Saturday, August 19, 2006

Summertime is winding down, though it certainly doesn't feel like it in this area.

I've returned home from some hot but dry days out in No-Cal to muggy and sweaty days here at the mouth of the Mississippi. My son complained for the first few days that he was hot and could we visit the doctor, please? In New York, I have experienced days when it was too cold to take my little guy out, and here, now, there are days when it is too hot to go out... unless you do it at the crack of dawn. Even at night, though, it can be hot. We got in from California late at night and it was eighty degrees and muggy out. At least the humidity is supposed to be good for the skin.

According to the EPA (at least, as reported on the front page of the Times-Pic), environmentally speaking, the greater NOLA area is fine as well. No ill-effects from toxic floodwaters or, say, the oil spill from tanks in St Bernard parish are to be expected in the short or long run. According to a recent court ruling, no payments from insurance companies related to damages incurred from storm surges can be expected, either. All I could think of with the court ruling was an anecdote from an essay by columnist Chris Rose about the dejection and sudden elation of some local homeowners:

Some friends of mine were clearing out their belongings from their home in the Fontainebleau area and were going through the muddle of despair that attends the realization that you were insured out the wazoo for a hurricane, but all you got was flood damage... As they pondered this dismal circumstance in the street, their roof collapsed. Just like that. It must have suffered some sort of structural or rain-related stress from the storm and then, two weeks later, it manifested itself in total collapse...realizing their home now qualified for a homeowner's claim, they jumped up and down and high-fived each other and yelled:"The roof collapsed! The roof collapsed!"

Our home is destroyed. Oh, happy day. I submit there's something not right there.

I say, Damn Right, Mr Rose. I traveled away from the insanity for a week and a half, and here I am back in the middle. Actually, I got thrust right back into it at the San Jose airport, when the woman at the ticket counter took one look at my address and saw I was going back to the city where she was raised and still considered it to be home, though she lives in Burlingame. She took her son back to the city for this past Mardi Gras, and we chatted about that a bit, and about a relative of hers having to dock his boat on his roof when he checked out what was left of his property.

I picked up a copy of Texas Monthly at the Houston airport where I made our connecting flight and read an interview with Joe Allbaugh, former Dubya campaign manager from his governor and early presidential days and FEMA director from 2001-2003. The man had advocated keeping FEMA separate from the Department of Homeland Security for some big reasons:

1) The need for direct dialogue with the commander-in-chief, which is what Michael "Brownie" Brown didn't have.
2) The need for one person, and only one, to be accountable, rather than the roving circus of administrators and military personnel that kept proclaiming reponsibility and then attempting to do something. Allbaugh partially blames Congress for sticking FEMA in with Homeland Security.

And (drum roll, please) the ones that bear the biggest responsibility in rebuilding after Katrina and Rita are - SURPRISE - the locals...

I think there are too many parochial interests getting in the way of the global picture. Neither New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana has crafted a plan. It shouldn't have been a surprise that the levees were going to fail. Everyone knew they were only built to (sustain) a category 3 (storm). James Lee Witt had tried to engage New Orleans in an exercise (to test the city's disaster preparedness). I tried to engage New Orleans in an exercise. It was all blown off. City officials just weren't interested...Everyone has a piece of that pie. Citizens even have some responsibility. It's too easy to hope that the state, local, and federal governments are going to solve every problem out there. That's not realistic. We have to do a better job as individuals to be prepared for the unexpected. We haven't done a very good job of it in this country.

And yet, a recent survey said that one out of every four people living in a high-risk area for hurricanes would choose to stay behind in the event of an evacuation situation. The local government balked at a plan that would accept federal government aid for the city provided everyone in the city who is rebuilding complies with government guidelines for elevating the homes in which they will reside; it was described by local officials as being "blackmail" on the part of the federal government towards New Orleans. That same attitude prevailed months ago when I attended the Andres Duany meeting in Chalmette concerning possible plans for St Bernard, plans that condemned slab housing and caused most of the assembled audience to groan in frustration. How dare anyone outside of this area tell someone who has lost everything how to rebuild? Fix the levees first! Bring back the wetlands! Then we can rebuild any old way we damn please! That's where this whole area needs the help in order to weather a really Big One that might be coming our way, right?

God, did I need a break from all this.

I will be heading into another school year courtesy of my son's beginning Montessori pre-K, however, and I am looking to get involved some. There is a building shuffle going on, as certain grades are now being sent to different school campuses that housed, in some cases, completely different Orleans parish schools before the storm. Parents are sorely needed to help with the move, and I hope to help out a bit with it tomorrow. In talking with more parents at yet another birthday party for a friend of my son's, the general attitude about the remnants of the parish school system is still that of "wait-and-see". Most parents are sticking with the private schools; if it ain't broke, and the kids are doing well, why try to fix or change it? I seem to be a bit of the maverick who's willing to take a chance. What the hell, huh?

I returned to the local park to walk my dog, and the fountain was up and operating, which wasn't too much of a surprise, since that had happened before I left for the Left Coast. The pleasant change this time, though, was that the grass was finally mowed after a couple of months of seeing some dogs disappear into the long, scraggly-looking grass. New beginnings, maybe. Room for things to grow.

Yeah, maybe Allbaugh is a little bit right. It is all, ultimately, up to the locals as to whether this place lives or dies. I vote for the life support.

I also vote for eating out on August 29, that fateful day when the storm made landfall. Check out for a restaurant participating in Restaurants for Relief in your area, make your reservations ASAP and help contribute to Gulf Coast relief. It's a better way to mark such a day than to sit on your butt and watch all the innumerable programs that will be trotted out for the anniversary. Plus, you can do it with friends!

Bon appetit!

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