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Outlook: Mardi Gras Masks New Orleans' Pain

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Lolis Eric Elie
Metro Columnist, New Orleans Times-Picayune
Monday, February 12, 2007; 1:00 PM

Lolis Eric Elie, a columnist for The Times Picayune in New Orleans whose family still is recovering from Katrina, was online Monday, Feb. 12, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article about the lingering devastation in the city, even as it prepares for its biggest party of the year.

Unmasking Our Pain in New Orleans, ( Post, Feb. 11)

The transcript follows.

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New Orleans: When will places like Baker, La., come to the media's attention? People are living in cramped trailers with families, and the trailers are closer together than normal trailer parks that oftentimes are ostracized. This is after a year and a half. No one has addressed the problem and the news media takes an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude. The uprooted citizens now classified as "refugees" are suffering from emotional distress and emotional problems everywhere that they have been mass-transported to. Baker is just one of the dump sites for the New Orleanians -- that I am aware of without media exposure after 18 month of incarceration of innocent victims of an American tragedy. What does the media plan to do to address these very serious grievances and conspicuous injustices and bring them to the attention of the rest of the country? I also would like to know if you are aware of this grievous social problem, which these people are confronted with daily.

Lolis Eric Elie: I am indeed aware of the problem. Part of the difficulty in covering this story is that there are so many angles to it -- people are over the diaspora are still having trouble. My point, in part, is that a similar disaster could affect other parts of the country, so we need to figure out how to get this one addressed properly.

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Expatriate now in Washington: I lived in New Orleans for about 10 years -- college and work. Knowing the city,there had to be major damage to the lakefront and some white areas in the City, particularly Lakeview, Paris and Gentily. I cannot remember the lovely community that basically abutted Lakefront drive, north of city park along Robert E. Lee, but I assume that had significant damage as well. I heard the gated communities in the east suffered as well. I ask all this because of the face of N.O. portrayed as the victim. The black face of the Ninth Ward resident is all the nation and world sees as the victim. Could you confirm the damage in those areas and explain to me why only the black Ninth Ward face is portrayed? I am black but I do not get it. I am not asking out of sarcasm either. The eye even went right over a fairly white portion of Mississippi.

Lolis Eric Elie: The Ninth Ward was especially dramatic visually because there a barge broke through the levee and the rush of water did, if I may use the term, photogenic damage. Also, most of the people at the Dome and Convention Center were black. It made sense to look at the communities where they had lived. As you know, putting a black face on Katrina and not giving appropriate ink and air time to Lake View and St. Bernard parish gives the impression that this devastation was all about black/white, rich/poor dynamics. It wasn't.

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Alexandria, Va.: Your article is most inaccurate. Just for starters, Katrina's wind speed may have been a Category 2 but it is the storm surge New Orleans was badly hit by, and that was at least a Category 3. Read the Official Reports please. Your attempt to blame-game others for the levees is a large part of the New Orleans area problem. All one has to do is refer to to the NSF-Berkeley Report on the Levees' Executive Summary and I quote -- clear as a bell with no interpretations or observations needed --

"The surge against the southern edge of Lake Pontchartrain also elevated the water levels within three drainage canals at the northern edge of the main metropolitan (downtown) New Orleans protected basin, and this would produce the final, and most damaging, failures and flooding of the overall event. The three drainage canals should not have been accessible to the storm surge. The USACE had tried for many years to obtain authorization to install floodgates at the north ends of the three drainage canals that could be closed to prevent storm surges from raising the water levels within the canals. That would have been the superior technical solution. Dysfunctional interaction between the Local Board (who were responsible for levees and flood walls, etc.) and the local Water and Sewerage Board (who were responsible for pumping water from the city via the drainage canals) prevented installation of these gates, however, and as a result many miles of the sides of these three canals had instead to be lined with levees and flood walls."

And of course the Report has the local contribution efforts in addition ... "Although the (local) levee district's primary responsibility was flood protection it spent large amounts on non-flood related amounts (e.g., the licensing of a casino or the operation of an airport and marinas or the leasing of space to a karate club, beautician schools or restaurants) rather than apply money to flood protection or emergency preparedness."

