Friday, September 23, 2005


I know I’ve been numb. I’ve been watching the TV coverage on CNN with fascination, yet with incredulity. There’s something in me that has been unable to accept the reality of what I see on TV and what I read on the net and in the papers, even though my mind knows that it is are true. I remember that after WWII there were groups of Jewish people going around trying to spread the truth of the horror of the Holocaust. If I recall correctly, one group went to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to present their evidence, and after looking at it he said, "I can’t believe it." When they started to protest he stopped them and said, "I don’t dispute the accuracy of anything you’ve shown me. I'm sure all of it is true. It’s just that I simply can’t believe it."

I’m afraid I know what he meant. Even as I have seen the destruction on TV, I have been unable to believe it. You mean I won’t be able to drive over to Domelisa’s, pick up a few shrimp po-boys, and bring them home for lunch? Cummon!!

With the second flooding of New Orleans due to Hurricane Rita, one that may well be worse than the first and may not spare my home, as the first flood did, it’s becoming impossible not to believe it.

Someone I dearly love is dead.

That someone is New Orleans, or Old New Orleans I guess we should call it. That expression always used to refer to the ante-bellum city, or perhaps the late 19th century vision of sublime and elegant decay combined with unrepentant debauchery, a vision which the city held onto for decades, as it was always popular with the tourists from 1880 on.

Now it means, before Katrina. God, that hurts. Whatever is rebuilt on that location, the New Orleans I knew and loved is gone, gone, gone forever. For it depended not just on the buildings which have suffered such damage and destruction, but on the people, and the neighborhood cultures, and the civic traditions. Such as passing down the music within the family from father to son to niece to nephew. Or the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of Ninth Ward working class blacks rehearsing their performances once a week for a year before Fat Tuesday, working on their New Suits all that time. The Ninth Ward has just been flooded for the second time; even if some homes and businesses were conceivably salvagable after the first flood, they can't possibly be salvagable now. Even the upper class white society participated in civic traditions in ways that never happened elsewhere, maintaining a form of noblesse oblige by footing the bill for many of the most expensive Mardi Gras krewes and parades, like Rex or Comus, which gave great free entertainment to millions whom they would never have admitted to membership in their clubs.

All these things are traditions, and traditions depend utterly on continuity, on the unbroken chain of the passage of knowledge and practice from elder to younger. Break that chain and the tradition dies.

The chain is broken. It cannot be otherwise. The people who are the keepers of all these traditions, from the richest to the poorest, are now scattered to the winds. I read a poll that said that 55 % of the people in the country report that Katrina refugees have arrived in their cities or communities. And that was before the arrival of the terrified millions that have fled Texas as Rita approaches. Many, many of these, from both Louisiana and Texas, will never return. They will be too scared to return, and who can blame them?

Something will be rebuilt where Old New Orleans was. It has to be, as the nation and the world need some sort of city to run the major port that must exist at the mouth of the Mississippi for the global economy to function. But whatever it is, it will not be the city that I came to find fascinating, whose history I studied, the city I moved to, and the city I came to love.

That city is dead, and I will mourn her all my life.

Friday, September 16, 2005

And yet...

And yet... despite what I wrote below about the occasional light moment, the magnitude of this disaster is still impossible to take in.

I watch CNN, and they're saying things like, Good news!! Survivors are still being found in New Orleans! What? Excuse me? Survivors? Desperate people being plucked from certain death in the flood waters by rescuers? Isn't that the sort of thing we read about happening in Pakistan or Indonesia? But here? I'm not really used to hearing things like that reported from the American city I live in.

Except that, really, I am. I was living in the San Fernando Valley when the Northridge Earthquake cut loose literally under the foundations of my house. I remember the destruction, the few survivors cut out of the ruins of that infamous collapsed apartment house across the street from where I shopped for groceries. And I remember the indescribable emotional toll it took on those who had to live through it, and deal with it. Like me.

Yes, I've been here before. But this is worse.

A Lighter Moment

Even in the midst of disaster, there can be the occasional moment of amusing absurdity. Yesterday our Jackson homeowners insurance guy, Shaw Nickeles, came over with some papers to sign. Some of the things he told us illustrate just what a monster of a storm Katrina was. We picked Jackson because, as I wrote earlier, it seemed impossible to us that even a storm coming right at us from the coast could still be dangerous when it got here. Hurricanes get their power from the warm water they cross, and as soon as they move over land they start to weaken.

But Katrina, after hitting the coast as a category four hurricane, was still a category two when it arrived in the Jackson area, and just look at the damage cat 1 Ophelia just did in the Carolinas. Shaw is a likeable young guy whose been in the business about six years, and he was saying how he’d never seen anything like this. 250 miles from the coast, and the storm was uprooting trees big enough to come down and literally cut houses in two. Shaw had never had to deal with property damage this severe from a storm, though luckily none of his clients were injured.

