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Report from New Orleans: Day Five

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January 25, 2006, 2303 hours. I’ve driven through a good deal of New Orleans over the last 5 days. I’ve seen street after street full of devastating images that even at close range are hard to comprehend. I’ve seen downtown and witnessed the thousands of businesses no longer open, with no plans of returning. I’ve been on the hunt for a grocery store or a gas station in the districts we’ve passed through and nothing is available amid unimaginable stretches of collapsed structures, broken windows boarded up with spray-painted signs announcing defeat, useless automobiles abandoned on roadsides or in some cases lifted in to yards or crushed under garages. But in my 5 days here, and the endless amounts of devastation, nothing compared to what I witnessed in the Lower 9th Ward this afternoon. For those of you that were glued to your television sets during Katrina’s path of wrath, you may remember a huge portion of the levee, located off the Mississippi river, that was breached by an oil barge and immediately dumped millions of tons of the Mississippi in to the Lower 9th Ward and instantly flooded the entire region. You may recall the flyover images of nothing but the roofs of houses and the occasional car or body floating in a seemingly endless pool of destruction. Seeing it first hand has forever altered my perception of security in this country and particularly in areas where man-made roadblocks of various form have been put in place to keep us “safeâ€? from disaster, natural or otherwise. There are a lot of “theoriesâ€? as to what actually happened with the levees in the Industrial Canal. Rumors of dynamite being set off to ease the pressure of what was building, sacrificing the already impoverished Lower 9th to save other, more prominent portions of New Orleans. Speculation that has been substantiated by past instances of “dynamiteâ€? decision making with regard to sacrificing the few to save the many. “Until Katrina, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Swollen with rains and spring snow melt, the river burst out of its primitive levees and flooded six states, including Louisiana. As a rising river bore down on New Orleans, city leaders made the decision to set off 30 tons of dynamite on the levee at Caernarvon, about 15 miles downriver from Canal Street. The explosion eased pressure on levees at New Orleans by speeding the water past the city, but it flooded St. Bernard Parish.”

While it’s too much for me to imagine such a decision was made in the case of Katrina or to sit here and try to prove such speculation, I can say with profound conviction that there appears to be no significant hurry to prepare for the next big hurricane in this area. Granted, the Lower 9th Ward is currently nothing more than miles of houses that have been reduced to 20 foot piles of twigs, cars that look like rusted playgrounds after a nuclear holocaust, and rubble ruins serving as battered headstones for the deaths of thousands of lifestyles, it’s bothersome that the city’s “rebuildingâ€? presence was made up of two dirt movers and a dump truck. Both of which were the combined total effort slowly fixing the broken levee, while no other city presence was in the area. I also understand there is to be no demolition until a class-action suit filed by the residents against the city has been settled, but that doesn’t include the reparations to the levee. So where are the trucks and front-end loaders and numerous other big yellow, dirt-moving, ground leveling, levee-building machines? I don’t know, but I know they weren’t anywhere near the levee that annihilated the homes and, in many cases, the lives of thousands of residents in this area. I know they aren’t rushing to secure anything down there. I know for years there have been rumors of plots and corruption among the developers, city planners and local government to get control of these neighborhoods. And I know that civil suits being fought with talk of “eminent domainâ€? and the federal government quickly dismissing resident-authored, intelligently thought out plans for reconstruction and relief are all beginning to culminate in a disturbing pattern of injustice and greed and doesn’t fortify a sense of security, by locals here or the thousands of us discussing our experiences as we visit here to help rebuild. The consensus among many of us is that something is terribly wrong. The unavoidable devastation of a natural disaster is understandable. The perseverance that a city’s residents must have to overcome something as widespread as Katrina’s aftermath should be unshakeable. However, I look at the emptiness of the communities I’ve come across this week and the slow return of the residents to homes that, with a little effort and assistance from groups like ours and the thousands of other like organizations that are here, could bring their neighborhoods back to life and I’m haunted by their absence. The images speak for themselves. The magnitude of this should have never taken place. The millions of Americans now displaced and starting over, either in other parts of New Orleans or other cities in the U.S., are victims of a tragedy that exceeds the crippling effects of natural disaster and will likely suffer long-term psychological effects of a national catastrophy. Tonight on NBC Nightly News, anchor, Brian Williams, closed the daily report with a commentary on a handful of letters NBC has received from various viewers stating their indifference towards the coverage of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina’s continued impact. I was encouraged that Williams put those few viewers in their place relaying that NBC will continue to follow the wake of Katrina and do their part as a major media outlet to inform the nation of the gravity of the situation down here. I appreciate that they’ll never water down it’s importance to us as a country who for decades have been concerned about the thousands in foreign lands and are now faced with the overwhelming responsibility of helping our fellow Americans here at home, no matter how long it takes. We have faced our share of tragedies as a nation, and from coast to coast, border to border, we have risen as a nation to provide a steady stream of resources, encouragement and pride to bring back, time after time, that sense of security that was promised to us as U.S. citizens who are not only expected, but obligated, to hold their leaders accountable for nothing more than the genuine leadership for which they were elected. In return, those leaders are obligated to those that elected them to restore that security in times of tragedy, maintain it in times of relief and continually revere the lives (regardless of race, class, gender or religion) that inhabit every square inch of land, flooded or not, within its borders. To offer anything less is not only a “breach of securityâ€? but a disappointing example to the world abroad that we are no longer a country who holds its own citizens in high regard but rather a nation willing to exchange the value of a dollar at a rate more significant than that of a human life. On a more auspicious note: We finished gutting our house today and will move on to another project in the morning. It was fulfilling to see the turnaround of this project in such a short amount of time and gives me hope that the people of New Orleans will continue rebuilding on the strength of those helping to revive its spirit. Even if it doesn’t happen in time for Fat Tuesday, there are those of us that remain optimistic that it will happen. Finally, we went to the famed French District this evening and I’m happy to report that not even Katrina could wash away the charming smorgasbord of debauchery that feed the hookers, pimps, dope fiends, drunkards, traveling business people and unwitting tourists on Bourbon Street. The excitement for the pinnacle of Mardi Gras is building and the parade floats and beads are guaranteed to arrive, hurricane season be damned. Previous: Day One, Day Two, Day Four.

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