. If someone dropped us in the middle of a good size city in Texas, it's virtually indistinguishable from Kansas City or any other city in America. The franchises have taken over, and only the trees and the freeway number will tell you where you are. Home Depot and a palm tree? Probably Miami or San Diego. Applebees and a cactus? Probably Albuquerque but could be Phoenix. Nothing distinguished one city from another. It's happened all over this country and it's made our country a bit boring. We really had to look hard to find a small, non-corporate owned local/regional restaurant amid all the mega-chains. Since we didn't stop a lot going or coming, it didn't really matter to our stomachs but it did matter to our psyches.
The roads are packed with newer model cars and many of the major freeways are being expanded. Lots of money in Texas it seems. The contrast between Texas and Louisiana was stark. Texas was very, very generous to our evacuees, and for that we will be eternally grateful. We also understand why some of them decided to stay put and not come back. The cities LOOK affluent. Of course we didn't see the crime problems, the gang problems. Local problems can't be seen from a freeway driveby. What did strike us was that we felt like "foreigners." Our political views certainly weren't in evidence anywhere that we could see in Texas. We know that the entire state of Texas isn't ultra-conservative, but that was what was most in evidence. We also actually had a concern that our car, with Louisiana plates and an "I love New Orleans" decal on it, Mardi Gras beads hanging from the rearview mirror, might make some people think that we were "that element from New Orleans." I am truly sick of the word element. It's become a euphemism for so many things.
As we drove out of Houston, where the weather started feeling like New Orleans, we passed a sign that said, "Old River, Lost River" and it appeared that two rivers joined up there. It was beautiful, and wow, what lovely, romantic names these rivers had. We couldn't wait to see "our" river. We got home and were very happy to be here, even as we drove in still seeing hurricane damage and ravaged cars under the overpasses. It wasn't pristine but it was home. Once here we caught up on the local issues, which we couldn't do a driveby on.
Crime is up here. Apparently some of the Houston gangs have moved in. As David says, "Don't forget, nature abhors a vacuum." Two real gems, B Stupid and his buddy, Man Man (no, guys, I am NOT making this up) were finally caught. These two lovelies were here trying to set up a new drug network. Man Man evidently was standing on a neutral ground shooting a gun in the air. I think it was on Esplanade. B Stupid was picked up by a cooperative (imagine THAT!) effort between the NOPD and the Kenner cops. In an interview when asked how he got the name, he said sort of intelligibly, "The street gave me that name." Oh, not your behavior? Well, at least they got these two, but it appears that the Houston/NOLA gang foreign exchange program won't let up for a while.
The elections are much contested and amazingly haven't gotten nasty yet. Mitch Landrieu is so far behaving like a real class act, and most people I've spoken with think he's pretty much a shoo in, if not based on his ideas, which so far have been a bit vague, by his connections at city, state and federal levels. The consensus seems to be that he can probably do a lot as Mayor just because of his connections. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that, but I think he'll probably win. I have to go to his website and see what he's really saying. Meanwhile, there is a question about whether or not the elections should be held in April at all since so many of our citizens are out of state. The racial issue is also being introduced into this argument as the demographics of NOLA have changed significantly since the storm. By some reports, we went from 80% black to 60% white. The argument is that the black citizens, who seem to have been more significantly scattered than the white citizens, would not have a real voice in this election. Given the mail service and the idea of absentee ballots, oh yeah, and the nutbar we have as county clerk, I think some of the arguments are valid. I'm not at all sure how long we should wait though. Will the situation change enough in one month, two maybe, six (?) to make people feel that the election should be held? I don't think so. It's been nearly seven months now and things are still moving at a snail's pace in terms of rebuilding and repopulating. I'm not sure postponing the election will accomplish anything. On the other hand, holding the election and having it appear unfair will only lead to more negative press locally and nationally, not to mention some hard feelings along racial lines. I've read arguments on both sides, and they both make sense. This is a tough issue.
