Thursday, May 18, 2006

Driving Chris Matthews

I was going to bitch about Chris Matthew's ignorance and uselessness as moderator of the nationally televised mayoral debate, but Mark over at Wet Bank Guide did it for me.

Just for fun, everybody ask their next cab driver if they think New Orleans should be rebuilt - send me the results and I'll put 'em up.

Ending FEMA

Money quote of the week:

In reference to FEMA plans to put cameras into disaster zones for live feeds back to headquarters -

"If CNN and Fox can do this, we should be able to do it." - David Paulison, acting FEMA director.

Really? Ya think?

Though I love that qualifying "should" - as in "but perhaps not"? - so heartening.

Anyway, after much study and many hearings, after deeply examining and analyzing all the things that went wrong with FEMA's response to Katrina and its aftermath, some members of the Senate have come up with their fix - doing away with FEMA altogether and replacing it. Considering how much hell I've given FEMA on this blog, you might be surprised to learn that I think this is a really bad idea.

The dismantling of a government agency and replacement of it with another (intended to do the exact same job) is an incredibly time-consuming and costly process. Considering on one hand our record-breaking deficits and continuing tax cuts, not to mention spendy little things like wars, we simply can't afford it. More importantly, hurricane season is two weeks away (and if you don't think that has me all kinds of paranoid and jumpy in a PTSD-way, you haven't been paying attention). Not that I think anyone is suggesting we do it now, but if they really wanted to replace FEMA, they should have done it sooner. Like it or not, FEMA has to get us through this next season, and after that, the inherent resistance to change all bureaucracies have will take over and it will never happen.

But furthermore, let's be realistic here - replacing FEMA with the Super Agency to Deal With Really Bad Things or whatever it would be called is going to add up to firing a bunch of career government people, along with all the bureaucracy and money that involves, only to turn around and re-hire most of them, just issuing them different stationary. If you think I'm just being cynical, remember what the Department of Homeland Security's first big announcement was after spending millions of dollars and months on reorganizing: "Here's our logo!" Followed shortly by the vague and useless terror color code alert and recommendations to stock up on duct tape. X-raying airplane baggage and screening shipping containers? Not so much - that would be hard, you can almost hear them whine.

Also, keep in mind who would head up this fabulous new disaster agency - yet another Bush appointee, and we all know how wonderfully those have worked out in the past.

Simply put, replacing FEMA with something else is just standard bureaucracy "let's rename it and shuffle the organization chart to fix the problem" crap. Sure, it beats the Bush administration's usual "Problem? What problem?" approach, reluctantly replaced with the "Pointing out problems is supporting terrorism" fall back position when problems can no longer be denied, but it doesn't actually fix the problem.

Under the Clinton administration, FEMA went from an ineffectual and expensive boondoggle rife with cronyism where big campaign donors were to sent to suck from the public trough to a model of government efficiency, effectiveness, and reform. It doesn't surprise me that FEMA returned to its bad old ways under George II, but it doesn't have to be that way.

The lesson here - renaming FEMA isn't going to fix it. To do that, we have to elect a smart, competent President that appoints experienced, capable professionals to head up essential agencies rather than viewing them as highly paid positions to reward campaign contributors. Alternately, we could elect Senators that take their review and consent powers seriously rather than rubber-stamping anyone their boss nominates.

Otherwise, all we get is Michael Brown by another name.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rats! Only Four Days of Yard Signs, Pre-recorded Phone Calls, Flyers, TV Ads, Debates, and Campaign Calls Disguised as Polls Left

The Most Important Election Ever plays out on Saturday, and you know I just have to weigh in on it. Other New Orleans blogs try to avoid politics because they, quite sensibly, don't want to alienate people of certain political persuasions which could interfere with getting our fair city's post-apocalyptic story out. We here at Flood and Loathing, on the other hand, just can't seem to help ourselves.

