Katrina: A Baton Rouge Diary, Part 3

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09/15/2005

Baton Rouge, LA

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

Sept. 10, 2005: A History

My first memories of New Orleans come from my childhood visits with my grandparents. My earliest memory comes from being told that if you dug down five feet into the ground you would hit water. As a toddler, this little nugget of knowledge stuck me, and I remember going into the side yard with a plastic shovel digging down into the ground five inches and wondering where the water was. As I grew older, I clearly remember afternoon thundershowers dumping an inch of rain on the ground causing the streets to flood. By the late 1980’s the drainage system had been improved so that flooding became a very rare event. Nonetheless, anyone who had a half a brain on their shoulders in New Orleans knew the potential for flood. Most of us lived in an area that was below sea level. Today, if I had a nickel for every critic who pointed out that fact I could build a high-rise apartment. But where were these wonderful detractors before the storm? Oh, yeah, today’s highbrowers are nothing more than yesterday’s drunk tourists.

I want to focus for a moment this evening on what did not flood in New Orleans and the “bowl” that the media seems to be so fascinated with. Contrary to what appears to be the prevailing belief, not all of New Orleans is below sea level.

“Vieux Carre” in French translates to “old squares.” The “old squares” of Nouvelle Orleans are what are commonly known to the outside world as the French Quarter. For years I could not understand why my grandmother, who is in her nineties, called the French Quarter “the French Quarters.” Several years ago I made the connection between the French and English translation.

For all of those you who are sufficiently astute, you will observe that the Vieux Carre did not flood. (And, thankfully, no one has taken a match to it as of yet). Regardless of fact, I beg of you the question why the French Quarter did not flood. The Answer is simple: it is on high ground.

The infancy of the Vieux Carre was perilous at best. Established around 1716, it was subjected to a hurricane in 1719, again in 1721, and then again in 1723. Yellow fever and malaria were amongst a few diseases which also had to be contended with. There were calls to move to another location; to establish a town less prone to disaster. But the founders, as headstrong as the leaders today, persisted and New Orleans prevailed. By 1721 there were nearly 400 people; by 1728 there were about 1000 inhabitants.

Geographically, New Orleans, during the colonial era, was considered an island. Consequentially, it was called the “Isle of Orleans” during the antebellum years. Despite being an “island,” however, New Orleans prospered as a port city and thus the population grew. Growth in population spurred development outside of the “old square.”

Much of today’s City has developed upon soil which was, during the early years, swamp. The first developments outside the Vieux Carre were on high ground, however. There are three natural ridges in the New Orleans area: The Gentilly Ridge; The Metairie Ridge; and the Esplanade Ridge. Along the Mississippi River was another area of high ground. Crescent shaped, as the curve of the River is, many of the oldest neighborhoods bloomed with antebellum homes along the highest ground along the River. After this locale was developed, by prospering merchants and entrepreneurs, other areas of high ground were built upon. The Esplanade Ridge was developed throughout the 19th century; Gentilly was developed during the early 20th century. Some areas in Gentilly are 10 feet above sea level.

After the development of all of the high ground had taken place engineers developed methods to drain the swampy land. Development began in these areas took place post WWII up until the late 1960’s with the Lake Vista area. Expansion outward took place there after. New Orleans East was developed on the eastern side of the industrial canal. And Jefferson Parish, to the West of the 17th Street Canal, saw phenomenal growth particularly due to white flight during the 1960’s and 1970’s. My father, a native New Orleanian, remarks that when he left New Orleans in 1962, most of Metairie and Kenner were nothing but swamp.

Since the dawn of time in New Orleans, levees have played an important role. The first levees were developed to hold back the flooding of the Mississippi River. Later on levees were elemental to keeping the entire city dry. In the late 1880s the first canals to pump water out of the City were developed. 1903 saw the first pumping station. These two developments alone allowed building upon lands that were up until that time uninhabitable.

This is an extremely abridged history of the development of New Orleans. I write this to dispel the current press which would make you believe that everyone in New Orleans is an idiot and that the development of the City was arbitrarily positioned in some bowl waiting to sink below the surface of the sea.

There is one particular journalist who, if I could find, I would rip the pen out of her hands and break her fingers so that she could never write again. Lynn Woolley is an ignorant as they come. I quote what sparked the ire within me:

“This city’s very location should have set off alarms at the state and local level … Oh sure, they built levees and installed a system of pumps. PUMPS! For crying out loud, you have a city built in a hole with water on three sides, and they were depending on pumps!”

Let me parallel this insult to the Twin Towers: “110 stories should have set off alarms at the state and local level … 110 STORIES! For crying out loud, you have built two buildings 110 stories tall looming above the city and did not expect it to be a target?”