Hold yourselves accountable first before blaming others -- not wanting to believe the prior independent reports on the levee failure does not result in asking for another. New Orleans needs to take responsibility for its failure just like the Corp of Engineers did in allowing this local interference and neglect that led to this flood. And finally the American Society of Civil Engineers Report on the flood revealed the MRGO was not the problem the Times-Picayune regularly blames either. Read the reports.

Lolis Eric Elie: You make several legitimate points about local failures, but none of what you say indicates that the Corps (i.e. the federal government) was not responsible for substantial damage and woeful inaction post-Katrina. I was writing for a national audience attempting to explain how the damage in New Orleans could well be visited on other places. I have been a frequent critic of local government, but my major point is that the Corps may well be failing the people of your community as well.

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Bethesda, Md.: Given the continued unresolved issues due to Katrina and the possibility of future disasters, would you recommend for anyone to move to New Orleans?

Lolis Eric Elie: I love the city, intend to remain here and would encourage folks to move here. Moving here is something of a risk, but how do you calculate it? Maybe there won't be another major storm for 50 years, maybe it won't be for five months -- I can't say. But don't forget that hurricanes affect all of the Gulf Coast and much of the Atlantic coast. Floods, earthquakes and tornadoes are obvious dangers elsewhere.

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Washington: I'm going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Do you have any advice for making my visit ethical, safe and enjoyable?

Lolis Eric Elie: As for making the visit ethical, please at least drive through some of the devastated areas. Take a cab and go to the lower Ninth Ward or Lakeview and see the damage as it remains even now. As for safe, New Orleans has been particularly bad of late in terms of crime. All I can say is take the usual urban America precautions. Most of what you will want to do will probably be in areas made safe by the large crowds that are there. As for enjoyable, that's easy. In addition to the parades, try to check out the local music listings on nola.com or wwoz.org. Plenty of good music and food here. Much of the music has little or no cover charge.

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Rosslyn, Va.: I went to college in New Orleans and still have contacts there. I have a background in advocacy and organizing ... do you think organizing a "March on Washington" might have a positive effect and help people in Louisiana?

Lolis Eric Elie: I asked this question about a year ago. I'd rather see a march on New Orleans so that people could see the devastation as it still exists. If enough folks came, it would be heard in Washington.

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Clarendon, Va.: Is it at all a fair question to ask why a group of fools built a city either on a known fault line or below sea level, and then whine at an earthquake or a levee-destroying hurricane?

Lolis Eric Elie: It's certainly a fair question. As it turns out Bienville built New Orleans on (relatively) high ground. Part of our problem has been that newer additions to the city have been built on drained swamps. But the older (higher) parts of the city didn't flood. As for our foolishness, it is aided and abetted by our countrymen who insist that we install pipelines for oil that end up contributing mightily to the coastal erosion that in turn contributes to the ferocity of hurricanes. It's easy now to think the nation doesn't need New Orleans, or doesn't need it where it is -- but remember, Thomas Jefferson couldn't wait to get his hands on New Orleans because he knew how important it was.

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Paris, France: Do you ever expect New Orleans to return to its pre-Katrina racial mix, or then its pre-Katrina population level; and how do you see the City faring ten years from now?

Lolis Eric Elie: I think the notion of a "whiter" New Orleans has been overstated. It's hard for folks in the U.S. to picture this, but New Orleans has always been geographically integrated. Many black folks lived in older parts of the city that did not flood. As the recent mayoral election demonstrates, black voters still have clout. I'm not sure what the percentages are now. But there are a lot of black people who have returned.

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Winchester, Va.: As a native New Orleanian, thank you so much for keeping these issues alive. I've listened to my family's frustrations with rejections of government money, absent contractors, to my grandmother's death because of the stress after Katrina. I've been afraid that the country has forgotten about New Orleans. Thanks for the article.

Lolis Eric Elie: Thank you for writing. In the U.S. I think we assume that, once a problem is pointed out, the government will fix it. As we all know, we have to remain vigilant.

