“Tales From a Great Indoorsman”–(Originally posted on Saturday, September 10, 2005.) (On the Hurricane Katrina disaster.)

The last two weeks have been total mother-fuckers.

I may have mentioned before–I forget–but I’ve been dividing my attention between the TV, the computer, and the newspapers, following the Katrina news. I have way too much time on my hands to watch the horrors multiply. There have been disasters before this and there will certainly be disasters after, but why does this feel so much like a death in the family?

I have been screaming obscenities, bursting into tears, and engaging in such violent online arguments on message boards that I’ve wanted to tear my apartment up and take a baseball bat to my computer. It’s fucking exhausting. I feel like I’ve got a 10-pound leech sucking blood out of the middle of my back. And I have nothing to complain about personally–I’m sitting here on my fat ass with all the creature comforts, but eight hours away from here a Third World nation has sprouted out of the muck of the Mississippi Delta.

There’s been a lot of back-patting all around for all the cities that have provided refuge for the people of New Orleans, most of which is appropriate and deserved. This past Monday the City of Austin had to call a temporary halt to donations of needed supplies. Donations have been coming in around the clock, by the truckload, and the City no longer has room to house all the donations, and has more stuff than it can possibly process right now. I know I rip this fucking city quite a bit, but God, something like that makes me proud. It reminds me of how the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners the community puts on for the poor and homeless tend to get more offers for volunteers than they have slots available.

On the other hand, news talk radio stations in Dallas were fielding calls from white suburbanites who were afraid the dispossessed people of New Orleans now languishing in Dallas-area shelters would turn into blood-thirsty Mau Maus. And in Baton Rouge, gun stores had lines of Bubbas waiting up to three hours in order to stock up on weaponry to use fighting off the refugees should they start rioting and looting.

Barbara Bush toured the Astrodome this week, and afterwards did an interview with NPR. Among her comments: “Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we’re going to move to Houston … What I’m hearing which is a little scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality … And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this–this [she chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.”

Pardon my language, boys and girls, but what a fucking cunt! Gee, I thought maybe at least Bar was one of the few decent members of that family, but I guess not. Shit, she makes Marie Antoinette sound like a Habitat for Humanity volunteer.

Ah, and now the news comes out that [George W.] Bush has appointed his mom to head the Federal Katrina relief efforts.

Wednesday night Bill O’ Reilly announced that so many people suffered and died in New Orleans because they hadn’t bothered to get the proper education and job skills that would’ve lifted them out of their poverty: …

“The USA has mandatory education, but nobody can force you to learn. If you refuse to do the work, you’re going to be ill-equipped, and all the government programs in the world are not going to change that. Every American kid should be required to watch video of the poor in New Orleans and how they suffered because they couldn’t get out of town. And every teacher should tell the students that if you refuse to learn, you will be poor and powerless. One does not ‘find’ an education. Public education is free, libraries are free, and scholarships are everywhere. For centuries charlatans have been telling Americans that government will provide, and you deserve to be provided for. Bull! Depend on yourself – get educated, get smart, and get personal resources. That is the lesson of Katrina.”

That’s right, Bill. They were all stupid and lazy. They deserved to starve and wallow in shit and die, right?

The scuttlebutt is that they’re going to have to demolish both the Superdome and the NO Convention Center. The buildings are too damaged to fix thanks to the wear and tear of the refugees, and both places are major bio-hazards. And I’m sure both buildings are over-loaded with bad juju from all the horrific things that happened there.

A very good friend of mine is Chief Aide to the Mayor of Austin. He tells me I need to come down to the Convention Center and hear the stories, to listen to and report on the people. I told him I want to come, I want to help, I want to see for myself. But he won’t get back to me about how to get in. I don’t think they’re allowing private citizens in off the street, so I’d need his help. Writing checks to charities doesn’t seem to be enough. I feel I owe New Orleans a great deal.

