"When the levee breaks": New Orleans, the third world in your backyard

, by Alfred

There was one positive side to hurricane Katrina : it revealed to the world that even in America there are poor people, black people, and that nobody gives a shit about them.

The weather lottery

Seen from France, natural catastrophes are relatively rare. Sure, we know about floods ; we have earthquakes, throughout Europe, and in 99 we even had a tornado, among other goodies, but natural catastrophes remain quite exotic. When Katrina hit, it was, like the tidewave last year, one of those abstract catastrophes you could gobble up in front of your TV, series of endless camera shots showing pile after pile of building material. In America, most houses are still mostly made of wood. All this wood can look weird to European eyes. It feels forever temporary, and when it happens to fall, you cannot help but not feel that surprised. Wooden houses, really...

Seen from America, it is slightly different ; the country has the size of a continent, and each of its regions has its own problems : the East coast is known for its blizzards ; California for its earthquakes, especially the one that laid San Francisco to waste in 1906 ; in the Midwest, you will find Tornado Alley, a long band stretching from Texas to North Dakota where the possibility to be blown away with Toto and the house are stronger than elsewhere. On campuses, in public buildings and the like, you will often find a little sign reading TORNADO SHELTER. Now that’s reassuring. Last year, the little touristic town of Utica, Illinois, right by Starved Rock State Park, was leveled by a tornado, and one of its main buildings collapsed on eight people. It seems brick houses fall too.

So everybody gets its own natural catastrophe. While you know your own, you always see others from afar.

And so this year, it was going to be New Orleans’s turn. Here again, it wasn’t exactly the first time; the shores of the gulf of Mexico are hit almost every year by one hurricane or another, and New Orleans is also cut by Old man River, the Mississippi, which the levee system created by the Army Corps of Engineers never quite tamed. This year, the Big Easy got a double dose of shit, force 5 hurricane Katrina brushing by the city before the levees burst on canals linking Lake Ponchartrain (to the North) to the Mississippi (to the South) [1].

Water flows away from money

Most of New Orleans lies under sea level, stuck between Lake Ponchartrain and the Mississippi river, with the notable exception of the French Quarter, the original city built by the French in 1718, and parts of the Garden District, the super posh, big mansion area of the city. A local saying states that water flows away from money. Thus it is that the other districts of the city now find themselves under 6 feet of dirty water: Lakeview, Gentilly, Midcity North of the French Quarter, its cemeteries, Louis Armstrong Park and its projects, old Storyville where jazz was born, the Irish Channel south of the Garden district, a social levee for Irish immigrants to buffer the fury of the river, and to the East the 9th ward, the lowest area of the city. Last area to be developed in New Orleans, the 9th ward was neglected for years by city hall. It was founded by descendants of slaves and immigrants.

The inhabitants of the 9th ward always knew what they were in for; their ancestors built the district where nobody else would go, and pretty much by themselves : in 1950, just the lower third of the ward was getting electricity and water, and this only because industry had settled there. The 9th ward used to be a shantytown built on a swamp, that raised itself to the level of a district out of sheer will. There is well-deserved pride among its inhabitants. This is the district where Mardi Gras troupes come from ; this is where Fats Domino lived all his life, and where he was found over a week ago, waiting in his house for the water to recede. The people of the 9th ward have lost everything. Those you hear about now, who across the city will not leave their houses in spite of the biohazardous muck they wade in, feel they have the best reasons in the world not to leave. American governments have a tendency to fuck poor and black people over.

There are rumors that the dismal way FEMA(Federal Emergency Management Agency) handled the disaster was dictated from above. Promoters are said to be ready to kick the poorer locals out, planning on rebuilding a newer New Orleans, better than the original, a Disney Dixieland, more of a tourist trap than before, but with less dark faces around [2] The soldiers and ’civilian’ contractors fresh from Iraq patrolling the streets weapon at the ready seem a confirmation of their worst fears.

In the meantime, high level settling of scores have started. The Democrats and some Republicans have criticized the lack of reaction from the federal government, and a majority of the population found the said reaction abysmal ; Bush acts a fool like he does so well, tripping his way from one TV interview to the next, wearing the looks of childlike powerlessness we saw so many times plastered on his face during the presidential debates. « This is inadmissible ! », he exclaims, commenting on his own administration’s (in)actions as if he were watching them, with us, on TV. As if he had nothing to do with it. It is the local politicians’ fault, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Democrats both. They did not ask for help early enough, we hear, a lie repeated by right-wing pundits and commentators across the country.