But before trying to make a call on the Mayoral choice, let me first say that way back before candidates were even declaring themselves, I knew who I was voting for. See, I wanted the candidate who was going to be honest, the candidate who was going to call the tough choices we all know we still have to face. I wanted the one who was going to come out and tell us what parts of town were coming back and which weren't; I wanted the candidate who would articulate a vision of our city's future without pandering to everybody, without promising the impossible, without trying to convince us that New Orleans would be back just like it was before the flood. I believed that in the brutal Post-K reality we live in, at least one candidate would dispense with the bullshit and hit us with the truth straight, and the one who did that was my guy. Silly me. Of course nobody was going to do that - it would be political suicide. After months and months of this, now I think I'll just vote for the guy whose campaign staff gives me the fewest annoying phone calls.

Since my man Manny didn't make the run-off (though I'm proud my vote netted him triple digits), we have instead the contest of the follicly-challenged, the bald C. Ray Nagin and the not-quite-bald Mitch Landrieu. Not that's there's anything wrong with having less than a luxurious mane of head hair; at least, we here at Flood and Loathing hope not as we're not really ones to talk. In fact, three people so far have pointed out to your humble servant (that's me) that I bear a striking resemblance to potential-Mayor Mitch, no doubt because of our boyishly good looks and not our nearly-but-not-quite-nonexistent hair. I'm hoping to parlay this resemblance into getting accepted into the Landrieu family as a long-lost relative, or at least into a lucrative side career as a Mitch body-double (writing for F&L doesn't come with a real hefty salary). Perhaps - dare I dream? - even a "Dave"-like situation where I actually get to be Mayor someday.

Assuming I don't cast my vote on who I resemble more, I have to figure out other criteria on which to base my participation in the democratic process. Unfortunately, the difference between the candidates on the issues is pretty tiny. Both maintain all neighborhoods should be rebuilt though admit the city doesn't have the money to provide services - fire, police, etc. - to everywhere. Neither acknowledge that what gets rebuilt really isn't going to be up to the mayor. Both agree the city must aggressively pursue taking over houses the owners don't rebuild. Both agree the mayor should have more say and control over public schools.

In order to draw a difference between the two, Nagin is doing his best to portray Landrieu's political dynasty as a negative - the "politics of the past" - since Mitch's father Moon was mayor. Also, he's touting his experience as mayor and the fact that he's been building relationships with the feds and the POTUS.

In response, Landrieu points out how little progress said relationships have gotten us and how little help we've actually received from the POTUS. He's also playing up his ability to get things done, to work out agreements between people from different sides of the aisle. His support seems the most biracial, while Nagin's might be more bipartisan, probably because Nagin is a bit more conservative (though we're talking relative terms here) and he did switch from Republican to Democrat while the Landrieus are a Louisiana family of the old and very influential Democratic persuasion. That switch of Nagin's, though, does have a whiff of political expediency, since no Republican is going to get elected mayor in this town, no matter how many floods come through and how many residents are displaced.

And there is the basic gut reaction of "Nagin had his chance and blew it; let's get someone new." That's tempered a bit by my thinking that anyone would have been in over their head Post-K (a perhaps too-apt metaphor), but it's still there.

In the end, however, I think the really important quality in the city's next mayor is going to be his ability to squeeze money and services from the feds and the state. That, put bluntly, is what New Orleans needs more than anything these days. Given that Landrieu's sister is a Senator and he serves as Lieutenant Governor under Blanco (who isn't up for election until 2007), he has the advantage in that department. It's rather sad that the primary responsibility of our mayor is now begging for cash, but that's the reality. At least, for once, a candidate's ability to run a campaign actually equates to the job they're running for. So I guess we here at Flood and Loathing are throwing all of our considerable political might behind Mitch.

At least for the next four days until he actually gets elected and starts doing stuff that pisses me off.

The endorsements are more ubiquitous than nutria around here these days, though nobody wants to try and call the election yet; probably because all the usual indicators like polls and such are all wonked up what with everyone scattered hither and yon. About the only thing everybody will predict is that this one is going to be a nail-biter. More important than endorsing any particular candidate is encouraging the vote, so we here at Flood and Loathing urge every New Orleanian, whether returned home or not, to get out there, vote early, and vote often. Sure, democracy is a crappy form of government that doesn't actually work, but it's better than any other option.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Center, Still Holding

The last couple of weeks have been pretty much dedicated to Jazz Fest. While the Fest itself only occurs on two weekends, those who have been or live here know that it really extends throughout the week leading up to it and the week in between. All the music venues are packed with talent, often splitting into a full early show, a standard time, and the late night show that doesn't even begin until two or three and ends sometime after sun-up. I think it was especially good getting out and seeing shows around town this year because a lot of displaced local musicians who weren't on the Fest line-up made it back to play shows around town. I, for one, was glad Lynn Drury showed up, though I only managed to get to one of the several performances she had. It's a long but glorious haul, and it's no wonder that I've been feeling a little under the weather the past couple of days.

