Friday, September 16, 2005

The 'Real' Perfect Storm

Matthew 7:24-27 (New Living Translation)

Building on a Solid Foundation

24 “Anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. 25Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won't collapse, because it is built on rock. 26But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. 27When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will fall with a mighty crash.”

As I look back on our just completed vacation I’m aware of one startling parallel this one had with the vacation we took to New Mexico and the Grand Canyon in September, 2001. That parallel is, of course, tragedy. Four years ago it was the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. This year it was Hurricane Katrina.

As I look back on this year’s vacation I’m amazed at how much my wife, Nancy, saw coming. On the Sunday before Katrina slammed into the Gulf she became quite agitated as we watched a joint press conference being held by Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. To her it all seemed like something out of the Keystone Kops, with neither politico willing, or able, to think critically at such an important time.

As governor Blanco primped for the cameras, Nagin tried his best to inject some sanity into the proceedings, pleading for residents to evacuate. But it wasn’t working. Seeing this, Nancy blurted out angrily, “Why don’t they do something instead of grandstanding for the cameras? Why don’t they get all the school buses and Greyhounds around the city and get those poor people out of there now before the storm hits? And how about all those city vehicles? Why not use them to evacuate people rather than putting them all in a football stadium?”

Unfortunately, Nancy was neither the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana.

I suppose it seems easy to see it all so clearly now, but Nancy’s words and feelings that day are still very vivid to me. She saw that the real time for action was in the hours before this crippling storm made landfall. As we left on our trip on Wednesday the 7th I was wondering, in retrospect, about the same things. “If Nancy could see this all converging on the Gulf, why couldn’t the leaders who were on the scene?”

I’ve given it all some thought and I believe I have some answers.

The convergence of thoughts began for me as we left Nancy’s mother’s house in Kansas City, heading for an overnight stay in Louisville. This was on Wednesday. By this time there had been some criticism of the federal effort in the gulf, but little in the way of negative press given to the state and local officials in the area. I didn’t find it especially troubling. It just seems to be the way things are in America these days. Something bad happens and it’s the federal government’s fault. Somewhere around Columbia, Missouri I tuned in NPR and saw that the trickle of criticism was now becoming a torrent. Since then it has become a flood, almost equal in intensity to Katrina’s wrath.

I think there may even be something healthy in all of this. In the light of all that’s happened people need an outlet to express their anger. Some would like to express anger at God, but that’s becoming more difficult to do in America these days. It’s not because God is distant or unwilling to listen, it’s just that fewer and fewer Americans have a relationship with the Almighty intimate enough to express such anger. Some, I think, would like to express their anger to leaders at ground zero, but based on Nancy’s observation, it would be like addressing someone from a Mack Sennett silent film. Given that, George Bush and the federal government were destined to become the focal point for the mounting criticism. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s as good a place as any for the nation to focus. The criticism may or may not be deserved, but that isn’t what matters. What’s critical now is that the strident voices be silenced, and the best way to do that is to allow them to vent while the rest of us get to the task at hand, which is to rebuild lives that have been uprooted by this enormous tragedy.

The parallels between this storm and another began to occur to me once we passed Columbia. As we passed the Cracker Barrel on Interstate 70 I began to think of the four days we had planned in Gloucester with my brother and his family. My mind was on Katrina and its victims, but it wandered away for a few moments to something my brother, Bill, shared with me about his experience as an “extra” in the movie version of Sebastian Junger’s 1991 account of the Andrea Gale, which was lost in “The Perfect Storm.” Junger’s title is based on the fact that the storm that took the lives of all on board the Andrea Gale was the convergence of an extra-tropical cyclone, Hurricane Grace, and a cold front. The three elements mixed to create this “perfect storm,” with Hurricane Grace actually being swallowed up by the cyclone to provide the amalgamated storm’s enormous energy and power.

I’ve watched the movie a few times, partly because of my interest in the storm, and partly because I’ve wanted to see my brother on the silver screen. The two times I’ve watched it I’ve been impressed by the special effects, but, unfortunately, I’ve yet to see my brother or his wife. From what Bill’s told me, he made eighty bucks a day and got meals for sitting in a small church and then milling around outside the church after a memorial service held for the crew of the Andrea Gale. I keep looking for his red beard and thinning hair, but I miss him in the crowd. If anyone reading this post happens to spot him please let me know where on the frame he appears. I’d be very appreciative.

The 1991 storm was described in those famous terms. But as we made our way past St. Louis I slowly began to see that Katrina was the “real” perfect storm. In the same way that three elements had combined in 1991, three elements joined forces a little more than two weeks ago to create a catastrophe like none that has ever hit the United States.

The first deadly element was the storm itself. With winds as high as 160 miles per hour, barometric pressure that read as low as 902 milibars, and an incredible storm surge, Katrina became, in a short period of time a hurricane of enormous strength and size. By the time it made its way inland it had devastated over 90,000 square miles of the Gulf region, stretching from Louisiana on the west to the Florida Panhandle on the east.

