Katrina: A Baton Rouge Diary, Part 4



Baton Rouge, LA

Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

Sept. 19, 2005: Bad Press

Vast has been the breadth of bad press. It is true that the scope of this catastrophe has gone beyond the bounds of everyone’s foresight. And, in the beginning, nothing short of evil seemed to be seeping from the deluged City. The bad press has evoked action from seemingly stunned inaction and forged a feeling of hope out of deep malaise. But the bad press has left behind a deep scar which will, in the annals of history, forever mar the reputation of New Orleans.

One issue which was brought out by the press is the poverty and crime which existed in New Orleans. For every idiot shooting at a helicopter there are ten thousand who did not. For every looter there were thousands who stole nothing. To the one photograph I saw of the black male traversing a flooded Canal Street carrying a white linen suit, there were many who were seeking provisions to survive. It is easy to watch the television and imagine how you would react under duress; it is not so easy to act under duress while you are on television.

It is important for the reader here to note, as I have mentioned before, that not all of New Orleans is below sea level. Not all of New Orleans flooded. Three hundred years ago, when New Orleans was founded, the forefathers sought out high ground. Consequently, the oldest sections of New Orleans did not flood. Nevertheless some in the press press on with the idea that all of New Orleans is a bowl; look at the flood maps if you are not convinced.

Equally important to note is that every major City has crime. Criminals left unchecked will rape, rob and pillage. Every city has poverty. Crime and poverty are not some isolated blight unique to New Orleans. We should all hope that this incident will focus some attention on these two problems. Though I do believe that we will soon forget these problems, because none of us are too poor to care.

The Levee System

It is also important for the reader to be aware that the catastrophic flooding which inundated MOST of the City occurred not during the storm but some twelve hours after the fact.

The reader is implored not to pay any attention to those detractors who claim that the levee system was incapable of sustaining anything greater than a Category 3 hurricane. Fact be known to all: the levee system which directly surrounds Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River preventing them from spilling into the city remains intact to this day. What failed were levees along canals.

The larger question that should be asked, at this time, is why the levees upon the canals failed.

The levees to the east, those which failed during the storm, were older; and, to my knowledge these levees had not been updated as the levees on the western canals had been. The flooding that occurred within the 9th Ward came from these eastern levee breeches.

True focus should be on the now infamous 17th Street Canal levee. The failure of this levee allowed billions of gallons of brackish water to pour into New Orleans. This accounts for roughly sixty percent of the flooding. As stated above, this levee failed roughly twelve hours after the storm. An enlightened reader would question why.

Currently, there are fools and pundits out there with models demonstrating storm surge and everything under the sun to shed light on why New Orleans flooded. Nevertheless, no one has addressed the paramount question: why a brand new concrete (steel plate reinforced core) levee failed in a canal after the storm, when the earthen levees directly subjected to storm surge held true? Not one person in the media, the government or the Corps of Engineers has raised this ugly question. And why?

There is speculation, and I remind you that this is speculation, that a barge may be to blame. Anyone who has examined any aerial photographs has seen the breech. The breech occurred not too far south of an overpass. This overpass has been under construction for a very long time. There were barges floating in the canal with heavy equipment. Were they ever removed? That is anyone’s guess. But logic and candor dictate that something larger than a tree branch and high water created a hole in a levee flooding hundreds of thousands of homes.

Drive me a Bus Mister

I invoke a famous Mardi Gras call: “Throw me something Mister,” to parallel the calls for bus transportation out of the metro area. Far and wide has been the conjecture surrounding why so many people who remained in New Orleans could not be bussed out. In the metro area, over 1 million people out of 1.3 million evacuated. Some simply would never leave; and these people more than likely will not leave during the next event (again human nature stuns me).

Most who remained were poor blacks. These people had no transportation. Questions have been vehemently raised on why buses were not used to transport these citizens from harm’s way. The solution of buses appears simple, unfortunately simple solutions are rarely well thought out.

The first hindering point on the utilization of buses comes when you attempt to figure out who was going to drive them. I am not qualified to operate a bus; very few people are. The second obstacle is the handful of troublemakers. To screen everyone before they boarded a bus was impractical – to drive a bus without having the passengers screened prior to loading would have been a game of Russian Roulette.

The City of New Orleans did what it could to keep people from harm. But the best laid plans are typically eroded by the path to hell. There are photographs of hundreds of buses sitting in a flooded parking lot – would you have been one to volunteer to drive?

What about all of the Middle / Upper Class

Aside from all of the poor blacks remaining in the City, not a word has been mentioned, not a photograph has been taken, not a line has been quoted in the aftermath from anyone remaining within the city holed up in a hotel room. What happened to all of the upper class who stayed behind? This is a mystery.

