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New Orleans -Almost 3 Years Later

Monday 21 July 2008, by Saul Landau

The French Quarter vibrates with sounds and smells of perpetual Spring Break. Was a film crew shooting the young men and women, drinks in hands, screaming "let’s party." No. The celebrants were acting goofy on their own, as they routinely do in Ft. Lauderdale and Cancun.

Just inside the Hustler Club doorway, two women wearing forced smiles and a few strings, stood beside the barker, trying to lure "partying" crowd members inside. "Look at the rack on these babes," he pointed at her uncovered milk producing organs.

I vaguely recalled such a sight as an infant. We saw people buy drugs, light joints, and shout "yeah" and other profundities. Some vomited in the street, stumbled, fell and generally had a terrific time. Tom and Huck (Marvin and Saul) must have also enjoyed such terrific "partying" in their youth.

Four college-age kids, reeking of booze, shared the hotel elevator. "Join us, you’re not too old," a young man invited. "We’ve got more," pointing to his paper cup containing a rum drink. "We also got you know what in the room," making an inhaling sound and putting two fingers to his lips.

The next day, we drove through the once densely populated 9th Ward, now a semi rural looking expanse of empty streets and stray dogs. Amidst boarded up houses and empty lots, we heard sounds of wind and birds chirping. Downright bucolic!

Had a neutron bomb hit? Almost three years ago the vacated homes were the stages for social life: people ate, played, did homework, screwed and had family spats.

Approximately 225,000 people left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded most city neighborhoods in August 2005. A sizeable number came from the 9th ward. Some 1800 people died during the floods; later, hundreds more succumbed to stress-related ailments.

"The richest country in the world should do something to help people," said a woman resident. "Bush and them spend more money in one week in Iraq than it would take to fix up all our homes." Two plus years later, out of almost 200,000 households in Orleans Parish, only 133,966 could receive mail 40% of pubic schools had reopened.

She shook her head. "Just look at this place."

Late August 2005 TV image of the 9th Ward showed people floating in rising waters; others waiting helplessly in the streets. No response from government agencies! Dead bodies festered in the summer sun!

Reports of looting! Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco finally called out the National Guard. One local lawyer said: "rumors had it she was on quaaludes during the Hurricane." Blanco warned: "These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will." She didn’t mention punishing those police seen looting.

TV cameras recorded dazed people in flooded streets filled with debris and corpses, some heading to temporary refuge at the Superdome stadium. Bush remained at his ranch. Five days later, he flew over the disaster. Mayor Ray Nagin remained confused. Republican Senator David Vitter dragged himself away from his busy schedule - the Washington whorehouse? "The death toll will start at 10,000, but that is only a guess," he guessed

After his late arrival and notorious compliment to the now disgraced FEMA Chief Michael Brown - "You’re doing a heckuva job Brownie" - Bush finally admitted: "The results are not acceptable." Duh!

Congress reluctantly returned from holiday to offer $10.5 billion in aid. The Pentagon offered national guardsmen to stop looting, not to save lives or help people.

Hungry, thirsty and sick refugees at New Orleans’ Convention Center waited for food, water and medical attention. Bodies wrapped in sheets lay on the convention center floor. At the hospital, staff had piled corpses on the stairs. Mayor Nagin cried on radio. He had failed to tell people to leave before the Hurricane hit, to send school busses to get people out after it struck, or to mobilize any city resources.

By June 2008, Nagin and other local, state and federal government officials had still not mobilized major resources to bring back 9th ward residents or rebuild for those who stayed or returned. Shirley pointed to the FEMA trailer where she lived. She hoped it wasn’t toxic like so many of the others.

Shirley Jackson, president of a neighborhood council in ward 9, pointed to the vast acreage of empty lots. "Every lot used to have a home on it," she explained. Since the government has not helped, she continued, volunteers have to do the job. She runs a mini tractor helping high school volunteers from Concord Massachusetts with their land clearing project. She pointed to a pseudo sculpture she’d erected on the site where her house once stood — a few concrete blocks in a pile.