The official request for help, sent on time, was taken into account too late. They didn’t help the poor to get out of the city ! Irresponsible fucks ! If one can marvel at the lack of means devoted to helping the poorest inhabitants, it is the whole emergency system that is at fault. Nagin was accused of negligence for not mobilizing the city’s public transportation, and the Superdome mess is blamed on the governor, but FEMA did not follow the instructions of engagement devised in the emergency exercise Hurricane Pam.

And these days, with the order given to troops to try and get all the people out of their houses, possibly by force, one would almost think that the real culprits are the dumbasses who live there. What kind of idiot would build a house in a hole by the Mississippi ? Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, good ol’ high school coach that he is, suggested with his usual finesse that the city be rebuilt somewhere else, cause you know, building in a bowl, that’s kind of dumb.
In the great American tradition of immediate history, which also happens to be one of the weapons of choice of this administration, you talk about the present as if it had always been there. No past, no explanations. Insist on the obvious and on common sense to better hide the gaps. When Bush and Hastert open their mouths, it is to say that New Orleans cannot complain too much, after all. Bush’s mother even hinted that the evacuees probably were better off living in a tent in Texas than they were in New Orleans. So there.

There’s only one problem: New Orleans wasn’t always under sea level. The city has progressively sunk, mostly during the past 50 years, and it’s been known for quite a while that the reasons are precisely the levees meant to protect it, and the development of the wetlands that once surrounded the city. The repeated assaults of promoters on the swampy lands that once helped naturally minimize floods have made New Orleans more fragile. Everybody knew. So much so that in 1995, to the injunction of the Army Corps of Engineers and other local treehuggers, was created the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (here), a program meant to reinforce the levees and recreate wetlands. The program had been started by Bush the elder, continued and improved by Clinton... ad basically abandoned by Bush the younger. During his administration the wetlands were given back for promoters to fuck up, in spite of a FEMA report in 2001 stating that a force 5 hurricane hitting New Orleans was the natural catastrophe most likely to happen in the future. The levees were known not to be able to sustain a force 4 or 5 hurricane.

In 2003, Bush cut the Flood Project fundings in order to finance more interesting ventures in Iraq. The changes asked for by the Army were not followed, and those who complained were sacked. On the other side, evacuation plans for New Orleans proved totally inadequate. Authorities got used to the idea that some would be left behind. When the crisis sprung, FEMA got down to business with the speed of a running turtle. Apparently, everybody thought that once again, this was much ado about nothing. Too bad, this time it was the big one, and FEMA was nowhere to be seen. As everybody realized that nothing was ready, Bush managed to say that Mike Brown, the head of FEMA, was doing « a heck of a job », before sacking him a few days later. Brown resigned afterwards. Great job indeed.

The color of money

Bush supporters, as usual, answer criticism by arguing that the President is being attacked personally rather than receiving constructive criticism. They are not, of course, completely wrong. When Jesse Jackson and Howard Dean suggest that all the people left behind are black, and that it’s not by chance, they bring the debate on dangerous grounds and leave just enough room for the usual Bush defense, outrage against personal criticism, in a debate he can only win, because the said criticism is more or less unfounded.

You hear weird things, weird questions, definitive—if not outright disgusting—comments, from right-wing journalists and politicians, who use footage of the « looting » to whisper in your ear that those dirty niggers probably all stayed down there with a purpose, that there was nothing the government could do if they did not want to leave. I will spare you even more disgusting comments; if you’ re interested, check out the related pages on this website. Yet from America or from France, you cannot help but notice that 90% of the faces seen in the Superdome and at the Convention Center were black. You realize that after all, you don’t see that many of them that often, except at concerts, basketball games or in ghettoes. So many black people in the same spot, that feels weird, this is the scary South, where black people are left to die by themselves. Watching this, it is easy to conclude that they were left unaccounted for on purpose. And that is also probably untrue.