There appears to have been a mass exodus of musicians from New Orleans. Cyril Neville, member of the First Family of New Orleans Music (sorry Wynton), has already gotten an apartment in South Austin. While he is certainly welcome here, I do hope the Nevilles one day return to NO. Of course, I hope there’s gonna be an NO to return to.

I’ve not heard from my friend Tim since Tuesday a week ago. He may be in Louisiana helping out for all I know.

I thought of two Tim stories this past week.

Years ago, Tim was visiting NO with a friend who had some drug problems. One night the friend arranged to score some crack, so Tim (who is not a drug addict, I hasten to add) agreed to drive him. They wound up in a run-down neighborhood that was dominated by a creepy old church.

They found the right house and knocked on the door. An old, black grandmother answered–she was not the sort of dealer they were expecting to see. The porch was bathed in the eerie light from the church’s stained glass windows. The old lady insisted Tim and his friends kneel on the porch, cross themselves, and recite the Lord’s Prayer before they entered the house.

The old lady then had them sit down in her living room, and after the exchange was made she produced a crack pipe and lit up. Exhaling, she said, “Ain’t but two things I love in dis world, and dat’s crack and the Lord Jesus Christ!”

And when my friends and I all went down in a large group to Mardi Gras in 1992, we came in on the freeway on a Thursday night, and headed over to Tim’s aunt’s house across the river, so we could drop off our luggage before hitting the bars. We had gotten maybe one-fourth of the way across the bridge when traffic came to a complete stop. In a few minutes, a motorcycle cop came by to tell us all that there’d been a major traffic accident and that it’d probably be an hour before the wreck was cleared out of the way.

Two lanes over a group of Dixieland jazz musicians piled out of their car, opened their trunk, took out their instruments, and began performing for the crowd. Other people opened their tail-gates, pulled out their ice chests, and started passing out beer and party food.

I got out my camera and started taking pictures. I smoked back then, and some young black men came over to bum some cigarettes. Then they hung around and got into our group photos with us, throwing their gang signs.

Tim was shaking his head, laughing. “Shit, man, if there was an hour-long traffic jam in Houston mother-fuckers would be shooting each other inside of ten minutes. Here they have a party.”

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(An editorial I wrote that will appear in a Houston-area paper this week:)

Blood on the Bayou

Anyone who has lived a few years near the Gulf Coast pretty much knows what to expect from hurricane season. If a storm hits there will be loss of life, flooding, property damage, and cars, boats, buildings, and trees thrown around like toys. The names of the worst storms, like Carla and Camille, are still mentioned in fearful, hushed tones, as if they still had the power to kill and destroy, decades after making landfall.

But Hurricane Katrina defied expectations. She is shaping up to be the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States. And it seems likely that even the most knowledgeable pundits are underestimating what a catastrophe she will prove to our economy.

The catalogue of horrors is well-known to us all now. For over a week Americans have been glued to their TVs, computers, and newspapers, watching events unfold with tears, anguish, and anger. (Although you get the impression the networks are now wanting to shift attention to the death of Justice William Rehnquist and the future Supreme Court line-up.)

News coverage broke down very starkly across political lines. Time-lines have been prepared describing who did or did not do what and when, but some of the details differ. A few things are clear, though: 1) spin doctors went into action after this disaster faster than the medical doctors did, and 2) people who were supposed to perform important, vital tasks, tasks upon which life and death literally depended, did not do them, either because they were waiting for orders or got those orders in a garbled, confused form.

The National Guard, for instance, sat on their hands for several days because key paperwork was left undone. The levees on the Lake Pontchartrain side of New Orleans were not properly shored-up because of a criminal level of buck-passing among the various officials who were supposed to be responsible for that project.

The Left blames the Federal bureaucracy, FEMA, and President Bush and his administration for turning a natural disaster into a human catastrophe. The Right has been quick to put blame on Louisiana and New Orleans officials, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and New Orleans Mayor Roy Nagin. Nagin has especially been a target, because of his angry, frustrated, and sometimes profane and blasphemous attacks on the often lackluster response of the Feds.

