Sunday, February 19, 2006

Throw Me Something, Mister!

In the immediate aftermath of the storm – by which I mean October, five or six weeks later – while phones were still sketchy and nobody had internet access, people started communicating by refrigerator. As the broken, stinking, duck-taped refrigerators appeared on streets all over town, people began writing on them. Despite the near-constant attention we were getting in the news those days, people still didn’t feel their voices were being heard, and so turned to graffiti on dead refrigerators to speak.

Some typical examples:

FEMA Director inside
Mail to George W. Bush c/o White House C.O.D.
Cajun Coffin
Michael Brown – Free Buffet
Decent levees: $20 million, Hurricane damage: $200 Billion, Refrigerator full of maggots: priceless
I looted after Katrina and all I got was this lousy refrigerator

New Orleanians trying to be heard by the only means available.

Similarly, right after the flood “Nagin for President” shirts popped up at a store on Magazine close to my apartment. Lately, they’ve changed to “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate City” and “No Mo’ Nagin.” Again, New Orleanians expressing ourselves perhaps because we felt our authentic voices weren’t being heard through the static of media coverage.

After Nagin made his admittedly stupid comments, a friend of mine sent a one-line email to the affect that he was worried New Orleans didn’t have the leadership it needed. In and of itself, that’s fairly innocuous, though I think only New Orleanians have the right to complain about and insult our elected officials. We earned it.

But the thing is, that was apparently the whole impression my friend had of Mayor Nagin, because that’s what got reported about him outside of New Orleans. Stupid as the comments were, they certainly aren’t the sum total of what C. Ray has done (and not done) as Mayor both before and after the deluge.

What does this have to with anything? Well, you might have heard that it’s Mardi Gras season around here, and if you haven’t – what the hell’s wrong with you? It’s Carnival, people, get on it. There has been a little controversy over whether we should have Mardi Gras or not, as if it’s something that even could be called off if we wanted, but nevertheless, it’s on. Since this is the first Mardi Gras after that other little event that put New Orleans in the national spotlight for a moment, we have more reporters than ever descending on us to send out missives to all of you about it.

I can imagine those reports now: pictures of drunken frat boys screaming for bared breasts on Bourbon juxtaposed with shots of annihilated Ninth Ward homes, accompanied by some no doubt well-meaning reporter shaking his head over our irresponsibility and hedonism in the face of disaster. In fact, according to the Times-Pic, it’s already started.

Let me tell you something – those drunken frat boys and the “Girls Gone Wild” hopefuls paired with them? Tourists. Locals don’t bother with that crap. Every time people come and visit for Mardi Gras, they inevitably ask about going to Bourbon Street, and I always tell them it will be stupid and annoying, and they always insist, so we go, and you know what? It’s stupid and annoying and packed with tourists.

Today I went to some parades. I met my neighbor up at the parade route who had a few friends with her, including one who just had a baby. The baby mostly hung out in her stroller sleeping, though she would occasionally laugh at the floats. We all yelled our heads off to get stuffed animals for her, and got plenty, and none of us had to bare any breasts to do so. We waved at neighbors as kids ran around everywhere, grabbing any beads that nobody managed to catch. Of my friends, I was the only one drinking anything, but that whisky from my flask was strictly for medicinal purposes – it was damn cold today. We also cheered mightily for the marching bands, particularly the MAX band, a combination of students from St. Mary’s, St. Augustine’s, and Xavier Prep because the schools individually don’t have enough returned students to march alone. Their parents and friends walked along next to them, no doubt many of them coming in from Baton Rouge or Houston or wherever they evacuated to just to support their kids, and one carrying a tray of hot chocolate, much appreciated by the cop standing guard on our corner.

You might think I’m laying it on a bit thick, but I’m not exaggerating even a bit. Just as the “Chocolate City” comments aren’t the sum total of Nagin, the frats boys and wild girls aren’t the sum total of Mardi Gras. New Orleans is way more complex, way more intriguing, and way more soulful than those snapshots. Just try and keep that in mind when you see the simplistic report from a journalist who hasn’t bothered to take the time to get it.

You could even print this out and magnet it to your refrigerator.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Union? What Union?

We’re going to start today with a historical pop quiz (don’t worry, I’m a teacher – licensed to quiz).

First question: While Emperor of Rome, Nero was at war with which countries/empires?

Second question: What did he do while Rome burned?

Answers will be at the end. In the meantime, let me talk about Bush’s State of the Union for a bit.

