Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock
NEW ORLEANS — You had to be here, you have to go here, to fully realize what’s going on here. If that is true then what of the Indonesian tsunami that began Dec. 26, 2004? Do you have to go to Iowa to understand its massive flood this month? You might, it’s lovely in the summer. The state fair in Des Moines is Aug. 7-17 this year.
The board of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists chose New Orleans for its 2008 conference site a full two years ago, sensing that news coverage of the city’s recovery from the Aug. 29, 2005, landfall of Hurricane Katrina would have ebbed but its needs still would be dire. And that we as writers could help. This past week, none of us was surprised of the accuracy of our two predictions.
I returned home three days ago, and find conveying the sadness, desperation and the ludicrousness is impossible in words. What’s ludicrous is how slow the recovery is going. Summaries of facts, cut with some observations, doesn’t cut it. Repeating the stories of hurricane survivors, along with observations, is better, but it shows only narrow viewpoints, when what’s amazing is the breadth. The Storm took out a region. It might as well have been one of the smaller states.
When you report on individuals, even adding in data for a wide angle, the better writers will persuade individuals to help Habitat for Humanity’s several projects there. My Beloved is ready to go back. But we who lean toward macro views insist, is this enough? Hie thee down to lay down laminate floors for a house or two during a long weekend away from work, when thousands of houses and apartments still need to be rebuilt. We heard Habitat folks tally its progress so far in the hundreds of homes.
By the time I get done raining a deluge of words and occasional tangential subjects here, it’ll come down to my proposing political action, change out the leadership, hold current leaders to task. A single vote is statistically insignificant, and the impact of letters and petitions has proved laughable. Please know that my eyes welled up, first during a slide show then on the bus tour. The images of our four days in Nola will come up in my dreams for quite a while. So let’s continue. You can’t type while wringing your hands.
I. Tears of hope
I’m far from an expert, but having spent most of my years in tornado country I know some of the worst Mother Nature does and what recovery looks like as well.
Throughout the columnists’ bus tour Saturday, I kept forgetting what year The Storm hit. This is 2008, and it would appear that The Storm landed in 2007, maybe late 2006, judging by how few repairs and how many ruined structures are seen in the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish and even along the interstate to the airport. A year after a dead-on tornado, life will have returned nearly to normal. The larger, damaged buildings may not have been replaced yet by another structure or a memorial park (as happened in Fort Smith, Ark.), but even then a visitor has to know what he’s looking for to see wreckage. In New Orleans, it’s obvious, for block upon block upon block, mile after mile. It was nearly three years ago, Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, not just 12 or 20 months.
We heard lots of personal tales. Most were heartbreaking from hotel staff, French Quarter shopkeepers, the personal ordeals of local journalists. Out of step, the Times-Picayune editor said he nearly lost his dry-cleaning (he really should pick a better anecdote). We were assured no one is lazy, that no one is asking for anything to which they as modern Americans are not entitled. We saw lots of people out working on property. June is incredibly hot and humid here.
Yet, are these people asking for a handout? Sure they are. When you find your car badly hit in a parking lot, you call police and expect them to drop everything and check it out. You expect, when it’s time, Social Security checks, and for them to increase with inflation. You expect what you paid for in the American Social Contract. Even this long after the ineptness had been acknowledged, the Louisianans — and Mississippians — have been failed by what they pledge allegiance to.
We saw rebuilding. In each block there were concrete foundation pads where homes once were, and in nearly every block were houses due to be razed, as indicated by the red X on yellow posters. In about every other residential block, however, you could see pickups full of tools or moving vans. Women were painting walls and guys landscaping in still-bare yards. Our bus tour guide told us how to see which of the shining houses were ready: If you saw a mailbox, that house was occupied.
II. The Social Contract
All of us Americans put money in the kitty — if not voluntarily then with the assurance of the fairness of “no taxation without representation” — for matters that almost never happen to most of us: fires, crimes, acts of war, acts of terrorism, natural disasters such as tornadoes etc. If earthquakes or floods are highly likely in your area, private insurance may not take the risk so some federal protection is available.
We do expect the government to fulfill its obligation, with prompt, efficient and complete service. We elect leaders who directly or indirectly supervise such agencies. They are the ones we hold accountable. They answer to us because we can fire them by ruining their re-election plans by voting for their rivals, or indict or impeach them. When those fail, there’s always the press, comedy shows and their awareness of what future history books will say.
We the people thus are calling the shots. We accept that the money we put in for preparedness from local to national levels with luck will never be returned to us in the form of services rendered. It is much like private insurance, which quite a few of us also carry.
Still, Americans do set limits on such actuarial tables, in what we’ll pony up in taxes, policy premiums and just everyday expenses. Here are two morbid examples.
A major earthquake is likely at any moment in the center of the country, along the New Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid) fault, named for a Missouri town whose closest big city is Memphis, Tenn. Building codes through the region generally remain lax, though modern engineering standards can minimize damage from all but the strongest temblors.
Quake-proof structures, however, are more expensive. Developers worry people may not buy such new homes, and businesses may not want to pay higher leases in skyscrapers built to sway a bit. Empathetic political leaders have not voted in the majority for stricter standards.
Because of this, I’m far more comfortable visiting the old clubs along Beale Street than seeing a show in the Pyramid Arena.
Further afield, plane crashes are rare, but through them we the people have calculated the price of a baby. No, not so much by the lawsuits that follow fatal crashes but by the federal government not mandating child carriers that then are buckled into seats purchased by the child’s guardian. From the days of the Wright Brothers, air travelers hold their kids in their laps for no extra fare, until they’re too large to carry. Child seats properly attached, however, are mandated for cars, at the risk of traffic ticket fines.