No-one would write the above statement because it is ludicrous. The statement made by Ms. Woolley is equally as ludicrous. New Orleans is a city nearly three hundred years in the making. Its location was not chosen out of a lack of foresight, just as the WTC in New York was not built with the knowledge of an eventual attack by terrorist with an airplane. New Orleans grew and prospered because it was one of the greatest port cities in the world. Just as New York will never be the same, neither will New Orleans. But rest assured just as they will rebuild a World Trade Center in New York, New Orleans will rebuild its City.

We all learn through our experiences and we adapt to the times.

Sept. 11, 2005: Stabilizing; Assessing the Loss

One of the things I should address here is how things appear to be stabilizing. Gone for now are the gas lines and the feeling of apocalyptic panic. These have been replaced with steady consumption and a low level fear. Most Baton Rougeans who exist in their little humdrum world of commuting to work and returning home to the television have reset their routine back to their status quo isolation to the outside world. The only complication to their oblivious mindset is the extra traffic and the lines at the grocery store.

In the beginning, when gasoline became an issue, there were many who were traveling long distances to stockpile fuel and goods. Many of these were from the Northshore, Covington, Mandeville, Slidell, Hammond, Madisonville, and Holden. Now that electricity has begun to be restored in that area, those residents have ceased their migration to Baton Rouge. This removes a burden from the City here. Be not a fool however, the fun may just be beginning, now that the Sheriff’s Office has come out and made mention of the potential for turf wars between gangs.

Assessing the damage in New Orleans from afar is a painful experience. Losing a house is hard enough. But when I viewed a photograph of Liuzza’s with water above the door, I realized how much more agony there is to come.

For those of you who believe that a neighborhood restaurant is located down at the local strip mall and a local grocery store is a Mega-lo-Mart ten miles away from your home, I pity your lack of experience. In most New Orleans neighborhoods you can walk to a corner and find a quality restaurant. You can wander a few blocks to a convenience store for a roll of toilet paper and newspaper. Not anymore.

When a decision was made to eat out or make an order to go, everyone had to gather around and make a decision where to go. Do you want a “whole half and half from Mandinas?” or a “WOP Salad from Ye Ole College Inn?” How about “Stuffed Artichokes from Liuzza’s?” or a really greasy hamburger “with Hickory Smoke Sauce from Bud’s on City Park Avenue?” The list could go on ad infinitum.

There is not one New Orleanian who could claim to know every restaurant — some of the best were hidden in some of the worst neighborhoods. Most of these, if not all, will never recover. And that is more painful to me than a box of photographs sitting under several feet of water.

The other morning I spoke with a man from Metairie who owned a lumber yard in New Orleans East. He had been back to his home, which had suffered eight inches of water. I joked with him for a moment: “Gee, only eight inches?” He returned my volley, “Yeah! There was a time when that would have been bad. It COULD have been eight feet! How lucky am I?”

We began comparing notes on what happens to sheetrock versus plaster in floods. His house had sheetrock and was growing mold like a freshly fertilized flower bed. Our house in New Orleans is old enough to have plaster walls. I envisioned for a moment the goop that has surely melted and covered the hardwood floors. I shook my head to rid myself of the image.

Sept. 12, 2005: Figuring out the Federal Fiasco

For all of you Republicans who have bitterly viewed me as a sellout, an absconder, a malcontent, because I decided to swap parties when Georgie Boy was elected, I present to you a theory which seems to explain FEMA’s foul-up. Indeed, I have made no secret of my views of “Mr. Inept,” but while the mud is being slung along from the swamp waters at local politicians by Federal States Rights types we must go to the very top to see where the pivotal error was made during the crucial hour.

Credit must go to a friend of mine first for pointing out the obvious. (Thank you Alan for the forward). I am only expounding on what I was too blind to see but read earlier on. I submit to you the following White House press release, which was aforementioned in a prior email. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050827-1.html.

In a stunning stroke of brilliance, little Georgie and his advisors decided to declare a state of emergency in Louisiana two days before the hurricane made landfall. Back in 1999 when Mr. Inept was running for the highest office of this land we all laughed at the boy who could not read a map. Well, folks, the above should make you shake your heads at the laughter of the past. I remember reading the above press release and thinking it odd that the entire state was covered. I had merely glanced at the Parish names and noted that the Parishes included in the Emergency Declaration, among them the Cities of Shreveport and Monroe. But the colossal error, which I overlooked, was which Parishes were not mentioned: Orleans, St Bernard, St Charles, St John, St Tammany, Lafourche, Plaquemines to name the lot. Gee, if it were not for the fact that the Hurricane were the size of the Gulf of Mexico, we all would have been lucky that Georgie did not name the Counties of California in his declaration.

We have placed a huge blame upon FEMA. Perhaps they were just following orders?

It was not until August 29th that the first White House press release addressed the Parishes directly affected by the Hurricane. http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050829-2.html.

For all of you who have seemed to have found such fault with local government perhaps you should remove the plank from your eye. Why in the world anyone would want to turn local control over a disaster to a President who cannot locate the disaster on a map should not even be a question to entertain. The press releases speak for themselves -– and we expect these people to be able to run a country?

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