Monday, August 28, 2006

My Last Normal Days

Tomorrow is The Anniversary, which seems a strange way to refer to it, anniversaries generally being good things. Certainly there isn’t anything much to celebrate, which is what we usually do with anniversaries, unless you want to celebrate our continued survival, though with hurricane season only half over and a flood control system held together with duct tape, spit, and desperate hope, that feels a bit premature yet. No, this anniversary will be a day to remember and mourn, though I can’t recall any day in the last year when I forgot for even a second.

Still, I thought I’d go back over a year ago and try to remember those last normal days pre-K, maybe to recall what normal was, maybe to understand a little how and why things happened like they did.

On Tuesday, August 23rd, the tropical depression that would become Katrina formed east of Florida, around the Bahamas, not that we were really aware of it. I was furiously trying to accomplish two things before the next week came – get ready for my first full-time year at Loyola and finish renovating my house enough so I could move in at the end of the month. I’m pretty sure I spent Tuesday shopping for floor tile while letting the newly sanded and sealed wood floors cure.

Finding the tile proved difficult. Nobody had what I wanted in stock and ordering would take weeks, but I only had one week to move in, which required an installed bathroom, which required a bathroom floor. Finally, I found a store with some hexagonal white tile someone else had ordered and never picked up. I was disappointed with the lack of color or pattern, but Gavin came up with the brainstorm to get a pottery store to glaze and fire some of the white tiles for us. We found a place willing to give it a shot, though it was something they’d never done before and didn’t know how it would turn out. We left them some tiles to experiment with overnight.

Sometime in the morning of Wednesday the 24th, the tropical depression turned into a storm and got named Katrina, the eleventh named storm of the busiest hurricane season on record. It headed northwest.

Meanwhile, Gav and I liked the tile results and ordered a bunch more, which would take a day. I, no doubt, worked on my class syllabi since every summer, no matter how many times I swear it’ll be different, I’m always scrambling to get ready at the last minute. New Orleans went about its usual business, not really concerned about a storm that wasn’t headed in our direction and had to cross Florida still.

Sometime in the morning on Thursday the 25th, Katrina turned west, heading for southern Florida. Gavin and I picked up the tile, and my mom and stepfather flew in to help me pack and move. I was in a panic over this because I hadn’t even started. Less than a week before I was to move out of my crappy apartment and into the first house I had ever bought, and I was completely unprepared, so my mom and stepfather were coming to my rescue. I excitedly showed them the house for the first time, the newly painted walls and shiny floors, and then showed them the plans for the kitchen laid out all professional-like on graph paper. About the time I was doing this in the bar of their hotel, Katrina became a Category 1 hurricane a couple of hours before making landfall in southern Florida. It rolled over the Everglades and only briefly returned to a tropical storm before hitting the Gulf of Mexico six hours after its initial landfall. At this point, early Friday morning, it was still expected to turn north early enough to land somewhere along the Florida panhandle or perhaps Alabama.

So Friday Gavin and I laid tile, or, to be accurate, Gav laid tile and I cleaned up behind him. We carefully arranged the gray and red tiles in the pattern we had decided on, making only one mistake. (If I can save the floor and you can spot the mistake, you get a shot.) My parents, meanwhile, packed up my books, cds, kitchen things and a whole bunch of other stuff and moved it all over to the house. By the end of that day, with most everything moved but furniture and clothes and the tile laid, I was feeling like moving was something I could manage, especially since my parents weren’t leaving until Monday. As for the rest of New Orleans, everyone went to school and work while Katrina spent the day hanging out in the Gulf and not doing much of anything.

Saturday morning, Gav and I went back to the house to grout the floor. Once that was done, the plan was to get the bathroom fixtures installed and hook up the brand new stove that had been delivered the day before. The house would be livable, though lacking cabinets and a refrigerator and a kitchen sink, just in time for me to move in on the 31st. By the time we finished grouting and I got back to my apartment and turned on the news, Katrina had doubled in size and become a Category 3 hurricane now expected to strike close to New Orleans, and Nagin called for a voluntary evacuation. I told my parents to get to the airport and try to get a flight out. They tried all day, but in vain. They were either going to have to stick it out or find another way out. I went to Les Bon Temps with some friends for beers. This had, by the way, worked before. I remember sitting there drinking when another hurricane turned aside and headed east and a cheer went up around the bar, but no such luck this time. I woke up on Sunday to a mandatory evacuation.