The least plane crash or a high bounce of turbulence can pull a child from the arms of even the most protective parent. That increases the likelihood of death or severe injury to the child. It is the rare parent who springs for that extra seat, instead handing the carrier over to attendants to stow.
We therefore price our babies at just a few hundred dollars, the cost of a ticket in coach, though several federal agencies oversee air travel. Shall we discuss mandating helmets for cyclists nationwide because tax money goes to hospitals, accident investigators and coroners?
So what do we expect from the Federal Emergency Management Agency? If a disaster happens in our town then we want relief. It’s that simple. Maybe it’s not that simple. Agencies from local to national seem to have been efficient in Iowa. The scale of The Storm in New Orleans dwarfed that, even though we were told that engineers have predicted for decades that a hurricane hitting just right would take out the levees. That possibility should have been in the plans we the people are paying for, administered by people we trusted enough to elect. Towns, counties and states generally have offices of emergency preparedness or management, as well.
III. Nomads and Homebodies
Among the two-kinds-of people categories, let’s present another pair, the American Rovers and the Land-That-I-Loves. Folks like My Beloved and I have been taught since birth to be nomads. Our teachers have ranged from parents to guidance counselors to society as a whole. Go to the best school you can afford (with scholarships and loans), anywhere. Follow your career up its ladder, anywhere. Follow your mate, anywhere. Best at this are employees of the biggest corporations and media types. MB, an Iowan, was moved by her company from California to Little Rock, where we met. Journalists typically start at smaller outfits then move up. I’ve only worked in four states so far, but there you go.
When insensitive Rovers wonder, why rebuild New Orleans to sustain its earlier maximum population, the better of them also elaborate: If your home of refuge is OK and you have a decent job and good schools for the kids, why not stay? A lot have. It’s been nearly three years, and the rebuilding doesn’t seem to be halfway done yet.
The Land-That-I-Loves can comprise small-towners, the less-than-college graduates, all the way up to out-and-out professionals. They can’t comprehend moving from the (figurative) family homestead. Many of the people who actually run our day-to-day lives, cashiers and dispatchers, office managers and school teachers, love where they live, wherever it is. For a doctor or lawyer — or therapist — to rebuild their clientele elsewhere is well-nigh impossible, and the income may never be as good. Zack Rosenburg of the St. Bernard Foundation nailed this, that all classes of southern Louisianans (and upstaters too, I expect) have a solid geographic sense of home, comparable to the peoples of other countries.
If my wonderful Fayetteville was flattened by something, I might find it advisable to move on than to stay, compared to the New Orleans folks, yet no decent person may begrudge them their sense of property. Nomad is not an island.
IV. That Other Little Voice
New Orleans isn’t the Sudan. The places hit by the south Asian tsunami of 4 1/2 years ago like still need help. We don’t need to look far to find war, oppression and Nature’s rages — generally far bigger than anything that’s occurred in our 50 states — as they happen every day.
The main reason that conclusions about New Orleans have been hard to reach is I recall the reasonings of sound people with whom I usually disagree. Further, I suspect inside each of us lives a contrarian, where progressives have to deal with their own Inner Conservatives and the right has Inner Liberals. No mind-your-own-business sort, no bootstrapper, could be unaffected by visiting New Orleans now. And no lefty can hear waitresses or school principals living in FEMA trailers and wonder, isn’t this getting real expensive?
My Inner Conservative this week has sounded like the late comic Sam Kinison. He became famous in the mid-1980s. The line that won’t leave my head is this former preacher yelling that the solution to world hunger is to move people out of the desert because no food is there. Sam similarly could shout, New Orleans is below sea level.
But that reasoning contradicts the existence of Holland and the canals of Italy’s Venice. Nola has a port, is a center for oil refineries (and don’t we like those) and is a major food producer with rice and a lot of seafood processed there.
There’s also Tabasco sauce. And New Orleans is so much fun for the rest of America to visit. Its tourist traps are so old their artifice rarely is obvious. I can take or leave Bourbon Street, but the beignets and chicory cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde at Jackson Square cannot be duplicated.
The entire United States is obligated to save New Orleans no less than Americans need Manhattan in New York and the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. These places define us.
All of us are Creole.
V. Hammer or Keyboard
If Americans in the other 48 states are forgetting that Louisiana and Mississippi haven’t been fixed yet, it’s the fault of journalists like myself for not reminding them. Ted Jackson, the Times-Picayune photographer, told us Friday that he abandoned his professional distance in those first days, wanting to rescue people before getting his camera out, and sometimes he did. He wanted to save folks in those first days, he said, but he also knew he could best help them by doing his job, taking photographs for the newspaper.
The issue is what can you do that will actually do a lot of good, what can I do that perhaps other people cannot do as well? We all have to roll up our sleeves.
I am a far better writer than a handyman. Yet, if I’m needed at the next nearby catastrophe for some carpentry or real simple plumbing, I expect to be there. My late father would be proud of what I’ve learned to do around the house and yard; it’s not bad. Seeing The Storm showed me I should get sweaty and help.
Still, I’m an accomplished loudmouth, at least on the page. Employing my best skills might well provide longer-lasting effectiveness to the dealing with the inevitable – natural disasters; and the regrettable – injustice, corruption and incompetence. The problems aren’t just national but local and state. School boards matter, too. Districts can go astray by ill-preparing the next generation, who’ll be paying for our Medicare.
Ultimately, New Orleans left me depressed and numb, overwhelmed. So I must remind myself and others: In between our jobs and homes, and enjoying the routines of life, stuff happens. Let’s use our best abilities to help others in the most effective ways. Rest up, and do some more. Move on to the next crisis.