Wednesday, September 8, 2010

And Then Five Years Passed

If you live long enough, you come to find out that the phrase, “This too shall pass” is more prophecy than cliché. My final exam in “this too shall pass” was Hurricane Katrina, which blew in just over five years ago. What has passed since then is the initial widespread panic, some of the anger at the U.S. Government’s inept non-response, and the confusion about what to do next. However, what remains is a distinct memory of all of the above that will guide many of us New Orleanians for the rest of our lives. We feared the total loss of our city, and if you have been to New Orleans, you already know a greater loss there really could never be. New Orleans is all about its natural magic, and if we had lost that to a hurricane, nothing would ever have been the same.

Five years later, we are ourselves again, but with one important addition. Katrina never really leaves us. Here is how it shows itself. Two New Orleanians will be talking to each other about something they did in the past. One of them will inevitably say, “Was that before the storm or after?” And in some cases, they’ll just say “before or after.” New Orleanians now measure everything in their lives according to before Katrina happened or since it happened. Further, it is common to talk about flooding now. Before Katrina, flooding wasn’t really a topic, ever. Just last night I was telling somebody that I would someday like to move to Bayou St. John [a New Orleans Mid-City neighborhood].My friend’s immediate response was , “It floods over there.”

I believe we are going to define the first decade of the 21st century by the mighty triumvirate of 9/11, Katrina and the BP oil spill. And we’re still working to get over all three incidents. We Americans are quite divided right now on the issue of whether a Muslim Mosque should be established on the grounds of 9/11. As for the oil spill, although it has stepped back from the headlines, it is still very much an issue in S.E. Louisiana. BP appears to be making efforts to bow out of the aftermath of this tragedy by unreasonably delaying payments to thousands of people who filed legitimate claims for loss of income or property. And Katrina? Well, as predicted, national media descended upon us in late August to “commemorate.”

They focused on the French Quarter, downtown and uptown. They showed lots of freshly painted houses, blooming gardens, a tree-lined St. Charles Ave with its resurrected streetcar line. They saw tourists and lively hotel lobbies and old New Orleans with a bit of a facelift. But if only they would drive a few miles outside of safe zone and take a look at parts of St. Bernard and parts of Eastern New Orleans. There they would see communities that are merely a shadow of their pre-storm condition. Vacant houses, houses without roofs, vacant lots with just parts of the foundation of a house left and more. They’ll see potholes verging on sink holes; they’ll see overgrown fields that used to be residential blocks. They will see Katrina, five years later, up close and personal, and it is a site that leaves newcomers stunned.

And now with part of the city amputated from the rest of New Orleans, the next phase begins. Just days before the five year mark, the blame game started. Cops are coming forward to say that after Katrina, they were under orders to shoot looters. Do what you have to do, they allegedly were told – “if you can sleep with it.” And guess who supposedly said that: New Orleans’ shady former police chief, Warren J. Riley,(left) who at the time was second in command. We are being told that there was a meeting of some sort inside the Harrah’s Casino building, and that’s where the directive was given. If true, essentially the top cop was telling his subordinates that a stolen laptop and a human life are of equal value, so go on – shoot them. If true, it is a lesson in inhumanity that we learned from Katrina. Riley’s response: "I didn't say anything like that. I heard rumors that someone else said that. But I certainly didn't say that, no.”

Somebody’s lying, but who? And while that battle rages in the city, elsewhere who else but Brownie himself is speaking up. You remember Michael Brown, (below, right, with Chertoff) the then head of FEMA. Just days after the storm President Bush told him, “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Brownie.” That stellar job performance Bush referred to involved Brown’s negligent management of his agency that resulted in people living in the Superdome for four days in 100 degree heat. He now claims any negligence came from people over his head, like Michael Chertoff, the homeland security chief at the time. And now, five years later, Denver radio host Michael Brown shows up on the anniversary, in New Orleans. Wait – it gets worse: He has a book coming out about his experience during Katrina. Brownie -- Brass balls or total cluelessness? You be the judge.

Katrina’s back on the front page, much to the regret of many of us who live here. August 29, 2005 was the day that every single New Orleanian learned they could not depend on law enforcement or their own government to save their lives. The explanation was that they could not get supplies in. That’s odd, I think, because two days after the storm I got in my car and drove straight out of the city onto I-10 and left the New Orleans behind. If I could get out that easily, why couldn’t they get in with food and water and medical help? Media was everywhere in New Orleans within 24 hours. How did they make their way in but the most powerful government in the world did not? We were lied to. The worst part of being lied to by your own government is simply that you can never fully trust them again. It tells us that here in the Southeastern quadrant of the U.S., we are on our own, flying without a net.

The winds and the floods stopped a long time ago, but Katrina is still happening. That’s hard to convey to those who are not here, but we who are here know it well. We know that a lot of office space in downtown New Orleans is vacant, and has been since Katrina. Companies are afraid to come here. We know that those responsible for the inept response have yet to be held accountable in a meaningful way. The top five got away with, well - murder. They are Kathleen Blanco, Michael Brown, Ray Nagin, Warren Riley, and the ultimate failure, President George W. Bush. We know that people lost their lives when they could have been saved. And most importantly, we know that the best and the worst of human nature and behavior exhibited itself on those soggy post-Katrina days, and if nothing else, the storm was a life lesson in selfishness, selflessness and compassion.

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