The second element was the geography of the region. Southern Mississippi is especially susceptible to storm surges and New Orleans itself lies below sea level. I visited the “Big Easy” once in the early nineties, to attend a Council of Logistics Management conference. One of the eerie sights I recall was being able to see boats above me on Lake Ponchatrain off to my north. In the aftermath of Katrina the city has been described as a “bowl,” and it’s a very apt description. When I saw the vulnerability of the city I could almost hear a siren’s song in the air, beckoning all the deadly elements to come together and wreak havoc.

The deadliest element of all in this toxic mix, though, was the political and social climate of the Delta. Katrina couldn’t have come to a more perfect region to inflict the maximum amount of damage. The city was poised for it, especially after years of political corruption, carpet-bagging, cronyism, racial division, and leadership failure that had become the norm rather than the exception.

The political history of New Orleans is somewhat like the history of Memphis, Tennessee, where I spent two years of my professional life. What I found in Memphis was a culture of benign neglect that had developed over a long period of time and had been carefully nurtured from generation to generation. The city has survived a Civil War siege, a Yellow Fever epidemic and other plagues to settle in to the “normality” of Delta life. What is the “normality” of Delta life? Memphis has one of the highest, if not the highest, bankruptcy rates in the country. They were so high at the time we lived there that my nephew’s fiancé, who was practicing bankruptcy law at the time, wanted to know more about whether Memphis would be a good place to sink down professional roots.

There seems to a progression to it all, and it begins with status, which seems paramount in the region. The great desire is for the four or five thousand square foot house. In fact, when folks meet you one of the first questions they ask is “How many square feet do you have.” The second is “Is your place in Germantown or Collierville,” a signal that these communities east of downtown Memphis are the places to be. All of this means that the city has been, by and large, abandoned by whites, contributing to the racial divide of the area.

On the surface it all looks okay. The discourse seems polite, but once you dig your way past the local idioms it’s apparent to an outsider that real ugliness beneath the surface has all been cultivated for well over a hundred years.

Nancy and I eschewed the big house in Memphis, settling instead for a thirteen hundred square foot place close to the University and downtown. We did so partly because we like the area and partly because we knew we couldn’t afford one of those four thousand footers. The last thing we needed was a trip to bankruptcy court or one of the numerous pawn shops that were another symptom of Memphis’s problems.

Beyond the economics of the city though, the politics was the most toxic element of all. We move there in 1997, a few years after the city elected its first African-American mayor, Willie Herrinton. Well, some things change and some things don’t. While Memphis’s inner city children had to attend schools in the swelter of late summer and early fall without air conditioning, the mayor was busy cutting down trees along the river in what was termed a “beautification project.” Bank robberies were a daily occurrence. Political corruption was more the norm than the exception. Safety concerns were routinely neglected with the kind of fatalism that used to make me ill. At one point during our time there was a rash of needless deaths. In a one month period, several little children died in “accidents” that were eminently preventable. These children were dying because day care centers were leaving them in parked vans and then “forgetting” them. The neglect was, I believed, criminal. But the overwhelming response, from the community and its leaders, was as obscene as the neglect. “Things like this happen,” they said. There was no outcry for legal remedies or legislation that would begin to fix the problem. What made it especially repulsive was that the victims of this neglect were African-Americans. The city’s leadership, which was primarily African-American, seemed neither to care nor want to act on behalf of its constituents. Instead, they supported projects that enhanced their image in the minds of those interested only in status and projects like river beautification to convey the image that Memphis was, indeed, the “Queen of the Delta.”

I’m sure that if some Memphians read this post they’ll disagree with what I’ve written. But I lived there! I know what things were like!

What does all of this have to do with New Orleans? Plenty!

Louisiana politics is much like the politics of Memphis. The big difference, I think, is that the corruption that has plagued Louisiana is much more open, much more rough and tumble than Memphis’s. When I think of Louisiana I think of Huey Long, Edwin Edwards, or David Duke. When I think of Louisiana I think of euphemisms like “Every man a king, but no man wears a crown.”

The image Louisiana and New Orleans projects is pleasing to the eye. It’s the Superdome and the French Quarter. It’s Mardi Gras and Cajun cookin’. The reality is twenty-four percent unemployment, poverty, corruption, political incompetence, and neglect.

As with Memphis, everything in Katrina’s march through Louisiana cut a swath through a carefully orchestrated façade. As with Memphis, image was the critical element to maintain. For example, when an east coast writer called New Jersey the “Louisiana North,” governor Kathleen Blanco strenuously objected:

“As governor of Louisiana, I understand that some will always be more interested in our colorful political past and not our vision for the future,” Blanco wrote. “But because your paper recently castigated my state's politics ... I must correct the record.”

Strip past the carefully crafted defense, though, and the Louisiana reality remains:

“Currently, federal investigations are being conducted into New Orleans City Hall and public schools, along with another probe into corruption within the judiciary in Jefferson Parish. The FBI also recently announced that it would set up a task force in Baton Rouge to conduct investigations into state government.”