"The politicians don’t have anything to do with the people. We elect them. They’re supposed to do something for us. All they do is something for themselves." She spoke of collusion between the mayor and other government agencies and real estate developers trying to grab the titles for the empty lots in the 9th Ward.

A woman from Needham Massachusetts explained that she and other volunteers had come down to help "because these people need it. That’s all. Just being good neighbors."

"Like new." The elderly black man admired the floors of his redone house and then praised three young college students from Americorps for dedication and craftsmanship. The young women beam, but won’t talk for camera because they are "working for the government" and didn’t want to make remarks that could cause them trouble. Hey, they might lose their $8 an hour jobs.

The man recalled waiting for the insurance payment. "I thought I had bought it. They said I didn’t" He still awaits electricity and water, but "it’ll come." He smiled. "I get mail now and nice young folks cleared my yard and washed away the mold. I can live here again. I hope some of my neighbors return. I’ve lost track of them."

Another resident felt less optimistic. "The FEMA people pissed away $85 million of food and beds and stuff that was supposed to go to the Hurricane victims," the middle aged black woman commented. "I saw this on CNN. FEMA kept the stuff in warehouses."

General Services Administration records prove that for two years FEMA didn’t distribute needed goods to Hurricane victims and then gave 121 truckloads of material to other agencies.

On the way to New Orleans, Tony the disabled oil rigger we had met in Krotz Spring told us of a "plot" in which Bush "colluded with local and state officials and real estate interests to force the poor blacks out of New Orleans." Evidence, we asked?

"It’s logical. Look how people got flooded out and can’t come back."

We asked a New Orleans lawyer if the local police had links with the mafia. "They are the mafia," she laughed.

Paranoia? Or the thinking that inevitably develops when corruption marries venality and lives in the White House and lesser government palaces?

It doesn’t take Sherlock Homes to understand that the Mississippi River’s power alone didn’t kill and dislodge hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and black people. Nature also needed Bush’s priorities, appointments, and values to accomplish its acts of mass obliteration.

Before Katrina, Bush and company paid little attention to poor people or weather reports on TV. Indeed the world watched as government officials at all levels ignored the flood victims’ plight. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Bush played video golf while New Orleans flooded. In light of such dramatic negligence and incompetence, and downright cynicism, how can you blame a mighty river?

In mid June, we watched a ferry disembark from New Orleans to transport people and cars to cities on the other side of the Mississippi. The water flow barely rippled, although upstream it continued to force thousands of people from their homes.

In ten days of travel, we had witnessed the erosion of small town America, its business districts boarded up; its young people leaving as old factories rusted. People in these now flooded towns and cities saw their bridges floating away, their dams and levees surrendering, their aging sewage systems collapsing. Their crops and animals floated away.

On July 4, politicians repeated the same old crap: "We’re the greatest" this and that. "Stop lying," I want to scream. The U.S. infrastructure needs "about $1 trillion more bring infrastructure up to par with modern needs and standards," not counting costs of "new roads, rails, and sewers ... nor the cost to repair damage inflicted by the recent Midwest floods." Wastewater treatment plants mean sewage doesn’t mix with drinking water. (Andrew Stern Reuters July 1, 2008)

Bush requested $1.8 billion for flood recovery. A drop in the proverbial bucket! While billions per week flow to Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of deteriorating bridges, levees and dams await attention.

A road trip through middle America convinced Old Tom and Huck that Walmart should replace the Bald Eagle as the American symbol. In New Orleans, however, we saw how Katrina overwhelmed commerce. "Partying" reemerged on Bourbon Street. Locals folk dance to Cajun music near the wharf.

Yet, Nature’s forces seemed to loom over the city along with shadow of energy-sapping government corruption. Bush continues to offer this model to the rest of the world! Mark Twain would have said something caustic. George Carlin, (may he rest laughing) winner of this year’s Mark Twin award, expressed my thoughts: "A politician’s insincerity can best be measured by how far around the world our soldiers are..."

Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow.