Today I live in Washington, but I will always be a fifth-generation New Orleanian. One of my great-grandfathers was raised in the old red-light district by a madam and another was an accountant named Gaston who called me cherie. I was raised in a city steeped in tradition. As a child, I would drink cafe au lait and Barq's root beer in the bottle; I played in the mud at Jazz Fest and on top of Monkey Hill in Audubon Park. Despite the depictions on TV, I still cannot see Mardi Gras as some debauched romp but instead picture a time spent with family and friends, giving a little love back to the city and its people.
So as I watch the tragedy continue in my beautiful city, water pouring over the levees I used to slide down and rising over the grand oaks I used to climb, the sadness I feel is profound. In Washington, life continues as normal -- I watch people read Us Magazine and shop at Pottery Barn -- but nothing about my life will be normal for a while. All of my "stuff" is here in D.C., but my home is covered by murky water and clouded by despair. And my heart is aching to be there and to find the family I haven't heard from in days.
JESSICA R. JOHN
Regarding the Sept. 2 front-page article " 'To Me, It Just Seems Like Black People Are Marked' ":
There's no doubt that the overwhelming majority of New Orleans refugees shown on TV are black. And there's no doubt that government responses to the human suffering have been wholly -- and inexcusably -- inadequate.
Further, there are scores of good reasons many people could not evacuate the city when ordered to do so. But plenty of people did -- and do -- have a choice, whatever their race. Thousands who could have left the city elected not to.
Hundreds of others who could -- and should -- be looking out for children, the elderly and the sick are busy "shopping" for goods (TV sets in a flood?). Others are said to be shooting at the very people who are risking their lives to help. Is this the result of racism, as the headline and article seem to imply? Life, as the week's events show all too graphically, can be more than unfair, but misfortune is an equal-opportunity business. Blaming racism just won't wash.
On the day President Bush finally spoke publicly about Hurricane Katrina, the Census Bureau reported that the nation's poverty rate rose to 12.7 percent, while the rate for blacks is at 24.7 percent. The effects of such widespread poverty are conspicuous in New Orleans.
The people killed, stranded or made homeless by the hurricane are not the affluent, who had the ways and means to flee the storm. The victims are the ones who had no choice but to stay, who had no cars or money for airfare or hotels.
Mr. Bush can't prevent natural disasters, but he can do something about the human disaster of poverty. The people wandering the streets need more than ice or cots: They need education, training and jobs so that next time they can afford to flee, just like their wealthier neighbors.
ROBERT J. INLOW
The Sept. 1 editorial "The Great Flood of '05" says that looting food is "forgivable." Isn't the more appropriate word "understandable"? Would any of us do anything differently?
In a city that won't have electricity for months, it doesn't make sense to see people carrying TVs out of a store. But even the scavenging of tennis shoes, when many "closets" are at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico -- to walk flooded areas that have broken pipes, broken glass and human waste -- seems reasonable.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures" seems to fit this situation. Do we really want to demonize these tragedy-stricken people?
A photo caption in Thursday's Style section read, "People remove items from a New Orleans shoe store. . . ."
Leave it to The Post to maneuver around the truth. Stealing is stealing, pure and simple.
In spite of Benigno E. Aguirre's labored explanation of looting and his associated taxonomy of looters as hunters-gatherers, garden-variety crooks, etc. [Style, Sept. 1] the fact remains that as a group looters are among the lowest forms of human life. But they are not alone. Partisan opportunists who try to use disasters for their political benefit are in that same ignominious class.
They view the Gulf Coast disaster as a chance to drive another nail into the president's political coffin. They understand that regardless of how fast, compassionate or comprehensive the relief effort might be, it will never match the expectations of those affected or the myriad practical needs such a storm creates. This situation is a political soft spot for the administration's detractors to focus on.
DAVID W. OWEN
I know it may not come as a great shock to find out that President Bush does not read The Post closely, but surely yours was not the only one to cover the anticipation of the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.
Here is what the president said in response to a question from Diane Sawyer of "Good Morning America" about the pace of the government response: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
And here is what The Post reported on the Aug. 29 front page: " 'If you can picture sort of a soup bowl, the city is located in the middle,' said Gregory Stone, director of the Coastal Studies Institute at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. 'And once the levees are breached or overtopped, then that water gets in there and just can't get out. . . . It's like filling a bucket up with water.'
"[New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin said Katrina's predicted storm surge would probably overwhelm New Orleans's levees. And the city's pumps -- capable of removing only an inch of water every hour under normal conditions -- require electricity, often the first casualty in any hurricane. If Katrina does slam into New Orleans, experts say the city could be underwater for weeks or months, creating a toxic soup of chemicals, rodents, poisons and snakes."
So it is not the case that no one anticipated the breach of the levees. The mayor of New Orleans did, as anyone who read The Post on Aug. 29 might have, or the readers of any other newspaper that covered the mayor's remarks. Apparently the Federal Emergency Management Agency missed it.
The Post's Sept. 1 lead editorial was cowardly in declaring that "Congress, when it returns, should rise above the blame game." The failure of the levees is not merely the result of natural catastrophe but of political decisions made about disaster preparedness and response, not least of all the maintenance of the levee system and the allocation of National Guard resources. If we do not judiciously assign blame for those political failures, what incentives do those politicians have to avoid future failure?
I suggest we begin at the top, with a president who declared that he didn't think anyone anticipated the levees would be breached.
E. J. Dionne says that rescue and rebuilding efforts, of the kind needed in New Orleans, require government [op-ed, Sept. 2]. He even suggests that government is our friend of last resort.
Government has utterly failed. It failed to prepare, despite years of warning that a hurricane could devastate my home town. And it is failing now -- tragically -- at its most fundamental responsibility: maintaining law. Some friend.
Why should we trust this inevitably centralized and politicized institution?
DONALD J. BOUDREAUX
The Post wonders why the government was unprepared for the aftermath of Katrina [editorial, Sept. 2.] A big part of the answer is that National Guard and Reserve personnel from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama who could be patrolling the streets of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities are instead in Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit. More than $200 billion that could have been spent repairing America's infrastructure has instead been spent on a war without coherent purpose or apparent end.
PETER G. MILLER
The Department of Homeland Security says on its Web site: "In the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other large-scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will assume primary responsibility . . . for ensuring that emergency response professionals are prepared for any situation. This will entail providing a coordinated, comprehensive federal response to any large-scale crisis and mounting a swift and effective recovery effort."
Our government's effort appears totally inadequate so far. It has been almost four years since Sept. 11, 2001; the government has been reorganized and has planned since then to deal with disasters. After seeing its performance in New Orleans, I would not count on the government to respond in a timely or adequate manner to any major disaster, natural or otherwise.
No doubt politicians will bravely talk about how New Orleans will be rebuilt and draw comparisons with rebuilding San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. A more apt comparison might be with Galveston. A prosperous port and business center in the late 19th century, it was devastated by a Category 4 hurricane in 1900. Despite efforts to rebuild the city and encourage investment, Galveston never recovered its previous glory and most businesses and port activity moved inland to Houston. Today Galveston is a minor port and a major tourist attraction, sort of like Venice.
There may be incentive for the politicians to restore New Orleans to its pre-Katrina eminence, but there is far less for businesses. With global warming and rising waters, why would anyone build in a city below sea level, dependent on an increasingly vulnerable system of dikes and pumps? There are plenty of other Gulf ports that would love to expand and take New Orleans's business. And oil companies are always looking for an excuse to close down domestic refineries and import gasoline from their more profitable overseas refineries with even weaker environmental regulation and enforcement than in Louisiana (which has the weakest environmental enforcement in America).
I think the French Quarter will be restored and we will have the Mardi Gras and the great food, and the tourists will still flock there -- just as they do to Galveston and Venice.
Louisiana lost 600,000 acres of wetlands in the 40 years ending in 1993, according to the Louisiana Coastal Wetlands Conservation and Restoration Task Force's report that year.
In recent years, 24 square miles per year of wetlands have been lost. Barrier islands have eroded and, in some cases, disappeared. The levees built to protect delta cities such as New Orleans and to facilitate international trade have starved Louisiana's wetlands for silt and caused them to wash away. The canals carved across the region by the oil and gas industries also have compromised the landscape's integrity. Functioning wetlands soak up hurricane storm surges, prevent erosion, and moderate hurricane-force winds. Functioning wetlands provide more comprehensive protection from nature's wrath than any levee the Army Corps of Engineers could ever build.
Hurricane Katrina has destroyed an American city and created America's first environmental refugees. Unless we begin to respect the value of ecosystem services and incorporate those values into land-use planning, this tragedy will be repeated.