Unmasking Our Pain in New Orleans

By Lolis Eric Elie
Sunday, February 11, 2007

The rush begins approximately right now. Even as I write this, thousands of Americans are packing away their inhibitions and preparing to come to my city and go native. They will arrive in the French Quarter uninhibited, as they imagine we are. They will remove their clothes. They will empty their beer-filled guts onto each other's shoes. They will clown for hungry cameras and for journalists eager to capture New Orleans as some distant editor has imagined it. Invariably, the networks will set up their shots in the French Quarter, though none of the major parades and few of the emblematic Carnival activities take place there. Neither the journalists nor the revelers seem to care that our lives, local lives, are elsewhere.

For us, Mardi Gras is family time. We gather on our favorite corners to watch parades with parents and cousins and picnic lunches prepared by grandmothers (then) or bought from fast-food dispensaries (now). We don masks. We drink. We dance. We drink. We yell loudly. We drink. This we do, ever aware that the people on our right and on our left are the same people we will see during more sober times at work, school and church.

America would recognize us in family mode, but we may never be seen that way. Hurricane Katrina confirmed for now, and perhaps forever, the sense that New Orleans is a foreign place attached to the United States by geography, but distant from it in every meaningful way. We are more European, more African, less serious. And we lack the good sense God gave a goose. Why else would we raise our kids among girls gone wild in a hurricane magnet of a city that lies largely below sea level?

When Hurricane Katrina hit, our nation offered us sympathy. Millions of Americans accepted us into their cities. They sent 18-wheelers heavy with goodwill and provisions. Others came here, donned hazard suits and helped us. But I fear this compassion is wearing thin. It has been nearly 18 months. By now, the thinking goes, real Americans, self-reliant Americans, would have picked themselves up by their stiff upper lips and gotten on with life. They wouldn't be waiting for a government check. They would rebuild their homes and their lives with money and fortitude held in reserve.

My mother is a real American. Her difficulties have been minor compared with the setbacks suffered by others in our city. She's 72 years old. A decade ago, she moved into a new house she chose specifically because she thought it was on high, safe ground. She put her all into renovating and decorating it. On Aug. 29, 2005, it was inundated by four feet of water. Her blood pressure began to rise. Her borderline diabetes crept across the border. A pain developed in her left leg. Like many ailments these days, hers seemed stress induced.

From her sister's home in Dallas, she rebuilt. The first contractor she hired disappeared with the down payment. The first doctor said the back pain would go away. The first call to an insurance office put her in touch with a Ms. Bear. From her office somewhere in America, Ms. Bear insisted that my mother could just knock the insulation and roofing materials to the side and sleep in the filth of her waterlogged bed. That's what a Bear would do.

The second contractor was moving quickly among his various jobs, but slowly on my mother's house. Then he developed cancer and stopped moving much at all. (Was it his men who stole the ladder and the toilet and broke that glass table we'd carefully salvaged?) The second doctor recommended back surgery. The insurance company asked for more photos. Several doctors, two chiropractors, one surgery, a dozen letters and scores of phone calls later, my mother is back in her house. About a quarter of her neighbors have returned.

It's lonely there. My mother speaks to her friends long-distance.

Somehow, when people look at us and our city, they don't see my mother. They see the desperate brown faces at the Superdome or hear the otherly accented voices from St. Bernard Parish. They don't see the old man in the Lower Ninth Ward, gutting his house by day and sleeping in it by night because he has nowhere else to stay. They don't see the families cramped in trailers because they have nowhere else to live. They don't see the fishermen in Plaquemines Parish begging to get back to work. Those men need government help to move their boats from the land, where the floodwaters left them, back to the bayous, where they can again ply their trade. That's not the kind of work the Federal Emergency Management Agency is allowed to do.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government did a terrible job. No doubt about that. Americans stranded on roofs. Americans without food and water. People in war-ravaged, dysfunctional nations looking at us on television saw that our country could be just as dysfunctional as their own. Domestic politics demanded that our misery be seen as the result either of Democratic Great Society programs or Republican social Darwinism. In fact, neither was apt.

