About six or eight months ago, the real post-Katrina malaise started to set in among the masses, near and far. I noticed it first when I spoke with the new editor of a blog I had been writing for since the storm. She was based in Los Angeles, had never been to Louisiana, and in our first conversation informed me that the blog would be discontinued. I asked why, and she said, "I just think people are ready to move on from all of that now."
So, I was forced to deduce that people drowning in a major urban area of the U.S., with little or no assistance from their government, was what she meant by "all of that." And, "all of that" must have also referred to tens of thousands of people losing their homes and everything they owned, all in one day. Suddenly, the L.A. lady in charge had proclaimed that people were ready to move on...from all of that.
This past weekend, the post-Katrina malaise that has swept the nation took an ugly turn towards full-on insensitivity. Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO) had this to say about New Orleans: "It is time the taxpayer gravy train left the New Orleans station."
Specifically, he urged an end to the federal aid to a city largely still in ruins. "The amount of money that has been wasted on these so-called 'recovery' efforts has been mind-boggling," said the Congressman who is running a long-shot presidential campaign. "Enough is enough."
And just to be absolutely certain that you and I understood what he was trying to say, he added this: "At some point, state and local officials and individuals have got to step up to the plate and take some initiative. The mentality that people can wait around indefinitely for the federal taxpayer to solve all their worldly problems has got to come to an end."
Tancredo (just as gentle reminder) is the legislator who voted against the renewal of the historic Voting Rights Act in 2006.
As a New Orleanian, I have to wonder which federally-funded programs in his home state of Colorado might Tancredo feel should stop relying on the federal taxpayer. Would that be the state's low income energy assistance program? Perhaps those 114,000+ poor, elderly people should wave bye-bye to the "taxpayer gravy train," too. Oh, and Tom Tancredo, enough is enough about those troublesome federally-funded hospice programs and assisted living facilities. Come on Tom, can't the state pony up those billions that are poured into Colorado's coffers? And how about those pesky 56,000 children and 1,200 pregnant women who benefit annually from the Colorado Children's Health Program? On September 30 it will be decided whether to renew this initiative, funded in part this year by $71.5 million from the Feds. Maybe we should nix that, because you know, Tom, that damned gravy train needs to leave the station, huh?
You begin to see the hypocrisy of Tancredo's ramblings. When an elected official from another state cavalierly dismisses New Orleans as yesterday's news, it is time for all of us to speak up and use our collective voice to see to it that the rest of the nation understands the immediacy of our ongoing crisis. Our silence will breed more and more Tom Tancredos.
But then I have to wonder: Is it the nature of Americans to really fall in line for each other when the going gets tough, but to do so with an expiration date? Consider the piece in last Sunday's New York Times, in which writer N.R. Kleinfield examines whether the pull-all-the-stops-out commemorations of 9/11 should continue at Ground Zero. Kleinfield presents a balanced picture of the diversity of opinion, but what has become known as "9/11 Fatigue" is gravely evident. Kleinfield quotes a Massachusetts woman: "I may sound callous, but doesn't grieving have a shelf life?" asks Charlene Correia. "We're very sorry and mournful that people died, but there are living people. Let's wind it down."
My concern is that a similar fatigue has now generalized itself toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. If there were a national narrator to this catastrophe, he or she would now be saying, "Okay folks, the drama is over. Let's break it up. Let's move on with our normal lives."
Trouble is, the drama is so not over. Consider the organized demonstration that happened just days ago in Chalmette, LA. The participants stormed a local Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) office demanding that the government reopen the public housing developments already slated for demolition in the wake of Katrina. They occupied the building for three hours, and upon departing, promised they would be back with reenforcements. Police and National Guardsmen blocked off surrounding streets. Now that's drama.
And, it is drama with implications. You see, it is not uncommon in New Orleans to hear white citizens express agreement with the decision to demolish the "projects." Black people, on the other hand, march in 98 degree heat and 100 percent humidity to HANO buildings, to fight for their homes. The real drama is the ever-unfolding racial divide that can no longer hide its antiquated head in the New Orleans below-sea-level sand.
