August 29, 2006

Back Water Blues

Many people have been remembering New Orleans today. At 12:22 a.m. this morning, my wife Megan played Rebirth Brass Band's "Feel Like Funkin' It Up, Part 2" and Randy Newman's "Lousiana 1927" in honor of New Orleans as she hosted the Global Music Show on our local public radio station (click here to see her playlist).

EB, who lived next door to us for a good part of the time she was in New Orleans, has posted her own blog about her remembrances, regrets and hopes.

Keith, a former colleague of Megan who is remodeling his flooded home, wrote a guest blog on EB's site which gives an indication of some New Orleans residents "go it alone" attitude.

Fritz, who still lives and works in New Orleans, has also offered some of his own reflections, especially those things that he has learned about his fellow Americans after a crisis (can you guess that some of it's not pretty).

Laura, who also lives and works in New Orleans, wrote a long e-mail detailing the slow progress she observes in the city. Highlights include:

  1. The devastated area is larger than the size of Great Britain
  2. Perhaps only 20% of the debris has been picked up in New Orleans
  3. The flies that have feasted on rotting food last summer have proved bountiful for the food chain, leading to a population explosion of rats
  4. The city pumps twice as much water as it needs to maintain pressure in the pipes due to all the unfixed leaks caused by the storm and flooding
  5. Only one-third of the hospitals are open, and there is no major trauma care facility available in the city limits
  6. There has been an influx of Hispanics into the city that are helping the city rebuild, and that means more good Latin American food
  7. Some have managed to keep a sense of humor by posting signs outside gutted or abandoned houses such as "Pardon our dust while we remodel," "Slight water damage, price negotiable," "Clearance sale, everything must go. Please loot!," and "House available, bright airy floor plan, no floors."
I don't have much to add to what has been said already, except to marvel that as America revisits New Orleans and Katrina one year later, all the same old debates come up. The New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a fascinating story about one screw-up after another in hurricane planning and New Orleans, starting from the moment that Bienville decided to lay out a city on a thin strip of high ground in the swamps on the banks of the Mississippi (conclusion: it was a great choice for a site in the 1700s, when he conceived it, and a terrible choice were he making it today), all the way through the follies of the 20th century Army Corps of Engineers, and federal, state and local efforts. I still occasionally run into people that wonder why New Orleans should be saved at all. Never mind that it is the second largest port in the country, never mind that it is a cultural treasure. Never mind that when people's houses flood because levees break in the Midwest, when houses fall because earthquakes hit Los Angeles and San Francisco, when houses are sprayed across fields by tornadoes in Oklahoma, when residential areas on barrier islands are scraped clean by hurricanes in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, and when forest fires gut houses that are built in fire-prone areas we don't question why THOSE PEOPLE should rebuild their homes in such disaster prone areas when it is more likely that they will be rebuilding again in 10-20 years.

But these questions still come up with New Orleans. The pace of recovery, the lackadaisacal way in which various levels of government have dealt with the crisis, all say one thing to the people who live in or are trying to return to New Orleans: We don't give a crap about you.

Even President Bush's latest visit to New Orleans manages to draw attention to the shortcomings of his government and highlight how willing he is to point fingers elsewhere. One one hand, he argues that hope is alive and money is coming (you'd think that money should have been there before the one year anniversary) and then on the other implies that the state and the city are to blame for the slow recovery.

It is truly sad that the richest country in the world should be castigated by the United Nations for failing to live up to its obligations to its own people after a natural disaster, that it has directly and indirectly hampered the right of displaced refugees to return home, and that out of $126 million donated by foreign countries to the U.S. government (United Arab Emirates: 99 million; China: $5 million; Brunei: $1 million; Bangladesh: $1 million; Rwanda: $100,000; Afghanistan: $99,800 to name a few), $60 million has languished in the Treasury Department and has not gone to rebuilding efforts because the U.S. has not figured out how to spend the money. It is sad that Qatar bypassed the U.S. government, and therefore its $60 million that was granted to universities, schools, hospitals and charities has been able to be put to direct use. It is sad that out of $110 billion allocated by Congress for recovery efforts, only about $45 billion has been allocated, and much has been lost to fraud and wasteful spending.

I guess I said I didn't have much to add, but I did. In all of this the people who have really suffered are forgotten, and I'm as guilty as the next person for forgetting. For people who have made it back to New Orleans, the recovery has been slow, and depression has been rampant in a city that was known for its "Let The Good Times Roll" atmosphere. Those who haven't made it back (about half the city's population) wonder if they ever will. Today I will remember those people, and the graveyard of the 9th Ward, as well as my friends whose lives were changed by Katrina, and the rebuilding efforts of people who are determined to bring the city back.

I'll leave my own remembrance with the lyrics of "Back Water Blues" by Bessie Smith. Though it was written about the 1927 flood, the songs lyrics still hauntingly apply today, especially for the residents of New Orleans who lost so much one year ago today:

Back Water Blues

When it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night
When it rained five days and the skies turned dark as night
There was trouble taking place in the lowlands at night

I woke up this morning, wouldn't even get out of my door
I woke up this morning, wouldn't even get out of my door
Enough trouble to make poor girl wonder where she gonna go

They rowed a little boat, about five miles 'cross the farm
They rowed a little boat, about five miles 'cross the farm
I packed up all my clothing, throwed it in and they rowed me along

It thundered and it lightened and the winds began to blow
It thundered and it lightened and the winds began to blow
There was a thousand women, didn't have no place to go

I went out to the lonesome, high old lonesome hill
I went out to the lonesome, high old lonesome hill
I looked down on the old house, where I used to live

Backwater blues have caused me to pack up my things and go
Backwater blues have caused me to pack up my things and go
'Cause my house fell down and I can't live there no more

Hmm, I can't live there no more
Hmm, I can't live there no more
And there ain't no place for a poor old girl to go

(Image found at http://adventureswmikenjen.photosite.com/~photos/tn/1_348.ts1142551315990.jpg)

1 Comments:

Anonymous Fritz said...

Yeah, another thing people need to realize is that just b/c the federal government SAYS x-amount of dollars is coming here does not mean it's happening/true. A recent report (I'm desperately trying to remember where from) tracked some of the millions...It turned out that the out-of-state contractors hired for the debris removal work were charging the government roughly six times what they were paying subcontractors to do (or not do) the work. So, in that case, millions that were supposed to go to us went in the pockets of out-of-state contractors. But yeah, it's still totally all our fucking fault.

Fritz

11:23 AM  

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