I do not have the statistics before me, but New Orleans has tens of thousands of hotel rooms. It is a known fact that many people during hurricane evacuations (past, present and future), who choose to remain in the path of a storm in New Orleans and can afford to, rent hotel rooms. I have neighbors who do so, and I have yet to account for them.

After the graphically highlighted mass movement of evacuees from the Dome and Convention Center faded below the bylines, I assumed that I would next read about the migration of New Orleanians who were trapped in hotel rooms. My assumption made an ass of me, and I, to this very moment, ponder the whereabouts of those who could afford and procure a hotel room. I am puzzled by this obscure journalistic apostasy.

Many May Never Return

Unlike myself, and many other middle to upper-class New Orleanians, the option to return lies before us. Though we do not know what the future will bring, and learning the status of our houses is an event of the future, we do know that we have a tract of land to return to. For those who rented or resided in subsidized housing, very little or nothing remains. Some will certainly return. But as days become weeks and weeks become months, the likelihood of many uprooted poor people immediately returning dwindles.

Do people want to return, is the next question begged? We have seen Barbara Bush in Houston with evacuees. She is quoted to have said something about displaced New Orleanians enjoying the hospitality of Texas and aspiring to remain. Truthfully, I am certain that many people are entertaining the idea that they will never return to New Orleans. But home is home; and home will always be New Orleans to these people. There will always be a longing for home in the back of their minds. And someday, when New Orleans is back up and running, the call to a land which is familiar and known to many will be blaring, tantamount to the sirens in an odyssey. Life for the New Orleanian, rich or poor, is not going to change much outside of New Orleans. Once that fact is realized, many will return.

My Upcoming Week

Some of you who do not know me well probably are wondering what it is that I really do. I realize that I have been all over the map in during the last couple of weeks in my capacity. Just prior to the devastation of New Orleans I had resigned from a paralegal job in criminal defense. Being in between jobs I found that I was most needed back in a convenience store where I once worked nights while working pro-bono for the East Baton Rouge Public Defender’s office. It was through working at the convenience store and public defender’s office that I came to know some of the many fine Baton Rouge police officers. Nothing more ironic in my life ever occurred than selling potato chips to cops arresting criminals in the middle of the night and then working in defense of those who they arrested during the day.

My formal education is in History, English and Political Science. I did not last long as an EMT; it was not my calling in life. Regardless of everything, I have great interest in, and respect for, police, fire and EMS. These people are on the front lines of everyday life.

This week I will change hats once again. I will be heading to Jefferson Parish (just west of Orleans) to work in a lumber yard. This places me a little closer to home than I am currently. I will be commuting each day.

Waiting on a Zip Code

Despite working in Jefferson Parish, I will longingly await my return to the city. As most have probably read, the mayor is using zip codes as his method to incrementally repopulate New Orleans. My wait will certainly be one of the longest. Within this unknown period of time I have a list of things to accomplish. I need a HEPA mask, a pipe wrench, a saw, flashlights, rope and countless other provisions which will enable me to re-enter a waterlogged house. The task is daunting and what I will discover is intimidating.

My rough estimates place approximately three to four feet of standing water in a house with plaster walls. It may be more it may be less. Today I viewed photographs which give me confidence that all of the water has been drained from my section of town. Yet a predominant section of my zip code will be the last to drain. The house is in the southern most (towards the river for “ya’ll”) section of a zip code which extends all the way to the lake. The target date seems to be in early October. My father and I are currently formulating plans for a return to the house to salvage what we can. In Conclusion and In Perspective No matter where one lives in the world there is potential for a natural disaster. I have read many opinions which suggest that people in New Orleans were foolish to live there. With simple minds come simple conclusions. To sit somewhere in America right now with the air- conditioning running, the computer on, with a hot cup of coffee after having a nice warm bath and state “that it’s stupid to live in New Orleans,” demonstrates how ignorant some people really are.

California is subject to earthquakes. Middle America: tornadoes and drought. The Midwest: wildfires. Anywhere along the East Coast and the Gulf Coast: hurricanes and flooding. Along any river valley: flooding. In the north: paralyzing blizzards. In the mountains: avalanches. Washington State, Alaska and Hawaii: volcanic eruptions. Simply put, no matter where one lives they are subject to the outrages of Mother Nature.

Our family home in New Orleans is pretty much lost – hey, we rolled the dice from June to November for nearly SIXTY years. Maybe next year it will happen again, maybe it won’t happen for another fifty years. It is anyone’s guess. But people have got to live somewhere and the port of New Orleans is too vital to America to abandon.

So we take our chances. We rebuild. We close our ears to the idiots. Disasters can strike anywhere, and you never know the day nor the hour.

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