But the absurd part was the reason he came over. After buying the Jackson condo, we naturally set about getting the proper homeowners insurance for it. After getting up here, A got the proper form, filled it out and mailed it in. It went to a processing office up in Missouri, and a lady in the office opened the envelope, took one look at the form, and just freaked.

Since if all goes well we will someday return to New Orleans, A had listed the uptown New Orleans address as the permanent mailing address. Also, the check for the premium payment was imprinted with the same address. She saw that much, and proceeded to leap to the horrifying conclusion that some villain was trying to buy a new homeowners insurance policy for a New Orleans property after Katrina had gone through, a property she assumed had been destroyed by the storm. (It wasn’t.)

Without reading any further she immediately stamped "REJECTED" all over the form, stuffed it and the check into an envelope and threw it into the out-box. Addressed to New Orleans of course. Who knows where and when that will ever turn up. Then she proceeded to phone up poor Shaw to loudly berate him for being such a gullible fool as to approve that policy. It took him a while to get her calmed down enough to hear his explanation, namely that if she’d read down a little further, like to "insured property," she would have found that the policy was for a place in Jackson.

The only way he was able to mollify her was to promise that, since we had to sign a new application anyway, he would personally bring that application by and personally verify that the actual insured property was undamaged.

I realize that the entire insurance industry is on the brink of hysteria just now, and with good reason, but this lady went over that brink at a great height and at high velocity. Not very professional behavior.

Monday, September 12, 2005

About Those Buses

One of the most notorious photos to come out of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, one widely reproduced and linked, is an aerial shot showing literally hundreds of yellow school buses neatly lined up and parked, in a parking lot that had since become a shallow lake. Countless people have looked at that photo and asked, what the hell? Since the human core of this disaster is the tens of thousands of people who lacked the means to leave even if they wanted to, why weren’t those buses used to get those people out! I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. And of course, most of the blame along these lines has landed squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Ray Nagin for failing to order them put into action.

On Saturday, Mayor Nagin gave an interview to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in which he addressed this question directly. And he said something that I should have remembered but didn’t until he mentioned it: he didn’t have the authority.

What??? I hear you cry. That’s ridiculous! Those are New Orleans school buses, of course he had the authority. But you see, there you run afoul of one of the sorriest chapters of that sorriest of subjects, Louisiana local politics.

The schools in New Orleans are run by the Orleans Parish School Board. ("Parish" equals "county" to the rest of you, and at any rate is definitely not the same as "city.") Under the Louisiana constitution, the school board is a politically autonomous entity, responsible to no one but the voters and, if it comes to that, the courts. And unfortunately, the few voters who trouble themselves over school board elections have historically elected some of the most appallingly inept and corrupt board members ever to disgrace public office. Students’ testing scores are among the lowest in the country, and prosecutions among the staff for corruption and embezzlement are almost routine.

The board members seem to consider fighting among themselves for power and patronage their primary activity, rather than putting the needs of the children first. Some years ago they hired as Superintendent a man named Anthony Amato, who had a record of turning around failing school districts in New York and Connecticut. Then the board, the same board that hired him, set about undermining his efforts and keeping the old corrupt system in place with such success that after two years he quit in disgust. There have been occasional attempts to amend the constitution and replace the elected board with one appointed by the mayor, but they have all failed because if there’s one thing the board members do agree on, it’s that the board must remain fully independent and autonomous. And they’re all sufficiently canny politicians to make sure that happens.

Maybe things will get better in the future, as some of the worst offenders on the board lost their bids for re-election after Amato quit. But it hasn’t happened yet. So when Nagin said in that interview, "I don’t control the school buses," he was speaking simple truth. Maybe something could have been done, if someone had thought of it. Maybe the board should have offered the buses, if they could have gotten together and agreed on it (a big "if"). Maybe Nagin should have thought to ask them for their use. Maybe we remember the old saying about being up to your ass in alligators and forgetting that your original job was to drain the swamp. (Or bayou, in this case, for a painfully appropriate turn of phrase.)

But I’m sure of one thing. At the point in time when it would have been possible to use those buses to get the people out, Mayor Nagin did not have the authority to issue the order for them to roll and have it be obeyed. By the time he declared a mandatory evacuation, maybe he could have claimed the authority. But by then, with the storm only a day away, it was just too late.

By the time we know all, he may have to accept the blame for a lot of things. But not, I think, for that shallow lake full of school buses.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Some Good Guys

By the way, I have a very warm spot in my heart for The Sharper Image just now. One of my dearest friends in New Orleans was Jon Jackson and his partner Frankie Holladay. Jon has been working for several years as a sales rep at the Sharper Image store in the Riverwalk mall, just outside the French Quarter, and from the moment he started there, everything just clicked. He loved the store, the company, working with customers, getting to play with the gadgets, everything. My understanding is that he was such a good employee that he was on the fast track to a management spot.