I’m going to start with the numbers: out of over 5,300 words, a scant 134 addressed the devastation of the Gulf Coast and my home. Back in early December, I wrote that living in New Orleans felt like being “forgotten, and left to rot.” Nothing Bush has done since then has changed that feeling, and his State of the Union address certainly emphasized it quite nicely.

Since it won’t take long, I’m going to take a close look at those words:
“A hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency …”
Society, American and foreign, did indeed come to our aid during the emergency, and we are deeply grateful for it, though I don’t think I need to point out that the federal government was a tad slow in responding itself.
“… and stays at it until they're back on their feet.”
I guess that’s what a hopeful society would do, but the federal government is apparently only interested until everyone in the rest of the country gets Katrina fatigue.
“So far, the federal government has committed $85 billion to the people of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans.”

True, though he didn’t bother to mention that the vast majority of that was required by law. We actually have laws that dictate what the federal government MUST do in response to disasters, and the Bush administration has indeed obeyed the law (for a change).

“We are removing debris …”

Actually, most of the debris is still here, over five months later. A lot of what has been “removed” only got shuffled around. There’s a neutral ground in the city that FEMA turned into an impromptu dumping ground. The trash there has piled up to about 4 stories and extends for block after block after block – it’s become quite the tourist attraction. Also, FEMA will stop removing trash before the month is out, and we had to beg them to extend their time to get that.

“… and repairing highways …”

The rebuilding of the twin span is the only repair that has been completed and completed ahead of schedule, so I do have to give the federal government props for rebuilding … a federal interstate highway. Uh, thanks.

“… and rebuilding stronger levees.”

At best, he is entirely misinformed here, or he’s just lying. The Army Corps of Engineers has told us again and again and again that they are only mandated to rebuild the levees to the (clearly inadequate) strength they had before the storm. We have asked repeatedly for stronger levees, and been denied every time.

“We’re providing business loans …”

The SBA is apparently doing this, though after some guy showed up and spent a long time measuring my house and assuring me they would get money into my hands quickly, I have yet to hear from them again or been able to get a straight answer when I call them. At this point, I wish they would just tell me I’m not approved and get it over with.

On a less personal note, the farmers of Louisiana have yet to receive assistance, while in 2004 the farmers of Florida received assistance two weeks after Hurricane Charley. Two weeks vs. five months, though I’m sure that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the president’s brother being governor of Florida.

“… and housing assistance.”

Is he referring to the assistance I finally got a week ago? Or the assistance that I’m not going to get in the future? Or the way FEMA kicked people out of shelters last month? Or how it took a court order to get FEMA to pay for hotels? And that ran out two days ago and those people are now on the street? Did I mention that at least 80% of New Orleans is still uninhabitable?

“Yet, as we address these immediate needs …”

In nothing remotely resembling an immediate manner.

“… we must also address deeper challenges that existed before the storm arrived. In New Orleans and in other places,”

Thank you for using the annihilation of my city as a way to talk about problems elsewhere. How deeply respectful.

“… many of our fellow citizens have felt excluded from the promise of our country.”
Actually, at this point I’m less concerned with the country as a whole keeping its pretty vaguely defined promise, as I am with one person keeping the promise he made in Jackson Square not too long ago, the one that mentioned doing “whatever it takes” to rebuild New Orleans. Anytime he wants to keep that one is okay by me.

“The answer is not only temporary relief, but schools that teach every child, and job skills that bring upward mobility, and more opportunities to own a home and start a business.”

So to achieve that, Bush is opposing the Baker bill, the only piece of legislation aimed at actually helping the people of Louisiana with that home-ownership vision thing.

And that’s it. No mention of the nearly two thousand (so far) people who lost their lives, no serious mention of the 2 million Americans that can’t get back to their homes, and obviously no mention of anything resembling some specifics of what is to be done.

Human-animal hybrids – that demands legislation. The recovery of the Gulf Coast? Not so much.

But besides counting words or proposing legislative specifics, there are other ways of weighing the importance of the various issues Bush mentioned. For instance, you ever notice that news stories start with the most important aspect and go from there? Standard journalism style - you start with the most important thing because that’s as long as anyone can be expected to listen, and then blather on to the least important thing at the end.

By that measure, the devastation of the Gulf Coast is not the last thing that Bush wants to deal with, just next to last. Absolute last place belongs to African-Americans with AIDS. So we have that going for us, though I’m not sure where that puts African-American New Orleanians with AIDS.