I grabbed Albus the cat and set off to get my parents, packing maybe three days worth of t-shirts, the standard evacuation gear. We spent the day driving east out of New Orleans and then turned north and back west until we ended up in Jackson, Mississippi. During the drive, Katrina went from a Cat 3 to a Cat 5 in less than 12 hours, and grew until it was about 400 miles across. It was after hearing this that I called Brooke and left a message that went something like, “Well, it was a nice city to live in for a while.”

My mom called ahead to every hotel she could to get us a room for the night. I knew Gav and Allison were evacuating to Jackson, but I couldn’t get through to them to find out where exactly. By the time we got to a hotel that night, Katrina looked as big as the Gulf itself.

Monday morning, the outer bands of Katrina were lashing water and wind across Jackson, but I finally heard from Gav and Allison. I drove my parents to the airport where they picked up a rental car to drive to Memphis to catch a flight back to Virginia. Albus and I found Gav, Allison, Oscar and Vato (their dogs), Pele (their cat), and Little (the kitten they found while driving). By this time Katrina had weakened to Category 3 and come ashore near the mouth of the Pearl River at the Louisiana/Mississippi border. We all hunkered down in a lake house with a generator and watched the news.

As it turns out, Katrina did turn aside a little and we were spared the direct hit we feared. In fact, on the news New Orleans looked dry and seemed to have dodged the bullet yet again, through some combination of prayer, voodoo, and the luck of drunks. Little did we know that the levees had already breached and water was flooding into the city. That night, exhausted, relieved, and a little drunk, I went to bed vowing to go home the next day and “make sweet love to the levees,” which I thought had held.

The next morning, Tuesday the 30th, less than a week after the beginning of what would become Katrina formed in the Atlantic, we got up to find out about the flood, and then all the horror after. I never wrote about the before part, because I only started writing about this after that point. Until then, there wasn’t a reason. It was just another normal evacuation from a storm, perhaps a little more stressful than some but still not truly remarkable. The levee breaches shoved everything out of normal, though I didn’t know it until almost 24 hours later, and everything has stayed out of normal since.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Incumbents Don't Need No Stinkin' Democracy

We love big choices here in New Orleans. Fast on the heels of the mayoral election, we have a nice, round baker's dozen of candidates for Dollar Bill Jefferson's seat. Twelve people have officially declared against him, which is good news. The investigation/indictment/appeal process could easily stumble forward through election day, and Dollar Bill's determined to run again; so much so, I think he'd do it even if he did get indicted. At any rate, he's on the ballot now, and I don't think he can pull himself off at this point (see the whole DeLay thing for an example of those complications).

Anyway, I was beginning to worry that I was going to have to run myself if we were going to have any choice beyond the Republican who declared against him early, but happily a whole slew of Democrats, independents, Libertarians, and who knows what all else have jumped in the fray. Since we do run-offs instead of primaries, clearly we will be getting our choice of the top two after election day in November. Given the number of candidates, and the near impossibility of unseating incumbents, I would not be surprised if Jefferson is one of those two even if he is indicted in between now and then. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if he won.

On the flip side of the coin, up in Connecticut, Joe Lieberman lost his primary run and declared himself an independent candidate for his Senate seat (and is ahead in current polls, by the way). Oddly enough, two other incumbents lost their primaries, too, (in the House - one R, one D) a pretty unprecedented development, indicating a fairly serious anti-incumbent feeling among voters. Which, by the way, is I think about the only meaning to be derived from the Lieberman loss. Everyone seems to want to spin it one way or another, especially the right-wing and their media mouthpieces with lots of talk of the Democratic party being hijacked by the extreme anti-war left-wing. Considering that the majority of the country and the vast majority of the Democratic party now favor some sort of planned withdrawal from Iraq, anti-war sentiment is either the very definition of "mainstream" or the administration, with its bungling, incompetence, and refusal to learn from its mistakes, has turned most Americans into pot-smoking, patchouli-scented, hippie pinko peaceniks. Either way, Joe's loss looks like good ol' fashioned democracy in action, also known as "majority rules."