Unlike us, Jon & Frankie did not leave as Katrina was approaching. (You’ll be able to read about it on Jon’s blog, Shattered Impact.) Being on fairly high ground, the Irish Channel area, they made it through without any significant damage and with no flooding, but were increasingly alarmed by the deteriorating situation. Eventually, though I don’t have the whole story (Jon, you will tell us the whole story, won’t you? Thank you.), they saw a chance to leave and took it. After several exhausting days of driving by indirect routes, as all the direct routes were smashed, they made it to the home of a friend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they are now. There they are trying to start over, as they have to assume that everything they left behind has been stolen.

The point of this ramble is that after arriving in Florida Jon immediately got in touch with Sharper Image’s local office. Almost immediately they found him a position at the Fort Lauderdale store. He starts on Monday. I think this is wonderful, and a laudable case of a company knowing what the Right Thing To Do is in an emergency. It was not only good business sense, showing a loyal employee in desperate straits corporate loyalty in return. It was also, in purely human terms, the only good and decent thing to do. I liked Sharper Image already, but I like them more now.

So then: Three Cheers For Sharper Image!!!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

That bitch Katrina

God I hate being prescient.

At last report, we were setting up our new condo in Jackson, Mississippi, as a nice place to go to for a long weekend and, if the need ever did arise, a place to go to if we had to leave New Orleans to escape a hurricane. On that Tuesday, I wrote glibly about how ironic it would be if we had to use the new place almost immediately, as there was this tropical depression in the Atlantic that, if it strengthened, would be called Katrina.


What a shock, what a coincidence, what unbelievable timing. At the end of the week I previously posted from, the basic furniture had been delivered and set up, and we set out for home feeling that even in the worst case scenario we were prepared with at least the basics. We drove home on Friday, Sept. 26, got the dog out of prison (the kennel), went home, and turned on the TV news. Whaddayaknow. Worst case scenario.

So we looked at each other and decided, we’re not unpacking. Launder the dirty clothes, pack them right back in the suitcases, chuck whatever comes to hand into the van and GET OUT.

We did, the next day, Saturday, even though Mayor Ray Nagin had been only hinting at calling for a voluntary evacuation, to say nothing of the mandatory evacuation he put in place on Sunday. Nagin in this crisis seems to have become widely thought of as the anti-Giuliani, the guy who did not take charge in the crisis the way Rudi did. I think this is a pity, and misguided, as I think he is a better mayor of New Orleans than most I have seen. (And I’ve seen quite a few, and studied about more.) And the two disasters are not comparable. While intending no disrespect, two big buildings falling down in a sharply defined area is not the same as flood waters spreading everywhere you can see. As terrible as they were, and for all the disruption they caused, the 9/11 attacks did not take out ALL of Manhattan, to say nothing of all the boroughs around it.

Anyway, we left. What had been a pleasant three hour drive the day before took a grueling six hours, as so many people (like us) said, screw this, we’re not waiting for the official word. We’re going.

What continues to stagger me is that if Katrina had come one day earlier, or if we had tried to return to New Orleans one day later, it wouldn’t have worked. On Saturday afternoon the contraflow was established, which converted all highway lanes from the threatened area into outgoing lanes, allowing no incoming traffic. If the timing had been one day off, we would have been turned back. One of the most painful thoughts is that in that case our beloved dog Bluebell would have been either left in the kennel to starve or, the most one could hope for, turned loose by the kennel staff to take her best chance surviving in the streets, and most likely never found again. It’s heartbreaking to see TV coverage of people desperately searching the pet rescue sites for their animals. In so many cases they’ve lost everything and finding their pet is the only hope of comfort they have left.

But we got here. We’re in Jackson, safe and sound, with a rather confused dog. I’m sure she’s trying to figure out what’s going on, but then, dogs spend their entire lives trying to figure out what’s going on, without success. It’s the price of living with humans.

We’re not sure when we’ll be able to refill the gas tank in the car. For a time, gas was reserved for service vehicles, and even if that’s been rescinded, deliveries have been spotty. Power was off for a few days, but then came back, so we’re starting to try and build some sort of simulation of a normal life. I’m painfully aware of how much better off I am than so many from New Orleans. I know keenly that I’m safe and dry not only because we had the foresight to plan for an evacuation (if barely in time) but because we had the means. I know there are thousands who would have made the same plans and gotten out when we did if they’d had the means, a car and the money to buy gas and get a hotel room whenever you get to wherever. But they didn’t. And it looks like thousands of them died because of that.

Well, that’s a subject for discussion in the category of political blame, and I think we’ll get to that a bit later.