New Orleans, it has been said over and over again, is not just any American city. The French like to think that their influence made for the city’s originality, forgetting that the Big Easy is really a lot more like the colonial cities you find further South, in the Caribbean, and therefore a mix of all the components of Caribbean history. Those influences can be found in many different, yet inseparable forms : the balconies of the French Quarter look more like those of Fort-de-France in Martinique that those in Paris or Madrid. The city was French for 45 years, then Spanish for 37, a time when it became a busy harbor on the route to the Caribbean. Social classes coexisted, trafficking in sugar, coffee, tobacco and slaves, pirates getting drunk in taverns discussing their next job, creoles, slave-owners and others mixing together. French roots were asserted in one regard; the infamous Black Code would rule the treatment of slaves until the Civil War...

And in 1803, the Corsican midget sells all of French Louisiana for next to nothing to Jefferson who did not expect so much, and Anglos come settle in the Southern city. Soon Irish and Italian immigrants would move, completing the gumbo.

« Everybody’s black down here... » said my brother-in-law Randy as we were driving into Louisiana about a year ago. « Well, this is the South. » Indeed. Old South, Dirty South, Dixie, is to the USA what Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion and others are to France : the place where citizen blacks come from. Since the beginnings of the Great Migration during WWI, the African-American population has become mostly urban and a lot more Northern, but the South still is where they are most numerous, proportionally speaking. So we know where they come from, but what we know about where they come from is scarce: in both cases, you think heat, the well-known indolence of locals, you know, all they do down there is Mardi Gras.

As for French Caribbeans, so for New Orleanians: you only ever hear about them on two occasions : during Mardi Gras, and in case of natural catastrophes. To be surprised at the amount of black people in the Superdome is like marveling at the amount of black victims in the recent Martinican plane crash in Venezuela. But it also comes in handy if you want to change the subject. As long as you’re talking about race, you’re not talking about the crass incompetence of the administration. They understand this well, the Rush Limbaughs and talking turds from Fox News and the like.

If the race-themed attacks on Bush coming from Dean and Jackson are ridiculous, it is because they act innocent, and therefore play Bush’s game. Our two politicians act like they’ve just discovered the social realities of the South, namely that the area is badly hit by unemployment, that poverty rates are incredibly high, and that the average black population is higher than in the rest of the country. They blame it all on the current administration, a stupid maneuver that can only fail. Some marvel at so much inequality, others talk about those people, who think they’re still in the jungle, who loot grocery stores when whiter people only borrow to survive [3]

Bush is a piece of shit, but by calling him a racist Dean and Jackson only give him more weapons to deflect attention from his true responsibilities in the case : FEMA has shown itself incapable of providing an adequate response, and the government is directly responsible for this failure, because of its environmental policies and its global incompetence. Once again, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), clearly the best thing that’s happened to the Democratic Party in ages, is the voice of reason (see his comments here.) Bush is not a racist, but like a majority of Democrats and Republicans, he really doesn’t give a fuck about the poor. The reasons for this disaster are to be found in years of indifference and inpet urban policies. The evacuation was based on the idea that inhabitants would find their own way out. Those who could not afford a taxi and did not have a car were shit out of luck. A commentator noted that a similar catastrophe in a big Northern city would probably have shown similar results : spectators would probably be just as dumbfounded to see that many black faces in Detroit, Chicago, New York, you name it. The poor are invisible: as New Orleans gets all the media attention, nobody’s talking about the rural victims of the hurricane in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, probably whiter, but often just as poor.

So in the flood of moronic statements, and as Bush finally recognizes that, yeah, alright, he’ll take some of the blame if that’ll make him go up in the polls, Obama stands as a rare example of political sobriety. This probably won’t last, and it doesn’t do much for the thousands of evacuees dispersed throughout the country. But don’t worry: with the battle for the Supreme Court just starting, we shouldn’t hear about this too much longer.


[1For city maps, see here.

[2I just found out that two ‘friendly’ companies were given no-bid contracts for rebuilding New Orleans. See here.

[3On this note, and even though Yahoo.com has erased the incriminating pictures, you could once see one photograph showing a black person wading in dirty water carrying water bottles and the like, with a caption reading : looting in New Orleans. Another picture, showing a white couple, had a caption along the lines of : couple trying to survive. Interesting, isn’t it ?