But what do these two things, Dollar Bill's determination to run and Joe's independent candidacy, have in common? Politicians nakedly trying to cling to their power for no other reason than their own greed. Clearly Dollar Bill is no use to New Orleans, Louisiana, and the country while fighting the inevitable indictment, and just as clearly Connecticut Democrats have said they don't want Joe. Despite their similar protestations of running to serve the people they claim to represent, those people are really, really hoping these guys won't represent them anymore. So why do they continue? Greed, for both money and power, and the fact that they are very, very likely to succeed.

How likely? If you're an incumbent, your chance of getting re-elected is better than 99%. Condoms are more likely to fail than incumbents. Looked at another way, since Katrina and the levee failures caused a "hundred-year" flood (as in, a flood that bad only occurs once every hundred years), an incumbent losing is an event as momentous as Katrina.

As Louisiana's favorite ex-governor and current convict Edwin Edwards put it, he wouldn't lose unless he was caught in bed with a "dead hooker or a live boy."

What keeps incumbents in power? Money, obviously, since the money all flows to those who can grant the favors as opposed to those who promise to grant favors while assuring voters they won't do any such thing. And money rules politics. With campaign costs long since rocketed out of the sky and currently heading beyond the solar system, legislators raise money full-time, while actually governing the country is more like a hobby. They noodle around with it in the garage in order to get away from their wives.

But even worse than the money is the gerrymandering. Again, see DeLay as a perfect example. The people in power, usually the representatives and/or their parties, arrange districts block-by-block to construct inviolate Republican or Democratic voting communities. Combine that with a two-party stranglehold on our elections, and we have congressional districts that resemble monarchies, little medieval fiefdoms, more than democratically elected offices.

So what do we do about it? Solutions abound, though given that the only people who can change the rules are the ones in power, and they have no desire to change the rules that got them that power, the chance of any of the solutions getting enacted are remote at best.

Getting the money out of the election equation is a good first step. There has been some campaign finance reform lately, but it's just a start, and some of it has been derailed by the courts. (A Supreme Court that doesn't believe money is the same as speech, and thus unregulable, would help, but that would take replacing at least two or three of the conservatives with moderates.) Leaning on the broadcasters could also make a difference. After all, they were granted access to the public airwaves under the requirement that they air a certain amount of content for the "public good." That all got de-regulated with Reagan and further deteriorated under Clinton, but forcing them to show political ads for free during election season in return for broadcast rights would strip away a lot of the necessity for campaign money.

However, given the rise of cable, the web, and other media sources, I'm not sure how much difference jumping on the broadcasters would have. Not to mention the fact that if the money is there, the politicians will find a way to spend it. Personally, I'd like to see political ads completely outlawed and/or strict public funding of campaigns, though both risk running afoul of the First Amendment.

Term limits could help, too, though again trying to get those elected to sign off on their own eventual ouster is damned difficult. Remember all those Republicans that came in with Gingrich, taking the House, advocating term limits, and promising to leave after they had served a term? Most of them are still there, and none of them quit of their own volition, and nobody has said squat about term limits in ten years.

All of that would help, but none of it would address gerrymandering. I re-read the Constitution, and it doesn't actually lay out how Representatives and Senators are to be determined; that's left up to the states, so theoretically the states could put the district-mapping process in neutral hands, like California is trying to do by leaving it to judges. That, however, only works if judges are actually neutral, which is asking a lot, especially in states like Louisiana where judges are elected.

It also doesn't say anything about dividing states into districts, though; it only mentions population, so I'm wondering when and how districting became the law of the land. Because I think we need something more radical than finance reform, term limits, and altered district-mapping processes. I think we need to re-do the way we elect officials entirely. I think we need proportional democracy rather than our current winner-take-all system.

Sidenote: I also think we need to re-structure the Senate. Why do the 100,000 people in Montana get two Senate votes the same as the however many millions in California or New York? It violates the basic democratice principle (1 person = 1 vote) besides currently tilting the country towards rural and conservative interests. And I think we need to directly elect the President. A majority of Americans think we should get rid of the electoral college, though talk of it died almost immediately after George II's initial election, despite the obviously debatable nature of that election. Both of those work against one person, one vote, which is actually exactly what they were designed to do. Despite their obvious smarts and vision, the founding fathers were distrustful of the common man, even the white males they restricted voting to when they wrote the Constitution, so they created buffers. That said, I'm going to try to stay focused on gerrymandering, though you guys know how hard it is for me to focus. ("Oooh, shiny! Hey, do I smell beer?")

