Losing New Orleans

So today's the day I finally break down crying, in tears of pain, frustration, and sheer anger at what's happened across the Southeast and most especially in New Orleans, a city I love. There has been so much news coming out, in the past week, that it's been easy to get caught up in the flow of information without really taking in what it means - without wanting to take in what it means. I'm at some remove, physically, from what happened there; we're 500 miles from New Orleans, but we're taking in refugees here in Austin, and there are more being sent on, further away. And I've been holding off these reactions for a while now, waiting in a sort of loop of despair and disbelief, but today, after the Red Cross said they still needed to process my application for volunteering before I could do anything, and when the only donations being taken are cash, and I feel like I not only want to but need to help and paradoxically can't find any way of doing so other than pushing the little button online to give cash, when I don't want to get in the way with desire to help and not enough skills but wish I could do something more right now than sit here waiting for the Red Cross to call - it just all came crashing down and I started to cry for everything.

What kills me the most, what makes me want to just blindly hit things, is that it is so abundantly, horribly clear that the government quite simply let people die. The talk is of deaths in the tens of thousands, and thousands of those were preventable. Would have been prevented, if this was Florida in an election year, if this was somewhere predominantly white, predominantly wealthy. (I'm too exhausted to add in the links to all these articles here, but if you go get yourself a Salon.com daypass and read their Katrina coverage; then read a bit of Pandagon and Atrios, maybe some of my own One And Only's No Capital and a bit of AmericaBlog, not to mention the New Orleans Times-Picayune newsblog, and you will find all of this, and, sadly, more.) But these people in the South had the bad luck of getting hit by a hurricane in a year where their votes counted even less than they ordinarily do, and at a time when our National Guard - the ones who we're supposed to have here to respond to domestic crises - are off in Iraq. They're not rich, most of them aren't white, and they were, godDAMN it, left to die. Neither the president nor FEMA apparently bothered listening to news reports; the president and the director had no idea there was a state of emergency, or that the levee broke Monday morning, not sometime Tuesday, and obviously didn't give a damn either. Literally thousands of people could have been saved if the government hadn't ignored not only all the warnings over the past years, but also all the cries for help this past week. Never mind that anyone who's paid attention has known for years that this sort of crisis was not only possible, but probable, should a major hurricane strike New Orleans; what galls me most is that even once it started happening, after the state and local governments were doing whatever they could - when even Canada, goddamned thousands of miles and a nation away from the situation was offering what assistance they could - even then, FEMA, our supposed disaster-response team, was busy pushing offers of help off the table as fast as they came in. They told Canada to wait; told the city of Chicago to wait; told 13 trucks full of water to turn around. They kept desperately needed aid from getting to the people who needed it, consigned people to death because the aid apparently stepped on their dear little institutional toes, because if they couldn't control it, then it damn well couldn't come in. Bastards, all of them. Journalists, celebrities, a goddamned bunch of college kids in a Hyundai could get through to the people who needed help, but the president and FEMA kept claiming that no one could get to New Orleans. A lie, a complete lie - one of many lies - and the open letter of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to President Bush, the Times-Picayune who kept publishing and reporting amidst the devastation, said it better than anyone:

"We're angry, Mr. President, and we'll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That's to the government's shame."

And they're right: New Orleans deserved rescuing. Where have we come to, in 2005, that that's even a question? And yet it is. Even now, after it all, we're hearing that Mississippi is going to be moved to the front of the aid queue, and why? Because its congressmen are ranking members of important committees. Because even now, human suffering is not enough to ensure that you receive aid; no, human suffering doesn't matter when you have Trent Lott to contend with.

And as if that's not enough, Dennis Hastert and his godforsaken ilk are saying that after the hell New Orleans and its residents have been through, after he and his federal government failed to offer the kind of assistance you would offer even your worst enemy if you found him in such straits, after all this - he says that New Orleans should be razed. After driving people to vandalism and to looting in order to save themselves, after leaving the city in the hands of chaos because they refused to get anyone there at all, after this they say that a city of vandals and looters doesn't deserve to be saved; that all law-abiding citizens had followed the call to abandon the city. Never mind that 150,000 residents of the city do not own cars and there were no options available for leaving the city if you didn't own a car or knew people who had one. I hope no one is ever this callous to him, should Hastert or anyone he loves be in such a situation. I hope that he gets better than he gave, for what he gave - or rather, did not give - is utterly reprehensible. So help me, if I ever find myself face to face with that man, or most anyone in this administration who has let this happen, it is going to be all I can do not to punch them hard in the face and kick them swiftly in the nuts. And the only reason I would not do that is because it wouldn't help anyway. It wouldn't help get New Orleans repaired, and it wouldn't make the pain in my heart go away.