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Washington: I have read that the federal government has approved monies to help with rebuilding, but the local governments haven't yet put together a plan to use it and they just want the cash. Obviously, with New Orleans known be notoriously corrupt, that can't happen. Is this true? Also, how can people like the mayor and the governor still be in power? I don't get it. The New Orleans evacuation plan called for the mayor to drive around in school buses and take people out of the city, then you saw the school buses drowning in water. The mayor was hiding in a hotel. How much sense does it make to rebuild these areas where this is likely to happen again? As the government can't rebuild everyone's homes, what can be done to encourage business to come back? Finally, with all the reports of people using their aid money to buy designer handbags and expensive meals, why should we continue to give?

Lolis Eric Elie: I can't give you a short answer to the question of whether the feds or the locals are responsible for the lack of available rebuilding funds. Go to this site for a full explanation.

As for how much sense it makes to rebuild, the engineers and scientists are clear: New Orleans can be protected, we just need the will to do it. Mind you, the next storm may well hit Savannah, St. Augustine, Houston or Gulf Shores -- are we just going to abandon all our coastal cities?

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Baltimore: I spent a week last March gutting houses in St. Bernard. When we went into the city, especially the quarter, to do touristy things (for most it was our first time in the city) I felt guilty. Yes spending money is helping but there are better ways to help. Even as I plan a trip to JazzFest this year I'm trying to figure out how I can help rebuild. I'm wondering how residents feel about all these people coming down for Mardi Gras and basically using the city as a party stop and never seeing the myriad damaged neighborhoods and parishes.

Lolis Eric Elie: We have two messages and they are contradictory. 1. We are struggling to recover from the most serious government-enabled disaster in American history and 2. the parts of the city that you would probably have visited two years ago are, for the most part, open for business. We need your money. We need you to see our situation. We need you to come here so you can tell our story. Don't feel guilty. We still manage to have some fun between gutting houses and fighting insurance companies.

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Black/White dynamics: One of the things that really bothers me is the lingering feeling that although the initial impact/damage wasn't about race, the subsequent days were about race. You mention the faces at the convention center/dome were black, and help was delayed. I cannot stop believing, at least not yet, that part of the delay was because of the fear of a mass of angry/beside-themselves black people. I look at all the water that has been provided to the people in Florida last week -- and justly so. But there was no 'fear' there. That is what still remains a racial issue for me.

Lolis Eric Elie: I am willing to discuss the racial implications of this. But it seems to me that part of the problem with the response was inadequate planning (before the storm) and a lack of urgency (during its aftermath). Much of that blame should be placed on local officials. But for my fellow Americans in other regions, you really need to ask whether you trust FEMA to be there in the event of a local emergency in your neck of the woods.

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Washington: You encouraged another poster to take a ride through the devastated Ninth Ward while visiting New Orleans, and I'm glad to hear from a local that this isn't considered insensitive behavior. I made my first-ever visit to the city in August, as the one-year anniversary of the storm was approaching, to gut houses with other volunteers. The first day of our trip we talked another volunteer into driving us through the area, and it was an experience loaded with emotions -- shock, fear and sadness that it could look so much like a war zone nearly a year later. But I also felt a little ashamed of myself, driving by and ogling as a sort of "disaster tourist." I felt like I had a responsibility to go home with a first-hand account of the state of the city but I feared that local residents might take offense to the fact that we were, in essence, touring the area like it was a zoo or a spectacle of some kind.

Lolis Eric Elie: It's a tough call whether to drive through disaster areas. Look at the larger questions. Should we have museums commemorating the genocides in Nazi Germany? Rwanda? Cambodia? We need to get this info out. Also, it's not as bad as it was months ago, when there were a lot of places where'd you'd literally be looking in at people's clothes and personal effects. But, in any case, such a surrender of privacy is crucial if we are to get our story out.

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Boston, MA: Thank you for your article. What did you mean by "They see the desperate brown faces at the Superdome or hear the other-accented voices from St. Bernard Parish"? (I read it many ways.) Also, have people really become that callous about New Orleans its needs?

Lolis Eric Elie: I mean to say to the average American, (who ever that might be) that you shouldn't distance yourself from the Katrina victims because many of us are brown and those of us who are not brown speak with strange accents. We are not "the Other." We are Americans.