One day later: About 100 people held hands and walked the circumference of the Superdome, to commemorate those horrible post-Katrina four days when some of them were trapped inside the city's now infamous "shelter of last resort." My hope here is that "Hands Around the Dome" event will become annual, and that within a short period there will be enough hand holding to form a human chain all around the building. You may call that overly-symbolic. As a journalist, and part-time cynic, I call it a great photo op and an opportunity to keep the suffering of post-Katrina New Orleans in the forefront of the public consciousness.
This is not a time to be quiet in New Orleans.
And, all of this, just a day after Presidnet Bush made his 15th visit to the Gulf Coast since Katrina, accompanied by his wife, Laura. On the 5PM local news we saw the Bushes deplane and greet waiting officials. But we also learned they had a 7PM dinner reservation at the venerable Dooky Chase restaurant, ironically located directly across the street from one of those now-shuttered public housing developments. From the airport, the Bushes were to take what we affectionately refer to as our "devastation tour," to observe areas that have made little progress since Katrina. The next day, we were told, they would visit a school, attend a Katrina memorial, and then fly away.
So, let's do the math: If the President was here for 16 hours, he really only spent about an hour and a half looking at the local landscape. You see, the most powerful leader in the free world had dinner plans and a plane to catch.
Here is what was not on his agenda: Meeting with members of the New Orleans City Council to get a consensus on the most immediate local needs; meeting with the City Council in Jefferson Parish, suddenly the most heavily-populated parish in Louisiana, to determine infrastructure and other needs of the now-burgeoning metropolis; a face-to-face interaction with even one member of the local media, to answer questions that New Orleanians need the President to address; meeting with law enforcement officials to brainstorm possible solutions to the local crime wave; a meeting with local mental health care officials to determine how the Federal government might intervene now that depression and Post-Katrina Stress Syndrome (PKSS) have strained the helping professions to their limits. None of that made the itinerary cut, because the man whose job it is to mange the country essentially took the day off.
Any one of those altogether necessary meetings would have certainly once again raised the ugly truth that 1,600 people perished in the 2005 storms. Someone would no doubt have mentioned the number of evacuees who are still stranded in places everywhere from Baltimore to Topeka to L.A., and most of whom would give anything to come home. Some aggressive lawmaker or enforcer might unexpectedly remind Mr. President that 200,000 homes were lost on the Gulf Coast. Or worse, that in some cases, whole towns, like Pass Christian, MS were virtually lost. And it is not impossible to think that one of those city council members might point out the irony in that 85% of hotels are re-opened, meaning the quest for tourism is alive and well; but only about 135,000 homes are receiving mail in the metro area, as opposed to 200,000 pre-Katrina. "What does it mean, Mr President?" an over-zealous council person might be apt to ask. "Does it mean that we are a great place to visit, but it's too hard to try to live here?"
Gosh, when 80% of a major urban area like New Orleans goes fully underwater for several days, it just raises lots of questions. Things could get dicey with Mr. President if there were too many opportunities for substantive confrontation. Better to just go to dinner, slurp some file gumbo and keep things light. Right?
We are now more than two years running from the moment the giant wave tried to consume us. If someone (someone like Tom Tancredo?) is going to dismiss us, or undervalue us, or patronize us in any way, I invite them to come to New Orleans and let us show and tell the rest of our story. It is a multi-layered tale of governmental neglect, citizen disillusionment and slow progress that can easily be traced to weak leadership. And most of all, it is the ultimate object lesson for the rest of the nation's citizenry -- that unlike what they have been taught since kindergarten, the richest nation in the world does not effectively distribute the wealth; that when the big one hits, you may easily find yourselves out there on your own, on rooftops, in swelling waters, and ultimately in a place far, far away, called something like Provo or Peoria.
I was asked by a couple of publications and other media to write or comment on the two-year Katrina anniversary. I couldn't seem to agree to it. I think I was falling victim to that above-mentioned Katrina malaise. But the thing about coping with the aftermath of a natural disaster is that it comes and goes. You never know what will trigger it to reignite. Take Tom Tancredo, for example. Who would have thought that the very guy who founded right wing conservative activist group Americans Have Had Enough! would become part of the Katrina story? I thank Tom T. for being the trigger that reignited my Katrina voice. I hope something reignites yours, if you are deep in the malaise. You know why? Because we have to save New Orleans. There are still a lot of uphill battles to fight to ensure the city's real survival.
As it turns out, two years is the proverbial drop in the bucket in the timeline of New Orleans' re-emergence. We are at the starting line.