I love New Orleans. Although he grew up elsewhere, New Orleans is truly the hometown of my partner, The One And Only, and although I knew the city before I met him, I've come to see it through something more than tourist's eyes in the many times we've been there together. I've heard stories about the various bars and restaurants in the Quarter he's bartended and waited tables at, and we've been to them all ourselves; the tourist attractions he's worked at, and where he's been when he's been under various influences. I could recognize by sight some of the various regulars and friends and dealers he knew at the various places he worked, even if I've never met them. I know the one about the time he was beaten by the cops and sent to Orleans Parish Prison for a night; the time he threatened to beat up a guy breaking into his car, only to realize afterwards that he'd just threatened someone several inches taller and tens of pounds heavier than he was; where he first lived when he moved to the city, an apartment where he found an old African robe and where, a neighbor told him, a Fulani prince had been living just weeks before. I know the places where his exes worked, and where he had friends in the kitchen; what places fired him, what places hired him, what places were homes to him in the city. I also know the places that have come to be important to us, from the first trip to New Orleans where we decided that maybe, just maybe, we should try the long-distance thing, to our last trip to New Orleans this March on our honeymoon after we got married. It's always been there, that city; it's the place we always want to get to, the one we think about every three-day weekend, everytime it's Friday night at 9 pm and we're thinking, "You know, we could be in New Orleans by morning…"

But New Orleans isn't there anymore, not the way it was, and that alone perhaps I could deal with, because a hurricane's path is made by nature rather than man; but the utter disregard that our nation's so-called leaders have had for the city and the absolute contempt shown for its residents leaves me disgusted and sick to my stomach. It makes me want to make that nine-hour drive to the city and see what I can do, throw sandbags, help EMTs, whatever; and the only reason I don't do it is because I suspect I will be more in the way than anything else. Once the rebuilding begins - and regardless of whether Bush, Hastert, Brown and their cronies will support it, the rebuilding will begin, because too many of us love New Orleans and it is home to families and histories beyond what their feeble minds can imagine - once the rebuilding begins, I will be there, and I hope that once there, we will find or we will create what Athenae calls for on her blog, a new New Deal that means the rebuilding of the South, of New Orleans, and of whatever we have that may be called community. It makes me hopeful that in the midst of this we can still dream about the possibilities of rebuilding. And the people who have been displaced by this, those who have to worry about their friends and their homes and their pets and their families, I think - no, I hope they know that the rest of the country doesn't share in the leadership's callous indifference and carelessly killing ignorance.

We might not be presidents or speakers of the house, and we don't count as residents of New Orleans in the census, but there are many of us who love the city and the people who make it what it is, and we are outraged at how the people who live there have been treated, have been portrayed, and have been abandoned. We'll help the people who've been evacuated to our communities, which are now also theirs, and then we'll come and we'll help them re-build their own community, which is also ours. They've tried, and they're trying still, but neither a hurricane nor even the callous indifference of so-called leadership can destroy that wonderful, chaotic, beautiful city of New Orleans. It will be back, and so will we.

 

6. September 2005

 

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Wherever you are:

Donate money to the Red Cross.

Donate to the Red Cross via Liberal Blogs for Hurricane Relief, who are trying to raise $1 million for relief efforts.

Donate to the NAACP's Disaster Relief Fund - in addition to providing immediate relief to hurricane survivors, they will "advocate for equitable distribution of money and resources from Federal, state and local government and other relief agencies to those hardest hit by this catastrophe" - which, unfortunately, will probably be quite an issue.

Donate to America's Second Harvest, or volunteer with them.

Offer to put up someone displaced by the hurricane in your home - whether you have an extra room, a bed, or even just a couch - through MoveOn's new project, hurricanehousing.org.

If you are in Austin:

If you want to volunteer, the city has set up an information line; you can reach it by calling 211.

Volunteer with and/or donate money to the Central Texas Red Cross. (To volunteer and get processed more quickly, download their volunteer application here, fill it out, and bring it to their offices at 2218 Pershing Drive.)

Austin Goodwill is taking donations of "what you would need if you lost everything." If you aren't in Austin, check the Goodwill in your area; they may also be accepting donations for hurricane victims.

Volunteer with or donate money to the Capital Area Food Bank.

The City of Austin has a "How to Help" site that you should check out if you have services or professional assistance to offer, especially if you are a doctor or nurse.

 

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