The weather, by the way, was fanstastic the entire time - cool, by New Orleans standards, which means warm to everyone else, as in not unbearably hot. Even when it poured rain on the last day, nobody really minded. We took our shrimp po-boys and huddled under one of the little picnic tables by the food booths. Besides, the mud makes the hippies happy. After eating in relative comfort, we made a dash for the Gospel Tent and Pilsner Urquell.

Yes, along with the crawfish Monica, the crawfish bread, the shrimp etouffee, and the soft-shell crab po-boys (to name a few), I can get my beloved Czech beer (on draft, even!) at Jazz Fest, but it's only in one spot. Otherwise, it's Lite and Foster's in cans. And no, I'm not telling you where it is - the line is bad enough already.

The shows around town aren't the only extension of Jazz Fest, though, because it draws so many tourists, and that always means friends visiting from out of town, and this year that meant a few Tours of Destruction. I'm glad all the tourists come and spend their money on our hotels, restaurants, bars, and taxis, but unless they get away from the Quarter and the Sliver by the River, they come away thinking everything's normal. The Fairgrounds (where Jazz Fest is held) and its surrounding neighborhood did get flooded, so Fest attendees got a glimpse of what it's like, but it's nothing compared to the truly devastated parts of town.

Not until people get out and see The Suck (Lakeview, the Lower Ninth, East) for themselves do they realize just how bad it is. So I take them. Sometimes I show them my house and 'hood first, as a kind of warm-up, or I might finish with that, as a way to soften the blow at the end. People only truly grasp it when they see whole bent and crooked houses crushing over-turned trucks beneath them, and block after block of nothing but rubble where an entire neighborhood used to be, and a line of concrete stairs that used to go up to front porches leading to empty space, and a muddy, broken doll trapped thirty feet up in the branches of a grey and leafless oak. It's important, even necessary, that people see and understand it because, as I've tried to point out again and again, New Orleans can't rebuild itself on its own. It's going to take all of us - every American - to do it, and whether we manage it or not (and that's still a question) will prove, or disprove, our worth as a country and a people.

That's the context that we go to Jazz Fest with. While we're grooving to the music, to Coolbone, Keb' Mo', Eddie Bo, John Boutte, Dumpstaphunk, and Allen Toussaint (with a little Elvis Costello thrown in for good measure), or welcoming back Cowboy Mouth, World Leader Pretend, Galactic and Ani DiFranco, or catching people we might not see anywhere else, like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, we're doing it all with The Suck in the back of our minds. Whether the people on-stage acknowledge it or try to give us a break from it, it's always there.

And we're all there, too. That's another thing about Jazz Fest; even if I don't arrange to meet people, I run into everyone I know anyway. I guess that's what happens when you cram an entire city into a horse racetrack. Even so, strange and magical coincidences happen. A few of us were searching for the spot some more intrepid friends had staked out for Bruce Springsteen, a seeming impossibility in a crowd of thousands and thousands, an expanse of people so vast and so packed we had to wind our way through them like one of those hedge mazes.

We weren't worried, though, because we had the usual Jazz Fest kind of directions, "Close to the sound stage. There's a pole with a bunch of panties hanging on it. We're back and to the right of it."

When we finally found the spot, we discovered a different set of friends, unknown to the first, had staked out the spot right next to them. And then I glanced around and saw my neighbor not twenty feet away. Then followed much toasting and drinking while waiting for the music to start. Oh, and lots of raucous cheering when the plane trailing the "Impeach Bush" sign flew overhead.