And as is usually the case, the poor got stuck in the middle and got screwed.

If you’ve ever seen newspaper accounts of the sinking of the “Titanic” you were no doubt struck by how concerned everyone was for the wealthy First Class passengers and how indifferent they were to the poor souls in steerage. You probably chuckled that our society was once so snobbish and obsessed with class.

Well, guess what–nothing has changed. When “The City That Care Forgot” was turned into an apocalyptic dystopia, like something out of “Mad Max” or “28 Days Later,” when gangs roamed the flooded streets looting, raping, murdering, and setting fires, when citizens of the wealthiest nation in history were languishing without food, water, or toilet facilities in shelters that resembled Third World hell-holes, when refugees were dropping dead on elevated freeways and their bodies were left, like roadkill, where they fell, some people had the gall to say, “Well, why didn’t they evacuate when they had the chance? Why do they live in a city that’s under sea level in the first place?” Some commentators, like Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, became obsessed with the looting angle of the story, and by implication tried to put forth the notion that maybe the people who were still stuck in New Orleans were all barbarous savages anyway, and not worthy of saving–at least, not anytime soon.

But it was clear to anyone with half a beating heart that most of the people stranded in New Orleans were not barbarians, that many looted not for jewelry or plasma TVs, but instead for food, clothing, medicine, diapers, and other essentials, that most got left behind because they either didn’t have the money to make evacuation arrangements, didn’t own cars, or were afraid to abandon the only homes they’ve ever had. Some thought if they left town they’d lose their survival-wage jobs. It’s even come out that some people were afraid to get rescued by helicopter because they thought they’d be forced to pay for the ride. Can this really be happening in America?

What we do know is that on Monday, August 29, the day Katrina made landfall, and a day before he cut his vacation short, President Bush made disaster declaration for Mississippi and Louisiana. This freed up Federal funds, but more importantly, put the Feds in charge of Federal, State, and local operations in the affected areas. And while local and State forces are the designated first responders in any disaster, the magnitude of the crisis became quickly apparent, yet it took several days for the military and other Federal resources to show up in any great number. Why was this?

Why, on September 2nd, after making a cursory tour of the affected areas and getting in a few photos ops hugging black people, did Bush spend most of a press conference babbling about oil pipelines, oil reserves, and rebuilding Trent Lott’s mansion, and precious little of it discussing the horrifying situation in New Orleans?

Why, when a storm the size of Texas was aimed at the Gulf Coast, were sufficient forces and resources not gathered in advance?

Why did the President and the Federal government act in such a lethargic, distracted manner? Why did Bush act like someone who’d been awakened from a deep sleep at 3am by a ringing telephone?

Last year, FEMA conducted a study of what would happen if a hurricane hit New Orleans. Why were the findings of this study not put to practical use?

Why, on Saturday, September 3rd, a day after the “cavalry” supposedly arrived to relieve New Orleans, were search-and-rescue teams saying that they didn’t have the manpower or resources to save all the people who were still stranded?

There will be investigations of why the system failed, including one by our inept Congress. Some scapegoats will lose their jobs, and they’ll be all the wrong people.

It is ridiculous to expect a perfect government, but we are well within our rights to expect one that is wide-awake. The first duty of a government is to protect its citizens.

Some say Katrina was a “dress rehearsal” for how we would respond if the nation suffered an attack from a nuclear bomb or other weapons of mass destruction. And for all our efforts at “Homeland Security,” multi-colored threat levels, and Patriot Acts, this is the best we can do?

How many snafus are permissible in a major crisis? We need to find out why so many links in the chain snapped, why so many aspects of this system failed up and down the line. Aaron Broussard, President of Jefferson Parish, summed it up best when he said, “Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area.”

No official’s reputation is so important that it outweighs the needs of suffering humanity. No nation has a right to call itself “God-fearing” when it treats its poor like so much expendable trash. It’s a shame we still haven’t learned these lessons.

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