Thursday, January 26, 2006

"You're Either With Us, or Against Us"

Months ago, Bush dropped in on New Orleans to assure us that the country would do “whatever it takes” to rebuild New Orleans “bigger and better.”

Fact is, we don’t even want “bigger,” just “better.” Every New Orleanian knows our beloved city is going to be half its former size, but we want what comes back to be in better shape than the whole we had before. I wouldn’t think that’s too much to ask, but apparently it is.

The White House has decided to oppose the Baker bill, a homeowner bailout bill that is essential to Louisiana’s recovery. Republican Representative Richard Baker’s bill is pretty simple: it would set up a governmental agency to buy flood-damaged homes for resale to developers. It’s meant to ensure that rebuilding is given some direction and that, despite the fact that only about half of New Orleanians are coming back, we’re not going to be surrounded by abandoned, rotting homes.

(For more on the bill and it’s history, go here, here, and/or below.)

Bush and Donald Powell, the administration’s head of hurricane recovery, maintain that the bill isn’t necessary because Louisiana is receiving block grants to address the problem. They say Mississippi is making do with the block grants, but that ignores the fact that less than half as many homes were affected in Mississippi, and the damage to hospitals, schools, businesses and other infrastructure in Louisiana is exponentially higher. And yet, the block grants are approximately the same. They say that money should be more than enough, but their math is way off.

In Louisiana, an estimated 80,000 homes without insurance were damaged by Katrina and Rita, another 140,000 with insurance. However, Bush and Powell think the block grants should be concentrated on owner-occupied homes outside the flood zone, or about 20,000 homes. Sure, if you’re limiting yourself to helping out 20,000 instead of more than ten times that, absolutely the block grant should cover it. Never mind my friends Gavin and Allison that own rental property, or my neighbors that have owned their house since it was built more than 80 years ago but live within the flood zone.

I guess the administration doesn’t want to help people that lived within the flood zone but didn’t have flood insurance because that would be rewarding people for not doing what they were supposed to. But the federal government, and flood insurance is a federal program, only requires people to have flood insurance if they have a mortgage. My neighbors, for instance, paid off their house a long time ago. They played by the rules. You want to require everyone to have flood insurance, mortgage or no? Fine. But that’s not the way it was before the federally built levees gave way.

During a press conference, Bush claimed that Louisiana needs to agree on a plan, and that’s the problem. Not to put to fine a point on it, but that’s complete bullshit. We have agreed on a plan, and the Baker bill is it. It’s a Republican bill that Democrats back. The Urban Land Institute agrees a homeowner buyout bill is necessary, and the Governor’s commission and the Mayor’s commission both came out with plans that incorporate the Baker bill. People have already started rebuilding their homes and neighborhoods with the understanding that the Baker bill, or something very much like it, would be passed. Baker has been negotiating with the administration over the bill since October, and for the administration to have allowed us to believe in this for months and then jerk it away isn’t just irresponsible and bad governing, it’s cruel.

However, it’s not sunk yet. Just because Bush doesn’t back it, doesn’t mean the bill can’t pass anyway. The bill passed a house committee last year 50-9, and has received positive feedback from House leadership. The House ran out of time before the recess last year, but Baker is bringing it back this year.

That’s where you come in. Everybody has been asking me what they can do to help, and this is it. I wish that the recovery of New Orleans, and the rest of the Gulf Coast for that matter, was something we could take care of locally, but unfortunately we need the help of the whole country. I need you to write or call your representatives and senators and urge them to pass the Baker bill. Send this to everyone you know and ask them to do the same (there’s a little email icon at the end of this – it’s so simple!).

Why do I want you to do this? Because when you come to visit, I don’t want you to be sitting in my house in the middle of stinking, dangerous, deserted blight. That would make for a pretty crappy Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Don’t make me beg, people.

This goes double for everyone in Virginia. Rep. Tom Davis (Republican) is chairman of the Select Committee on Katrina (for other committee members, go here), and he’s skeptical. He wants “market forces” to dictate rebuilding, but market forces will lead to exactly what we don’t need – homes rebuilt here and there, surrounded by abandoned, foreclosed rot. This guy needs to be leaned on, and let him know that if he won’t help, you’ll vote him out.

Recently, I’ve decided to be a one-issue voter. Plenty of people spend their entire lives voting on one issue, so I figure basing all my decisions on the recovery for four years is pretty reasonable. As Bush said, “You’re either with us, or against us.” And when he came out against the Baker bill, Bush demonstrated that despite his rhetoric, he’s against us.

The Baker Bill

The whys and wherefores, as simply as I could do them:

First, it prevents mortgage companies from being saddled with defaulted mortgages on hundreds of worthless homes. If homeowners don’t have flood insurance and can’t rebuild, many of them will simply default and mortgage companies will be left with block after block of stinking messes.

