Monday, August 28, 2006

Nagin and NOLA (General)

Tuesday is the first anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin is back in the news again, in an interview that ran on “60 Minutes” Sunday night with Byron Pitts. When I first heard that Nagin had ripped New York City, my blood pressure began to rise. Then I heard the quote. Before I comment, I want to share the quote with you. The following is from the story, courtesy of

"On a tour of the decimated Ninth Ward, Nagin tells Pitts the city has removed most of the debris from public property and it’s mainly private land that’s still affected – areas that can’t be cleaned without the owners' permission. But when Pitts points to flood-damaged cars in the street and a house washed partially into the street, the mayor shoots back. 'That’s alright. You guys in New York can’t get a hole in the ground fixed and it’s five years later. So let’s be fair.'"

Those last two sentences are the part that got people excited. My reaction isn’t going to please those same people. I agree with him. It has taken five years, and New York isn’t all that closer to building the Freedom Tower. OK, there’s been ground broker, and a basic design is in place and so on, but the fact is, this is what happens in the US. We spend so much time in litigation, and dealing with NYMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard) that it takes forever to get things done. In this case, respectfully, the NIMBY’s are the families of those lost on September 11, 2001. I respect those who consider the site of the World Trade Center to be sacred ground. But it seemed to me, from day one (known as September 12th) that there was a unanimous feeling to rebuild on the site. Still, we endured design changes, lawsuits, rhetoric, and more. Some see it as capitalizing on the tragedy to rebuild there. I disagree. Rebuilding there, to me, has always been about giving the collective finger to terrorism. On September 12, 2001, and for a few months after, the US (and especially, the Northeast) was one big neighborhood. Everyone cooperated and respected one-another. Everyone hung their flags and so on. Now, many of those same flags are tattered and forgotten.

The post-script of the comments is that Governor Kathleen Blanco distanced herself from the comments because God forbid somebody take an unpopular stand. Mayor Nagin ultimately apologized for the comparison.

So Mayor Ray’s point is that his city can’t be expected to be rebuilt overnight, and that folks should get off his back. I think his point is well taken. Still, many things took too long to happen in The Big Easy, as we all know. In a gripping documentary that ran tonight on NBC, anchored by Brian Williams, we were reminded how long it took for the United Stated Government to respond. I had forgotten about some of the wounds from Katrina. First and foremost (and this part can never be forgotten), is that many think the post-Katrina response was blatant prejudice against class and race. While I would never want to see this happen again, what if it had happened in a predominately white area? I’m inclined to think that the end result would be the same. However the simple matter is that most whites would have access to a way out. Why did those New Orleanians stay behind? Why couldn’t they get on a bus, or train, or plane? Why didn’t they leave when the reports clearly stated that this storm had the chance to be among the five worst storms to hit the US ever!

As we know now, the storm, while bad, was not a deadly category five storm, but a fierce and powerful cat 3. The levees was the problem, and there are those in the NBC special who think, without a doubt, that the United States purposefully blew up the levees to rid themselves of the lower class neighborhoods. My response to that is that in the process of doing that, they would have then eradicated a rich white neighborhood called Lakeview. Think white America was going to allow that?

So often, in times of tragedy, blacks become angry and play the race card. Those whites who want to be seen as politically correct, join them in that anger. Why doesn’t everybody just focus on the moment, and fix the problems. Why bitch and moan when it does not curry favor in many corners of society? Why? So the media eats it up, and the political hand wringing and societal game playing begins. Let’s just debate it, and send a bill to Capitol Hill saying that what happened was bad. WRONG! Let’s get the National Guard down there with supplies NOW. That’s what should have happened the minute we saw the levees break. New Orleans thought they dodged the bullet, and the United States Government breathed a sigh of relief. Then the Led Zeppelin song played and nobody knew what to do. And President Bush made it increasingly worse with his praise of then FEMA director Michael Brown (“Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job”).

Bottom line - regardless of race, creed, class, and anything else - the United States Government goofed. They screwed up. They blew it. They thought that they didn't need to marshall the forces because the hurricane, while bad, was only a category three. They didn't see the levees breaking. Here's my question - WHY NOT? The city sits below sea level. Their cemetery tombs are built above ground. I could see that I hurricane, or some natural disaster could destroy the city of New Orleans. Why then, couldn't our Government?

Before we proceed, let’s quickly chat about me and race relations. I can tell you that I don’t care about race. If I’m in a foxhole, I don’t give a damn who you are. If you move into my neighborhood, or come into my life, there are a couple of basic things that matter, regardless of race, sex, or creed. Be fair with my wife and I, don’t disrespect us, and don’t ever hurt our son. Do that, and we’re going to be just fine. I grew up in a town that was predominately white, but I can clearly remember the minorities who were in school with me. I enjoyed knowing them as human beings and friends. I didn’t enjoy knowing them because they were the token black. I didn’t care about that. That same creed exists today for me. I personally enjoy diversity in my life.

