The Wrong Tool for the Job: Letter From New Orleans
One of the high points of this year’s South By Southwest festival was the second live performance by the New Orleans Social Club. Last October, a number of New Orleans’ musicians-in-exile met in Austin to record Sing Me Back Home, an album of cover songs speaking to the post-Katrina experience. As great as it was to see half the Meters (George Porter Jr. and Leo Nocentelli), Ivan Neville, Raymond Weber and Henry Butler perform with Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Willie Tee and Cyril Neville, it was also heartbreaking, because the show was a reminder of what is at stake since the hurricane.
None of the core group lives in New Orleans anymore. Ivan and his band Dumpstaphunk — with cousin Ian on guitar — played a number of Mardi Gras shows, and he will play the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; but conspicuously missing during Carnival were the Neville Brothers, who are also absent from the Jazz Fest lineup. The poor air quality in a city that cut garbage pickups in half is enough to keep an asthmatic such as Aaron from returning, and Cyril’s concerns about how musicians are treated in New Orleans are legitimate. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that something changed. Perhaps the city’s problems came too clearly into focus, or maybe the danger became too real. Whatever, a family that has tied its identity to New Orleans and its music hasn’t been back and has no plans to return.
The set’s high point was John Boutte’s cover of Annie Lennox’s “Why”. When he reached the chorus, his clear, unique tenor made the one-word chorus into a cry that sounded notes of pain, sorrow, loss and confusion. It asked a million questions, including the one that’s almost too big to ask: Why is such a beautiful, soulful place in such danger?
Sadly, one answer that is becoming clear is that the Bush Administration and the Department of Homeland Security chose to hope for the best rather than prepare for the worst. There’s nothing anyone could have done about Katrina, but we now know that President Bush was briefed on August 28 about what was likely to happen. Michael Brown, then the chief of FEMA, briefed Bush by video and expressed concern that there weren’t enough disaster teams to help in a flood. The National Hurricane Center’s final briefing predicted minimum flooding from the hurricane, but worried that winds and storm surge could cause the levees to be topped. When a reporter showed New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin the briefing footage on a laptop at a press event after Mardi Gras, Nagin said, “This seems like one of those ‘you’ve been punked’ programs.” After all, Bush told ABC’s “Good Morning America”, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
We also now know that on the morning of August 29, the local director of Homeland Security told FEMA in a conference call at 7:30 a.m. that a 20-foot storm surge had breached the levee system and that New Orleans East and the lakefront were experiencing major flooding. By 9 a.m., there had been four more reports, from the National Weather Service and local or regional members of Homeland Security and FEMA, reporting floodwaters 10 feet high. Acting more quickly wouldn’t have stopped the flooding, but it would have diminished the suffering and the sense of abandonment that the city still hasn’t got over.
New Orleans had the misfortune of being flooded while governed by an administration philosophically opposed to almost everything the city needed it to do. It has systematically removed safety nets and refused to put any in place because of the emergency. When New Orleanians were in evacuation, some provisions were needed so that people could see doctors, wherever they were. Rather than institute some sort of emergency health insurance, Bush told medical providers vaguely that they’d “be taken care of.” He shucked as much assistance as he could to “the armies of compassion” — the Red Cross and other charities — most of which have exhausted their resources. He opposed the Baker Bill, proposed by Republican representative Richard Baker to provide money for people to rebuild their houses or to buy them out, because he didn’t want the government to get into the real estate business. Add to that the bureaucratic nightmare that resulted when FEMA was folded into the Department of Homeland Security, and you have a government remade into a poor tool for rebuilding any city.
His counterproposal will help approximately 100,000 homeowners in the New Orleans area, which is good, but it leaves out 20,000 homes, as well as rental properties. Since 58 percent of New Orleanians rented before Katrina, that means many former residents are not going to have anywhere to come home to anytime soon. And since rents doubled in the months after the storm, it’s unlikely they could afford an apartment if they could find one.
That makes concerns of a whiter city possible, but it isn’t likely a result of some conspiracy. Once people were bused out of town last September, a whiter city was almost guaranteed. Many who currently reside in Houston, Atlanta and Dallas wouldn’t have had the financial wherewithal to move there were it not for the hurricane and buses, and without assistance to bring them home, they’re going to stay Houstonians, Atlantans, and Dallasites.
On the most beautiful Fat Tuesday in memory, it was hard not to think about those people and wonder. Those who are here love the city’s cultural traditions, regardless of the ethnicity and class of their originators. But in the long run, what happens to traditions when the people whose experiences shaped the brass-band, Mardi Gras Indian and second-line cultures don’t come back?
We managed a truncated Mardi Gras, and we’ll enjoy a scaled down Jazz Fest, but we’re not out of the woods, yet.