September 08, 2005,
Mobile, Ala. Here at the edge of the disaster area, anger competes fiercely with incalculable sadness for preeminence in my psyche. I may live in Mobile now; I may live, someday, in who knows? Timbuktu; but New Orleans will always be home.
It was in New Orleans, and nearby Pass Christian, Miss., that I spent joyous, endless weeks, summer after summer. Pass Christian was Ground Zero for Hurricane Camille in 1969, the strongest (in terms of sustained wind speeds) hurricane in American history, a storm that left nothing of my grandparents’ house but the brick front steps and a couple of silver forks and yet what Camille did to The Pass (as we New Orleanians call it) was almost nothing compared to what Katrina did to it. At least two-thirds of the town has been wiped from the face of the Earth. Not just damaged homes: nonexistent homes. In some places, the only thing left is the slabs of concrete that served as foundations. Most places don’t even offer rubble everything is gone, probably five miles out in the Gulf. I tried to pick through what rubble remained, but found nothing personal, nothing identifiable, where once stood the homes of friends and family where I had spent so many weeks, so many Thanksgivings, so many Fourths of July, so many days amid wondrous live oak trees and sea breezes and an easy, unhurried atmosphere. In terms of actual storm damage wind, storm surge, etc. The Pass got Katrina worst of all; and what remains is covered with muck and stink and sadness.
But then there is New Orleans . . . and my typing fingers tremble. Even nine days later, this writer can’t write. But readers need to know this: That Mayor Nagin is, or at least was, a good mayor, even if he failed miserably in this most important crucible; that anybody, anybody at all, who defends the response of FEMA and of President Bush in my presence or the presence of any New Orleanian is likely to get punched; that when Dennis Hastert spoke of bulldozing the city he spoke words that can never be forgiven, words that deserved the rebuke from Bill Clinton, who said if he had been in the same room when Hastert said those words that he, Clinton, might have assaulted him. They need to know that pundits across the country who asked why New Orleans and Louisiana didn’t themselves prepare for such a storm have no idea what they’re talking about, for the city and state have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into coastal wetland restoration and water-pumping stations and complicated engineering but the feds have repeatedly failed to deliver promised matching funds, and have consistently ignored problems (replacing levee funds, for example, which are a life-saving responsibility of the Corps of Engineers, with channel-dredging funds for pork projects for waterways with almost no barge traffic).
Then there is the racial angle. NRO has done a good job trying to kill that liberal hobbyhorse. The fact is that the reason the poor people lived on lower ground had nothing to do with racism, nothing to do with deliberate exclusion, nothing to do with any evil plan. It was all historical happenstance. The French Quarter was built where it was for one simple reason: That was the best, highest ground. As the city grew, toward what is now Audubon Park (the Garden District and Uptown) and also in the Faubourgs immediately adjacent to the Quarter, where the artistes live, the obvious place to build was in the high ground closer to the river. “Old money” lives between St. Charles Avenue and the river not because it is money, but because it is old. It’s where the families who have lived in New Orleans the longest built, because it was once the only place they could build; the rest was too marshy. Only with the advent of tremendous engineering feats the immense water pumps, the manmade levees guarding both river and lake, etc. that the other neighborhoods grew to accommodate the new migrants, the Irish and blacks and others who built the railroads. The land there was two, four, maybe ten feet lower in spots not much difference, in most cities, but the difference between life or death in a city where the highest spot is about four feet above sea level.
Nobody planned it that way; it just grew organically, and tragically.
Meanwhile, I challenge anyone anywhere to prove to me that New Orleans was a seething racial cauldron. The truth is that New Orleans was a city where the races mixed in more areas more congenially for far, far longer than they did, or still do, in most big cities in America. I know whereof I speak; New Orleans is my home.
So I’m angry: at Nagin, at Blanco, at Bush, at Chertoff, at FEMA, at the thugs and looters, at the clueless and judgmental national media, at the congressional pork barons, at Hastert (almost rabidly so), at the whole conglomeration of incompetents that failed to anticipate the easily anticipatable disaster, failed to respond well or at all to the disaster once it befell, and failed to report and analyze and comment on it with fairness or understanding once the disaster metastasized.
Well, I guess the writer did just write. Not well, to be sure, but in some abundance. So many family members now homeless, so many friends with lives devastated, so many memories in New Orleans and Pass Christian that have lost their physical moorings. In New Orleans, unspeakable ongoing horror. In Pass Christian, devastation of a sort inconceivable even to those who remember Camille. This disaster, the hurricane, was nobody’s fault but that of Cruel Nature herself. But the aftermath, oh the aftermath: That is something that only man can make right.
Quin Hillyer is an editorial writer and columnist for the Mobile Register.