Bush mentioned history a lot in his speech, and clearly was trying to put the war with Iraq into the sweep of history. After the speech, the commentariat blabbed quite a bit about Bush aiming for his place in history.

For the record, Nero warred with Britain and the Parthians, expensive conflicts that, combined with his ever more tyrannical domestic policies, so turned the Senate and the people against him that he had to commit suicide to avoid execution. The Parthian Empire, by the way, was based out of the Middle East, not that anyone but ancient history majors remembers any of that.

But despite the fact that Rome didn’t have fiddles, everyone knows Nero fiddled while Rome burned. He actually sang, but the idea is remembered.

So don’t worry, George W. Bush, your place in history is assured – you just keep fiddling.

Katrina Fatigue

I know, I know – so what if the terror of Mr. Tumnus ranks higher on Bush’s to-do list than New Orleans? I understand – you all have Katrina fatigue. You’re tired of hearing about it and you want to move on.

You know what I’m tired of? I’m tired of waking up somewhere that isn’t my house everyday. I’m tired of waiting forever for insurance money and spending all my time sitting on hold trying to talk to FEMA, the SBA, mortgage companies, and banks. I’m tired of driving across town and standing in line for half an hour to get my mail. I’m tired of paying “estimated” electricity bills for a house that hasn’t had electricity since Aug. 29th out of fear that if I don’t pay, then when I get the wiring replaced they won’t flip the switch for me.

I’m also tired of non-working stoplights, like the one on St. Charles that constantly showed green while blinking yellow – what does that even mean? We all took it to mean we could go through the intersection, just really, really slowly. But hey, at least it’s one of the 5% of stoplights in the city that work at all. I’m tired of downed power lines and dirty water lines. They’re on everything – houses, streetlights, cars, trees. I’m tired of trash piled high on every curb and I’m tired of everyone having Katrina Kough.

The smell. Jesus, I’m sick to death of the smell.

I’m tired of bouncing between relief I have a job now and worry that next fall Loyola will have a freshman class of 5 and I’ll be out of a job. Again. With a mortgage.

I heard another grocery store was opening up, and I was so excited I dreamed about it, literally dreamed of wandering down aisles of fully stocked shelves, kicking my heels up as I rounded a corner heading from orange juice to whole wheat bread. I woke up joyous, and the truly pathetic thing is that was one of the Absolute Happiest Dreams I Have Ever Had in My Entire Life Ever.

I’m kinda fatigued over things like that.

Here’s what else I’m tired of – using September 11th to justify everything. Bush didn’t get around to mentioning the Gulf Coast until an hour into the address, but he got 9-11 in there in three minutes and then went on to brag about Iraq for an hour, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with September 11th, had no ties to al Qaeda, and no weapons of mass destruction to sell to them even if he did. And yes, I’m tired of pointing that out over and over again, too. I have September 11th fatigue. Or, I’m sorry, is that in bad taste?

I’m tired of it still looking like September around here.

Everyone I know has had the conversation with some well-meaning friend from some other place who says something along the lines of “Well, sounds like everything’s pretty much back to normal.” No, it’s not back to normal. It’s so far from normal we’ll never be normal again. It’s not that the work isn’t done yet – it won’t be done for several years. It’s that the work hasn’t even really started. Despite what Bush claimed a while back, New Orleans is not a “nice place to bring your family.” There are plenty of New Orleanians who don’t want to move their families back because they’re worried their children will get sick, and I don’t blame them.

I’m tired of everything, from the beer I drink (Abita Restoration Ale – a buck from every six pack goes to the recovery effort) to the classes I teach to the small talk with strangers, absolutely everything being about the recovery. I long for the day when every conversation doesn’t start with, “So, how’d you make out?” And I’m tired of the fact that there’s no need whatsoever to explain what that question refers to.

So don’t mention Katrina fatigue to me, not unless you enjoy the feeling of my boot up your ass. I don’t have Katrina fatigue – I have Katrina complete and total fucking exhaustion. I would give anything for the luxury of having Katrina fatigue.

Baker Update

Reconstruction czar Donald Powell defends the administration's opposition to the Baker bill here, a defense he didn't even have the courtesy to send to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. They had to pick it up later from the Washington Post.

The Times-Pic explains why Powell is dead wrong here and here.

I actually find this encouraging. Powell wouldn't bother trying to defend the adminstration if they thought the Baker bill was dead. Clearly they're worried it might pass.

Of course, it hasn't passed yet, and there are more hurdles, namely a unified levee board and off-shore oil revenues. More on those later.