I have never been much of a Springsteen fan, perhaps because I first became aware of him with "Born in the U.S.A." which got co-opted by knee-jerk nationalists before I actually listenened to the lyrics and realized how smart and even liberal they are. Nonetheless, I couldn't really pass up the chance to see him at the Fest, and he was amazingly good.

First off, the music was folky and all new to me, and he has that ability to make it feel intimate despite the huge crowd. The songs and his voice are so raw and real, you can't help but get caught up in it. He played one or two songs with a great zydeco sound, which I loved - bring on the accordions!

The show was fun, and true, and moving, and then he played this quiet song My City of Ruins and everyone's hands went in the air. He sang about destruction and despair and then faith and hope and exorted us all to "Rise up!" I looked around. The people in front of me extended so far I could barely see the stage, and there was no making out the edge of the crowd in any other direction. An immense number of people, endless, and each and every one of them, hands in the air, taking in the music and the message, and I was in the middle of them, of Jazz Fest, of New Orleans. The center of the country, even the world, the universe, everything good and right and true, had moved to that very place, and all the doubt and fear went away; in that moment I knew, truly knew, for the first time in eight long, bloody, exhausting, hellish, damned months, that New Orleans, that everything, would be okay.

I leaned over to my friend and said, "If he makes me cry, I will never forgive him."

So I drained the last couple of drops of whisky from my flask and blamed the tears on that.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

It's the Levees, Stupid

I have been meaning to post about a few important announcements for about a month now, but stuff kept happening. Anyway, now that classes are over and all that's left is the grading, I figure I'll put off actual work that I'm paid for and do this instead. Clearly I have fully embraced the Big Easy's general rejection of that Prostestant work ethic thing.

So, first, in a story that got under-reported in the national news, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that the 17th Street Canal levee breach was due to design problems.

Shortly after that, they also announced that rebuilding the levees properly would cost billions of dollars more than they originally estimated.

And then, finally, some seven months after the flood, FEMA announced the rebuilding rules for New Orleans, saying the flood maps wouldn't be significantly changed assuming the levees are built according to the new, improved plan.

In other words, my house (oh yeah, and everyone else's, too) got flooded because the federal government built craptastic levees, but I don't have to raise my house assuming the federal government approves the money so it can build levees it assures me won't be craptastic.

Oh, I'm just brimming over with happiness, gratitude, and confidence!

But do you see where New Orleans stands? It's ALL about the levees, and the levees aren't in our control. How the levees are rebuilt determines whether or not rebuilding is possible, and that's all up to the federal government. We just went through this big mayoral election during which one of the big questions was who and where gets to rebuild, but nobody was pointing out that the mayor no longer has any say in such decisions. The feds have made the decision, and they have decided to write off huge swaths of the city.

I'll try to give you the short version of why. The new FEMA rules also announced that houses in certain hard-hit areas should be raised, because apparently they're assuming there will be flooding even with the levees. Raising a house will cost (depending on its size) at minimum $50-60 thousand. FEMA has promised grants of $30,000 to raise houses, though I don't know anyone who has gotten one yet, but that still leaves a sizable chunk of cash that insurance DOES NOT cover. And I'm sure the poor black residents of the Lower Ninth Ward have that money hidden under their mattress. Oh, wait. Even if they did, it got washed out to sea.

Put another way, if I had to raise my house (still a possibility, for arcane reasons I'm not going into here), I simply couldn't do it. I guess I would have to hand over the insurance money to the mortgage company and still owe a bunch more money on a house I couldn't live in or rebuild. That's what these rules do for people.

In a different kind of example, the Corps isn't getting all the money they requested. Bush didn't request it all from Congress; he and his people decided not to pursue the money necessary to rebuild the levees in lower Plaquemines. Now, granted, lower Plaquemines is mostly rural, a lot of shrimpers and the like - think Forrest Gump and Lt. Dan - and represents a tiny portion of New Orleans' population. At the same time, the $2.2 billion the Senate just approved (and Bush is threatening to veto) doesn't include levees for Plaquemines. Meanwhile, that bill includes another $90 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. No levees, no Plaquemines.

So despite all the promises that New Orleans would be rebuilt "bigger and better," it's clear that the feds actually are erasing large parts of a great American city from the map.