What I don’t enjoy are those who feel it is their duty to whine because life isn’t fair. I’ve been laid off four times from jobs, and trust me when I say nobody is coming to my aid, or pitying me. I’m a white man approaching middle age, and nobody gives a damn about me. So I have to pull myself up by my own flip flop straps and keep on keeping on. That’s why my favorite person is the survivor; the person who looks crap in the eye and becomes better because of it. I saw at least on example of that on NBC tonight – an African American who saw his marriage dissolve after Katrina, and still leaves in a FEMA trailer. Yet he keeps on smiling and believing. He’s working hard to try to help troubled people. All the while, he just stays hopeful for better days. That’s the man I want in that foxhole.

I feel a connection to NOLA because I’ve had the fortune to travel there three times. The first time was in 1975, as a seven year-old to visit family in Gretna, just south of the downtown. The next time was 2003, when I attended the Baseball Winter Meetings. To further my connection, my oldest niece moved to Belle Chasse, where she was stationed in the US Navy. Eventually, she would marry and have a beautiful little girl. That led us to visit in March of 2006. My long-winded point is that I’ve send New Orleans (or “NOLA”) pre-hurricane and post-hurricane. The differences were startling.

When we visited in March, it was obvious that there was still so much to be done. Louis Armstrong Airport was eerily quiet. Only one concourse was open, and while it was clean, there was still visual evidence of Katrina’s power in some of the blown-out stained glass. The rental car shuttle bus sat and idled, with the driver relaxing away from the driver’s seat. On our short ride to the cars, the driver and I had a nice conversation, and he seemed to appreciate the best wishes that my wife and I expressed.

From the air, New Orleans’ problems were evident. Young girls, returning from Spring Break, muttered that they knew they were home by the sight of the blue tarps on the houses below. Eventually, I would drive part of Interstate 10 that was seen many times on TV, with stranded people on a bridge, surrounded by water. That water line was very apparent. Other parts of the city and the surrounding environs were barren, with brush and trees and debris everywhere. The place where an outsider can be fooled is in the French Quarter. If that’s all you see, then you’re fine. The crowds are a bit smaller, but the beverages are just as tasty. The signs of the devastation arean’t as apparent.

Closer to the Riverwalk, the story is different. When we visited in 2003, it was our meeting place for lunch and shopping. Having read that the mall had reopened, we stopped there for lunch one day in March. It was the almost the saddest site I saw. Bear in mind that the Riverwalk sits right next to the Morial Convention Center, which was destroyed by the overflow crowd from the Superdome just over a mile away. Looting was an obvious problem, with plenty of broken glass in the parking lot. Some of the most awful images of NOLA during post-Kartrina came from this stretch of town. Countless people died in the streets and doorways there.

The worst damage that we saw was when we took a drive into East New Orleans. My goal was to reach the bridge that carries I-10 over the eastern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, but only got to Morrison Blvd, near the Lakefront Airport. The devastation was sickening. I could only see just a bit of the Lower Ninth Ward from the elevated portion of I-10, which is to say, that we didn't see much.

Overall, we were able to enjoy our weekend visit to New Orleans. Most hotels are open, and travel, generally speaking, is not a problem. The Harrah’s casino, near the Riverwalk, is open again, having reopened right before we arrived in March. Restaurants are open as well. Common sense is required though to visit New Orleans. There have been some problems with violent crime, but avoiding bad neighborhoods takes care of that. The French Quarter, especially Bourbon Street, is pretty safe as the last thing that NOLA officials want is any problems there. The Central Business District, where our Country Inn and Suites hotel was, on Magazine Street, felt fine as well. Put it this way – even as I walked the city with my wife and son, while helping escort my mother (who doesn’t walk as well as she used to thanks to back problems), we never felt threatened. Not once. Not due to panhandlers, or “undesirables” or anything else. The city still smelled of that unique NOLA smell, but guess what? That’s the way it always smelled! The city can be dirty also. That’s part of its charm. That’s why you’re always reminded to now walk in the puddles on Bourbon Street, when there’s been no rainstorm.

I want New Orleans to survive and thrive. I want one of America’s great cities, with myriad quirks, to return to its glory. My suggestion to you? If you have some disposable income, go visit NOLA. Yes, it can be a somewhat dirty and smelly place, but that’s what it was like pre-Katrina. That’s part of its charm. If you have some disposable income, and enjoy a good party, you’ll enjoy yourself. That’s still what they want you to do in the French Quarter. They need the income. The city is still understaffed, causing restaurants, in particular, to have some strange hours. If you want recommendations, I’d be glad to help.

As they say in New Orleans (and you see it on countless tourist trinkets), “Laissez les bons temps rouler!” I don’t know French very well, but I know what this means: “Let the good times roll!” If you go, start your day with some beignets and café au lait at Café Du Monde, some gumbo at Tujague’s, find some good jambalaya (it has to have the andouille sausage), and finish off with a hurricane at Pat O’Briens. Then toast yourself (and me, because I’ll wish I was there with you). To good times, and better days to come.

QUICK NOTE - John Mark Karr, we barely knew ye. Prosecutors in Bolder, Colorado decided not pursue charges against Mr. Karr in the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. So the mystery continues.

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