Oh yeah, the mail. According to the Post Office, our mail service should be back to normal "by summer." We'll see. It does seem to be improving a little, but still not enough for papers that need to be sent back by a particular date to GET to you before the due date.
Housing and business, the two words we hear daily in some context or other are intertwined so intimately here, but amazingly few people are talking about the two issues as they relate to one another. Rents are out of control. Landlords, seeing the corporations as the geese laying nests of golden eggs, are gouging. Local message boards are addressing this issue, but the news media isn't. 6000 dollar "corporate apartments", "furnished one bedroom luxury corporate condo, $3900 month, all utilities paid." Well I should say so! Rents have doubled and tripled in some cases, but now we're starting to see them drop a little as the contractors go home and people who were renting while their house was being rebuilt finally get to go home as well. It's a slow process. In the meantime, it's not real people paying these rents. It's expense accounts. Prices like this are driving people out of New Orleans. This becomes a vicious cycle for businesses, especially small businesses. "I can't make enough money to keep my business open if I can't get workers and I can't get workers because they can't afford the rents and I can't pay them enough to afford the rents so they leave and I can't make money to keep my business open. . . . " On and on the circle goes. Many, many landlords are NOT gouging, our wonderful landlords included, and many are sick of the "corporate turnover" of two month leases. There are more and more people looking for "long term leases" in their ads. But the gougers really should be ashamed. This whole cycle is going to come back and bite New Orleans in the ass if something isn't done to curb it. Granted there is a supply and demand element, but what's happening is that some of these landlords have decided to make as much as they can while the corporate expense accounts hold out and locals be damned. It's a mess and something has to be done, but other than people just refusing to pay those rents, I don't know what will curb it.
The levees, MRGO, floodgates, FEMA, SBA, insurance adjusters all continue to be problematic and the daily reports on any one of those topics can alternate between excuses, resignation, and screw 'em. Can't put FEMA trailers in a flood plain, so we can't get them down here, besides we're doing the best we can, and oh yeah, another hurricane season is coming and these things could be flying all over the place if a good size tropical storm arrives, nevermind another hurricane. So the best idea is to rebuild. But if you rebuild you need the money to rebuild and the insurance isn't giving it to you and FEMA isn't giving it to you and besides we can't agree on the FEMA flood plains anyway and how high should you have to build your house off the ground? Raising them, yeah, that's the ticket. Oh your house wasn't completely washed away? It's still extant and you just finished gutting it and dealing with the mold? Well, we don't know what to tell you. You might rebuild it, if you've got your own money to do it, and then we might say you have to raise it. How high? Didn't you see yesterday's report? We haven't decided yet. We've given out a lot of money here, but we have to comply with the FEMA rules and you KNOW we're audited so we know the wheels grind slowly and it's frustrating, but
I could go on, but I'll spare you. For now, anyway.
Many, many kids are not in school yet. They're on a waiting list. Waiting for a school that can accomodate them, waiting for a school to open. The latest is that they will be back in school by April but WILL NOT BE HELD BACK. Excuse me? So we'll have marginal fourth graders from a school system that was abysmal before the storm, becoming even more marginal fifth graders after missing 7 of 9 months of school? Are you kidding me? Keep them in school all summer. Help them catch up. Some of them are really traumatized. They're going to need help. Everyone is hoping that we will utilize this chance to make our school system better than it was before. If we do this, just ignore that these kids missed nearly an entire year of school, we will blow that chance inexorably.
For a little while the emails will continue, but I hope to direct all my former readers to this medium. I have had great encouragment from my readers and friends, so I will give this a shot.
I was told by a friend the other night that I'd been "holding back." Yes, I believe that is probably true. There were many stories that didn't make it into the emails because they were too harsh or too cold or even too perverse. I will continue to write from the heart, but I will concern myself less with whether I offend someone or not. On the subject of New Orleans and Katrina, it's difficult not to offend someone somewhere. and while I do not and will not set out to offend, I will also not walk quite so lightly.
We'll see how this goes.