This third element was planted long ago and it’s been cultivated and watered since the days of the carpetbaggers. Nothing I’ve read recently says it better than this piece from

“After the forced desegregation of the south, the white Democrats adopted a paternalistic stance toward the black population, expecting to keep them within the folds of the Democratic Party by purchasing their loyalty with maintenance-level welfare doles. Trapped in a cycle of poor educational opportunities and limited access to business opportunity within the Cajun stranglehold on Louisiana resources (including patronage and graft), blacks seemed doomed to live in cycles of deprivation. With a 24% unemployment rate, New Orleans was among the worst metropolitan areas in America in terms of poverty, crime, drugs, and poor education.”

As a young man I was fortunate to escape the clutches of liberal politics that, as I see it all years later, could have doomed me to a life of dependency and poverty. Unfortunately, many the poor in New Orleans were victimized not only by Katrina, but by the leaders who had curried favor, sought status, and cozied up to the trappings of power while they were left to fend for themselves.

Katrina did her deadly business. She ripped a city apart and exposed its raw undercurrent of Delta politics.

I heard this morning that well over fifty percent of the people who were taken in buses to the Houston Astrodome and other points in the country don’t want to return. Perhaps, in the midst of this tragedy, there is a silver lining in this. Perhaps for those who were ravaged by Katrina, the geography of the Delta, and Louisiana’s corrupt political machines, can start anew. Perhaps, away from the clutches of nature and political chicanery, they can embrace the opportunity they deserve like any other American citizen. I’m convinced they can, and will succeed. They’re not political footballs. They good, decent people.

For those who want to return, that opportunity also needs to be made available. New Orleans can be rebuilt. It just can’t be rebuilt in the same slipshod way it has been allowed to decay over the years. Resources need to be infused. Opportunities need to be made available. And, most of all, the day to day operations need to be taken out of the hands of the political hacks who have allowed this to happen.

The President has recommended the formation of a “Gulf Opportunity Zone,” an “Urban Homesteading Act,” and “Worker Recovery Accounts” to assist those who have lost everything they had to Katrina. He’s called upon American private enterprise to do its part. I support those efforts. To my conservative friends who may think this is all a massive welfare scheme I would say that it is now our duty to help Katrina’s victims rebuild their homes and lives. Your duty is to now embrace the basic tenets of “compassionate conservatism.” For those on the left who are wary of conservative politics I would say that is now your duty to dig, give, pray, and support. This is not the time to be concerned with whatever political advantage this disaster can reap the Democratic Party. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and work, not the time for shrill rhetoric. It’s the time for us all to hear the sound of shovels digging and the hammers of reconstruction banging out their glorious strains. If we all do our part the President’s words, well spoken and heartfelt, will one day become a reality:

“I know that when you sit on the steps of a porch where a home once stood … or sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter … it is hard to imagine a bright future. But that future will come. The streets of Biloxi and Gulfport will again be filled with lovely homes and the sound of children playing. The churches of Alabama will have their broken steeples mended and their congregations whole. And here in New Orleans, the street cars will once again rumble down St. Charles, and the passionate soul of a great city will return.”

Four years ago we all rallied around two powerful words – “Let’s roll!” Today those words once again need to be our guide into the future. Let’s roll!


dog1net said...

Brilliant analysis on this event that certainly will be remembered for some time to come. Welcome back from your vacation. It's good to be reading your posts again.
Considering how large the hurricane presented itself to be, and the path it was on, I was amazed myself at the cavalier attitude of the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana. Fortunately the majority of the people of New Orleans had sense enought to get out. As you so well discuss the problems associated with "Delta" politics, it behooves me to think that New Orleans can be reconstructed without becoming a blatant example of graft and corruption. Anyway, I could on quite a bit here. Suffice it to say that your essay is well thought out and superbly argued. Enjoyed reading.

Brad said...

I'm also amazed by a "president" who didn't feel it was necessary to do anything about it for FOUR DAYS! Way to go, Bush! You've served your country well yet again!

web_loafer said...

Phil and Sis, Glad to see your posts again. One simple suggestion, if I may.

Please quit taking vacations.

And if you insist of continuing to take them even after all of this......please give everyone a two weeks notice.

That should be enough time for us to get out of Dodge on one of Mayor Nagin's buses.

Sorry, couldn't help myself....

Hope you are rested and sane.

What am I talking about???
How do you rest from rest, when you are resting in retirement???

prying1 said...

Thanks Phil for a well reasoned and honest assessment of the situation - You show through this post that man is still able to use the brain that God gave him as opposed to just ingesting the pablum the MSM feeds us.

Gone Away said...

Welcome back, Phil and Nancy. I second the motion - no more vacations for you two! The blogosphere needs you.

Excellent article, says it all, nothing for me to add except "Well done!"

Stacey said...

Excellent article Phil. You have a lot fo good stuff to chew on in there. I find it sad that the commenter Brad feels that the President is the only person responsible in all of this. It is that kind of dependency on government that has caused many of the problems in New Orleans well before the flood hit. Dependency on governent is akin to the slavery issue. Again, good article Phil, and welcome back!