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Washington: I work with some animal rescue groups and am dismayed to see that there still are dogs on the streets. I believe ARNO has more than 4,000 feeding stations city wide. Why doesn't anyone talk about this? Those dogs have collars, they have owners who can't return to the city.

Lolis Eric Elie: I returned to the city two weeks after the storm on an animal rescue mission. I know how much pets mean to folks who've lost everything. All I can say is that everything is moving slow here. I'm not sure that the pet problem is any worse than the others.

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Rockville, Md.: What a surprise to read your article after just having been in N.O. this weekend visiting family. My dad was fortunate, as he lives uptown in a condo. It had been a year since I was in New Orleans and what a difference. On the positive side -- many more people, more businesses open and fewer blue tarps! The rebuilding seems to be happening in pockets but the pace still is slow. It was wonderful to see people celebrating Mardi Gras in the streets and watching the parades. I know there is much more that needs to be done but I was pleasantly surprised. I plan to be back in April and I hear more of the St. Charles streetcar line will be working. Thanks for your article and keeping New Orleans in the news. As the administration doesn't have New Orleans on their agenda, we the people must keep reporting and let everyone know what's really going on.

Lolis Eric Elie: Thank you for visiting.

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Washington: There are so many things I miss about living in New Orleans, mostly relating to the sense of community. Katrina wrecked that. I don't think I'll go back -- the city has changed too much for me. At the same time, I feel incredibly guilty for not trying to help rebuild -- to me it was worse than 9/11, because with 9/11 I felt that the government was committed to doing something, anything. Katrina? It's like blaming a girl for being raped because she was in the wrong neighborhood.

Lolis Eric Elie: I think your comparison is apt. But don't write off our sense of community just yet. The disaster has brought out the best in a lot of us. We're all in this together in a way we've never been before.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: Each time I read an article by a resident or former resident of New Orleans regarding the aftermath of Katrina, the human emotion comes through with such clarity that for a moment I feel as though I'm sitting beside the writer. Your article was no different. Thank you for sharing your frustration, fears and concerns for not only New Orleans but for other cities and regions possibly facing similar natural -- or should I say "unnatural" -- disasters.

Lolis Eric Elie: Thank you.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I'm just back from NOLA, spending a week there with my church preparing homes for renovation -- essentially clearing out debris and taking the walls and ceilings down to the studs and joists. The 24 in our group were able to complete 7 houses. We also were there in September doing the same task. On the September mission, we worked in empty neighborhoods save the random FEMA trailer parked near an empty house. Last week I was encouraged to see activity everywhere with new businesses open on the main streets and many homes completed and occupied. There are areas that remain completely devastated -- the Lower Ninth comes to mind -- but there is a feeling of hope in other areas that wasn't there six months ago. The nongovernmental effort is ongoing and very rewarding for volunteers. Churches continue to send teams down and anyone interested in helping should consider joining one of these.

Lolis Eric Elie: Thank you. I really try to emphasize the incredible outpouring of generosity our nation has extended. All the best things that have ever been said about America have been in evidence here. Thank you.

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Washington: Re: Alexandria, Va. I couldn't agree more. People who live in an area below sea level and don't have plans for the "what if" ... have nobody to blame but themselves. I lived in Kansas for eight years. My friends had farms and homes destroyed by tornados. There was no free government housing, debit cards or handouts -- they just got up and rebuilt. You cant blame others for not being prepared. The corruption and wasteful spending by individuals with their debit cards really has soured the nation. Only rebuilding the business of New Orleans will help the people ... the government can't just keep giving handouts.

Lolis Eric Elie: The reason there was such rampant fraud post-Katrina was that the federal government had no plan -- the president ended up shoveling $2,000 checks in our direction because by the time he acted the situation was acute. Also, my argument in the piece had nothing to do with what we as individuals should get; it had everything to do with what our government should do to protect its territory. The people of Louisiana didn't "steal" the wetlands. We didn't steal the flood walls. Our tax money, your tax money, was badly spent by the federal government. Let me be clear: This was not George Bush's fault, nor Clinton's, nor Reagan's. These problems date back decades. And if the Army Corps of Engineers can't maintain the projects it has in my state, what makes you think you are safe?