Make no mistake -- the devastation in New Orleans and southern Louisiana was a government-enabled disaster. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed and built the levees and floodwalls that were supposed to protect us. The failure of these structures resulted in the devastation of our city. This is not the crank conspiracy theory of angry New Orleanians. This is the conclusion that the Corps reached in a 6,600-page report, released June 1.

Hurricane Katrina was no more than a Category 2 storm when it hit New Orleans. The levees and floodwalls were supposed to be able to withstand a Category 3 storm. The Corps acknowledged that the flood-control system was badly designed and badly built. "For the first time the corps has had to stand up and say we had a catastrophic failure with one of our projects," said Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, the commander of the Corps.

You may expect that an admission by a government agency that its poor work was responsible for the destruction of an American city would have been big news. But the story of the Corps' admission, released on a Thursday, didn't live long enough to make the Sunday talk shows. The confession was irrelevant. The nation had already concluded that the death of New Orleans was a suicide caused by our irrational desire to live in harm's way.

This blame-New-Orleans attitude has been devastating for us. Though Louisiana suffered far more damage per capita than did Mississippi, our neighbor to the east has received a disproportionate share of federal funding. But neither of us was treated fairly. Six weeks after the storm, Congress passed legislation allowing low-interest loans for Gulf Coast communities to use to pay public employees. But the White House and the Republican leadership in Congress specifically required that the money be paid back, even though such federal disaster loans have generally been forgiven for the past three decades. "Notwithstanding section 417 of the Stafford Act, such loans may not be canceled," the offending passage reads.

In its zeal to punish Louisiana for sins that are largely not of our own making, the federal government has twisted our national priorities so radically as to render them unrecognizable. In this era when homeland security is the nation's paramount concern, there is no enthusiasm for protecting American land along the coast of Louisiana. For the past several decades, we've lost an average of 24 square miles of territory every year. About 40 percent of U.S. wetlands are in Louisiana, but my state experiences 80 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands loss. This loss is crucial to us because hurricanes lose strength when traveling over this land and are thus less powerful when they reach populated areas. Fewer wetlands means more hurricane damage.

Two years ago, before Katrina, the Corps of Engineers and the state of Louisiana estimated that it would take $14 billion to stem the tide of coastal erosion. In December, the lame-duck Congress allocated 34 percent of the federal oil royalties collected off our shores to Louisiana to combat coastal erosion. But we won't get the full amount for 17 years. For the next decade, we will receive about $20 million a year to combat a $14 billion problem.

The latest forecast by coastal experts gives us about 10 years to restore the territory that has been lost south of New Orleans. If we fail to do that, those communities will have to be written off in a couple of decades.

If, say, Cuba or Venezuela had seized 24 square miles of American territory, the call to arms would have been immediate and decisive. But because coastal erosion is an enemy neither foreign nor domestic, we seem willing to surrender to it. We've retreated behind the excuse that New Orleans can't be saved. We've abandoned our can-do pride. In the Netherlands, the Dutch have managed to craft a flood-control system that protects the huge percentage of that nation's land that lies below sea level. These days Americans lack the money, the ingenuity, the patriotism, the humanity of the Dutch.

Much of the wealth of Louisiana lies in our culture. This is the state that gave the nation jazz and Louis Armstrong, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. We created two of the nation's signature regional cuisines, Creole and Cajun. Our architecture is some of the oldest and most distinguished in the nation. But it seems that our country views our culture not as a national treasure worth saving, but as further evidence that we are not real Americans at all. But this view could change.

Earlier this month the Corps released the locations of 122 levees that are at risk of failing. They are located in 27 states and the District of Columbia. We New Orleanians have suffered much in the past 18 months. We wouldn't wish such devastation on anyone. But I would like to remind my nation that according to this list, the problems of my home town are not so foreign after all.

I may seem like a foreigner to you when I scream for an independent commission to study government failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or when I decry the plodding incompetence of FEMA. I may seem like the stereotypical welfare cheat when I argue that the federal government has not invested nearly enough in protecting my state from an even greater future disaster. Indeed, mine may seem like a voice emanating from a distant Southern wilderness. But in truth, the problems of Louisiana are the problems of the United States.

Or, as Ralph Ellison wrote, "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"


Lolis Eric Elie is a columnist for the

New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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