In a proportional democracy, you would vote for a party's slate of candidates statewide, which makes sense given that these Representatives are supposedly representing the state to the nation. Then, given the percentage each party has, that determines how many of their slate goes, so if the Democrats get slightly more than fifty percent in Louisiana (for instance) then 4 Democrats go and 3 Republicans. I know, that's actually who we have right now, but bear with me anyway. This also avoids the possibility of one party getting slightly less than fifty percent of the vote in every district, leading to a nearly evenly split electorate being represented by just one party. District-by-district winner-take-all voting definitely defeats true democratic representation.

Plus, by making people vote for a slate of candidates from a party, it would de-emphasize the person, and elections might actually be about issues instead of a bunch of Brie-eating Republicans raised in privilege buying a pair of cowboy boots and accusing Democrats of not being in touch with the "common man," whoever the hell that might be.

This would also, by the way, allow third parties to do more than act as spoilers, because if they got enough votes, they'd get a representative, too. Imagine a Louisiana that sent 3 Democrats, 3 Reps, and a Green or Libertarian. Politicians might actually have to learn to work together instead of simply bashing everything the other party wants.

With sincere apologies to John Lennon, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm really not the only one. Besides, I say dream big. If I'm going to advocate and hope for reform that will never happen because the Joe Liebermans and Bill Jeffersons of the country only care about staying in power and will never change the system that put them there and keeps them there, then I might as well advocate for the reforms I really want.

Finally, while I'm on the subject of incumbents clinging to power for no discernible reason (and to return to New Orleans, since that is F&L's supposed raison d'etre), what's a guy gotta do to get mayor recalled in this town?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Promises, Promises

Four weeks from the anniversary and we still don’t have a plan. In fact, until a week ago we didn’t have a mayor. Now our mayor has re-appeared to announce that, at some point in the near but still non-dated future, there will indeed be a Plan!

Forgive me for being under-whelmed.

After getting re-elected, C. Ray Nagin virtually disappeared. Sure, we would hear reports that he was showing up at the Essence Festival and other, farther-flung events and happenings, making speeches about how New Orleans was “on the right track,” but if we had thought the Mayor of New Orleans would appear around town with actual, real, solid plans for rebuilding, well, we were sadly mistaken. Perhaps it was too depressing around here, what with not much getting done and all.

Now apparently back from his good will tour, last week C. Ray held a big press conference to trumpet the exciting news that New Orleans is, in fact, “on the right track.” He also informed us that he would soon appoint a Rebuilding Czar to oversee the rebuilding effort. He didn’t name this Czar, mind you, but told us that there will be one. But that’s our Sugar Ray – he promises everyone everything, but doesn’t understand why we expect him to actually keep those promises. Eleven months after and this city still doesn’t have anyone in charge of its recovery, and no, I never bought C. Ray’s assertion that he was performing that function, even before he spent the first two months after being re-elected everywhere and anywhere but New Orleans.

Did I mention being under-whelmed?

The other thing Sugar Ray wanted to trumpet was that people are “tending” to get rebuilding permits in higher spots in the city as opposed to the low-lying areas, which he used to defend his “market-driven” rebuilding process as opposed to government telling people where to rebuild. But a tendency isn’t a plan, and the one house per block in the Lower 9th or out East is going to want water, electricity, sewage, fire and police just as much as those clustered Uptown, and they deserve it, too. But how much is that going to cost this bankrupt city? Not to mention the question of where the promised improvements – the parks, the commuter trains, the “big-box” retail district, the Cat 5 sized levees – will go, and what happens when one of them goes where someone’s “market-driven” rebuild happens to be, the rebuild that they have spent the last year and thousands of dollars on. What then?

Proclaiming the debatably positive effects of not planning isn’t the same as leadership. New Orleans needs leadership now, someone to make tough decisions rather than empty promises; in fact, we’ve needed it for eleven months.

New Orleans needs a plan, not the promise of one. We need someone to tell us where services will go, where we can rebuild with the knowledge of levee protection and what kind of protection it will be. We are about to (finally!) receive billions of dollars in aid and New Orleanians and all other Americans have a right to know how that money will be spent. We need a leader who will lay that out in detail.

Unfortunately, instead we’re stuck with Sugar Ray Nagin.