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Raleigh NC: I understand that you are from New Orleans and as such, this is the focus of your story. But could you speak to the damage that remains in Alabama and Mississippi? These two states also experienced widespread destruction and displacement of populations. Are Alabama and Mississippi being rebuilt more quickly than New Orleans? Is there the same difficulties in the rebuilding processes? What is happening in areas outside of New Orleans?

Lolis Eric Elie: Louisiana suffered more damage per capita than those other states. (Click here for a complete comparison.) Neither of those states had its major city destroyed. Neither of those states had its major city evacuated by government order.

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Boston: I plan to come to New Orleans in March to volunteer. There are many organizations -- any that stand out to go through?

Lolis Eric Elie: There are several groups that come to mind. but please do your own research to see which one(s) best suit you.

Common Ground
Trinity Christian Community (Kevin Brown)
Habitat for Humanity

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Fools didn't build New Orleans: C'mon, all one has to do is look at the geography in the U.S. and one can predict where most major cities had to be. New Orleans sits at the intersection of one of the greatest rivers in the world and the Caribbean Sea. A city has to be there.

Lolis Eric Elie: Thank you. This city was crucial to our economy before. It may be less crucial now (we have a whole west coast that we didn't used to have) but New Orleans is still important.

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Washington: This is a long shot, and I realize a pretty paltry gesture, but I'm going to find myself in New Orleans for a weekend in early March, with a more or less free Saturday on my hands. Is there anyone I can contact to do some short-term volunteer work? Most of the places I've come across have been looking for volunteers for at least a few days, understandably, and as much as I'd like to I don't have the kind of job where I can get extended time off. Any tips? And not that it needs to be repeated, really, but thank you for the article. I love that city as much as anywhere in the world after having spent one summer there, and I just hope the rebuilding effort will start to make headway soon.

Lolis Eric Elie: We'd be glad for even half a day of your time. Consider Second Harvester's food bank or Kaboom!, a national organization that builds playgrounds. I posted some other possibilities earlier. Also, check out the Southern Foodways Alliance Gulf Coast Renaissance project.

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Washington: When I lived in New Orleans it was not considered safe to drive through the Ninth Ward. More importantly though, there was never a reason to drive through it. The entire area has interstate highways running above it from Metarie to Slidell. If you exit from a highway before you know exactly where you're going, it is a major ordeal to get back onto the highway (Carrollton and I-10 is a prime example) and it also could be dangerous to become lost. The only time I visited the Ninth Ward was when a friend drove me through it and showed me the London Canal, which he said would break with the next hurricane. That was 1990. The most ethical thing a tourist could ever do for New Orleans is to visit and have fun. If everyone who had ever visited New Orleans did that within the next 24 months, the city would be well on its way to achieving its potential, whatever that might be.

Lolis Eric Elie: You're right. Many people love New Orleans. If we can convince them that 1. you can still have a lot of fun here and 2. we need you now more than ever, their visits will do much to fuel our recovery.

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Washington: For the would-be volunteer: I had an excellent experience volunteering through ACORN in New Orleans.

Lolis Eric Elie: They've done some great work here. Thanks for mentioning them.

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Chin up : Ms. Elie -- heart-wrenching article. I certainly can understand your motivation in writing it, and your frustration with the government, but I'd like to reassure you that many, many Americans, of all colors, do see you as more than Mardi Gras (which after all really only appeals to college kids). I work for an affordable housing nonprofit currently trying to help in your area. In my travels for my organization, I hear only one message -- that people wish they could do more to help. So chin up, we are there for you and hopefully our presence will continue to grow.

Lolis Eric Elie: Thank you. I really hope not to sound too negative. The outpouring of support has been tremendous and moving.

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Lolis Eric Elie: I'd like to thank everyone for their interest in my essay and my city. I think post-Katrina New Orleans raises some profound questions about our nation and its future. I hope I've provided some useful information. Take Care, Lolis.

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