For some homeowners, it provides them with a way out of an unwinnable situation, namely a wrecked house and no insurance money. The government would pay them no less than 60% of their equity, and pay off the mortgage. Nobody gets everything, but everybody gets something.

Additionally, since everyone agrees that New Orleans’ population is going to shrink by about half, we need to shrink the city’s size as well. If we don’t, people are going to be stuck in blighted neighborhoods, with a rebuilt house in the middle of nowhere, which would also require the city to rebuild infrastructure like roads, sewer lines, and flood prevention for an area twice the size as needed with half the tax revenue. This bill gives people who want to return to New Orleans a way to get out of unsafe, low-lying neighborhoods and into neighborhoods on higher ground.

For people like me - who have insurance, want to rebuild, and live in a relatively high, safe neighborhood - the bill assures us that we’re not going to rebuild into a blighted neighborhood. Even if all my neighbors don’t come back (and I know they’re not), this bill means something will happen to those houses and they won’t just sit next to mine and rot.

Aside from rebuilding homes, New Orleans needs to strengthen its levees, and return some land to wetlands to act as a natural hurricane barrier and flood absorber (might as well do something with those unoccupied neighborhoods). Plus, it wants to put in a light-rail commuter train that would run to Baton Rouge and Mississippi, providing a cheap, quick evacuation route. All of that is going to take land, land that homes are on now. The government would have to seize this land through eminent domain, which would entail potentially hundreds of court cases, thousands and thousands of dollars to fight those court cases, and years to settle them all. The Baker bill would hopefully speed and simplify the process.

Lastly, whenever a natural disaster hits, the feds write some checks. None of that is ever repaid. On the other hand, this bill actually will give the federal government a return on its investment when the properties are resold.

In short, everybody wins. That usually means that a bill doesn’t have the proverbial snowball’s chance in Hell, but how about, just this once, we buck tradition, give the finger to history, and make it happen anyway?

What Nixon and I Have in Common

I am a “Daily Show” addict. I don’t mind admitting it’s where I get most of my news, and that I trust Jon Stewart more than any other newscaster. Sure, it’s the “fake” news, but it’s also more honest than any of the “real” news programs out there. We live in postmodern times, folks. The revolution already happened, but nobody noticed.

Anyway, so I’m watching it on Monday, and Jon Stewart was interviewing this guy Fred Barnes, a man who has apparently written a book that ranks Dubya as a president barely one step below George Washington in the Greatest President Ever Sweepstakes. Needless to say, the man’s judgment is seriously impaired. He tried to defend this position by explaining what a rebel Dubya is, bucking the Washington establishment and whatnot, to which Jon Stewart asked in what way is a sitting President, with his party in control of both houses of Congress and the judiciary as well as lobbyists and money, NOT the Washington establishment. The guy mumbled something about conservatives disagreeing with him on immigration and trailed off with some vague mention of “liberals,” who apparently are still somehow in control of everything even though nothing has gone the way liberals would have wanted them to in, say, about thirty years. Normally, I wouldn’t bother with Fred Barnes, since Dubya-fandom in and of itself isn’t a sin. Stupid, yes, and kind of sad, but not evil.

On the other hand, he referred to some “bumps in the road” that Bush has weathered through in the past year, bumps that led to otherwise inexplicable low points in his polls, and for which clearly Bush should bear no responsibility whatsoever. With a deprecating chuckle and a dismissive wave of his hand, he enumerated these “bumps in the road” – namely Katrina and Harriet Myers.

A Supreme Court nominee who failed because she was completely and totally unqualified, and a natural and man-made (them damn levees again – no, I’m not going to stop mentioning them) disaster of unequalled proportions in the history of our country - what exactly would be the points of similarity there? Leaving that aside, I would never refer to the deaths of well over a thousand people, the complete devastation of a major American city, and the annihilation of the Gulf Coast as a “bump in the road” of anyone’s presidency.

Fred Barnes did, however, articulate a view that I’m afraid is shared by too many conservatives and Republicans in this country. Specifically, the idea that the worst outcome of Katrina and Rita is that it unfairly reflected badly on Dubya. “Unfair” because how could he have possibly known that something so bad would have happened even though he received a memo explaining just such a bad thing happening shortly before it did? (And why does that sound vaguely familiar?) And “worst” because what could be worse than anything reflecting badly on our sainted leader?

Let me think – watching your family home getting tumbled into a canal and floating away comes to mind, or perhaps clinging to the roof of your house as your wife gets washed away and drowned while you can do nothing. Or even this one – your mother gets evacuated from the Superdome and five months later you still can’t find her. Just to name a few off the top of my head.

For a while now, I have been considering the necessity of compiling (to borrow an idea from the now-he-doesn’t-seem-so-bad Nixon) an Enemies List. An enumeration, if you will, of those that stand opposed, either directly or through inaction, to the recovery of my city and the coasts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Because of his utter insensitivity, his complete lack of compassion, and his total incomprehension when confronted with tragedy, Fred Barnes has moved me to finally do so.

I would give him the top spot, but really, Michael Brown worked way too hard to deserve that honor.

It is a list that I’m afraid isn’t going to take too long to grow.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Don't Drink and Blog

You (by which I mean the untold hundreds, nay, thousands of faithful readers of my blog) might have noticed the addition of a link list over there on the right headed "Students." Perhaps you even thought Hmm, what's that about?

At Loyola this semester, I'm teaching a class called "Writing: Technique & Technology." As part of our investigation into the impact that technology has on writing, I have them all writing blogs - thus, the list. With the blogs, they'll get first-hand experience in what it means when the traditional avenues to getting writing in front of a potential audience are removed: no submitting, no editors, no publishers, no reviews, no long wait for a book to appear, no trying to get people to shell over 20 bucks, just write something, post it, and zing! it's instantly available for the entire to read for free. So head on over and find out if they'll learn anything besides this immortal advice I passed along on the first day of class:

Don't drink and blog - it's like drunk dialing the whole world.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

February 28th

Yesterday was the 12th Night of Christmas, which, if you didn't know, also marks the beginning of the Carnival season that leads up to Mardi Gras. The Phunny Phorty Phellows, unable to ride the traditional St. Charles streetcar costumed and throwing beads, instead rode the Riverfront line - in the New New Orleans, you adapt.

Lately there's been some talk about not having Mardi Gras. Mayor Nagin was for it at first, then some New Orleanians in Atlanta protested, and he backed off a little. The celebration was shortened from twelve to six days, many parades were cancelled, and the parades had to follow the same route, but then Zulu announced they wouldn't roll if they couldn't follow their traditional route. Now nobody seems to know what the hell is going on, so I figure I might as well throw in my two cents.

Mardi Gras will happen.

I understand the folks who say the city shouldn't throw a party when many of its citizens can't get back. New Orleans does need to get its folks home. I also understand the people who say we need to have Mardi Gras to show the world we can rebuild, because we also need the tourists to come back. But they're all missing the point.

Allow me to let you all in on a little secret: New Orleans doesn't put on Mardi Gras, and by that I don't just mean that the parade Krewes are private organizations. That's true, but the parades aren't Mardi Gras. Likewise, the city does pick up all the trash and provides police security at the parades, but that's hardly all there is to Mardi Gras, either.

Back in the 1700s, the Puritans managed to get Christmas outlawed. (Yes, Bill O'Reilly, the only people who ever actually did declare a war on Christmas were fundamentalist Christians.) I guess they were worried that if they had a little bit of fun, they wouldn't be able to stop. The U.S. government didn't put up a fight at the time because Christmas was seen as a British holiday and the Brits weren't really in favor in those days. But guess what happened?

If you've ever watched "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," you know - Christmas came, just the same. People still put up their trees, and ate and drank too much, and snuck kisses under the mistletoe, and said the hell with those stuffy Puritans outlawing Christmas. Mardi Gras will come, too.

Mardi Gras - Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. The last chance to get our ya-yas out before we are reminded that from dust we all come, and to dust we all will return, not that we down here need much reminding these days. Not a day goes by that spray-painted Xs don't snatch at our eyes and whisper oblivion in our ears. Some believe it's not right to party yet. Too mnay friends and neighbors died too short a time ago. I understand them, too. But this is the city that invented the jazz funeral. After the coffin is brought out of the church and the dirge is played, the snare drum snaps and the trombone blares and everyone dances on down the street, toasting the departed and celebrating what was rather than mourning what isn't anymore. For everything else it is, Mardi Gras at its heart is about celebrating life in the face of the death that comes for everyone and everything eventually, and if there ever was a city that knows how, with a little glitter on its eyes, to not only laugh in Death's inevitable face, but also to turn around and moon him as well, it's New Orleans.

Death came for New Orleans hard a few months ago. Almost got her, too. Almost. But she is picking herself up and knocking the mud off her dress and trust me on this - she's ready to dance.

Mardi Gras means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For some its the balls and pageantry, for others the parades. Everyone likes the music, whether its their child marching in a school band or their favorite trumpet player still going in a dingy Marigny bar at 4 in the morning. For some its just about boiling crawfish and kicking back with their family. For me it's always been about dressing up in a silly costume and running around town with my friends.

So here's my suggestion for all New Orleanians, whether real or just at heart, who can't be here on Mardi Gras - wherever you are, put on a silly hat and feather boa, cook up some gumbo, dig out that jazz or brass band or Cajun or zydeco cd, eat and drink too much, and dance with your family and friends. Just this once, let's celebrate Mardi Gras everywhere and make it a national, even an international holiday, so everyone sees and knows and feels what it's like here. Because no matter how many Katrinas come, Mardi Gras will happen. Even if no parades roll and nary a bead gets thrown, even if their aren't any balls and no band marches, we will still be out there, dancing and laughing with glitter on our eyes. Hell, we might even moon someone.